The Closer Complex: An Inverse Universe

for a second, that you are a baseball purist. You are discussing the
traits of a championship team and what it needs to survive and
succeed in the grind of a 162-game season. Surely, a good closer is
at the top of your list, no? Or, at the very least, bullpen
stability? As last year’s trend-setting Red Sox team taught us, the
best laid plans aren’t the ones you draw up at the beginning of the

we step back and wipe our brow from the sweat beads of excitement
that the first half of the 2014 season brought us, it’s time to
examine the league’s top teams and a continued alarming trend of the
ever-evolving ninth-inning reliever roles those teams have.
Meanwhile, some of the league’s irrelevant clubs possess the most
stable firemen in baseball, but what good does that do you when
you’re winning less than 45 percent of your games?

Joel Hanrahan? You might, but it’s more likely you recall his days in
Washington and Pittsburgh than his five minutes serving as the Red
Sox’s last line of bullpen defense before several implosions and a
season-ending injury sent Boston scrambling for answers. Junichi
Tazawa? A stop-gap solution. Andrew Bailey? A lost cause. And so in
stepped option number four, a 38-year-old journeyman reliever with
minimal closing experience. It was June, and the first-place Red Sox
needed an answer, and boy did they ever find one. Uehara went on to
post one of the most dominant seasons by a reliever in the history of
the game, striking out 101 batters in 74.1 innings while nailing down
21 saves in 23 opportunities.

forward to 2014. Uehara is still at the top of the food chain among
closers, but the Red Sox enter the All-Star break in last place in
the American League East. Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers, whom Boston
ousted in last year’s ALCS, are undoubtedly concerned about their
ability to hold late leads due to the shaky performance of veteran
Joe Nathan thus far. Nathan, the active leader in saves now that
Mariano Rivera has stepped aside, has scuffled all year, blowing five
saves in 24 chances and posting a 5.61 ERA. He has allowed at least
one earned run in exactly one-third (12) of his 36 appearances in
2014. And remember this was a team that was burned repeatedly by Jose
“Papa Grande” Valverde in 2012, then decided not to re-sign
Joaquin Benoit after last season.

the St. Louis Cardinals have scratched their heads at times this
season. Trevor Rosenthal, the 24-year-old who was virtually
untouchable in the postseason last year, has blown four saves despite
racking up 28, walking 26 batters in just 43.2 innings.

the Bay Area, shutting the door in the ninth inning has been just as
much of an adventure. The Oakland Athletics, owners of baseball’s
best record (59-36) acquired Jim Johnson in a trade with the
Baltimore Orioles in the offseason, believing the first man to record
back-to-back 50-save seasons in a decade would more than adequately
supplant the loss of Grant Balfour. Instead, Johnson lasted less than
two weeks in the role before giving way to the dreaded “closer by
committee” scenario, which primarily went to Luke Gregerson.
Eventually, the team settled on its current option, southpaw
flame-thrower Sean Doolittle, who has been stellar minus one meltdown
in Detroit in his first crack at closing ballgames.

Giants thought they were set for the foreseeable future with Sergio
Romo, the slider machine with an occasional fastball. After all, Romo
has been a part of two championship teams, one as Brian Wilson’s
set-up man and one as the closer when Wilson was lost for the season
with an injury. Instead, the Giants, once the toast of baseball with
a 42-21 mark, have yanked Romo from the role in favor of Santiago
Casilla after a dreadful stretch in which he blew three saves in five
chances, allowing nine runs in 4.1 IP (18.69 ERA) in that span. The
Giants are 52-43 and just a game out of first in the NL West at the

Baltimore Orioles appeared to have found a replacement for Johnson in
what would have amounted to essentially a trade when they signed
Balfour as a free agent, but a failed physical ultimately resulted in
Balfour signing with Tampa Bay and the Orioles deciding upon
entrusting the closer role in Tommy Hunter. The first-time closer was
a disaster, as three blown saves in 14 chances ballooned his ERA to
6.60 and were soon followed by a trip to the disabled list. That’s
when the Orioles discovered that they had a secret weapon all along
in southpaw Zach Britton, who has emerged as a young star at 26 with
15 saves in 17 chances and a minuscule 1.30 ERA.

now, the point should be hammered home, but just in case it’s not,
let’s throw the Angels (AL Wild Card leaders at 57-37) and Pirates
(49-46) into the discussion just for good measure. So desperate for
bullpen hope, the teams swapped displaced closers with one another,
with Los Angeles shipping Ernesto Frieri (0-3, 6.39 with LAA) to
Pittsburgh for Jason Grilli (0-2, 4.87 with PIT). The Angels have
employed submarining veteran Joe Smith as their closer with big-time
results (12 straight scoreless appearances, 15 saves), while
Pittsburgh has turned to Mark Melancon with similar success (16
saves, 2.38 ERA).

these frontrunners are all getting by for right now. Nathan is
steadily improving and Casilla has held down the closer role before,
but for all of these teams, one has to wonder if the other shoe will
drop. Ironically, teams like the Red Sox, San Diego Padres,
Philadelphia Phillies, and Minnesota Twins feel pretty darn good
about their chances. That is, when they actually do get a lead this

dominance is well documented, but San Diego’s Huston Street, Philly’s
Jonathan Papelbon, and Minnesota’s Glen Perkins would all be welcome
additions to contending teams with closer conundrums. Street may in
fact be the cream of the crop despite toiling in complete anonymity
in San Diego. The soon-to-be-31-year-old has been nearly perfect,
converting 24 of 25 save chances with a 1.09 ERA a year after going
33-for-35 in saves. Papelbon, the demonstrative former Red Sox
fireman, has rediscovered his touch after a rough 2013, notching 22
saves in 24 chances to the tune of a 1.21 ERA even as his strikeout
numbers have dipped. Perkins, a hard-throwing lefty, is 22-for-25 in
saves with a 2.97 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. The Red Sox,
Phillies, and Twins are all in last place in their respective
divisions, and the Padres are 13 games under .500 in third place in
the NL West.

no one is suggesting that purists will in turn say that this must
mean that only a top team that actually does have stability at closer
will win the World Series. Granted, the Nationals feel pretty good
with Rafael Soriano (22 saves, 0.97 ERA), and despite an
uncharacteristic four blown saves, the Braves have to feel pretty
secure with Craig Kimbrel (league-leading 29 saves, 1.91 ERA, 62 K’s
in 37.2 IP). The Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen has been inconsistent at
times but is still 27-for-30 with almost identical K/IP numbers to
Kimbrel (62 in 38.2 IP). But it’s far less likely their managers will
be giving them the hook when things get dicey.

is no telling who will emerge when the dust settles at the end of
October, but remember that none of the last three World Series
winning teams won with closers than they began the year with. Romo
was actually third in line after Casilla in 2012, and the Cardinals
shuffled through just about their entire bullpen before Jason Motte
grabbed the reins during their stunning 2011 playoff run. What say
you now, baseball purists?

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