The spectre of a closer! And until now a specter is all we appear to have to fill the role. We all can remember the stellar job Jonathan Papelbon did last year. If I closed my eyes right now I could most definitely imagine him filling the role in 2007. That however, is not likely to happen. Well, in the first half of the season at least. The more realistic options we have to fill the role are Joel Pineiro, Mike Timlin or Julian Tavarez. Though they are hard to imagine in the role. I can’t picture Joel Pineiro coming into the 9th with a scowl on his face and getting the job done. I find it hard to see Timlin in any other role than a setup man. Tavarez I can picture, but it’s more of a humorous product of my imagination. Whoever our closer is likely to be in the first half of 2007, their imagined presence feels evermore like a specter. Not having seen any of them pitch and far from seeing a leading candidate emergee in Spring Training, the question of who will fill the role for now haunts me.
First of all, I’d like to touch on some comments made earlier today in regards to Jonathan Papelbon filling the role. As Gordon Edes set straight on his wide read blog, Extra Bases, the comments were a joke. When the Red Sox ownership claimed that a closer had been decided on and would be announced soon, that was not meant to be taken seriously. It was more like a “Who’s On First” situation in which the Red Sox ownership jokingly acted laughably oblivious. As if they were clueless about the search for a closer. If whatever closer we do go into the season with goes terribly bad, perhaps we could in fact see Papelbon go back to the pen. The strengthening he’s done on his shoulder would supposedly allow him to pitch out of the pen without much risk for injury. Both Papelbon and Epstein have since relaxed on their previous positions that Papelbon surely would not close in 2007. Even so, he will not (read that again if you have to) go into 2006 as our closer. Now I know it’s hard to let go of the great closer we had last year. And I apologize since I’m about to make that task even harder, but Papelbon did have an ERA of 0.92, a WHIP of 0.78 and a BAA of .167 with 13 walks and 75 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings last year. In order to make the smart baseball decision in regards to Papelbon however, the front office must let go of their sentimentality regarding Papelbon as a closer.
When it comes down to it, there’s no argument. Barring a huge meltdown by our closer next year, Papelbon will be far more useful to the Red Sox as a starter than he could be as a closer. On the simplest of levels it’s a matter of 200 innings next year versus 70. The dynamics of it go far beyond that though. Honestly, a shut down closer is considered to be far more important than it actually is. In 2006, the three pitchers that lead the American League in saves (Rodriguez, Jenks and Ryan) averaged a win share total of 16. On the other hand, the three pitchers that lead the American League in wins (Santana, Wang and Garland) on average had a total more than 2 win shares higher. That would lead one to believe that a shutdown pitcher is more valuable than a shutdown closer. And it is not just win shares that would lead one to believe that shutdown closers aren’t of the utmost importance.
If we take a look at the 8 teams that made the postseason last year, their closers were Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, Todd Jones, Huston Street, Adam Wainwright and Takashi Saito. Of those 8 pitchers the mean regular season ERA was 2.75. Of the pitchers who actually got a save in the postseason (Jones, Wainwright, Wagner, Street, Hoffman) the mean regular season ERA was 2.95. So it was not the most effective closers that helped their team the most in the playoffs. It should come as no surprise that Rivera, Nathan and Saito, the teams whose rotations arguably performed the worst in the postseason never even got a save. This give validity to the idea that in order to get saves, a team must first have a good rotation to set them up. Hence, the importance of Jonathan Papelbon in the rotation. What is also interesting is that of those 8 relievers, the ones that were the largest question marks going into the postseason (Jones, Wainwright and Wagner) were the ones who compiled the most saves.
It was in fact the least proven “shut down” closers who had the opportunity to help the most in last year’s postseason. Adam Wainwright who only had 3 regular season saves and lead the Cardinals to a World Series title. Wainwright didn’t allow a singe run in 9.2 innings while walking 2 and striking out 15. Equally as amazing is that Todd Jones, who I remember Tigers fans asking to have replaced last year, also lead his team to the World Series. When it came down to it, is was the teams with the rotations that performed the best who advanced the farthest, not the teams with the best closers. Equally as humorous is the idea that Jonathan Papelbon, who was not supposed to be the Red Sox closer in 2006, stepped in to be the team’s best closer in quite some time. I don’t understand why there’s so much doubt surrounding the ability of a reliever to step up and fill the role given how well it worked out last year.
I could offer endless speculation as to who the future closer could be. For the record, I think it’s most likely to be Joel Pineiro and no one should be surprised if it is. But to end this article, I thought I’d provide you a fresh perspective on the closer situation. I’ve already mentioned Joel Pineiro, Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez as favorites to fill the spot. I’d like to put forth however, a dark horse candidate. This player doesn’t even figure to have a roster spot on the team next year but earlier this offseason, Peter Gammons speculated that he may have the ability to fill the closer role in 2007. For those of you who haven’t guess yet, I’m talking about Devern Hansack. To give you some insight as to just why I think Hansack could be so successful, I’ll leave you with an excerpt of something I wrote yesterday in my personal blog.
“I was watching footage of Devern Hansack’s rain shortened 5 inning no-hitter today. I realized that I had forgotten just how devastating his slider is. Hitter’s were swinging right through it and when they did make contract it was in the form of weak ground balls. He was able to get double plays in both of the starts he made last year. He probably could have gotten more but he only allowed 7 total hitters to reach base between his two starts. I was also quite impressed with his control as well. He repeatedly was able to back hitter’s off the plate, even getting the inside strike as hitters were diving out of the box. He seemed able to paint the corners of the plate at will. He allowed only 1 BB in the 10 innings he pitched with the Red Sox last year. I can’t remember a single ball being hit hard in the slightest bit. Overall last year hitters were only able to manage a .171 average against Hansack, including his major league debut against Toronto in which he was visibly nervous. Even when he missed he locations he did so safely out of the zone. He was able to use both and impressive changeup and low-90’s fastball effectively along with his slider. He definitely does not lack the stuff to be effective, having struck out out hitters in his first 10 major league innings.
If he can maintain the movement he had on his pitches last year, he could be a dominating bullpen arm. The added velocity he’d have, pitching 1 or 2 innings at a time could even help to cover up any mistakes he may make.”