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.