If you brought up the modern notion of the baseball closer with, say, Van Lingle Mungo, you might have to spend extra time explaining it, even if you were speaking to him in the last year of this life, 1985. Relief pitchers were turning into closers right around that time, an evolution that began earlier with Gossage, Fingers and Sutter, but the modern inelastic template — a pitcher who only pitches in the ninth inning and only in save situations — really started to gel a few years later. Dennis Eckerlsley may have been the first pitcher to be used that way. Mariano Rivera, of course, perfected it. Last year, Jonathan Papelbon had a paradigmatic closer year for the Phillies. His Games and his Innings Pitched numbers were identical at 70. (By way of contrast, Bruce Sutter, in his peak years, averaged 1 2/3 innings per appearance.)
There are guys who can do this. You need some combination of concentration, poise and stuff (or as Eckerlsey would say “cheese”). Flamboyance seems not unrelated (but not universal). Closers also benefit from an almost sociopathic disregard for their occasional failures. If you carry angst or tristesse from last night’s blown save into tonight’s game, you are not fit for the job. It also helps to be on a certain kind of team. One question I’ve always had about Rivera is this: Is he the greatest closer of all time or is he a fabulous relief pitcher who happened to play for a team that, year after year, won an extraordinary percentage of its close games? You can’t be a great closer on a team with an anemic offense and no facility for clutch hitting. If Rivera pitched for the Tigers for his whole career, would anybody have heard of him? If you bring this up, in a tone of scholarly detachment, with Yankees fans, they scream at you.
So there are guys. But are there 30 guys? The current mythology of baseball says that there are, there must be. Every team, every manager must pick one in the spring. Either that or live with “closer by committee,” a phrase that ranks right up there with “pro se litigant” in its implied shortfall of both resources and judgment. But is that really true? I leave it to some sabrematician to attempt a look at the numbers. At the level of common sense, it seems possible that the modern, ossified notion of the closer is actually bad thinking. Consider yesterday’s Boston – Tampa Bay game. With the score tied 1-1, the Red Sox inserted their new closer Joel Hanrahan who is going through a rough patch and may have a sort of an inured hamstring, it turns out. Hanrahan walked two guys and looked only slightly better than awful. His manager John Farrell yanked him (good move) and put in Koji Uehara who pitched them out of the mess. In the tenth, the call went to Junichi Tazawa who pitched a scoreless inning and got the win.
Who really benefits from the modern closer system? Managers. Managers are relieved of many complex, subtle decisions and are spared second-guessing by the press.
The closer system voids two major areas of nuance.
1. Who should I use in this particular close game?
2. When should I use my best guy?
Let’s take the second question first. Suppose you have an indispuatable, dominating, Achillean closer, a Rivera, a Papelbon. Imagine it’s the 7th inning, runners on second and third, no outs. You’re ahead 3-2. It’s quite arguable that this — and not the ninth inning — is the truly pivotal moment in the game. In fact, what happens right here may render the ninth relatively inconsequential. If your closer is a strikeout kind of guy, you’re nuts not to use him here. If the baserunners are on first and second and your closer is a sinker baller who gets a lot of double play grounders, you’re nuts not to use him here. But you won’t, and nobody will second-guess you because you’ve been taken off the hook. You and the other 29 managers are in kind of a passive conspiracy to spare each other this type of difficult reasoning. One could say that a computer could take your place, but a computer would never be happy looking at so few variables.
Now, let’s say you don’t have a Rivera. You’ve got three or four very good relievers. By designating one of them as the closer, you take your own brain out of a whole series of late-inning decisions having to do with platoon-advantage, match-up history, weather conditions, etc. Doesn’t matter. And, again, nobody will ask you at the press conference whether you should have sent another guy out in the ninth, because the Formula is King.
Maybe we know best what we imprint on first. I became a baseball fan during the 1967 Impossible Dream year — one of the worst collections of pitchers ever to win a pennant. If there was a closer on the staff, he escaped my notice. (Although the roster that year did eventually scoop up young Sparky Lyle in its desperate hands, and Lyle later became one of the early pioneers of modern closing.)