Now that Mariano Rivera has retired, is it okay to go back to disrespecting closers, baseball's pointlessly overspecialized answer to the giant panda? Rivera was one of a kind, or at least one of a handful of relief pitchers worthy of his reputation, in large part because of his extraordinary consistency at a high level. Most of the rest are depressingly interchangeable and serve roles that are dramatically overhyped.
There have been 147 seasons of 40 or more saves by pitchers, all but 10 of them phenomena of the last 23 years. Three of them were by Armando Benitez, two by Mitch Williams. Others were by Billy Koch, Bobby Jenks, Danys Baez, Joe Borowski, Matt Capps. Looking at that litany is like remembering that Warren Harding got to be president, that our list of leaders is not all George Washington and Abraham Lincoln types, and in fact the entire line may be have been so debauched that there's a major discontinuity between how we think of the presidency (collection of great men worthy of robots at Disney World) and what the presidency actually is (a collection of mediocrities and worse occasionally spiked by some bright lad who accidentally slips through).
Closers are like that. We think of them as the heroes of the game, but they're created by context. Most rise for a season or two, ride the inherently cushy nature of their jobs to celebrity, and then subside again, leaving little to mark their passing except some gaudy numbers in baseball's most pernicious statistical category. They are almost completely artificial beings, set up in a role that they almost can't help but succeed in, and as such are a massive distraction. Rivera might have been one of the most admirable superstars in baseball history, but on an objective basis almost all other closers should rank among the least admirable, not because they're immoral people but simply because the role they fulfill is basically parasitical.
We need to differentiate here between closers and firemen. Firemen, now extinct, were top relievers who threw about 100 innings a year and entered the game at any point at which the score -- not the lead -- seemed in danger of shifting. They often got saves, but their goal was to protect the possibility of a win, which is often not the same thing. When you compare firemen seasons to closer seasons on a wins above replacement basis, it becomes obvious that only the very best closer seasons rise to the level of the best firemen seasons just because the number of opportunities, high-leverage or otherwise. Simply, 100 innings is greater than 75.
I am not necessarily saying that 100 innings is an optimal usage pattern for a reliever. Plenty have burnt out under that kind of weight, but then pitchers burn out for all kinds of reasons and even correlation is not necessarily causation. It's a moot point because baseball has already decided; we haven't seen a 100-inning reliever since 2006 (Scott Proctor of the Yankees) and just eight pure relievers have pitched 90 or more innings in the seven years since. Two of them, Anthony Swarzak (96 innings) and Josh Collmenter (92 innings) came last season, though they probably represent more of a fluke than a trend. Overall, pitching staffs have continued to be more specialized, with a greater number of pitchers throwing a smaller number of innings.
This is parasitical because the overall workload for relievers expands as closers' workloads shrink. Over the last three seasons, the average major league bullpen has thrown an average of 489 innings a season. Those 40-save guys have averaged 68 innings over the same period. That's not a lot of innings for an ostensible best-pitcher-on-the-staff, and they don't just disappear, they get heaped upon, well, Anthony Swarzak, something that worked out well in 2013 but generally leads to longer lines trying to beat the traffic out of the parking deck. Last year, no pitcher with even five saves ranked in the top 11 relievers in terms of innings, and the three pitchers in double figures who do show up in the top 26 (No. 12 Kenley Jansen, No. 18 Koji Uehara, No. 22 Brad Ziegler) did not spend the entire season closing. The only full-season closer in the top 30 is ex-White Sox game-ender Addison Reed at 71.1. Closers are basically the pitchers labeled, "Break glass in case of... Well, don't break the glass."
The aptness of that statement becomes even more apparent when one considers low-leverage saves. The saves rule gives a pitcher credit for a save if he protects a lead of up to three runs, but even the worst, twitchiest, most incompetent, insecure, mommy-didn't-love-me pitcher can usually get three outs before he gives up three runs. There's just too much failure built into baseball for it to be otherwise. Consider Twins right-hander Vance Worley. Arguably no pitcher with more than a smattering of playing time got hit harder than Worley last year. In 10 starts comprising 48.2 innings he gave allowed opposing hitters rates of .381/.427/.577, which is terrible -- but also means that batters made an out 57.3 percent of the time. By my count, Worley allowed three or more runs in a single inning just five times.
