We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened.
We have long heard how some pitchers have "the closer's mentality" and some don't, how "Not all pitchers can close," as if they were somehow born to the role. In truth, every season mints a few new closers and a few failures in the role. Some pitchers, like John Axford of Milwaukee, wander in and out of the role, and in year one Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney are untouchable and in year two they're not.
The reality of closing falls somewhere between the extremes of "only an elect few can take the pressure" and "any pitcher can close." Not all pitchers can close, but most can. Some may be emotionally unsuited to late-inning situations, but broadly speaking there is no pitcher who should be ruled out for the late-inning role on the basis of years in middle relief, pitch repertoire or velocity (Doug Jones saved 303 games throwing change-ups off of his change-up and Hoyt Wilhelm pitched his way to the Hall of Fame as a fireman-with-a-knuckleball).
The statistics bear this out, but you don't really need to look at them to grasp the basics of the situation: the saves rule defines a save situation as one in which a team is leading by three runs or less. Imagine the worst-qualified major-league pitcher is on the hill -- a pitcher who allows opponents a .400 on-base percentage. That's about as bad as you can be for any length of time before they start thinking about releasing you or sending you down. Let's further say that Miguel Cabrera is at the plate. He normally has a .455 OBP, but against this rag-armed hurler we're positing, that shoots up to .500. The pitcher still has a one in two chance of getting him out -- and most hitters are not Miguel Cabrera. The pitcher's chances of getting three outs before three runs score is pretty good.
Each year there is a high-profile team that tries pitcher after pitcher in the ninth-inning role but somehow never lands on an acceptable closer. These high-profile cases, which are shown as veritable car accidents on the nightly highlights 'n' commentary programs, are really the exception that proves the rule -- teams misvalue closers sometimes just as they might think that a certain player can play second base and hit .275 but he ends up hitting .230 with poor defense. They live with that and for the most part no one acts as if it were a terrible catastrophe. For the most part, though, teams do eventually work out their late-inning problems, and usually more easily than they do a comparable problem in the starting rotation or in the lineup for the simple reason that there is always another reliever out there.
Drew Storen, fallen star. (Drew Hallowell)
For this reason, with the rare exception of a Mariano Rivera, closers, instead of being venerated, should be treated with the disposability of NFL place-kickers: miss a few and you're gone. This is almost the case now -- entering this season there were 140 seasons of 40 saves by 72 different pitchers. Excluding still-active pitchers (among them Axford, Drew Storen, Heath Bell, Jose Valverde, and J.J. Putz), 24 of 57 40-save closers finished their careers with fewer than 200 career saves, and 35 of 57 finished with fewer than 300. Because closers such as Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, and Jonathan Papelbon hang around for seemingly forever it's easy to miss the high turnover at the position.
A few canny teams have found that it pays to mint your own closers and then deal them before they cost you too much money. Billy Beane of the A's is a past master of this, dealing Billy Taylor, Billy Koch, Huston Street, and Andrew Bailey. In picking up prospect Danry Vasquez and a player to be named later for Veras, the Astros were following this playbook. The 32-year-old has long been viewed as having good stuff but with command too problematic for high-leverage work. That's the reason he was bounced by seven organizations before landing with the Astros, the last-chance saloon of baseball. That the Astros were able to get him to throw strikes -- for him, 2.9 walks per nine is a Bob Tewksbury season -- is of great credit to their coaching staff. That they were willing to try him in the ninth speaks to their understanding that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose by experimenting with unknown quantities. That they didn't get attached at that point shows that they understand that when it comes to the science of closing, it's more important to have Dr. Frankenstein than his monster -- if you lose your monster, you can always dig up another cadaver and make a new one.
There are exceptions, of course, relievers who are so good and so consistent that they're worth holding onto or paying a premium to get. Rivera is obviously one, Nathan another, and after seven strong seasons in eight years of closing, Papelbon probably belongs on the list as well. However, the vast majority of closers, including 2012 standouts Johnson and Rodney, should probably be listed on the "transient/no bonds of loyalty" pile.
The Astros didn't get Joe DiMaggio in return for their labors. Vasquez was rated the organization's No. 6 prospect by Baseball America heading into the season. Only 19, the outfielder was hitting .281/.333/.390 in the Midwestern League (they can't all be Bryce Harper). As a defender he's a confirmed left fielder, so most of his value is going to come from his bat. If he grows into some power and a few more points of batting average, great. If not, well, there's always the player to be named later. Still, even if neither player obtained by the Astros develops, the very fact that they were able to turn a no-name right-hander into a couple of lottery tickets is a big win for the organization.
As for the Tigers, in a different place in the life-cycle of teams and with a couple of corner outfield types (Nick Castellanos, Avisail Garcia) in the on-deck circle, they could afford to spend Vasquez in return for a right-handed set-up man to line up behind closer Joaquin Benoit. Benoit, 35, had only 13 career saves entering the season. He should equal that total sometime in the next week. After struggling to find a reliable option for the ninth inning, even going the veteran closer route by returning to Jose Valverde, the Tigers found that no, they don't have to send a couple of top prospects to Ruben Amaro (he'd only misuse them anyway) to get Papelbon; the solution was as close at hand as their own setup man.
In other words, they and the Astros, though widely separated in the standings, are benefitting from the fungible nature of closers. To paraphrase an old saying, "In Mariano we trust; all others pay cash."