Why do the simplest answers sometimes seem like the hardest to figure out?
As legendary Padres closer Trevor Hoffman gets ready to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this July, baseball might be transitioning away from the career closer after all. The best closer of all time Mariano Rivero is just waiting for his opportunity as he will surely be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection, but will anyone follow him? Is the career closer though no longer “a thing”? More importantly, as baseball executives evaluate pitchers more on what they do – not an intangible fear factor – is this helping the game?
Should your best relief pitcher only be used to collect saves by pitching one inning in the 9th?
Questions are only as valuable as the answers that are found afterward so let’s dive in.
Keith Law is certainly NOT a fan of the save – what he calls Holtzman’s Folly after the sportswriter who invented the statistic in the early 1970’s. Especially when realities like this happen in professional baseball games…
Francisco Rodríguez: 1st pitcher in nearly 10 years to enter a game in the 9th inning or later, allow a grand slam, and still get a save. pic.twitter.com/esSrWDxniV
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 15, 2017
Mike Petriello of MLB.com points out the last SEVEN World Series Champions changed closers during the season. Remember who closed out the World Series for the Astros last year in Game 7? Starting pitcher Charlie Morton. Not supposed mega pitcher Ken Giles, who the Astros received in a much-ballyhooed trade in 2016 but who wasn’t even given a save opportunity after blowing a big lead in the ALCS against the Yankees.
After the great Andrew Miller 2016 Playoff Experiment, some thought the way Terry Francona used his reliever the way sabermetricians have been saying to use your best pitcher for years would translate. High leverage situations: where the game is much closer to be on the line when you have a one-run lead, opposing runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 7th as opposed to a fresh 9th inning with a three-run lead. Yet managers typically try and stress the long season and giving bullpen pitchers established roles.
However, last year saw MLB have fewer 30+ save pitchers than we’ve seen since the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks began play.
So while relievers are getting paid more money overall (Aroldis Chapman $20M, Wade Davis $16M, Craig Kimbrel $13M) – especially when you put that on a per inning basis compared to starting pitchers – it appears that paying the big bucks for the 9th inning closer might be declining. Number 4 on that list is the Yankees David Robertson at $9M, who admittedly signed that contract to be the White Sox closer, but now is the setup man to Chapman and great injury insurance.
Former 2005 first round pitcher Brandon Morrow in 10 years has accumulated about $28M when he started as a starting pitcher with the Blue Jays before encountering some arm troubles. In 2013-14 he made $8M a year. Now, he has reinvented himself as a reliever and was a key piece of the Dodgers bullpen last season. He just signed a 2 year, $21M deal with the Cubs at 33 years old. So he will make more as a 7th/8th inning reliever than he ever did as a starting pitcher. Teams see the value relievers can bring to their team – and not just as closers.
The value of a strong bullpen is so apparent, and while position players continue to languish on the free agent market, the market is good for relief pitchers. I talked before about the emphasis the Rockies are putting on the ‘pen, and they don’t appear to be alone.
The meaning of all of this is two-fold. There is no doubt that the mental edge teams with lockdown bullpens and closers have is evident. Despite the talk about the closer position of the last 7 years – the flipside to that is that many of those teams (2010, 2012 Giants, 2015 Royals, 2016 Indians/Cubs) did have deep bullpens – which allowed them to persevere even when they did lose a closer to injury or a period of ineffectiveness.
So teams that do have elite closers like Chapman, Kenley Janssen(except for those World Series games, oops) and Kimbrel will pay them more to do their thing. Other teams can try out less expensive options for the 9th inning but fortify the setup innings. When that closer struggles, they are financially obligated to keeping them in the 9th because of contractual reasons. Think about how many Tigers/Nationals closers the last several years kept getting trotted out there because they were making four times as much as anybody else in the bullpen. At the trade deadline last year the Nationals just said “forget it” and picked up a trio of former closers, with Doolittle being the current slotted closer but Kintzler and Madson ready to pick up the slack where needed.
It is exciting to see the bullpen evolution as teams have more information at their fingertips they can make better decisions about where and when to pitch their best pitcher. To help them win games. What a concept? Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones to grasp after all.