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Jeurys Familia and unexpected closers on the way to the postseason

Recent history shows teams don't need their first choice at closer to reach the postseason.

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Flash back to Opening Day 2015 and a time before the New York Mets were the best team in baseball, if one can even remember such a time existing. It was a simpler period in American life, before we had all bore witness to the brilliance of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.

On that day, Jennry Mejia, who saved 28 games last year, warmed up in the Mets' bullpen, as the Mets had a 3-1 lead over the Washington Nationals. While getting loose, Mejia felt a pain in his elbow and became unavailable. The Mets turned to journeyman reliever Buddy Carlyle to finish the victory. That day, Mejia was placed on the disabled list. Five days later, he was suspended 80 games for testing positive for stanozolol. The Mets' closer role had been throw in to unexpected flux.

Would Bobby Parnell assume the closer duties when ready and able? After all, he has 36 career saves, including 22 in 2013. Would Mejia return in 2015 to reclaim the job? Amid the questions and uncertainty, Jeurys Familia, perhaps the Mets' third or fourth choice at closer to start the season, has grabbed hold of the job with no signs of giving it up anytime soon.

Familia has been a revelation. He entered 2015 with six career saves. Entering play Tuesday night, Familia was nine-for-nine in save opportunities, posting a remarkable 34.2% strikeout rate, 1.69 ERA (217 ERA+) and a 0.656 WHIP. His sinker, in particular, has been dominant. Familia had thrown it 49% of the time, and opposing batters are just 1-for-17 against the pitch. Not coincidentally, he has done an exceptional job of keeping his pitches down.

Familia has  induced ground balls at a career high rate (57.9%) and surrendered fly balls at a career low rate (21.1%). Despite his exceptional April, though, I wondered if a team could contend for the postseason without their first, or even second, choice at closer. Conventional baseball would indicate it would be unlikely.

After all, for those of us who came of age as fans in the 1990s, we had grown accustomed to two decades of mostly established and dominant closers like John Franco, Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, and Jonathan Papelbon closing out games for their teams on the way to the postseason. I write mostly, because in 1995, Mark Wohlers recorded 25 saves for the World Series winning Atlanta Braves, after entering the season with just seven career saves. However, in the proceeding fifteen season (1996-2010), no team with a closer who entered the season with less than 15 career saves had won the World Series.


Pitcher (Team)

Career saves before season


John Wetteland (NY AL)



Robb Nen (Florida)



Mariano Rivera (NY AL)



Mariano Rivera (NY AL)



Mariano Rivera (NY AL)



Byung-Hyun Kim (Arizona)



Troy Percival (Anaheim)



Braden Looper (Florida)



Keith Foulke (Boston)



Dustin Hermanson (Chicago AL)



Jason Isringhausen (St. Louis)



Jonathan Papelbon (Boston)



Brad Lidge (Philadelphia)



Mariano Rivera (NY AL)



Brian Wilson (San Francisco)


But since the start of the 2011 season, three such teams have not only contended for the postseason, but won the World Series: the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, 2012 San Francisco Giants, and 2013 Boston Red Sox. Whether it has been due to injures or under-performance, recent champions have thrived after recasting their closer role during the season.

While it is far too soon to discuss the Mets and the World Series (let's hold off until at least mid-May), it is worth exploring the recent trend of teams who rode unexpected closers to the postseason (hey, that's the title of the article!).

Most recently, before the 2013 season, the Boston Red Sox sought to lockdown the late innings by acquiring premiere closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, who owned a combined 181 career saves and four All-Star selections. For a team that relied on Alfredo Aceves to finish games in 2012, it appeared to be a foolproof plan to stabilize the back of their bullpen.

Injuries, though, as they so often do, derailed the team's best laid plans. Together that season, they made just 39 appearances, saving 12 games and posting a 5.00 ERA. Neither threw a pitch after July 12. In fact, neither has pitched an inning in the Major Leagues since 2013.

The Red Sox, despite this setback, would go onto win the World Series that season with their third choice at closer: a 38 year old who entered 2013 with 14 career saves and a fastball that barely hit 90 MPH. Koji Uehara  closing games was not exactly the way the Red Sox had drawn it up in spring training, but it worked out pretty well.

Uehara earned his first save on May 17, and did not record a second save until June 26. He would finish the season with 21 saves, along with a 1.09 ERA (and a crazy 379 ERA+) and 0.565 WHIP. In the postseason, he would appear in 11 of 16 games, earning seven saves, striking out better than a batter per inning, and posting a 0.659 ERA and 0.512 WHIP.

Though Uehara's success was unexpected, there were certainly signs before the 2013 season. From 2010-2012, Uehara showed a definite  ability to rack up the strikeouts (33%), while limiting base runners (3.0% walk rate and 0.772 WHIP), and stranding roughly 90% of inherited runners (Fangraphs considers anything over 80% to be excellent). Uehara might not have been a proven closer, but his career numbers hinted he could excel in the role.

Similarly, in 2014, at age 24, Familia developed a propensity for limiting baserunners (1.18 WHIP), limiting fly balls (27.8%, league average for pitchers was 34.4% in 2014), and keeping the ball down. Like with Uehara, Famiilia's numbers indicated potential future closer success.

Koji, though, is just the most recent example.

In 2011, eight pitchers saved at least one regular season game for the eventual World Series champion  St. Louis Cardinals. Fernando Salas began the season as the closer, saving 24 games, but also blowing six saves. After six other pitchers were put in the role, in came Jason Motte, who earned his first of the season on August 28. He entered 2011 with three career saves, and began the season by coming out of the bullpen for the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. Motte would flourish in his new role. During the regular season's final month, as the Cardinals went 18-8 to claim the Wild Card on the season's final day, Motte recorded nine saves and a 0.956 WHIP.

Motte would appear in 12 postseason games for the Cardinals, earning five saves, and posting a 2.19 ERA and 0.487 WHIP. Motte, like Uehara in 2013, would be on the mound for the final out of the World Series.

Before his sudden ascension to the closer role, Motte had also demonstrated an ability to perform in high-leverage situations. In 56 appearances in 2010, Motte posted a 1.127 WHIP and his runners left on-base percentage was an impressive 88.5% (72.2% was league average). Mott'e ascension might have been unexpected

Similarly, before 2012, San Francisco Giants reliever Sergio Romo had saved three games in his career. He would finish the season by striking out American League Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera to save the clinching game of the World Series.

The Giants opened the season with  Brian Wilson as their established, All-Star closer. In mid-April, however, Wilson was lost for the year with an elbow injury. Santiago Casilla would claim the role, briefly, and Romo did not record his first save until June 2. He did not take over the job for good until mid-July, and he would finish the regular season with 14 saves. Romo was then electric in 10 postseason appearances, going 1-0, with four saves and a 0.84 ERA.

Like with Famiiia, Uehara, and Motte, Romo's previous production hinted at his potential to succeed in his new role. From 2008-2011, Romo posted a 0.893 WHIP in 207 appearances out of the bullpen. Like Familia, he also owned a dominant go-to pitch - a slider, which he threw 45% of the time and hitters owned just a .150 batting average against.

The Cardinals, Giants, and Red Sox have all proven that you do not need your established Opening Day closer to reach the postseason. What you do need a pitcher at the end of games who limits base-runners, work out of jams, and possesses an ability to make batters swing-and-miss. Jeurys Familia, who has dominated 2015's opening month, has been that type of pitcher. Baseball's postseason does not begin for five arduous months, but the Mets are on the right side of recent history.