The 28 pitchers who saved over 20 games last season entered games in low-leverage situations roughly a quarter of the time. Conversely, they came into a tie game -- where they would have had a real chance to change the outcome -- only 15 percent of the time. Take away the fungible innings they threw and you can cut Craig Kimbrel's 2013 down to 50 innings, Greg Holland the same, and, yes, Mariano Rivera too. Grant Balfour? 44 innings. The rest, the other 18.2 inning that represent the 19 low-leverage appearances he made? Wasted. Boring. Bringing a gun to a quilting bee. Which is probably legal if you're reading this in any of several states and maybe even a good idea if grandma is packing and a sore loser, but it doesn't necessarily make you heroic, just paranoid.
Paranoia, a corrupted way of thinking, is how we got into this situation in the first place. Having been given the saves rule by Jerome Holtzman -- not the same as receiving them from the Almighty on Mt. Sinai -- they feel they must adhere to the rule even when it doesn't make sense, perhaps because they perceive, probably correctly, that they will inevitably be burned by the following sequence:
- They take a 4-1 lead to the ninth inning. A "save situation" if not one of truly high leverage.
- Instead of using $10 Million closer Karl Chickentoucher, the manager opts for last-man-on-the-staff Feldspar Blintzes.
- Feldspar Blintzes gets beat around the head and shoulders by division-rival Detroit, leading the manager to bring in Chickentoucher with the bases loaded and nobody out.
- Discomfited, Chickentoucher gives up a grand slam to Bryan Holoday.
- Press second-guesses manager in postgame press conference, leading to an unfortunate decision to consume too much greasy room service after the game.
Given that reality, managers probably figure that life will be much easier if they simplify things to:
- Bring in the closer. Whatever happens after that happens, but no one will fault you for going with your designated guy.
Someday we may have a manager brave enough to say, "On my team, a three-run lead is not a save situation, so shut up," but he's only going to last as long as his first late-inning loss before the media eats him alive. We can only hope that the fan base is sophisticated enough at this point to see through the second-guessing.
As a by-product of this line of thinking, baseball men and fans alike have convinced themselves that the ninth inning is so emotionally difficult that only a select group of emotionally-centered hurlers can even work then. There is some truth to this, but the reality is that closers are made, not born -- every year a handful of teams find that the pitcher they intended to close has failed and they have to mint another one. Most of them do this fairly successfully -- the Brewers careening from Trevor Hoffman to John Axford to Jim Henderson from 2010 to 2013, the Red Sox bouncing from Joel Hanrahan to Andrew Bailey to Koji Uehara last year. Because a few teams also fail to negotiate these adjustments each year (the Detroit Tigers annually under Jim Leyland, say), we accept that "Not all pitchers can close," whereas the correct answer is, "Not all pitchers can close just as not all pitchers can start or throw a good curve or mix a proper mojito, but most can."
If we can get past the idea that the ninth inning is the equivalent of crossing over into Cthulu's home dimension and the pitchers who pitch then are supernatural warriors, perhaps managers will be freed to remember that while it may be psychologically difficult to lose a game in the ninth inning, you can lose it in any of the other innings as well. After all, the team that scores first is the one that most often wins. This is something that used to be taken for granted, but as the saves rule took hold, ace relievers were gradually reduced from "appear anytime" to "appear anywhere from the seventh inning on" to "only in the ninth," and so pitchers that are extraordinarily talented are being wasted on inessential work.
As good as pitchers from Jonathan Papelbon to Craig Kimbrel have been, they command huge, opportunity-deflecting salaries to perform in a role that is spectacularly overblown. Now that baseball's secular saint has gone home, perhaps we can get back to saying so.