The Last Closer Discussion

I have decided why it is that the closer position so unique – it is the baseball position that receives the most unmerited attention. I’m talking about both the positive and negative attention, but none of it is actually deserved. Closers definitely get the most attention per inning played, you can’t argue with that. These guys only pitch 60 innings a year, and yet their names appear in every highlight reel. When it comes to any sport, only place kickers have them beat when it comes to the most attention for the least amount of playing time. So let me break it down for you, in terms of the positive attention and the negative attention, and why all of it is misplaced.

The Positive: First of all, the save is the most overrated statistic in baseball. This is a truth that I’m not willing to bend on, and this is really the seed of how closers got so overrated in the first place, (other than Rollie Fingers’ mustache, of course). Let’s say you’re managing a game with a three run lead. To start the seventh, you’re starter swears to you he’s good for one more inning, but then he goes out and walks the first two batters. So you call on Pitcher A, who gets you out of the inning unscored upon against the top of the lineup. Fast forward to the ninth, when you call on Pitcher B to close the game, and he shuts down the bottom of the order in an uneventful inning. Now, you tell me, which pitcher is deserving of “the save”? If you said Pitcher B . . . well then you’re just being antagonistic. Pitcher A obviously deserves some sort of credit. Granted, you can probably play out scenarios like this to discredit any statistical category, but the save seems to lend itself to these situations quite frequently.

As we enter the second century of modern baseball, the old saying “defense wins championships” could be translated to “bullpens win championships.” The bullpen has become the offensive line of any ballclub, and yet the closer gets the credit of a running back. A closer can only be as good as his setup man, and yet his name is the one in lights.

The Negative: When a closer goes through a rough stretch, suddenly he is the reason for all of a franchise’s woes. This attention is also undeserved, usually. Every pitcher is going to lose a few, some more than others. For a closer, he gets the ball for the last inning in every game in which his team has a close lead. Therefore, the games in which he loses are especially pronounced. Year after year, Troy Percival was the Angel pitching staff’s lone all star. And game after game, my dad groaned when he stepped on the mound. It’s understandable, when a guy loses a few that you thought were in the bag, it’s tough to give that trust back to him.

Of course, some closers actually deserve the negative attention, Keith Foulke for one. But again, when a team is only playing fairly, and a decent closer gives up a couple games over a week, the attention shouldn’t be focused solely on him. In most instances, the bullpen could be doing more to take some pressure off of him. When setup men take care of the earlier innings, the heart of the lineup usually won’t even appear in the ninth.

I’m not suggesting an elimination of the closer or the saves statistic; but if I was a manger, I’m not even sure if I’d make my best reliever the closer. I think my best reliever is going to be the guy who can strand runners on base in whatever inning that situation appears in.

My suggestion for remedying the situation? Let’s have a brief moratorium on closer related talk. In the meantime, Texas Ranger Akinori Otsuka has an early season lead in the “holds” category. Is he the best setup man in baseball? Discuss amongst yourselves . . .

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