There is an ongoing debate amongst sportswriters, critics and experts (some self-proclaimed and/or glorified) as to the importance of closers and the closer role in baseball. I understand that this here piece is somewhat opinionated, but nevertheless, I present some very interesting points to consider. My desire to get out there on this issue is motivated by this crappy article, written by an editor who blatantly lacks informed reasoning on this issue, and is therefore ignorant.
Because I don't feel like researching any more now than I have lately (my mind has already turned into mush at this point), I will post here, some of the points I have mentioned earlier. Call me lazy if you wish (I know some of you want to see numbers and stats), but I've done enough of my share of reporting statistical potpourri lately that I will instead use sound logic and reasoning to get my point across, supported by some facts that have been proven (to work).I’m sick and tired of hearing phrases like "the game isn’t played by computer printouts, it’s played by players." Yeah, OK. Fine. But how the hell do you run a business? You practice measures that are proven to work for businesses that relate most closely to your business, based on inductive reasoning and scientific or historical evidence – the same applies to baseball management. It is a business. There is no denying this.
Baseball is a business!
No sabermetrician in their right mind would suggest that a manager ALWAYS play based on the historical evidence or numbers (you need that human element of intuition, to get that managerial feel), but you do have to play smart and use common sense, especially where it matters most. Some of these critics are so ignorant at understanding the bearing of statistical evidence towards downplaying the importance of a closer, that I almost feel personally obligated to go up to them and filibuster them to submission! It’s quite frustrating that some people out there still don’t get it.
The Closer Role - Necessary?
Now, what’s my take on the closer’s role? I take both sides on this matter - I'm 50/50 on this one. A closer should only seriously be implemented when there is that one reliever who is clearly the best reliever, especially for when a high leverage situation arises in the late innings. Otherwise, a left-handed and right-handed closer can be implemented, given that they stand out as the best relievers in their bullpen, playing to the percentages when necessary, as long as that is managed properly. If no reliever is particularly dominant or superior in that bullpen, the closer role is really not all that important, and is therefore irrelevant to the success of the team in winning games.
However, a 9th inning situation bears higher leverage, because there are less opportunities to regain the lead, if that lead is lost. In other words, it is more crucial to secure the lead in the 9th than it is in the 6th, because it is harder to catch up if you fall behind at the last minute. For instance, if you had a homework assignment due 4 days from now, or 1 day from now, you would be under more pressure in the latter situation. And higher pressure typically means higher leverage, given of course that the layout of the situation is the same. So in that regard, I’m split 50/50 on the closer idea. But if there is that one reliever that is considerably better than the 2nd best reliever, then the closer role should be implemented. Or, if the two most dominant relievers are lefty and righty, and are considerably better than the rest of the bullpen, a closer tandem should be established to play the high leverage late-inning situations to the percentages. Otherwise, I really see no use for an established "closer", per se. If no reliever in particular dominates that bullpen, the closer's role, to be frank, is mostly bullshit. This is my stance.
Leo Nunez is the Marlins' closer - is there anything special about him as a reliever, that makes him worthy of the distinction as a "closer"? The evidence suggests not.
The "Closer Mentality"
The "closer mentality" thing is mostly bogus, that has been inflated by the media and popular baseball culture - it is a deluding plot device used to sway people like us into thinking that closers are just as important as their market values suggest (I'm looking at you, Boras!). HOWEVER, a close game in the 9th inning is more subject to higher leverage situations than the same situation earlier in the game, so instead, I think the phrase "cool under pressure" would far more suffice. High pressure situations usually correlates to high leverage, especially late in the game, so you need a reliever who can handle pressure and pitch as well as he would in any other situation, if not better, and pitch effectively. It might seem like I'm contradicting myself, but the fact of the matter is, that a Starting Pitcher could possess a closer mentality as well, in principle, in that that pitcher might be cool under pressure in high leverage situations, as well as any other reliever, good or bad.
So really, my point here is that you don't necessarily need just a "closer mentality" to close games. You just need to be able to pitch effectively, as well as handle situations with ease and poise when the going gets rough in the late innings. You don't need to possess the oft-hyped "intensity" associated with closers like Al Hrabosky ("The Mad Hungarian") or Jonathan Papelbon ("The Irish Car Bomb"), or even a Frankie Rodriguez! ("K-Rod") You just need to go out there, stay cool under pressure, and get that batter out, preferably by strikeout or ground out, and finish that damned game. It's that simple.
Al Hrabosky possesses the coolest nickname ever given for a closer - "The Mad Hungarian"
The Origins and History of the Closer
The first closers have originated in the 1950’s on a more regular basis, as pitchers pitched complete games less often and managers agreed that it was important to "lock down" games. But it was not until the 1970’s, that the Sparky Lyles, Goose Gossages and Rollie Fingers' of the pitching world, reformed the consensus of thinking, and the closer role gained more popularity amongst managers, and baseball fans as well. Also, since the save statistic was invented in 1969, the urgency to "rack up saves" has gained momentum, right around the time when MLB player salaries began to shoot up. This might smell of conspiracy perhaps, but whether or not that is the case is a subject of interpretation.
But, the establishment of the closer role began to take on an air of necessity in the 1980s, when every team would employ a designated closer. It became somewhat of a "mandatory requirement" over the years, at least in the minds of baseball managers. From that point on, closers have become a cornerstone as much on the baseball team as they have been on the baseball market. There is a market in baseball specifically catered to closers; perhaps the biggest travesty of all is that some closers, who pitch an average of 70 innings or so, get paid as much as a typical no. 2 starting pitcher, who contributes far more to the team over the span of 180-200+ or so innings. This is a major issue that has serious moral and fundamental implications.
Mariano Rivera, baseball's highest paid closer ever, is being paid an exorbitant salary of $15 million per year.
Should we abolish the closer role? Not necessarily. As I have explained, one should definitely send out the best reliever, if he is considerably better than everyone else, in the late innings in high leverage situations, such as close games in the 9th. Or, if there is a tandem of a righty reliever and lefty reliever that clearly stand out in the bullpen for their ability to get batters out and handle high pressure situations, a closing tandem made up of those relievers should be considered. In either situation, it is a major plus if the closers can avoid giving up or surrendering runs when runners get on base and possess the consistent ability to stay cool under pressure - a closer or closer tandem needs to be able to handle a high leverage situation with unparalleled expertise, in comparison to others in the bullpen. Otherwise, if no reliever stands out in the bullpen in terms of production and/or effectiveness in high leverage situations, the closers' role should simply be canned, because at that point, it's totally pointless.
Feel free to comment or contribute, especially if you disagree or wish to criticize my points - I'm open to suggestions here.