If you think that somebody should be the Detroit Tigers closer for the 2013 season, whoever that somebody might be, you are not part of “Team Nobody”. If you think that the Tigers should have NO closer, like me, then you are.
Fundamentally, this isn’t much different from saying that we have a “closer by committee” but it is a little bit different. The difference is that, for a closer by committee you might have (for example) Phil Coke alternate with Al Alburquerque depending on the team’s lineup. That means that your bullpen decisions beforehand are going to be strongly affected by the need to hold multiple guys as potential closers. If two guys only pitch in the 9th, that leaves only 5 to pitch all the other innings (and certain non-save situations in the ninth). If you have NO closer, then you are treating the 9th just like the 7th. Anybody good enough to pitch with a lead is good enough to pitch in the 9th. If you need Phil Coke and Al Al to get through the 7th, FINE. If you need Joaquin Benoit in the 8th and Octavio Dotel pitched the last three days, FINE. Villarreal can handle the ninth. You might think of him as your 5th best option, but he can still be trusted to get three outs and hold a 2 run lead. By the same token, there is no reason you couldn’t just leave Benoit out there for two innings if he made quick work of the opposition in the 8th. He can handle it. They can all handle it.
A typical bullpen has a closer, an eighth-inning guy, an “up lefty and an “up righty” who pitch in pressure situations and a “down lefty” and a “down righty” who pitch in lower pressure situations and a garbageman. The current, closerless, Tigers bullpen hasn’t yet determined who will be the “down lefty” (probably Downs) or who will be the garbageman but the Tigers already have 5 guys talented enough to be trusted with slim leads and high pressure situations. Frankly, if you see a line of lefties coming up in the 9th and Coke has already been used Darin Downs can probably be trusted to mow them down too. I – obviously – don’t believe in the mystique of a closer: the idea that somehow 9th inning pressure is different from 7th inning pressure. If you’re trying to pitch your way out of a 1-out, bases loaded jam in a tie game in the 7th, that is intense. Not, definitely not, less intense than coming into a game with the bases empty and a three run cushion in the ninth. If you can trust a guy to pitch under pressure at all, you should be able to trust him to finish the occasional game. I’m also – obviously – not a believer that guys need defined roles in the bullpen to be comfortable. You sit there and wait for the phone to ring, when the manager says to warm up, you warm up, when the manager gives you the ball you take it. Roles are only critical when they are declared and when they are changed. Demoting a “closer” is bad for clubhouse chemistry. Having none shouldn’t be. As such, flipping from closer to closer (like a committee) based on who has the hot hand could be terrible. Making it abundantly clear that – although you got a save yesterday – you are not “the closer” should prevent this from being an issue.
As others have pointed out, once upon a time a less grizzled Jim Leyland did this sort of thing with his potent Pirates teams of the mid ’90s. Those were “different times” as far as bullpen strategy was concerned – many teams did not use such clearly defined roles as today. Nonetheless, the Pirates made the playoffs all three years, tallied 43, 51 and 43 saves in those years and never had a single guy record 20 in a season. Those bullpens were also won 39 more games than they lost (96-57). For the 1990 team (which had the best bullpen performance of the three) the guy you would probably call the bullpen ace or the closer was Bill Landrum, who finished with a 2.13 ERA and 13 saves. He did tend to finish games, 41 of his 54 appearances. But the way Leyland used him was absolutely nothing like the way he used, for example, Jose Valverde. 8 of Landrum’s 13 saves were multi-inning saves. He also finished 13 games that he entered when the team was behind. What’s more, there were three times that he came in early to pitch multiple innings and recorded the win. Could you imagine Leyland bringing in Valverde in the third and watching him get the win with 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief? He used to do that kind of thing, now he has gotten lazy and stuck in his ways. In 1991, Landrum sort of “split time” closing games out with hard-thrower Stan Belinda. But, again, though he recorded 16 saves Belinda only entered in the ninth 15 times and only 8 of those were potential save situations. He came in a bunch in the 6th, 7th and 8th and wound up recording 9 multiple-inning saves. This can be done, it has been done, and if you have 5 (or 6) good but not elite relievers there is no reason that it shouldn’t be done. I’d also point out that the Pittsburgh Pirates have not topped that “closerless” 1990 bullpen in ERA or FIP in any of the 22 seasons they have played since.