Whither the Closer?  Part One

The “Closer” is the term applied to the modern relief pitcher primarily deployed to finish games with close leads. In recent years, the practice of designating one reliever per team to fulfill this role in a specialized manner has become essentially orthodox: every team either has such a pitcher, or is ardently searching to find a new one, and the period in which they don’t have a clearly designated Closer is unquestioningly regarded as a problem bordering on crisis.

In 2004, the mean average performance of the pitcher from all 30 major league teams who recorded the most Saves for his team — in other words, the Closer — was as follows:

 G  IP  IP/G  W  L  Sv  Sv/G   Sv/T Sv   ERA+
62  66  1.08  3  4  31  50.1%    75.2%   160

We see that the average Closer in 2004 appeared in 62 games, working a shade over one inning per appearance. He got very few Win or Loss decisions, but was credited with 31 Saves — a Save in half his appearances. This Save total amounted to about three-quarters of his team’s total Saves, and this Closer’s ERA was about 60% better than the league-average ERA, normalized for Park Factor.

Let’s pose two questions regarding the stat line of this typical Closer:

1. Is this usage pattern a sensible, optimal way to deploy what is almost always the most highly skilled (and certainly highest-paid) pitcher in the bullpen?

2. Will we be seeing a similar stat line from the key reliever in the average bullpen 10 years from now, or 20 years from now? If not, how might the usage pattern differ from this one?

In order to answer both of these questions, it’s necessary for us to take a step back and understand how we got to the situation we found in 2004. This Closer role, after all, despite its near-universal application today, hasn’t always existed, and is in fact a very recent innovation.

The modern bullpen, and particularly the Closer, can be seen as the fourth phase in the evolution of bullpen deployment that has occurred over the past 40 or 50 years. Why don’t we review that evolution?

Phase I: The Era of the Fireman

Let’s take a look at the mean average stats of the pitcher recording the most Saves in every team’s bullpen for the years 1960 through 1972.

Average Top Save Producer, 1960-1972:

Year   G   IP  IP/G   W  L  Dec.  Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv   ERA+
1960  54   97  1.80   7  5  12.4  13  23.3%   46.7%    103
1961  54   96  1.79   7  7  13.6  13  23.9%   46.3%    116
1962  53   87  1.65   6  6  12.3  13  24.8%   42.2%    140
1963  56  103  1.82   7  6  13.3  16  28.5%   54.3%    131
1964  59   98  1.66   7  6  12.6  17  28.6%   50.4%    142
1965  61  100  1.65   7  6  13.1  18  30.1%   54.0%    141
1966  57   96  1.68   7  6  12.3  16  27.5%   47.2%    134
1967  56   96  1.72   6  6  12.3  15  26.5%   45.9%    144
1968  52   86  1.64   6  5  10.5  13  24.8%   43.4%    121
1969  59   98  1.66   7  6  13.5  16  26.4%   50.2%    125
1970  60   91  1.52   6  6  12.0  19  31.9%   52.5%    135
1971  55   90  1.65   6  6  11.8  15  27.6%   52.5%    128
1972  53   84  1.59   6  6  11.5  17  31.3%   51.7%    125
Avg   56   94  1.68   7  6  12.4  15  27.4%   49.0%    130

Through the decade of the 1950s, the deployment of the relief pitching specialist gained increasing prominence. This role was different from most previous bullpenners, in that it wasn’t just an erstwhile starter filling in, and wasn’t just a belly-itcher mopping up, but was instead a good pitcher used regularly and exclusively (or nearly so) in the relief role, and regularly called upon to deal with the most high-pressure, high-leverage situations. This save-the-day, douse-the-flames duty led to the role becoming known as the “Fireman;” the award for best relief pitcher was called the Fireman of the Year.

The Fireman was certainly called upon to get Saves, including one-inning Saves. But that wasn’t his sole or even primary purpose. Usually he was brought in before the ninth inning, typically the eighth but often the seventh. His stint was more likely to be two innings than one, and it wasn’t all that rare (especially in extra-inning games) to be as extensive as three or four innings. He was used to protect leads, but was also commonly called upon in tie games, or even sometimes when his team was down by a run or two. Compared with the Closer, the Fireman was typically deployed in slightly fewer games, significantly more innings, and in a much less tightly bound range of circumstances.

