Anyone who's talked baseball with me long enough knows the topic of "closers" is a rant trigger for me.
I'll try to contain myself here today, but since the Chicago Cubs are the latest team to have the late-inning relief conversation, I thought I would share my thoughts.
Few things in baseball make my ears bleed more than this assumption that every team needs a strict ninth inning guy, lest the planet fall off its axis and life as we know end.
Fantasy owners need to know which player to pick up for their precious saves. The media pesters managers during Spring Training as to who that guy is going to be, and continue to question the team every time the "closer" falters. They question who the eventual "closer" is going to be if the team is using a committee approach. All the while, players insist that they will pitch in whatever situation the team calls for to be a good teammate.
Before we get too far into this, I want to point out that I didn't play baseball beyond YMCA as a kid (not Little League, mind you, but the lesser league where you didn't need to actually try out to make a team). I am not and never was a pitcher, and I truly don't know firsthand if there's something magical and different about the ninth inning like some people say there is. But that doesn't stop me from disliking the system.
The Cubs signed Jose Veras to a pretty decent deal this winter: one year, $3.85M with a $5.5M 2015 option and a $150k buyout. From the get-go, it looked like Veras was going to be the ninth-inning guy for the Cubs out of Spring Training. In fact, I asked Rick Renteria myself at #CubsCon if this team really needed a defined "closer," to which he replied, "I believe Veras has earned that right."
We're about two weeks into the season and Veras's closing privileges have been revoked. Tom Loxas's piece says Renteria will now "wait for someone to emerge" to take the role, presumably mixing and matching in the interim.
From this point, until Renteria puts a useless, make-believe label on one of his relievers, the Chicago media will ask him each and every day who that guy is going to be. Why can't Renteria just mix and match forever?
As Loxas notes, the Cubs manager has been playing the hot bats early on, rotating people in and out of games and mostly abiding by platoons in order field the team most likely to succeed. I would love for him to extend that to the bullpen.
When you're filling out a lineup card, you need to say who your starting third baseman is that day. It's required; someone's name has to go on that line. Same with the starting pitcher, and the left fielder, and so on. But there's no sheet of paper that needs to be handed to the umpire saying, "Closer: Hector Rondon."
Many of my gripes with the system stem from the save stat. Except for those cool (albeit extinct) three-inning saves, the stat is idiotic to me. Don't blow a three run or less lead, get a save. Tom Tango's "The Book," which has a whole chapter on late-inning relievers, says:
The three-run lead is an almost sure thing, with a 2% difference in the odds of winning between a great pitcher and an average one.
If the save rule was something like 1 run or less, making it a bit more high-leverage, maybe I would be more open to this phenomenon. But if your team is up by three in the ninth, even if the worst batters on the opposition in the bottom of the order are coming up, the "closer" just has to be put in.
I get it. Players want to make money, and the current system pays guys who accumulate saves. Teams see value there. That's why I wasn't too bent out of shape with Veras being the "closer" – he can accumulate value in the back end of the bullpen and the Cubs can flip him at the deadline for a long term piece.
But if the team is trying to win, as Renteria obviously wants to do, I would love to see him go against the grain in the late-inning department. By naming a "closer," a manager is binding himself to these situations; otherwise questions get raised and players get upset thinking their jobs are in jeopardy (see Gregg, Kevin).
I'm totally fine with having a few of your best arms saved for the late innings. However, sometimes games are lost in the eighth inning when the heart of the lineup is due up. Why not use your best reliever then? Sometimes it's lost in the ninth against a great left-handed batter. Why play matchups and try to get the platoon advantage in the seventh and eighth, but not the ninth (assuming there's still a lefty in the bullpen, which, if Wesley Wright's usage is any indication lately, there probably is)?
Why in the world, when a relief pitcher obviously can't get an out that night, has cut your lead to one, and loaded the bases with only an out in the inning and the top of the order coming up (as Jose Veras did against the St. Louis Cardinals last Friday), would you stick with him, or not even get anybody else throwing? Because he's your "closer?"
I leave you with one final point, because this is getting a bit too long as it is:
Just like there aren't 30 ace starting pitchers in baseball, there aren't 30 ace relievers. Every team has a #1 starting pitcher because somebody needs to go first. Somebody needs to be written on the lineup card on Opening Day; otherwise, baseball will experience a 404 error. But Scott Feldman and Jorge De La Rosa are not on the same level as Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw.
Yet, nobody needs to close. There's only a small handful of guys like Craig Kimbrel, so why are we pretending like there are 30 of them when there's not?
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