Breaking News:

Keep up with So Much Sports on Twitter @SoMuchSports

The hypocrisy of the closer’s role

By: Charlie Wright

Based on Jonathan Papelbon's role as a close he is his team's top relief pitcher, yet he hasn't even averaged a full inning of work per appearance.

Based on Jonathan Papelbon’s role as a close he is his team’s top relief pitcher, yet he hasn’t even averaged a full inning of work per appearance.

The closer. It’s the most glorified role in baseball, complete with the assumption of dominance and the title of nastiest guy in the bullpen.

It’s also the most flawed dynamic in the game today.

Baseball has become married to numbers and statistics, with each managerial decision fueled by data and predicted outcomes. Yet, when holding a lead of three runs or less in the ninth inning, this goes out the window. Matchups and lefty/righty splits are ignored, and one player is called on to get the final three outs no matter the scenario.

It seems counter-intuitive that a player designated as the best reliever would be confined to one inning and one situation. Fans have become accustomed to seeing a manager stride to the mound several times late in a ballgame, swapping relievers to ensure right-handed batters face right-handed pitchers and leftys face leftys.

Closers are immune to this practice, and understandably so, because they supposedly have the strongest repertoire of pitches and are expected to get both lefties and righties out. This would suggest that a closer should be used in the toughest situation, which is not synonymous with the last inning.

F.P. Santangelo, the color commentator for the Washington Nationals, often says “this is the save right here” when the middle of the order is due up in the seventh or eighth inning. Crucial moments in the game routinely occur before the final inning, with relievers facing the toughest hitters in a lineup. Then the closer comes in for the ninth and mows down the bottom of the order for the “save.” This assumes that the other relievers were able to hold the lead.

Several factors keep the best reliever from pitching in the toughest situation. The stigma of the closer is hard to overcome, and the position has been revolutionized by great players in the past decade. Mariano Rivera popularized the role, becoming the best reliever ever while almost strictly pitching the final inning. Contracts now include incentives for saves and games finished for relievers, further gratifying closers. And the job has been sensationalized by the media, with writers drooling over lockdown ninth inning guys and peppering managers with questions about replacements when the incumbent struggles.

The closer role has become a pivotal part of a team, and any manager who strays from this norm would face heavy scrutiny. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t consider adjusting their bullpens though. Among relief pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2015, seven of the top-ten ERAs belonged to players who closed for some or all of the year. But, among relievers who reached that same innings threshold, only two closers ranked in the top-ten in terms of appearances. Jeurys Familia of the New York Mets is the only player to show up on both lists.

Looking deeper, Aroldis Chapman appeared in 65 games, third-best for the Cincinnati Reds. Trevor Rosenthal appeared in 68 games, fourth-best for the St. Louis Cardinals. These are some of the best arms in the league, yet they’re pitching less than mediocre guys like Burke Badenhop and Randy Choate. It seems far more logical that the best relief pitcher in a bullpen, as defined by the role itself and the numbers across the league, would pitch more than most or all other relievers.

Even more egregious than the lack of appearances is the strict adherence to the closer pitching only one inning. Stud relievers in the past, Dennis Eckersley and Goose Gossage come to mind, regularly notched multiple-inning saves. Today, it’s noteworthy if a closer gets the final out of the eighth inning. They are hardly ever called upon to work out of a jam in the late innings, and are instead left on the sidelines to watch subpar pitchers attempt to preserve a lead. Of the top-ten relief pitchers by saves last season, half of them recorded less innings than appearances. Only one had at least two more innings than appearances. This shows how seldom closers are called upon for more than one inning of work.

Being cautious with high-powered arms is understandable. It’s also reasonable to believe there is something special about the final three outs and it takes a certain mindset and level of intensity to finish a game no matter the situation. But given the current nature of baseball, so reliant on analytics and adjustments, it’s hard to see why closing pitchers aren’t utilized differently. The best pitcher in a bullpen should be used in the toughest and most challenging situations in order to maximize their contributions and effectiveness. Unfortunately this won’t change any time soon, as with any convention in baseball, and we’re left to wonder the true value of the closer position.

The following two tabs change content below.

Charlie Wright

Staff Writer
Charlie is a lifelong sports fan who grew up cheering for hometown teams. He developed a passion for writing in high school and chose to pursue the profession in college. Charlie followed most of his family to the University of Maryland, where he is pursuing a degree in journalism. He plans to enter the sports journalism field after graduation, hopefully covering a local team.

Comments are closed.