By 1960, the Fireman had passed through its period of being an alternative used by some teams, and was now a staple, an expected element in every team’s bullpen. The role was so firmly established that, as we can see, across the decade of the 1960s, there was a great deal of stability in its profile. But looking closely, we can see some very gradual shifts in the usage pattern. In the early ’60s, Firemen tended to work around 1.7 or 1.8 innings per appearance; by the early ’70s they were down to about 1.6. Early on they were picking up Saves less than 25% of the time; by the end of the period it was around 30%. These Saves typically represented a bit less than half of the team’s total in the early 1960s, and a decade later they were generally a bit more than half.

This was the usage pattern of the average 1960s Fireman. But in implementing this role, managers were doing their best to replicate the results achieved by the very best Firemen. How different was the typical Fireman from the best in class? Let’s take a look at the line put up by the top one-fifth of all Firemen. As defined by the highest total of Wins plus Saves, here is the mean average of the top 3 Firemen from 1960 (among 16 teams), top 4 from 1961 through 1968 (among 18 and then 20 teams), and top 5 from 1969 through 1972 (among 24 teams).

Top Quintile Win Plus Save Producer, 1960-1972:

Year   G   IP  IP/G   W  L  Dec.  Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv   ERA+
1960  68  113  1.67  11  6  16.3  21  31.5%   74.4%    159
1961  58  108  1.86  12  5  17.3  20  34.5%   56.3%    154
1962  62   99  1.60   8  6  13.5  23  36.4%   53.3%    160
1963  66  115  1.76  12  6  18.3  24  36.1%   72.0%    163
1964  69  119  1.72  11  7  17.8  25  36.6%   65.6%    161
1965  77  130  1.69  10  7  16.5  27  35.2%   63.9%    148
1966  62   99  1.60   9  4  12.5  24  38.6%   61.9%    153
1967  70  112  1.60   9  6  14.8  24  34.1%   56.5%    176
1968  65  114  1.75  10  7  16.0  19  28.7%   52.8%    160
1969  66  106  1.61   7  6  13.0  27  41.3%   67.3%    155
1970  65   99  1.53   7  6  13.0  30  46.7%   60.6%    140
1971  66  105  1.58   8  8  15.8  24  36.4%   69.1%    143
1972  64  110  1.72   9  6  14.8  31  47.9%   71.2%    166
Avg   66  110  1.67   9  6  15.3  24  37.2%   63.5%    157

These were the best relief pitchers in baseball, of course. In the early 1960s this group typically included Lindy McDaniel, Elroy Face, Stu Miller, and of course Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm. In the middle of the period along came Dick Radatz, Ted Abernathy, and Phil Regan, and toward the end the prominent names included Wilbur Wood, Jim Brewer, and Dave Giusti. One great Fireman over nearly the whole era was Ron Perranoski.

The typical stint length of this elite corps remained quite steady over the period. But a subtle development can be discerned: toward the later years, these Firemen were recording slightly fewer Win/Loss decisions, and quite a few more Saves.

Phase II: The Golden Age of the Ace Reliever

In the mid-1970s, the slight trend that had been developing toward shorter stints by Firemen suddenly reversed. Top relievers, despite working as often as ever, pushed the innings pitched boundary up to levels never seen before.

Average Top Save Producer, 1973-1985:

Year  G    IP  IP/G   W  L  Dec.  Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv   ERA+
1973  55   97  1.77   6  6  12.0  17  30.2%   48.7%    137
1974  59  106  1.80   7  6  13.2  13  21.4%   58.2%    131
1975  53   88  1.66   6  6  11.6  14  26.2%   49.6%    130
1976  58   99  1.71   7  6  13.2  14  24.9%   50.5%    130
1977  61  106  1.75   8  7  14.2  18  29.0%   54.1%    144
1978  58   94  1.62   7  7  14.5  18  31.3%   58.8%    137
1979  57   95  1.65   7  7  14.1  18  30.7%   54.3%    160
1980  62   97  1.56   6  6  12.4  19  30.8%   55.4%    147
1981  62  100  1.61   7  6  12.7  19  30.7%   54.7%    157
1982  61  101  1.64   7  7  13.8  20  31.9%   54.6%    136
1983  60   93  1.56   6  7  13.0  20  33.3%   52.9%    144
1984  61   91  1.49   6  7  12.6  22  36.2%   57.4%    135
1985  61   91  1.49   6  6  12.7  22  36.3%   58.9%    139
Avg   59   97  1.64   7  6  13.1  18  30.3%   54.5%    140

