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Are Elite Closers Worth The Money?

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What is the value of a closer? After a two day period in which Bobby Jenks (White Sox) and Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox) received $5.65 million and $6.25 million one-year deals respectively — setting and then breaking the record for a contract issued to a closer in his first year of arbitration eligibility — the standard price tag is undoubtedly much higher then it was only a season ago. From a statistical standpoint, judging by the modern parameters that indicate achievement by a closer, these men are no doubt “worth it,” but are these players tailor maid for their 9th inning roles or are they simply very good pitchers constantly put in an optimal position to post ridiculous stats?

Papelbon has been stellar in his four seasons with Boston, three of which he has served as their closer. Compiling a miniscule 0.93 career WHIP to complement his 1.84 ERA and 113 saves, Papelbon has become one of the most dominant 9th inning men in baseball and was inarguably an integral part of Boston’s 2007 World Series championship.

While slightly less prolific statistically, Jenks, over the exact same time period of service as Papelbon, has been an effective and dependable closer for the White Sox, also helping his team to a World Series championship, although as a short reliever in 2005. While his 3.09 career ERA is higher than one would like for a pitcher filling his duties, that number is slightly inflated by his 2006 effort in which he experienced an aberration of control issues, walking nearly double the amount of men in that campaign than in any other season of his career. Jenks has compiled 117 saves over his four seasons with Chicago (three as the closer), and his 1.15 WHIP places him within the upper tier amongst his contemporaries.

Admittedly, there are some men that seem to possess a special skill set optimally applicable to the closer role. A few rare hurlers are able to maintain consistent success over long periods of time, but this is definitely the exception when examining the modern evolution of the role.

Mariano Rivera, in 13 years with the Yankees (11 seasons as their closer), has posted an unbelievable 1.02 career WHIP and a 2.29 ERA. Compiling 482 saves — enough for second all time — Rivera is still pitching in top form to date, with most likely another three to five years left to add to those gaudy totals. While in the first portion of his career Rivera relied solely on a devastating cutter, as he grew older even he would have ceased to be dominate had he not adapted his style to resemble more closely that of a starter. Adding a four-seam fastball and later a potent two-seam fastball, Rivera has maintained his success through his ability to expand his repertoire but this is a trait that few relievers seem to possess.

Trevor Hoffman, the only reliever above Rivera on the all-time saves list with 554, has attained similar long term success. He carries a quality career 1.049 WHIP along with a very good 2.78 ERA, cementing his elite status among closers. For 14 years Hoffman has upheld his effectiveness by, like Rivera, supplementing the loss of velocity on his once explosive fastball with a baffling change up, complimented by a cutter, a slider, and a very solid curve. This similar expansion in Hoffman’s arsenal has prolonged his career, and this offseason, has landed him a one-year, $6 million deal with the Brewers……at age 41.

While both of these relievers have maintained their prolific success for more than a decade, more common are the stories like those of Mike Henneman, Bobby Thigpen, or Armando Benitez; a long list of closers who burned brightly for small periods of time, and then faded into ineffectiveness as abruptly as they arrived.

So, while teams trying to secure championships dole out large sums of money in constant attempts to secure top line closers, one has to wonder if the logic of relying on highly paid relief specialists is the right stratagem from both a financial and baseball standpoint.

Consider the following the cases:

From 1975 to 1980 Dennis Eckersley was one of the better starting pitchers in baseball. A 20-game winner and two-time All-Star, he even pitched a no-hitter with the Indians in 1977; but by the mid 1980s Eck was finished as a starter. Eckersley would linger on with Boston and then the Cubs, but by 1986 it was questionable whether he even belonged in the game anymore. And then came the trade to Oakland and his assimilation into the groundbreaking “Tony LaRussa philosophy” on how to construct and operate a bullpen. The rest, as they say, is baseball history.

From that point on, Eck compiled the majority of his 390 saves to go with his 197 wins as a starter, a 1.161 career WHIP, and a 3.50 ERA, securing for himself a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1990, possibly his finest season in relief, Eckersley had what is arguably the most proficient season by any closer in the history of the game. Posting an unfathomable 0.61 ERA in 73.3 innings, compiling 48 saves, 73 strikeouts, and a 0.613 WHIP, Eckersley was a centerpiece of the Oakland juggernaut that LaRussa constructed, which produced three consecutive AL pennants and one World Series Championship. And all this from a guy who was thought to be — at best — a long relief man at the time of his trade to Oakland, close to washing out of the league entirely.

