Closing Time: The Closer, Past And Future

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

With the closer spot in focus in the Cubs bullpen, here's an examination of how the modern closer came to exist.

Though presently mocked and ridiculed, the role of closer is still capable of costing a team quite a few games. The closer has been in flux since "locking down games" came into legitimacy. To assume that the closer role will be treated the same in two decades as it is today isn't necessarily accurate. It is safe to presume that, for the next string of years, managers and general managers will have at least one closer in mind every year.

I doubt any writers ever wasted much time asking long-time New York Giants manager John McGraw who his closer was that day. A century ago, it was presumed that the starting pitcher would generally finish what he started. As the complete game became less prevalent as the sport continued, the closer became more visible. Back when, it was often the best pitcher on the team, working an inning or so on his off-day.

By the 1960s and into the 1970s, a team usually had a guy that would pitch the ninth if pinch hitting (or whatever) provided a 'save situation' late in the game. By the mid-1970s, as well represented by Bruce Sutter, pitchers were drawing value from locking down the opposition late. While the presumption now is a three-out save, saves of four to sometimes more than six outs weren't unheard of by closers then.

By the time of Dennis Eckersley's dominance for the Athletics from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, teams had generally jumped to having a designated closer, for better or worse. Much of this was because starters had often become six- or seven-inning guys.

Running concurrently with the flux was teams valuing pitchers who were good at pitching well in shorter intervals. While minor league teams used to trot out a starter for seven, eight, or even nine innings themselves, now, the first pitcher on the farm will go for six innings or less. Value is assessed for arms who can get three to six outs, regardless of when those outs come. But teams still need closers.

Why?

While the standard roster size has remained at 25 for many years, teams churn through many more players every season now. And not just teams that are rebuilding. Pick any team from before the late 1970s. That team likely used 15 pitchers or fewer for the entire season. Part of that was due to smaller staff sizes, of course. Some of it, though, was because of injury management. Teams back when wouldn't put a pitcher on the DL with a bum arm as often. Considered fungible, if a pitcher could no longer pitch, or had a bad arm/shoulder, he was considered damaged goods before Tommy John-style surgeries. Send him out, and bring in the new guy. Or trot him to the pen in a year until his arm stops hurting.

General managers eventually figured out that relievers, though important, were often unreliable. A reliever could be great one season, completely lousy the next, and fairly good the following, especially with stats like ERA being so incredibly small-sample size dependent in samples like relievers will have.

Also, much of a reliever's effectiveness is a mindset. The short-inning type of pitcher is often a hard thrower, and a misplaced or poorly delivered pitch, regardless how hard it is thrown, can still be hammered by a big-league hitter. Others pride themselves on location. And high sinkers travel long distances.

While a starter will often have three or more quality pitches, relievers will have two or less in most cases. When a hitter only has two pitches to worry about, if one of them lapses even a little bit, the pitcher can become very predictable rather easily. Which is why predictive value for relievers isn't very easily assumed.

What many teams have realized is that it is easier to have your own cache of pitchers, whether starters or relievers, to choose from. If a team has six to eight starting pitcher choices, and seven to 10 relief options, then it isn't as important which guy is "the closer." Having a steady stream of arms, many throwing mid-90s or higher on short-term efforts, eases the need to import veterans, who may or may not be as good as advertised.

Nonetheless, the media will always be concerned about who a team's closer is. However, baseball isn't a game that normally functions in a fashion where 80 percent efficiency is the norm. If a team's star third baseman is hitting .185 in early-May, fans calling for his ouster are generally chided. It is a long season, and players will have slumps. Slumps in baseball last longer than two weeks, often. And slumps are often followed by hot streaks, neither of which can be adequately predicted or explained.

Jose Veras, the Cubs' closer so far in 2014, has had two bad weeks in the job. He is likely out of the role, which is completely expected. And completely foolish in a baseball sense.

The Cubs now have a string of pitchers who might be able to face the pressure of being a closer. Pitchers like Joe Borowski, Rod Beck, Mitch Williams, Kevin Gregg, and others have been adequate closers over a period of time, sometimes without much of an explanation.

A team will likely be expected to declare a closer in spring training. After all, if on opening day, a save situation shows up, somebody is getting the ball. That pitcher is likely the closer. However, I'm guessing that, as usual, the closer role might be changing.

Teams are probably better off with a stable of 20 pitchers these days. Looking at recent stat pages, many of those guys will be on the roster anyway, if current trends continue. Deciding on a closer based on spring training stats is awfully shaky as a strategy as well. Spring is about getting ready for April, not about a high-end audition for a streaky post.

The way I see closer in the future, if in a sort of a hush-hush fashion, is closer being determined as scientifically as a 13-year-old girl's favorite boy band. Unless you have a "proven" and reliable closer, and Mariano is retired, expect it to be a short-term position. More so than now.

A team will need to have a closer. However, a more reasonable way of looking at things in the future is bringing in to camp in February multiple guys who have closed. Some of them may well be arms a few years removed from high-end success. And, of course, have some volume. And some will have never done it in the majors.

What I would expect next season, regardless how this season ends, is something like this. The guys on the roster still under team control will be brought back, particularly those who had solid seasons. A veteran could well be kept around, one with closing experience. And, some veterans will be brought in, often on the cheap. After all, you have to have a closer.

However, having young pitchers with lively arms will be the future. Be it Arodys Vizcaino, Armando Rivero, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, or someone else, the goal ought to be to have options. If the guy coming out of spring training can't get it done early, you put him in a different spot, and try someone else. New Kids On The Block out, and N Sync takes over. Such is how pitching depth works now.

Heading into 1970, Leo Durocher had planned to use more relievers than he had the prior season. Early in the season, submarine-style reliever Ted Abernathy was off to a middling start, and was dealt to St. Louis for a utility player. It made sense, as Abernathy had walked five in nine innings. He did less with the Cardinals, walking 12 in nine innings for them. He was dealt to second-year expansion team Kansas City for a pitcher you've probably never heard of.

Over the next two and a half years with the Royals, he was a solid reliever. His ERA was below 3 each year, and he was credited with 40 saves. With relievers, you can never tell.

It appears, a team is better off having a handful of intriguing options. The more of these that are homegrown, the better. Whether Veras would be a good closer in May, July, or September is difficult to tell. Relievers, as with right fielders or catchers, have slumps and streaks. A closer may re-gain his winning edge in a moment's notice. Without a press release. Or he might never regain his swagger.

Who it is today in the ninth, might not be who it is next month. That is how it is. Closers aren't, by nature, reliable every day. After all, neither is any other position. We might really want to have a closer for a five year stretch, with All-Star appearances every July. However, consistency from a closer is about as reliable from a boy band. And if the closer/boy band charges your people too much to entertain the masses, a new option had better be ready.

Sooner rather than later. It appears, now, the Cubs decision-makers understand that.

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