While the Phillies get their closer situation sorted out, I felt that this guest post was rather relevant.
Tom Holzerman (or TH, if you will) is a wrestling blogger found at a few sites on the web, most prominently at his site, The Wrestling Blog. He also has some things to say about other topics, baseball being one of them. If you have any feedback, questions or angry missives, send them to his Twitter, @tholzerman.
What makes a good prospect at closer? I wonder if anyone can answer that question, because I doubt that there are any really good pitchers who start out as “can’t miss” right out of the bullpen. Most pitching prospects, at least the top line ones, start out as provisional starters. Once upon a time, Ryan Madson was looked upon as a starting pitcher, not as a set-up guy or a closer. His career path took a turn that put him in the bullpen because he couldn’t pitch reliably for five or more innings at a time. That’s usually the reason given for taking any pitcher out of contention to be a starter. It’s a lot easier to dominate in one inning consistently and conditionally than it is to be Roy Halladay. It’s all about sample size.
Sample size – it’s a two-word phrase has become somewhat of a bugaboo to traditional baseball journalists. However, it’s an important thing to consider in any statistical measurement of value. It’s why that there’s a floor for at-bats to exceed to be considered for the batting title. Facing between three and five batters a game is important, but performing at the same level while facing between 20 and 30 batters a game is far more impressive. Performing above average at the plate and in the field for nine innings is worth more than one shutdown inning.
That doesn’t mean there can’t be excellent closers. The sample size argument works in a cumulative matter. In his podcast released on October 27th, Jonah Keri talked to Boog Sciambi, who put it into terms that I thought really made it understandable for everyone. In one postseason, Derek Jeter could hit really well, or he could totally not show up. However, as the postseason plate appearances pile up – he’s garnered over 700 – he starts to resemble himself and becomes looked upon as a “good” postseason player. That’s where I’d bring in arguments for the good closers throughout history. Mariano Rivera, for example, could have a good or bad season pitching 70 innings a year – and yes, they were mostly good. The fact that cumulatively, his stats have held up means that he’s a really good pitcher in his own right. It might even suggest that he could have made it as a starter, although the circumstances that were beyond his control at the time put him in the bullpen permanently.
However, those kinds of closers don’t come around all the time. For every Rivera or John Franco or Trevor Hoffman, there are a bunch of Eric Gagnes and Bobby Thigpens, guys who have a few good years as a closer, but inexplicably “lose it”. The fact is that they didn’t lose anything; they never really had it to begin with as an elite pitcher, and that in their elite years, they were able to put it together for a short period of time and make everyone believe they were top-level at something more than just pitching the last inning with a lead.
So, with that in mind, who is the best closer in history? Okay, let’s qualify that question, aside from Rivera, who is the best closer in history? I’d say that it’s not unanimous, but I feel like more than a few people would say Dennis Eckersley. For almost a decade starting in 1988, there wasn’t a more feared name to come out of the bullpen when his team was in possession of the lead. His dominance even earned him the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in 1992. Another fascinating tidbit in Eckersley’s career is that it began in 1975, and it wasn’t as a journeyman bullpen hand who had to wait for his shot to finish games.
Between 1975 and 1985, Eck was a starting pitcher, at times a really good one. In fact, over two years in 1978 and ’79 for the Boston Red Sox, he posted wins above replacement (according to Baseball Reference) of 6.4 and 6.8 respectively. Putting things in perspective, this year’s favorite to win the Cy Young award in the National League, Clayton Kershaw, posted a 6.9 WAR (BR). During the rest of his career as a starter, he hovered between 2 and 4 wins, excepting three years in the early ’80s when he hit a bit of a decline.
Another starting pitcher who did well for himself as a closer was John Smoltz, who topped out at 6.1 WAR (BR) in 1996, averaged between 3 and 5 wins in most other years as a starter before blowing his arm out in 1999 and was a big reason why the Braves were able to win 14 consecutive division titles. Coming back from his injury in 2001, there wasn’t really a place for him in the rotation, so the Braves used him as a closer. For three years he was in the position full-time between 2002 and ’04, he got a reputation as being a lockdown closer. However, the Braves ended up putting him back in the rotation in 2005. Why would they do that? It’s because pitchers have more value as starters than they do as relievers.
In Gagne’s perfect year, he posted 4.3 WAR (BR). That was good for 21st among pitchers in Major League Baseball. Every single pitcher ahead of him was a starter. Getting to 4 wins as a reliever is elite in a single season relative to other relief pitchers (more impressive seasons were Rivera’s 1996 as a set-up man to John Wetteland – 5.4 WAR (BR) – and an EPIC 7 win 1975 from Goose Gossage, for example), but compared to the rest of the league, that’s not really that great. Given that a relief pitcher has to be absolutely lights out in order to get to that level of wins, and it just doesn’t bear out that the position is worth spending big money on. There would have to be a reliever who put in several years of getting between 3 and 5 wins on the market before I would even consider spending big money on a closer. If anything I’d just be looking for a good pitcher to put there. At this point signing Madson or Heath Bell to a long term, big money contract to pitch one inning in between 40 and 60 games would be a waste of money.
I’m not even advocating that a barebones, league-minimum player would be the best option, although I wouldn’t be adverse to that. If the Phillies went into 2012 with Antonio Bastardo as their closer, I’d be perfectly fine. However, maybe the Phillies would be better served going after a starter to fill the role of closer, much like the A’s did in 1987 and the Braves did in 2001. Obviously, signing CJ Wilson as the closer wouldn’t be feasible since he’ll command starter money to be a starter. However, with Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee in the top three starter slots and Vance Worley and Joe Blanton filling in as the fourth and fifth starters, it might not be all that farfetched to try and sign, I don’t know, an aging starting pitcher hovering around 3 wins per year who might want to win a title before he retires like Hiroki Kuroda or a former can’t miss starting pitching prospect who has the stuff but has never been able to translate that into a real career due to injuries or inconsistency like Rich Harden to close out games at a discounted price, using the siren’s call of being on a team that is so close to winning a title they could taste it.
It might be more expensive than going forward with Bastardo, Jose Contreras or a minor leaguer like Justin DeFratus or Philippe Aumont, but it would totally be less expensive than giving Madson or Bell $15 million a year. With a team like the Phillies’ resources, throwing anywhere between $2 and $5 million at a closer would free up a lot of money to go after a marquee free agent at a position like shortstop, leftfield or third base. Because really, money paid out should really be proportional to the sample size produced, am I right?