The reversal in the stint-length trend only lasted for a few years. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, it drifted back downward, and in 1984 and 1985 average innings/game dropped below 1.5 for the first time. Corresponding with this was a slight but unmistakable trend toward more Saves for this reliever.

In this period the term “Fireman” became employed less frequently. The image of bailing the starter out of emergencies was gradually replaced by an image of a reliever whose use was expected, planned for, even desired. This reliever was assuming an ever-greater profile as a star. While he didn’t equal the status of the top starter — the staff Ace — he enjoyed a reputation as the next-best, and generally came to be called the Ace Reliever.

Top Quintile Win Plus Save Producer, 1973-1985:

Year   G   IP  IP/G   W   L  Dec.  Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv   ERA+
1973  67  121  1.80   9   7  15.2  28  42.1%   68.1%    163
1974  74  147  1.99  12  10  21.4  19  25.9%   80.7%    141
1975  66  113  1.71   9   6  15.8  22  32.6%   54.3%    161
1976  72  131  1.82  12   7  19.4  21  29.7%   66.0%    146
1977  71  130  1.84  10   7  17.4  30  42.2%   74.1%    205
1978  70  115  1.64   8   9  17.4  30  42.3%   69.2%    156
1979  76  130  1.72  10   8  17.6  30  39.7%   72.1%    188
1980  67  109  1.62  10   7  16.4  28  41.7%   69.0%    131
1981  72  116  1.61   9   7  15.3  33  45.2%   73.2%    181
1982  72  115  1.61  10   8  17.2  31  43.7%   69.2%    165
1983  65  110  1.70   8   6  13.8  31  47.8%   76.4%    164
1984  72  118  1.64   8   5  13.0  38  52.8%   77.2%    166
1985  71  106  1.50   7   7  14.4  34  48.5%   76.8%    152
Avg   70  120  1.71   9   7  16.5  29  41.0%   71.2%    163

The mid-’70s extreme-workhorse-variety Ace Relievers were led by Mike Marshall, and also included John Hiller and Bill Campbell. But the 1970s also included two Ace Relievers who worked just slightly less, but with more effectiveness and consistency: Goose Gossage, and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. In the late ’70s the spectacular Bruce Sutter burst onto the scene, and into the early 1980s Sutter and Dan Quisenberry were the best.

Sutter’s dazzling 1977 performance, and his second-half injuries and struggles in both 1977 and ’78, led Cubs’ manager Herman Franks in 1979 to modify Sutter’s usage pattern to focus more on Save situations, a development we discussed last summer. This new mode — certainly not the modern Closer mode, but clearly a step toward it — wasn’t immediately imitated everywhere: Quisenberry, Kent Tekulve, Willie Hernandez and others continued to be deployed in full-out 1970s style, into the 1980s. But other Ace Relievers were used in a more tightly-defined, Save-oriented fashion, most notably Lee Smith and Jeff Reardon. By 1984-85, the best Ace Relievers were recording fewer innings per appearance, fewer Wins, and more Saves than ever before.

Phase III: The Transformation

For all the changes in reliever usage that occurred from 1960 to 1985, the typical Ace Reliever of the mid-1980s truly wasn’t all that different from the typical Fireman of a quarter-century earlier. But a metamorphosis was imminent.

