Closers

Well, the BBHOF “Class of 2012” moment has pretty much passed, so my original intent – to go through every single person on the ballot – isn’t nearly as, you know, interesting. Or timely.

HOWEVER, there are always comings and goings in baseball that make me think of the Hall of Fame and make me want to write about baseball in general.

Mariano Rivera blew out his knee a couple weeks back, which made me think of relievers and the Hall. The current notion and usage of the “closer” has gotten completely silly. Currently, a mediocre pitcher – let’s call him “Mosay Malverde” – is brought in: a) cold from the bullpen, b) at the start of the ninth (i.e. no outs, nobody on base) and c) with a 1- or 2-run lead (i.e. a “save situation”). Once in a while, a pitcher will be brought in with the tying run on base (if a setup guy has blown a big lead), or at the start of an inning in a non-save situation, but it’s not the normal operating procedure any more. This enables closers to pile up gaudy stats – Valverde had a really nice year in 2011, obviously, but let’s not pretend he was anything remotely resembling the best pitcher in the game. He was, famously, 49 for 49 on save opportunities – make a guess how times in his 72 appearances he entered with men on base? Three. In those three games, the Tigers had leads of 5, 5, and 6 runs. He stopped a rally zero goddamn times, and people acted like he was a Cy Young candidate. He WAS a Cy Young candidate – he finished 5th in the voting, which is just mind-boggling to me.

I would bet you a hundred dollars that there were half a dozen games in which the Tigers were tied or up a run or two in the 7th or 8th and, because it wasn’t a save situation, Phil Coke or Al Albuquerque or Dan Schlereth labored away the lead while Jose Valverde sat on his fat ass in the bullpen. A quick look at baseballreference.com finds the May 11 game vs. the Twins – Coke started and gave a 3-run lead to Albuquerque in the 6th. The Twins promptly got the lead, gave it back, then got it back again before Inge tripled and scored on a bunt in the 9th; Valverde came in with a 2-run lead to start the 9th, walked the leadoff batter and got an absolutely classic Papa Grande “save.” There were probably four separate spots in the 6th, 7th, or 8th that were more critical than the 9th inning – yet Valverde never moved a muscle. The Tigers won in spite of their bullpen strategy, not because of it. (NOTE: this was written before Saturday night's fiasco, when Cabrera homered in the eighth to set up Valverde with a 1-run lead and easy save...he promptly hit two batters and walked two more to blow the save...the Tigers won with a sac fly in the bottom of the ninth to make my head asplode)

And it happens ALL THE TIME. I’m obviously being too hard on Valverde here – he’s just the local example of a dumb strategy that everyone, without exception, uses. Which returns me to Mariano Rivera. Rivera is obviously a Hall of Famer, and he’ll make it on the first ballot. What’s interesting is that his usage sorta bridges the old days, when a plus-one-inning save was far more common than it is today. In 1997, his first year as a closer, he came in in save situations with runners on base nine times and got the save in every one of them, nine for nine. He morphed into a 1-inning guy over the years, but he still does pick up the odd one-plus save now and again. Unlike, oh, EVERY SINGLE OTHER CLOSER IN THE GAME.

Bill James tried to push the Red Sox away from this a few years ago, toward a matchup- and situation-based approach, but a couple guys blew games early in April and that was all Grady Little needed to see, thank you very much. They had to get Mike Timlin in there, or something. whatever. What I don't get is why some team that's going nowhere but hs some young arms - the Pirates, for instance - doesn't try it. I'd use my position in baseball to maybe build the best bullpen EVER, rather than just blindly follow Tony Larussa.

But that's just me. In any case: Mariano Rivera = Hall of Famer. Jose Valverde and twenty other "closers" just like him could convert their next 100 save opportunities and you couldn't convince me that any of them were Hall of Famers. They just don't do enough.