MLB Closers — Role Players with Rock Star Reputations
In 1988 for the Oakland Athletics, Tony LaRussa initiated his strategy of using Dennis Eckersley as a 9th inning, only-when-leading relief pitcher – a “closer.” The move helped the A’s and resurrected Eckersley from an over-the-hill starter to Cy Young and MVP winner. The success of the Athletics and Eckersley popularized the practice with it eventually attaining universal adoption across MLB. Specific elements of the Eckersley case made the strategy make sense. He was an aging starter with a lot of inning mileage in his arm. Restricting his innings and making them very predictable so as to ease warming up improved his performance and extended his career while helping the team. Beyond his case, however, was the the universal adoption of the practice evidence of it’s wisdom or a case of mindless managerial imitation?
Among all closers over the past 25 years, the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera leads the pack as the most celebrated. Yet, one can make a strong case that he has been underutilized. Arguably, Rivera’s most impactful year was 1996, which preceded his use as the 9th inning closer. At that time, John Wetteland filled the Eckersley-esque role. By simple metrics, Wetteland performed very well, leading the league with 43 saves. Rivera’s numbers, however, both conventional and more sophisticated ones, bettered Wetteland while Rivera pitched nearly 70 percent more innings.
Glaring holes crop up in the universal adoption of the closer strategy. Foremost, as in Rivera’s case, it underutilizes great talent. The rationale might be summarized as “this guy is really effective, so let’s pitch him a lot less and only when we are ahead in the 9th inning.” Where else would that kind of thinking fly? LeBron James is killing the other team, so let’s save him until late in the 4th quarter to help preserve leads? Not only have closers become a universally accepted norm in MLB, but the successful ones command very high salaries. Rivera’s salary has rivaled that of the best starting pitchers even though he pitches 3 to 4 times fewer innings. Would a team pay huge bucks for a pinch hitter, even a great one by historical standards? (The fact that by some sabermetric measures, a reliever like Rivera can influence wins by half as much or more than a starting pitcher like Justin Verlander or Roy Halladay only calls into question those metrics. )
No doubt, certain pitchers, even though very effective, may be better suited to shorter relief appearances because of limited variety of pitches, pitching mechanics, or other issues as with Dennis Eckersley. Maybe Mariano Rivera and many other marquee closers fit this bill. Nonetheless, the nearly exclusive use in the 9th with leads defies easy explanation. Why not use the best relief pitcher in the most dangerous, pressure-filled situations? This is how the best relievers prior to the Eckersley era had been employed whether Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage or others. Predictability of use, and therefore, ease of mental and physical preparation is sometimes offered as a reason, but use in tight games in pressure-filled situations is fairly predictable too.
The highly structured, ahead- in-the-9th inning (once in a while tied) is even harder to understand for teams struggling to win games. Perversely, it limits the best relief pitchers on the staff to situations that arise infrequently, or, else, puts them in “get-some-work-in” situations that matter very little. With the Yankees regular season success over his career, Rivera enjoyed many opportunities that fit the closer structure. However, in playoff series where the Yankees have struggled for leads, Rivera barely appeared. For instance, in the 2011 AL Championship Series, he pitched only one meaningful inning over 6 games (along with 2 others in blowouts just to “get work.”). Imagine any other player or any other sport where you pay a health guy $15 million just to sit on the bench in key situations.