John Smoltz’s story is very similar to that of Eckersley, if less dramatic. After serving in the Braves rotation as one of the most revered starting pitchers on one of the perennial top teams in the National League, Smoltz faced Tommy John surgery, diminished stuff, and consequently a move to the bullpen.

After seeing a notable decline in his stats due to constant trips to the DL from 1997 to 1999, Smoltz almost flippantly established himself as one of the most dominant closers in the game. In three full seasons as the Braves closer, John posted save totals of 55 (1st in the NL), 45 (2nd in the NL), and 44 (4th in the NL). His ERA and WHIP were also comparable to Hoffman and other established closer “specialists,” and he represented the Braves in the All-Star game the first two of those three years. Eventually Smoltz returned to his position as a successful starter, but in his time as a closer, he had absolutely no problem immediately defining himself as arguably the top 9th inning man in the NL.

Most recently there is the case of Kerry Wood. His story has been much publicized and lamented, especially by Cubs fans and the Chicago press. A dominant 21-year-old with a blazing fastball that aroused the ballyhoo of the entire baseball community, he was derailed by constant, unceasing injuries that threatened to end a once promising career.

Then Lou Pinella came into the picture, and Wood, like Eck and Smoltz before him, found himself emerging from the bullpen in the closer role for the Cubs. And like his counterparts, Wood found success nearly instantaneously.

His 3.26 ERA in 2008 was definitely on the high side but his 199 ERA+ shows that this was, at least in part, due to the obvious offensive advantages of Wrigley Field. His 34 saves and 1.085 ERA illustrate that, although it was his first season serving as a closer, and while he has, for the past four seasons, been nearly entirely debilitated by injuries, Wood was easily able to adapt to a role that a majority of teams in baseball struggle to fill every season. In fact, Wood’s one year of success was enough to secure him a two-year, $20 million contract from the Cleveland Indians, a team perpetually struggling to fill their closers spot, having released Joe Borowski mid-season last year.

I bring up these examples to illustrate the point that there may be be some absurdity and futility in the philosophy by which teams build their bullpens. The endless searches for specialized relief talent that teams feel they can groom for the closer’s role — or dishing out millions of dollars to players’ whose typical positional profile has the shortest shelf life of any facet in baseball — are approaches that, due to their inconsistent results, have flaws that need to be examined.

Perhaps the examples of Smoltz, Eckersley, Wood, and even Jason Isringhausen and Tom Gordon, show that starters who have lost their ability, or never possessed the arsenal necessary, to work through a lineup two or three times, can be used as very effective relief pitchers or closers. These players can also typically be purchased cheap, saving teams the gamble of dishing out the millions required to secure a player with an established track record as a closing connoisseur.

One can go all the way back to Johnny Sain and Allie Reynolds to find examples of burned-out starters that have become very effective relief pitchers/closers. With all the troubles that the Mets had blowing games in the late innings last season, why did they not give Pedro Martinez a try coming out of the pen? Was it so much better to squeeze a limited amount of innings out of him as a starter, throwing him on the mound between injuries? Obviously the Mets solved this issue with the signing of Francisco Rodriguez but last season it seems like Pedro would have been a better option than the carousel of ineptitude that eventually ended their playoff aspirations.

These are questions that have affected everything from the Hall of Fame debate on the worthiness of closers, to the endless discourse on the philosophies of the modern usage patterns of a bullpen. What is the value a player who can consistently pitch dominating baseball for one inning, but for one inning only? Is this a skill respectable in its difficulty or is it’s difficulty overrated by the fact that, instead of using former or mediocre starters — who typically have a higher aptitude for pitching than your typical career reliever — teams insist on instead running through low grade, “one trick” pitchers, with sparingly and many times fleetingly successful result, skewing the perception of the difficulty of the role?

If there is a remote possibility that this theorem is even partially accurate, there could be a wealth of relief talent rotting away, either as struggling starters in farm systems, or as unused long men and emergency starters in bullpens, on franchises across the league. The perspective might even serve as a boost to small market teams, giving them hope in that they don’t have to spend money like the Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, or Mets to have an elite pitcher closing out their ball games.

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About Anthony Tobis