Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Role of the Closer

Eckersley's success as a one-inning closer changed the game

Tony LaRussa changed the game in the late 80’s when while managing the Oakland A’s, he converted Dennis Eckersley into a 9th inning closer.  Prior to that time, closers would regularly take the ball as early as the 6th and 7th innings.  The extreme success that the A’s had with Eckersley changed the game.  The mindset of managers developed into one that created the one-inning save.   Look at the closers that were at the top of the game before then.  Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Marshall, Tekulve, Lyle, Quisenberry.  They all would regularly go more than one inning and at times as many as three or four.
Former Yankee closer, Sparky Lyle

The successful LaRussa experiment has resulted in creating a number of one-inning closers.  Guys like Hoffman, Rivera, Percival, Wagner and Nen.  Some of which are shoe-in hall of famers.
In today’s game, all teams have a 9th inning guy (the closer),  and 8th inning guy, a 7th inning guy and then the lefty specialists and the righty specialists and a mop up long reliever.  If there was ever to be a change for the good of the game, I would think it would be a re-thinking of the way managers handle bullpens and clutch situations in the late innings.
Let’s look at the Dodgers from 2002-2004.  We all know that Eric Gagne was next to unhittable.  He had what is known as the greatest run for a reliever in the history of the game.    Unfortunately for us, Dodger manager Jim Tracy used Eric as all managers of this era do...by the book.  Had he done things differently, he may have been able to steal a few more wins during that spectacular streak Gagne had.  

A little known record that Eric Gagne set was tying Tom Seaver for most consecutive strikeouts.  Seaver did it in one game (against the Padres in 1970) but Gagne struck out 10 consecutive Rockies and Marlins over a 4 game span from May 17-21, 2003.  Elias lists no official rcocrd for consecutive k's over multiple games.
Gagne was used to strictly close out games.  My argument against that is that it isn’t always wise to save  your best relief pitcher for the 9th inning.  There are times when he should be used earlier and failure to do so is the cause of a lot of late inning losses.  Why use your 3rd or 4th best reliever in a clutch situation in the 6th or 7th inning that is a pivotal moment that often decides the game. 
Look at it this way.  If your team is up 3-2 in the seventh inning and your opposition has runners in scoring position with less than two out, with the heart of a lineup coming to bat, why not insert your fireballing, lights out closer, to shut down the big inning?  It makes perfect sense to me.  Worry about the ninth inning when the ninth inning arrives.  It is very possible that the ninth inning turns out to be an inning that is less challenging and more appropriate for another reliever.  I’d much rather have Eric Gagne in his prime closing out a threat in the seventh than entering the ninth inning with a clean slate and no one on base.  We saw it dozens of times with Gagne, the three out save that was a breeze, but a guy like Martin, Shuey or Carrara had to go out in an earlier clutch situation that was probably more better suited for a great reliever like Gagne.  
Of course, each situation needs to be appropriately evaluated.  But in an eighth inning of a close game facing a Philadelphia trio of Utley, Howard and Pence,  I’d much rather put my best reliever out there to face them than save him for the ninth when Polanco, Ibanez and Ruiz are coming to the plate.  Every situation is different and there may be a need to go with a reliever that serves up ground balls in certain situations and maybe a strikeout artist closer isn’t always the answer, but more often than not, I want my closer out there in the tense “game on the line” situations.
To that end, I believe that Dodgers are actually in a good position by naming Javy Guerra as their closer, who in my opinion is inferior in talent to Kenley Jansen.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe Guerra is very good, but I’d rather have Jansen out there in crucial game deciding moments than Javy.  With Jansen entering games at an earlier moment, often times with runners on base and the game on the line in the 7th or 8th, Mattingly is inserting his best reliever in clutch situations more often.  Nine times out of ten, Guerra will enter the ninth inning of a save situation with nobody on base.
Tyler Clippard of Washington led the league in "holds" with 38.  He sported a 1.83 ERA over 88 innings of work in 2011.
For that reason I argue that the “hold” can actually be much more valuable statistic than the over-rated “save” stat.  In a stat driven sport like baseball, “saves” are a lot sexier that “holds.”   This means that it is doubtful that things will change because the save has become such a over-hyped statistic.  Salaries play a big part of this too.  A closer with 50 saves is bound to sign a more lucrative contract that a skilled reliever that leads the league in “holds.”  
For a manager to really make a difference and steal a few extra wins, outside of the box thinking is needed.  I’d love to see someone like Mattingly develop this mindset.   By naming Guerra the closer, he just may have adopted this way of thinking without even realizing it.


  1. I think you have a good point in regards to using closers and I'm happy that you like it that Jansen is being used in mostly tough situation while Guerra is the closer. I just wanted to bring out here that I agree that the "HOLD" statistic should be recognized at least as much as the "SAVE". It does seem that many relievers with a good amount of "holds" are ignore.

  2. The Gagne era at Dodger Stadium is still among the most electric times in Dodger Stadium history. Unfortunately, my (then) eight-year old son and I were at the game when Luis Gonzalez broke Gagne's consecutive saves streak with a sharp double in the gap. The entire stadium fell to an eerie silence.

    That said and to further your point, Guillermo Mota was Gagne's set-up man during that record-setting time and he pretty much set the table for Gagne almost every night. Unfortunately, both were later named in the Mitchell Report as having used PEDs during the streak, which will undoubtedly tarnish their incredible accomplishments forever. Regardless, it was, as I said, one of the most electric times in Dodger Stadium history.

  3. I hate to admit it. But Gagne's incredible run was a product of steroid usage and his records will forever be tainted. I was at the game in SF when he out and out challenged Bonds (had a two run lead and nobody on) and he threw all out gas. I kid you not, the stadium radar gun said 103 MPH on one of those fast balls. And eventually, Bonds deposited one of them beyond the center field fence. It was two PED freaks that out and out threw everything on the table for one instant. After Bonds homered, Gagne retired the final out for the save.