By 2016, a new game had begun to become popular in baseball circles. I call the game “Screw The Closer”. The guy who was deemed the ninth-inning guy? He should become more versatile. He should be used “as needed” After all, outs in the seventh or eighth are as important as any other outs. As such, by 2017, the ground beneath the closer’s role had become rather shaky. With that as a backdrop, this is largely a perusal of how the National League closers are doing in 2018.
I said largely, because I’m nowhere near complete with looking at the premise of “Screw The Closer.” In general, despite the stridency with which I approach the topic, the closer’s role is a bit overplayed. And, I voice it from a minor-league style perspective. The guy who ends up being the best closer is the guy who is best at getting outs in the ninth inning.
The closer isn’t necessarily the hardest thrower. Or the reliever with the filthiest stuff, or the best putaway pitch. If I‘m fully aware of all the important information, my ninth inning guy would be the guy who is the most adept at getting the hitters out in the ninth inning.
This season, Brian Glowicki was the closer for the Cubs minor league affiliate in South Bend. I listened to plenty of his outings this season. He sported a 1.20 ERA, and saved 18 games for a team that missed the playoffs. I don’t remember hearing any velocity readings on Glowicki, which leads be to believe he sat in the 92-93 range. I might be being generous, as I’m still a velocity agnostic. If he posted those numbers hurling at 88-89, would it matter? He was getting outs. That shouldn’t be argued, and that’s what mattered.
In the Cubs history, Joe Borowski had a nice season in the sun as a Cubs reliever. Velocity wasn’t as the rage as it is now, but he was less about velocity than getting outs, as well. While it would be “better” to have a closer with more velocity than less, getting outs should be the priority. For the closer, that usually means, “in the ninth inning.”
In 2016, Joe Maddon’s bullpen confidence had shrunk in the World Series. While his bullpen had been deeper than usual through the season, the only relievers he trusted late were Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, and Aroldis Chapman. With everyone else, he’d touched a live electrical outlet or hot stove one time too many. What one person’s opinion is of a bullpen in September is a bit less data-specific than as a post-season progresses, armed with slumps and quality opposition.
That said, here is a look at the fluctuating back end of the bullpens of the eight likely post-season squads.
The Braves have become rather effective at graduating hard-throwing relievers to the parent club. In part, that’s because they invest rather heavily in hard-throwers, many of whom make it nowhere near MLB. Their saves leader is ex-Cubs right-hander Arodys Vizcaino (15), who is finished for the season. Lefty A.J. Minter has taken over, and has been capable.
With Dan Winkler, Jesse Biddle, Sam Freeman, and Shane Carle, the Braves bullpen seems deep enough to make a run. However, getting outs in October can be different than getting outs in the regular season.
The Phillies have been trending the wrong way for about a month. Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta have generally been solid. Other pieces? Less so. Hector Neris (10) and Seranthony Dominguez (14) have been the main leverage guys. Neris has been reached for 11 homers.
Beyond those two, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano, Adam Morgan, and Edubray Ramos have provided a bit of depth. For the Phils to have a chance in October, they’d benefit from someone stepping up from the bullpen beyond Dominguez.
Despite it all, Bud Norris is still the guy here. Jordan Hicks gets leverage innings, but he’ll usually turn it over to Norris. The Cardinals pen is full of coin flips. Or virtual coin flips. They’ll get the job done 65-70 percent of the time. Each one of them. The hope against the Redbirds pen is that two or three hitters will get quality ABs against someone from the pen.
The Cardinals and Dodgers play four next weekend in St. Louis. That will be a really important series. The last time around, Kenley Jansen had a few bad outings in the series in Los Angeles. For scoreboard, or bullpen, watchers, that series will be fascinating.
Nowhere has “Screw The Closer” been played more aggressively than in Milwaukee. Josh Hader is the Brewers’ best reliever. He isn’t their closer. Hader usually gets two innings, including the seventh, in close games the Brewers lead. Usually, he gets clean innings.
Their ninth inning guy has been a living research project. On opening day, Corey Knebel misfired on a save chance in San Diego. While Knebel, Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress have usually been good rather at closing games out, they’ve all had mis-steps. When Milwaukee added Joakim Soria, he missed on a ninth-inning save shot against San Diego at Miller Park.
I have no idea who “the guy” would be in October. However, with the extra days off during the post-season, I would expect Hader would get his chances if the Brewers advance.
The Diamondbacks have Archie Bradley in their bullpen, along with Yoshihisa Hiriano and T.J. McFarland. Nonetheless, Brad Boxberger has 32 of their 36 saves. Bradley, Hiriano, and Andrew Chafin will finish the season with 70 or more appearances.
Their bullpen is relatively deep, and balanced. It seems like it should be about playoff-ready. However, they recently gave up two late leads in Chavez Ravine. Relievers are fluky that way.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Jansen (34 saves) is their closer. He’s less automatic than he has been, but he’s still as reliable as anyone in the National League. At least, as long as he’s healthy enough to pitch. However, the Dodgers have only six home games left, visit St. Louis for four, and are in second place as of Sunday morning.
Behind Jansen are a string of lower echelon types. Former Cubs options Dylan Floro and Zac Rosscup get into close games. Kenta Maeda has two recent saves. Caleb Ferguson, Scott Alexander, and Josh Fields have a pair of saves. Ryan Madson could be a consideration, as well. I have no idea if the Dodgers make the postseason, if it would be as a division winner or not, what to expect from their bullpen. Very inconsistent. Which is the new consistent.
It’s tough to pitch in relief in close games at altitude. The Rockies invested heavily in this aspect of their team. It hasn’t gone as desired. Wade Davis has 38 saves, a 4.55 ERA, and a few legendary blowups. Jake McGee and Brian Shaw sport ERAs above 6. The Rockies are in first place.
Adam Ottavino has been their best option. Scott Oberg is 7-0 with a sub-three ERA. Rockies games down the stretch ought to be interesting. If for no other reason than to see when they use their relievers that have been good, and when they use the ones that are getting paid. I doubt they advance very far with three usable relievers at elevation.
When you say the Cubs bullpen has struggled, you’re correct. However, no more correct than with the other contenders. To make an educated bullpen assessment of any team, you ought to have an accurate and working definition of how a bullpen should work. The Cubs are about normal, right now. Even without Brandon Morrow, who at least got back on a mound Sunday:
#Cubs Morrow update: Report from DC is that he threw 25 pitches in light bullpen session— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 9, 2018
For the Cubs bullpen to be helped walking in to October, they are best served winning the division, and earning the top seed. When that happens is of relatively little consequence. Also, the Cubs bullpen would be greatly assisted by Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, and whoever else being healthy and ready to go in October. Reasonably well-constructed bullpens are subject to the whimsy of slumps from other players. Largely because a 9-2 lead is easier to retain than a 6-4 lead.
The Cubs bullpen should be fine in October. The question is, will “fine” be good enough. And, if it isn’t, who has that much of a better bullpen than the Cubs? As noted above, they’re all a bit makeshift.