Fire Gardy

Mismanaging games since 2002

Thoughts About the Closer Role

We’ve had some discussions about the use of the “closer” in the comments on this site, and the prevailing attitude of most of our readers is that the closer role is overrated — and therefore the Joe Nathan signing was unwise. After Friday night’s loss, Howard Sinker has some words about the conventional wisdom of keeping the closer on the bench in extra inning games.

The “closer” is supposed to come into games and end them. Close them out. He pitches those last three outs to finish off the victory. That’s all he does. Right? Well, let’s think about why you’d have someone called a “closer” who would have that responsibility.

Are the outs in the 9th inning “special” in any way, or somehow more difficult to get than outs in any other inning? Probably not. However, their importance is increased by the fact that there’s so much leverage during that time. Performance during these outs has a huge impact on the output of the game. If the pitcher gets outs, the team wins. If the pitcher fails, the team loses. That’s quite a bit of leverage.

I think everyone would agree with that, regardless of where they stand on the pro-closer or anti-closer debate. If I’m wrong about that I’m sure someone will let me know.

So you use your closer in the highest leverage situation in the game. He’s your best reliever, that’s when you should use him. But even though the last three outs intrinsically have a higher leverage than “normal” outs, is the final inning when your team has the lead really the highest leverage situation? Always?

When you’re winning by one run, going into the 9th inning, and the middle of the order is coming up … obviously that’s a high leverage situation where you’d want your closer available. So you bring him in and he gets the “save.”

But when you’re winning by three runs and the bottom of the order is coming up … that’s not a very high leverage situation. You should hope that you could trust every reliever in your bullpen to get through that inning without surrendering the lead. But you bring in the closer and he gets the “save.”

These are just examples, obviously. And they’re the opposite ends of that spectrum. But imagine the inning before that. Say there are two men on base, 1 out, and the middle of the order is up. These are high-leverage outs. If you end this inning cleanly, you have a good chance of going on to win the game (since you’d be winning by 3 and the bottom of the order is up, and any reliever on your team can handle that). But if you blow it, you may well lose the game. Whoever can get you out of the inning has “saved” the day. Would you bring in your best reliever, or an inferior reliever?

Most people would say “bring in the best reliever!” And they’d probably look at me like I’m being an idiot for even asking the question. But then you give these guys titles. Do you bring in The Closer or a Setup Man? Well … then the answer might change. Especially if you’re a manager. “Closers close games!” So the manager brings in the inferior reliever, and Detroit beats us twice in a row because of it. Oops. I mean … the team’s chances of getting the win drop dramatically. Kind of slipped there, I guess.

But that brings us to the reason I’m bringing this up today. Last night, the Twins lost in the 10th inning to the Rangers, ending their 7 game losing streak. The heart of the Rangers’ order, the 3-4-5 hitters, were due up in the 10th. In a tie game, where any run could end the game, we had two guys warmed up in the pen. Joe Nathan, elite reliever vs Juan Rincon, washed up former juicer with arm problems and diminished abilities (and an ERA filled with crooked numbers). To the untrained eye, this seems like a no-brainer: it’s a high leverage situation where you should use your best pitcher! But that’s just what an untrained observer thinks! He’s not a major league manager like Ron Gardenhire, who knows that Joe Nathan is The Closer, and therefore he can only pitch when we’re already winning. So Rincon pitches the 10th … and we lose.

Maybe we would have lost the game anyway. We hadn’t scored for 8 innings, and Rincon would probably have had to pitch the 11th whether we had the lead or not (though it would have been the bottom of the order). But that’s not how a manager should be thinking during the game. He’s supposed to put the team in the best situation to win; give us the best chance. And putting your best reliever on the mound to get the toughest outs is one of the few things he can actually do during a game to change the outcome of the game. So last night’s decision was a bad one. In the “humble” opinion of this addled blogger, anyhow.

I’ll finish by pointing out that, unsurprisingly, I did not address Nathan’s contract here. I don’t fault the GM for signing the contract. There’s nothing at all wrong with having an elite reliever on your team, and there’s nothing wrong with paying him at the same rate as his (lesser) peers. I fault the manager for misusing Nathan’s elite services. Someday I’ll write a post about how I care more about “baseball” than the “business of baseball,” and I’d rather think about what the manager could do to improve our chances of winning a game than think about what the GM could have done to get us a better deal on someone’s contract. I can watch baseball games. I can’t (and wouldn’t) watch contract negotiations. But today is not that day, so I’m not going to write about it. (This paragraph is a “subtle” request that we all try not to talk about the contract. In case you missed that.)

