Tigers Hot Stove – Closure on The Closer?

Oct 28, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Sergio Romo (54) and catcher Buster Posey (left) celebrate after Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) strikes out to end game four of the 2012 World Series at Comerica Park. The Giants won 4-3 to sweep the series. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

From The Detroit News:

“I totally disagree with people who don’t think you need a closer to win. Most teams that win have a truly dominant closer.” -Jim Leyland

This is Part 3 of an in-depth look at the Tigers bullpen as it stands, with February looming and Spring Training approaching fast. Part 1 dug into the in-house options and their respective strengths; in Part 2 we took a historical view of the position of “Closer”.

What we have discovered so far: Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley cemented the concept of clearly defined bullpen roles;  Bruce Rondon has the inside track to the 9th inning, but hasn’t been anointed yet; the rest of the candidates are talented, yet flawed; and the comment above confirms what we already know – the Skipper isn’t comfortable with a “closer by committee”.

Which brings us around to where we left off – will the “Fireman” ever re-emerge? The bullpen workhorse, who gets a tough out with the bases jammed in the 7th, then stays in to finish off the game? It seems like we have seen it often – maybe it’s Villarreal or Al Al – mowing down 4 or 5 in a row, then handing the ball to Papa Grande in the 9th only to see him give up the lead. Boy, do the message boards and talk radio explode, lighting up Leyland for that move!

If you read a message board from another MLB city, the complaints are all the same. “That guy was pitching great, why’d he take him out and put in (insert highly-paid closer’s name here)?!” The problem with that assertion is, A LOT more often than not, the closer gets the job done, and managers know this. Looking at last year’s closer stats, Alfredo Aceves of the Boston Red Sox was arguably the worst – 10 losses, 8 blown saves, and a hefty 5.36 ERA (-1.1 WAR). Yet he managed to collect 25 handshakes after being thrust into the closer role while Andrew Bailey recovered from surgery. Heath Bell cashed a cool $9 mil to post a 1.55 WHIP, 5.09 ERA, and blow 8 saves for the Marlins (-.7 WAR), or just over $470K for each of his 19 saves. The WORST closers in the league get the job done 2 out of 3 times…how hard is it, really? Sergio Romo replaced Santiago Casilla who was filling in for Brian Wilson – shouldn’t most pitchers talented enough to play in the bigs be able to get three outs?

From a manager’s point of view it is much easier to define the bullpen chair-by-chair – it allows them to manage by “pushing a button”, with much less regard to matchup or situation. Most importantly, it shields him from criticism – when the game is lost in the late innings, it was because the player failed, not because the manager made a bad decision. I would contend that quite often, the most critical at-bat occurs in the 7th or 8th;  a high-leverage situation with men on base and the big bats up or on deck. Doesn’t it make sense that your best relief pitcher should be called on to get those outs? Why save him for a clean 9th inning that might not matter? Rare, however, is the current skipper with the cojone’s to open himself to the second-guessing a backfire of this strategy would incur. They prefer to manage to the save statistic, rather than by win probability.

One thing that we can agree on – from the GM seat down to where we sit – nobody can say for sure where to find the next 9th-inning savior. Spend big money on a proven guy – sometimes it works (Johnathon Papelbon), sometimes it doesn’t (Bell). Grooming a power arm in the minors can yield a Craig Kimbrel or a Jordan Walden. Promoting the successful set-up man can turn up a Rafael Soriano or turn into an Aceves. Sometimes a failed starter like Casey Janssen finds his groove, or a projected starter like Aroldis Chapman gets his feet wet in the ‘pen. The Rays have had consistent luck recycling familiar names like Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney.  Ironically, one of the most fortuitous free-agent closer moves in recent history was the signing of Jose Valverde. who saved 110 games while blowing just 8 over the past three seasons. Does that makes you feel good about shopping for a stopper?

So as we close this conversation, the considerations are complex:

1) No matter how much we may want to see something different, the perception that the last 3 outs of a game are more important has permeated the game to preclude any change of strategy, at least in the near-future. The quote that opens this post points that out.

2) Jim Leyland will be nervous about putting an unproven youngster in a high-pressure situation, yet reluctant to examine the preconceived notions of his alternatives. He will also be testy about the subject and snap at a reporter by St. Patrick’s Day, unless:

3) Dave Dombrowski works his magic again, and the 2013 Detroit Tigers Closer is actually on another roster right now.

Topics: Detroit Tigers, Jim Leyland

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  • rings13

    Agreed with your conclusion as to what the Tigers will do, among their options, but still disagree with Leyland’s leap of logic that “most good teams have closers, therefore, we need a closer.” This is rather of akin to saying “most good teams have 9 guys in the lineup” in that it’s meaningless…because, as you point out, MOST teams have “closers” (or at least they try to). Whether they’re any good or not is another matter, but I agree with your point that managers do not want to be second guessed, so they go with the “accepted” role and manage to the stat.
    However, several recent champions have won with a rather fluid closing role, including the ’12 Giants, ’06 Cards, & ’05 Sox. Other successful teams have also gone without “set” closers, or changed them regularly, many of whom you mentioned, so it may be that “good teams make good closers” more often than not.
    I’d argue that someone is going to gain a competitive advantage soon in specifically managing away from the save stat and playing the day-to-day matchups instead, as Joe Madden is occasionally already doing. Of course, the press and agents will pressure the guy who commits to this course whenever it fails….

    • scott byrne

      Ah yes, agents…didn’t have time or space to discuss their impact on strategy. They know, of course, that there are dollar signs attached to each “save” and “hold” their clients’ put on the scoresheet. Good points about the Cardinals – interesting to note that while LaRussa steered the game down this course, for the past several years they have had one of the more fluid bullpen situations, with a different save leader each of the past 5 seasons, and all relatively inexpensive. Who knows, if he would have hung around long enough, perhaps the save pendulum would have swung back in favor of matchups?

    • chrisHannum

      The idea of a closer is definitely “manufactured”, but that doesn’t mean that clearly defined roles are necessarily bad managerial strategy. You don’t want to hold any of your best relievers unused in a tight game, if you hold your best lefty to potentially pitch the 9th IF you can hold that one-run lead and IF a couple of lefties are set to hit in the 9th, you might see Downs cough up the lead in the 7th.

  • chrisHannum

    I am somewhat concerned about the bullpen… Mainly that Rondon will be struggling with his command in Toledo while Alburquerque and Villarreal are both on the shelf.

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