Tigers have a chance to prove a big-time closer isn’t necessary

Jim Leyland will have several options out of the bullpen in 2013, but who will close games has yet to be determined.

Some Tiger fans are alarmed that the club hasn’t signed a proven closer to replace Jose Valverde. I look at the situation as a golden opportunity — and not because I’m a big fan of closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon. This is a chance for the club to finally break free of a bad habit and become a game-changing strategy leader.

The current job description of “closer” defies logic and common sense. The universal use of a “closer” at every level of baseball down to Little League is a travesty. It’s a ceremonial, impractical role that grew out of a stat invented by a sportswriter, spread by superstition, and has become a cult.

In 1960, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Jerome Holtzman proposed a means to measure the increasing importance of relief pitchers who specialized in finishing victories. After some tweaking, it evolved into today’s “save,” the most absurd stat in the history of the game.

The save is based on a fundamental mathematical error. Runs in baseball aren’t weighted based on when they score. Any run scored by the winning team in a 7-6 game counts just as much, no matter in which inning it occurs — as does a run prevented.

In fact, in a one-run victory, if a relief pitcher enters a game with the bases loaded and less than two outs in the sixth inning and escapes the jam without allowing a run, his contribution to his team’s victory is vastly more important than the closer’s. Yet he gets no official recognition, and the finisher does.*

Today’s typical save is mere sleight of hand. You can earn a save by being the most mediocre pitcher in the league. To protect any three-run lead in the ninth and earn a save, your game ERA must merely be 18.00 and, since you can allow five baserunners, your WHIP can be as high as 5.00. To protect a three-run lead, a 4.00 WHIP and 9.00 ERA will suffice, and even with a one-lead, you can succeed with up to a 3.00 WHIP. Tiger fans who remember Todd Jones, and who more recently thrilled to the exploits of Valverde, should understand how absurd this is — the save is a stat that honors your performance, and brings you more money at contract time, even when you are atrocious.

No other sport traffics in such illusion. Does a soccer team bring in a special goalie for the final ten minutes so that that keeper can earn a bigger salary for coughing up a goal in a 2-1 win? Does a football team reserve a special defensive lineman who is only inserted against an extra-point attempt in the final five minutes? See how absurd this is?

To justify the save, it’s said that a pitcher needs extra guts, or grit, or intangible “makeup,” to pitch in the ninth inning. This is indeed a mystery of faith, with no evidence to prove it. So closers have taken to adopting special behavior and insignia to feed this myth. The facial hair, the stare, the fist-pump, the sprinting entrance from the bullpen, the theme song: closers are circus clowns. (Valverde one of the biggest.)

They perform this act to advance the pretense that even easy save situations are incredible tests of courage. And, amazingly, all of baseball has swallowed it. That’s why piling up easy saves brings in millions of dollars, which is the kind of market inefficiency which should have driven Billy Beane and sabermetric-savvy front-office consultants bonkers decades ago.

Yes, it makes sense to use your best remaining reliever to finish a game with a one-run lead, but you could use anyone in the pen to protect a three-run lead. The dirty little secret is that a team could prosper without a closer and in so doing save itself millions. Of course, they’d be depriving the fans of that climactic clown act. Yet a savvy manager could do what managers did pre-Holtzman: use the reliever best suited for the game situation. Different men would pitch at the end of different games, because in each game the batter/pitcher matchups are unique.

In my opinion, nothing has more degraded baseball than the closer folly. The Tigers could restore some sanity. Of course, I doubt they have the right manager to handle this task. But at the moment they have the right personnel: a mix of live young arms and craftier veterans in the bullpen — and no reliever being paid the market price for closers (which itself compels the manager to use him as one by rote).

Jim Leyland, you have been given free will. Will you shock the baseball world and exercise it?

*The reliever would receive a “hold”, but holds are not an official MLB statistic.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.