Twilight of the Closers: Is baseball beginning to move on from the 9th inning specialist?

So far as baseball memories go, my earliest memories blur into people, not events. Highest on my list were Reggie and the Goose. I can’t recall seeing Reggie Jackson blast his 399th home run, though I vaguely remember listening to him hitting his 400th on August 11, 1980 off of Chicago White Sox pitcher Britt Burns. To my utter despair, the game wasn’t televised. I do know that I followed his march to 400 almost pitch by pitch. I vaguely remember him hitting three dingers in a single World Series game in 1978. That’s a bit of a stretch to be honest. I remember my aunt’s screams each time Reggie went yard.

The same goes for Rich “Goose” Gossage. I remember box his wild man wind up and delivery. I remember combing the box scores to see if he notched another save. I remember him running neck and neck with Rollie Fingers (the same way I remember Jackson vying for home run king against then Philadelphia Phillies slugger, Mike Schmidt). Unfortunately, one of my clearest memories is Goose blowing a ALCS save against George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. I wanted to be Reggie. I wanted to be Goose. Home runs and saves were what I pined for. (As an adult, Ron Guidry’s standout years as a Yankee have risen.)

Needless to say, in my inherent understanding of baseball, a bullpen anchored by a high-octane, nerves-of-steel, bit-between-his teeth closer represents the proper way a game should be managed. It’s a conservative view that I’m tied to either by rote or sentimentality. That’s why I greeted the recent remarks by the Boston Red Sox’s president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, to the New York Times with a degree of skepticism.

According to Dombrowski, “You can find relievers, and relievers have a tendency to come from anywhere. History shows you that right now, short of the premium guys, there’s a lot of inconsistency in relievers from year to year. Part of it is they get used so much when they’re pitching well that one season. For me, I just choose to go with the starting pitchers, assuming they’re of quality nature.” [Article]

Since we’ll be relying on Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quite a bit in the following weeks, here’s a good rule of thumb regarding WAR. The metric is notoriously less ideal when it comes to relief pitchers, but we’ll discuss that later.

Scrub 0-1 WAR
Role Player 1-2 WAR
Solid Player 2-3 WAR
Good Player 3-4 WAR
All-Star 4-5 WAR
Superstar 5-6 WAR

Here’s a look at the 2019 New York Yankees bullpen.

Adam Ottavino 2.43 77.2 0.991 2.6
Zack Britton 0.7 40.2 1.230 0.7
Chad Green 2.50 75.2 1.044 2.3
Dellin Betances 2.70 66.2 1.050 1.7
Aroldis Chapman 2.45 51.1 1.052 1.7

Meanwhile, the Red Sox’ relief pitchers include:

Matt Barnes 3.65 61.2 1.265 1.1
Heath Hembree 4.20 60.0 1.333 0.5
Brian Johnson 4.17 99.1 1.430 1.5
Tyler Thornburg 5.63 24.0 1.583 0.0
Hector Velazquez 3.18 85.0 1.447 1.6

Clearly on paper, the Yankees bullpen is better than the Red Sox with only one pitcher with a WHIP over 1.2 while the Sox bullpen does not have a single pitcher under 1.25. Dombrowski wasn’t being hyperbolic when he implied that his team set up would be based on steady and solid starting pitchers and not hot-and-cold relievers. Obviously, he knows what he’s doing, having engineered the Red Sox to a World Series win last year and the Florida Marlins to a championship ring in 1997.

While the Red Sox strategy doesn’t single out closers, per se, and Dombrowski does leave some space for the value of a handful of “elite” relievers, it’s hard not to interpret their off-season moves as devaluing the importance of the reliever par excellence — the closer. Not only did the Red Sox slash the bullpen budget and allow quality relief men like Joe Kelley to leave Boston, they also made little effort to retain the services of arguably the best closer of the past few years, Craig Kimbrel. (It probably is also a case of Kimbrel asking for more than management was willing to surrender. Toward the end of last season, serious questions were being raised about the health of his arm.)So who is right? Just how important is a closer in 2019?Over the next few weeks, we’ll dig deeper into the debate, examining the position in as many ways as possible, from hard metrics to anecdotal evidence. With Opening Day less than a week away, we’ll even be able to compare strategies in real-time.

Next week: The evolution of pitchers from multi-inning relievers to single-inning specialist closers

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

The Scientific Inquirer needs your support. Please visit our Patreon page and discover ways that you can make a difference. Alternatively, to make a one time $10 contribution visit our Support page.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: