As a newer writer for this network, I am posting this article as one I will refer to from time to time about my annual frustration with what I call “the myth of the designated closer.” I don’t find anything in the game of baseball quite so frustrating as spending several hours watching my team play a good game – doing all the little things to win games with situational hitting and solid defense, taking a lead into the 9th inning, etc. – only to have the “designated closer” obligatorily marched in (whether the match-ups are good or bad) and blow the whole thing apart with just a few stupid pitches!
A Story from Another Era
In my previous life before the era of the internet (when there were only the major networks and a handful of local TV stations) I was a Phillies Phollower while living in the Philly broadcast market. Near the end of this time – and of my years dwelling in New Jersey – was the famous 1993 team of John Kruk, Darren Dalton, Lenny Dykstra, Curt Shilling ……. and ……. Mitch Williams, a.k.a. “The Wild Thing.”
It was a great season for the Phillies, but a painful one. They made it as far as the sixth game of the World Series before Joe Carter of the Blue Jays ended their run by placing a Mitch Williams fastball into the left field seats for a walk-off win. That was the season where Shilling first started sitting in the dugout with a towel over his head. It had nothing to do with sweat! Rather, he could not stand the sight of Mitch Williams pitching relief! Nobody knew where the ball was going when it left his hand, including Williams himself!
(The Wild Thing issued 554 walks in his career of 691 total innings pitched. That is a bit over seven walks per nine innings, and does not include the 52 people who likely still have a dent in their body somewhere from getting plunked. But he did have an opponents’ batting average of only .218. Seeing his 1993 WHIP – walks and hits per innings pitched – as 1.61 helps me understand why I have such painful memories of that season.)
Been There, Seen That!
Back in 2003-2005 with the Orioles, Jorge Julio was like the second coming of Mitch Williams. And since then, we Orioles fans could name more than a couple “closers” (Sherrill, Hernandez, Gregg, etc.) who routinely walked the bases loaded before they went to work to attempt to save the game.
But here is my bigger question… why does a team always need to go through the wrenching decision as to who is going to be the designated closer? This “designated closer” phenomena is a rather recent baseball invention. Consider the great 1966 Orioles team. That season, no less than six Orioles recorded saves. Stu Miller had the most with 18; but Eddie Fisher had 13, Moe Drabowsky and Dick Hall had seven each, Eddie Watt had four, while Gene Brabender recorded two.
In those days, managers brought in the best pitcher for the situation at hand. Sometimes, the situation called for the best reliever to match a particular cast of hitters in the seventh inning. But now, the entire strategy of the game is to get a lead by the seventh inning, bring in the designated set-up man, and finish the game with the designated closer.
The History of the Closer Statistic
A baseball writer name Jerome Holtzmann created the “save” statistic in 1960 to rate the effectiveness of relief pitchers. He kept records on his own for nine years, and in 1969, the statistic was officially adopted. In a May 2002 article in Baseball Digest, former Orioles manager Johnny Oates told Holtzmann, “You changed the game. You created the ninth inning pitcher.” Holtzmann rightly responded that managers changed the game by their decisions, especially Tony LaRussa and Dick Howser. Over time, all teams began to look for the big stopper – the one guy who could nail down a win. I think this closer absorption has ultimately hurt the game of baseball.
But here is the real reason closer fascination has happened. I came to understand this from no less than the mouth of the late Moe Drabowsky himself. A few years ago I was at a luncheon at a Hagerstown Suns game (minor league affiliate of the Nationals). I was standing by the railing watching warm-up drills long before the game was scheduled to start. The visiting DelMarVa Shorebirds pitching coach walked by and struck up a conversation… turned out it was Moe Drabowsky. So I asked him about this “closer” phenomenon that has overtaken the game since his playing days. He said, “Here is the answer… the manager is in the dugout making $500,000 a year, and the owner is paying the closer guy $5,000,000 a year to do a particular job… so the manager is not going to risk giving the ball to anybody else, even if he thinks another player would be better in that situation.”
So there you have it! The designated closer is more of a financial reality than a wise baseball strategy. Hey, the big closer, the big stopper is great, if you have something approaching a Rollie Fingers, John Franco, Lee Smith, or Mariano Rivera on your roster. I would suggest that there are at any given time only about 10 or less of these sorts of guys in the game.
9th Innings in 2012
One of the storylines to watch with the 2012 Orioles is the back end of the bullpen situation. A year ago, there were four guys on the roster with closer experience: Uehara, Gregg, Gonzalez, and Accardo. I wrote then that I thought Uehara was the best of the bunch when healthy – particularly since he does not hurt himself by being too cute and walking the tying run. This year, if Johnson is not moved to closer (which seems very unlikely now), I cannot imagine who else should be the primary person to most often hope to see at the end of the game.
I was much encouraged by Showalter’s remarks at the 2011 FanFest. He referenced the closer role as an egotistical thing and made it VERY clear that nobody is getting anointed with any role they do not deserve and earn. He also said, “Some pitchers say, ‘If I knew my role, I’d pitch better,’ and I say to them, ‘Pal, if you’d pitch better, you’d know your role!’”
But even with Buck, we saw too much dependence upon a designated knockout punch guy in the 9th … and suffered too many blown saves. And any reliever nicknamed “Captain Chaos” should not be allowed in any game after the 7th inning!