The stress of the playoffs is killing me. Everything from Tim McCarver and Joe Buck droning on about the most ridiculous of narratives; Farrell’s insistence on starting Jonny Gomes over Daniel Nava when facing right handed starting pitching (the last two nights notwithstanding because of Shane Victorino‘s sore lower back); Stephen Drew‘s mindboggling struggles at the plate; and Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s inability to do anything but strikeout has, figuratively speaking, been breaking my balls. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve missed meaningful playoff baseball. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’d just forgotten how exhausting it is to deal with day-in and day-out. Honestly, I can’t wait for it to be over, so I can get a full eight hours of sleep every night.
With today being an offday between games five and six, I feel like we need an offday from discussing the World Series. Well, at least specifically. Instead, I want to talk a little bit about the well documented fallacy that teams need a so-called proven closer to get through the playoffs. Yes, it’s something that’s been talked about to death in blogging circles, but never before has this narrative been so overtly false than this season. Let’s look at each of the playoff teams and their respective closer situations.
We’ll start with the National League…
Atlanta Braves - Craig Kimbrel is probably the only person we’ll talk about who will remain an elite closer for years to come, provided he remains healthy. He’s the epitome of a shutdown reliever in the mold of Jonathan Papelbon and Eric Gagne. He strikes out more than 40% of the batters he faces, and nary allows a base runner. He’s a stud. That’s really all there is to it.
Cincinnati Reds – You could certainly make an argument that Aroldis Chapman belongs in the Kimbrel category, but I’m not so sure. He’s certainly close to that category, but I like to see a closer have three or four elite seasons before calling anyone a proven closer. As you’re about to see very shortly, the shelf life of a closer is roughly around three years. Chapman has only two in the books. Still, if you wanted to throw him in the pool here, I wouldn’t argue too much.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Kenley Jansen was the Dodgers closer in 2012, and looked pretty damn good saving 25 games before being sidelined with an irregular heart beat. What do the Dodgers do? They install Brandon League, a much lesser pitcher, as closer because he was more proven. Not surprisingly, League crashed and burned by mid-season. He was relegated to lower priority innings, while Jansen regained closer duties. I put him in the same category as Chapman. Close to a proven closer, but not quite.
Pittsburgh Pirates – After the Pirates traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, they installed Jason Grilli, a journeyman reliever who’d never closed before, as their ace reliever. While he excelled in the role and earned his first All-Star nod this season, he lost his job shortly after returning from an injury to Mark Melancon. Melancon, as you might remember, was the Astros closer in 2011 before struggling with the Red Sox in low leverage innings in 2012 before joining the Pirates this season. Neither pitcher had “proven closer” status, yet the Pirates managed to be very successful this year despite having two relative novices pitching the ninth inning.
St. Louis Cardinals – Jason Motte was supposed to be the closer for the Cardinals, but a torn UCL in his elbow shelved him for the entire season. Enter Edward Mujica, who the Cardinals had acquired at the trading deadline in 2012. Mujica had never closed before, but he’d racked up a whole four saves in 5+ seasons in the majors. In 2013, he saved 37 games, and looked great until the wheels fell off in September. Now, Trevor Rosenthal–who’s also never closed until now–is holding down the ninth inning. Despite all of this, the Cardinals have managed to make it to the World Series.
Now on to the American League…
Boston Red Sox - Your American League pennant winning Red Sox have had exactly four closers this year. The first was Joel Hanrahan, who flamed out tremendously in April when he had to have surgery to repair his forearm tendon and UCL. Next was Andrew Bailey. He looked fantastic for the first two months, and then shoulder woes took him down. Junichi Tazawa, held down the fort during a three week stretch where Bailey was on the DL (the first time), and somehow managed to not appear in save situations. Finally, we have Koji Uehara who has done nothing but dominate. People really shouldn’t be surprised by Uehara’s dominance. He’s been dominating since 2010, but no one ever took notice because he’s in his 30s and wasn’t thought to have “the closer mentality”. All of that was rubbish, of course. He’s helped the Red Sox get to a game away from winning their eighth championship and third in ten seasons. Most impressively, is that he’s done it all while closing out games despite not being a “proven closer”.
Cleveland Indians - Chris Perez has been a closer now for four seasons, so he’s technically worthy of the “proven closer” tag. Having said that, I don’t know if anyone would consider him a trusted closer. He almost lost his job twice this year, and only managed to retain it because no one else stepped up. Furthermore, going into the playoffs, many analysts were speculating that Perez might not even be the playoff closer. Instead, that job would have gone to SP Justin Masterson who was still building up his stamina after a late season injury. In other words, Chris Perez is a synonym for John Axford.
Detroit Tigers – Do you remember all of those stories this past spring about the Tigers’ closer situation? They auditioned Bruce Rondon for the job, but he wasn’t ready. Then, they brought back disgraced closer Jose Valverde who was so untrustworthy the playoff run before that he lost his job to Phil Coke. That worked out as poorly as you might imagine. Finally, they landed on Joaquin Benoit. Benoit should have been given the job right off of the bat, but the Tigers hesitated because he wasn’t a “proven closer”. Even despite his early success, the Tigers tried to trade for a closer at the deadline. They didn’t get one, and they were rewarded with a 3-win season out of their ace reliever.
Oakland Athletics – Billy Beane is widely know for making closers and trading them away at the peak of their value. He did it with Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen, Billy Koch, Keith Foulke, Octavio Dotel, Huston Street, and Andrew Bailey. Soon, he’ll do it to Grant Balfour who became the team’s closer last season–although not before losing the job to Ryan Cook for a couple of months.
Tampa Bay Rays – Fernando Rodney has been a closer for three full seasons, albeit not successively. Still, his performance is good enough that the “proven closer” label might be appropriate. To be fair, Joe Maddon has trusted him to close out games for each of the past two seasons, and Rodney’s been very successful. Additionally, Rodney likely obtained the job initially because of his previous experience in 2009 and 2010.
As you can see, this whole notion of teams needing a proven closer to be successful not only in the regular season, but also the playoffs, is absolutely ridiculous. The Red Sox and Cardinals alone are on their fourth and third closers of the year respectively. Closers aren’t born. They’re made. For every Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, and Goose Gossage, there are hundreds of Jason Grilli’s that will close for a year or two before fading back to middle relief.