The Anatomy of a Closer

Bullpen

Most would agree that a solid bullpen is essential to winning consistently in MLB. Over a 162 game season, a team will find themselves in many tight games, and a team’s record in such games will invariably be a significant determinant to overall success.

A solid bullpen requires a strong backend, including a lock down closer. Committees have been attempted in the past, either by design or necessity, but it is much more desirable to run one guy out there consistently in save situations.

The merits of the save statistic can certainly be argued, and the role of a closer has evolved over the years, for good or ill. However, the inherent value of a closer is unmistakable. But where exactly do they come from, and how difficult are they to locate? In many cases, young pitchers are converted from starters to relievers. It may be determined that these young arms do not have the stamina to start long-term, or they may have a limited repertoire of pitches, and should not be exposed to a lineup more than one time around. Sometimes the quality is simply not there, or a pitcher is just better equipped for short relief.

It is certainly not an accident that successful teams typically use the same guy for the ninth inning year after year. The legend of Mariano Rivera immediately springs to mind. There are also several great young closers working today, most notably Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves.

But what fascinates me about this role is the complete randomness of the position. Seemingly every year, there are guys that come out of nowhere to excel in this role. This season has provided several such examples.

The St. Louis Cardinals have continued their maddening success this season, and closer Edward Mujica has been a significant contributor. The 29-year old journeyman was originally signed by the Indians, and is currently on his fourth team. Before this season, Mujica had accumulated a grand total of four saves. He has struggled recently, but has been a stabilizing force at the backend of the Cardinal bullpen with 37 saves. St. Louis acquired this production for a minor league prospect at the trade deadline in 2012.

Another example is Kevin Gregg of the Chicago Cubs. The 35-year old reliever does have a reasonably successful track record as a closer, with 176 career saves. However, the Dodgers had just released Gregg when the Cubs signed him to a minor league deal. After the implosion of Carlos Marmol, Gregg was called up and was somehow able to lock down the closer gig, despite possessing limited stuff. Gregg recently lost the job to Pedro Strop, but this really has more to do with evaluating the immediate future of the team as opposed to the effectiveness of Gregg. Despite the demotion, Gregg has saved 32 games for the woeful Cubs.

Other pertinent examples of this phenomenon include Jason Grilli of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Grant Balfour of the Oakland A’s.

The point of all this is that while the closer position does hold much value, and can directly affect the success or failure of a major league team, it continues to be something of an enigma. The role is often times difficult or impossible to fill successfully. Yet at the same time, as illustrated by the examples above, a closer can seemingly come out of nowhere or simply be picked up off of the scrap heap. If your team is not fortunate enough to have a consistent, long-term closer, then you are subject to the fickle hand of fate that spins the closer roulette wheel year after year.

Good luck with that.

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Posted on September 23, 2013, in 2013, MLB and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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