Closers have an important role in baseball history: their grit and charisma are unmatched, their weird facial hair is entertaining, and they’re usually getting the final out in World Series clinchers, but what’s the point? We’re in the middle of advancement in analytical knowledge when it comes to baseball, but clubs still have some caveman beliefs. Nearly every team in baseball assign roles including the seventh inning man, eighth inning man and closer. The former two roles might flip-flop around, but the closer is rarely used in other high-leverage situations. Teams usually make their best reliever on the team the closer, and can only pitch in save situations, tie games at home, and when he needs to “get some work in.”
In his book “Ahead of the Curve,” Brian Kenny got me thinking about why clubs have closer roles. He states:
Today’s relief aces (“closers”) are treated like rare exotic flowers to be taken out only in certain conditions. They work the ninth inning only, preferably with nobody on base, and they top out at seventy innings for the season. Take a step back. You’ve established one pitcher as the best on your staff, batter for batter. You then artificially restrict his innings and keep him from the most important parts of the game.
It is often said that even though there might not be men on base, getting the final three outs in the last inning is the most difficult. Baseball players and closers might even believe that, but it’s a social construct. The social construct of the closer role caused baseball organizations, writers, and fans to think more highly of them as pitchers and relievers put more pressure on themselves in the situation. Therefore, closers became more expensive, and that’s one of the reasons why we haven’t seen the role go extinct.
Players don’t hit free agency until after six years of service in the majors and they are arbitration-eligible after year three until free agency. This causes issues with bullpen management, because saves still play a role in arbitration cases; therefore, pitchers with a bunch of saves have leverage when it comes to settling cases before hearings. Agents of relievers and relievers themselves prefer closing, because it means a couple more bucks during arbitration. It makes it even more important because less relievers make it to free agency compared to other positions due to the large supply of pitchers able to relieve.
This example between Brad Brach and Shawn Tolleson shows that saves are still being rewarded even though these two pitchers have been extremely similar. Both ended up with just over three years of service after 2015 and entered their first year of arbitration.
|Name||ERA||FIP||xFIP||RA/9 WAR||IP||fWAR||wOBA in high lev||Saves||1st-year arb salary|
Both avoided arbitration with their clubs in January, but Tolleson agreed to a deal that paid him over $2,000,000 more than Brach, even though they’ve been similar in a two-year run. Before 2016, Brach had 246.1 innings pitched with a 3.25 ERA and Tolleson had 181.2 innings pitched with a 3.18 ERA. The difference in number of saves was the deciding factor in salary.
Even though front offices have become smarter, arbitrators still haven’t caught up, causing saves to equate to more money. Some writers have talked about the problem of teams using relievers in non-save situations so they can save money in arbitration. That could become a problem, but I think the paranoia will always be there more than actual tampering. It would be obvious if a team started spreading saves around to avoid the extra couple million in arbitration. What seems more likely is that a team will start using their best reliever (closer) in unusual situations and other teams will follow, which will cause a swing in arbitration numbers. Eventually, the save will — along with pitcher wins and losses — will become irrelevant.
Back to the advancement of analytics, it’s difficult to find any competitive advantages in 2016, but eliminating the closer role might be one of the options. The Oakland Athletics, earlier in the year, used their closer Ryan Madson in the eighth inning because the opposing club had tough righties due up. It worked, but they haven’t stuck with that plan as Madson has pitched in the 9th with a lead or tie on most occasions. The strategy could be a good preview of future bullpen management, though, and teams should take note. The plan shouldn’t be to have your closer pitch the ninth no matter what, it should be to find advantages and prevent runs. For example, it would be wise to use Roberto Osuna in the seventh or eighth against Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz, because you are giving yourself a higher probability of preventing runs. But whom do you use in the later innings after Osuna is gone? You worry about it then. The point is that you can’t “save” a game if you don’t have the lead. Every inning is equally important on the surface, but spot in the lineup affects that value.
Let’s take a look at inherited runners. If runners are on base, don’t you want your best relievers to pitch in those situations? From Baseball-Reference, check out this table that states who leads the league in appearances with inherited runners. There are 61 non-closers that top the list until you find your first closer, Osuna. Even though bullpens are dominating baseball and have been more effective than starters, it could be a huge advantage to use your best reliever (closer) in more meaningful spots. Closers enter games with the bases empty more than any other relievers in baseball, even though the high leverage situations usually come earlier in games.
It’s unlikely we see a change in strategy any time soon, but a team could do it during the playoffs and get huge publicity for doing so. We could see Joe Maddon bring Hector Rondon in for the seventh inning if Brandon Belt, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence are due up in a one-run game. That would confuse spectators and some writers, but it would improve the Cubs’ chances of winning the game. Maybe if it happens enough in the postseason with one team, it could start making its way throughout the postseason and eventually into the regular season.