8 comments

8 Comments so far

  1. Baseball » Thoughts About the Closer Role April 26th, 2008 6:32 pm

    [...] Fire Gardy wrote an interesting post today on Thoughts About the Closer RoleHere’s a quick excerpt … hat the GM could have done to get us a better deal on someone’s contract. I can watch baseball games…. … than the “business of baseball,” and I’d rather think about what the manager could do to improve our chances of winning a game than think about w… [...]

  2. Ganderson April 27th, 2008 10:10 am

    I’ve always felt that the current mode of using the closer will pass- your best reliever should be used in high leverage situations, whether they’re in the last inning or not- but if the role of closers does change what are all of us fantasy geeks going to do with our closers?:)

  3. sirsean April 27th, 2008 10:20 am

    I’m sure the stat guys will come up with some other stat that we can measure for fantasy purposes. I’d say the requirements are:

    1) Simple enough that TV talking heads can understand it 2) The second or third best way to actually statistically measure a reliever’s performance, that way stat guys have the advantage of using better stats

    2 is why fantasy scoring doesn’t use VORP, but VORP is a great way to decide which players to draft.

  4. ganderson April 28th, 2008 9:35 am

    I fancy myself a bit of a baseball expert, but my fantasy results usually don’t bear that out….

  5. Texas April 28th, 2008 1:58 pm

    Ganderson-

    That is how managers used to use their “closer”. Rollie Fingers use to come in as early as the 7th inning sometimes and finish off the game. Unfortunately since the late 80’s the closer role hasn’t changed nor have managers philosophies towards it. What has changed has been the division of labor of the bullpen. We now have highly nuanced setup guys (and stats designed specifically for them) as well as specialty relievers who might come in to pitch to one or two batters (normally R-R or L-L matchups).

    There are teams that are carrying 14 pitchers on their Everyday roster. I believe the Brewers at one point were carrying 14 pitchers. I don’t believe that we will see a overhaul of how managers use closers unless someone is brave enough to demand that his best pitche pitch when the game is on the line, whether that be in the 7, 8, or 9th inning

  6. sirsean April 28th, 2008 2:04 pm

    Gossage used to get 3 inning saves too. I think that’s a bit much, of course. Modern pitchers can’t handle that kind of stress on their arms. But coming into the 7th inning if necessary is probably a good idea (although it’ll look pretty dumb if an inferior pitcher blows the game after the closer has been taken out — that’s something that hasn’t been discussed much).

    The Brewers just recently carried 14 pitchers, and I don’t see that gaining any traction around the league unless they increase the size of the 25 man roster. It leaves only 3 guys on the bench — which is especially impossible in the NL (where the Brewers are trying to do it). Yost has been repeatedly using pitchers as pinch hitters for other pitchers since he doesn’t have enough guys on the bench.

  7. Texas April 28th, 2008 2:22 pm

    Yeah, there hasn’t been much discussion about the potential of blowing it later.

    I’m much more willing to take the chance that we blow the game later knowing that we’re giving the team an opportunity to win.

    i don’t necessarily agree with what Yost is doing in Milwaukee but it says something about pitching and the way that it is managed that a team, especially a NL team, is willing to carry 14 pitchers on its roster. In reality that only leaves two bench players as you need to have backup catcher, who will only play for the other catcher. Somehow the Brewers are doing well though, so if it works?!

  8. sirsean April 28th, 2008 4:50 pm

    It seems to me that people would be pretty pissed off if a crappy pitcher blows the game in the 9th while the best reliever is sitting on the bench, having been used up in the 7th or 8th. And most managers probably just want to play it safe in that regard (Eric Wedge notwithstanding, apparently).

    I don’t agree with what the Brewers are doing, and I’ll have to look into how they’re winning, especially since their leadoff guy (Weeks) is channeling Punto and their big hitters (Fielder/Braun/Hardy) aren’t living up to their potential, but having Kendall’s .400 OBP in the 9 hole is one strategical move that’s probably making a difference.

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