Average Top Save Producer, 1986-1992:

Year   G  IP  IP/G  W  L  Dec.  Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv  ERA+
1986  60  88  1.46  7  7  13.5  23  37.3%   58.3%   126
1987  57  85  1.49  5  6  11.0  20  35.0%   53.3%   148
1988  57  74  1.29  4  5   9.7  26  44.8%   63.9%   138
1989  59  74  1.24  4  4   8.4  27  46.1%   66.6%   157
1990  59  73  1.25  5  5   9.0  27  45.8%   62.6%   167
1991  60  70  1.17  4  5   8.7  27  44.8%   61.6%   150
1992  61  75  1.23  4  5   8.8  28  45.9%   65.5%   134
Avg   59  77  1.30  5  5   9.9  25  42.9%   61.7%   146

Within just a few years’ time, the profile of the typical top reliever changed more dramatically than it had in decades. Season by season, in rapid succession, Ace Relievers were asked to work fewer innings per stint, as their deployment became more and more focused on Save situations. Ever more rarely appearing in anything but close lead situations, they received fewer and fewer Win or Loss decisions, and ever more Saves.

It was in this period that the term “Closer” was coined. I don’t know where it originated, or exactly when. I seem to recall first becoming acquainted with it in 1989, when the Giants acquired Steve Bedrosian. But I just checked a couple of guidebooks I have from 1988 and 1989, and there is no use of the term, even when discussing the top Save collectors of the day. But in my books from 1991 and 1992, the label is being used widely, without any sense of self-consciousness.

What prompted the sudden change? There isn’t a simple easy answer to that question. The Closer revolution didn’t occur all by itself; as we saw last week, the late 1980s/early 1990s also witnessed an explosion in the engagement of very-short-stint tactics for left-handed relief specialists. The motivations for both transformations — which we will explore next time — weren’t exactly the same, but the two dynamics were clearly interdependent. For now, we’ll just say that the impulse driving the invention of the modern Closer was likely driven at least as much by considerations of injury prevention of highly-paid relief stars as by strictly in-game tactical advantages. Whether it fully rises to the level of “wagging the dog” is debatable, but there’s no reasonable way to ignore the issue that the economic reality of free agency baseball, as it passed its tenth birthday, was a factor in this dramatic alteration in the way the game was managed.

Top Quintile Win Plus Save Producer, 1986-1992:

Year   G  IP  IP/G  W  L  Dec.  Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv  ERA+
1986  68  94  1.38  8  9  16.4  36  53.2%   77.4%   141
1987  66  89  1.35  7  6  12.6  34  52.1%   73.2%   148
1988  62  78  1.26  4  4   8.6  39  63.3%   78.5%   167
1989  65  77  1.18  5  4   9.2  37  56.0%   74.4%   187
1990  65  78  1.19  5  4   9.0  44  67.1%   82.9%   255
1991  67  77  1.16  6  4  10.0  42  62.5%   87.4%   177
1992  70  83  1.19  6  6  11.2  42  59.4%   83.5%   150
Avg   66  82  1.24  6  5  11.0  39  59.0%   79.6%   175

The single most influential reliever in the startling transformation was, of course, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. But Jeff Reardon was also deployed in dramatically shorter stints as early as 1988 and 1989. There were still a few older-style Ace Relievers in the mix, such as Roger McDowell, Dave Righetti, and Doug Jones in some of their seasons, but the rush to adopt the new Closer pattern was sweeping everything in its path. Steve Bedrosian and Mark Davis winning Cy Young Awards in 1987 and 1989 in Save-primary usage modes, and then relative unknown Bobby Thigpen racking up the stunning total of 57 Saves in 1990, further energized the cycle. By the early ’90s, nearly all the best relievers in baseball — including Rick Aguilera, Bryan Harvey, and Gregg Olson — were locked into the Eckersley-like usage mode.

Phase IV: All Closer All the Time

The period since 1993 has been striking in three regards. First, obviously, is the strict limitation to short stints and only short stints for the newly-named Closer. By 1993, top relievers were working at least a half an inning per game less than they had been just a decade earlier. It suddenly became (and remains) unheard of for a Closer to ever, ever work more than two innings, and even entering the game in the middle of the eighth inning, and working a four-out or five-out Save opportunity, is now ballyhooed as an epic feat of endurance, as well as feared for the awful damage it’s presumed to wreak on the Closer’s health.

The second remarkable development is the degree to which this completely unprecedented pattern immediately stabilized. All previous 12-year periods of relief ace usage have demonstrated some degree of evolution, however gradual or subtle. But the Closer in the twelve seasons since 1993 has shown very little indication of developing in any new direction.

Third is the extraordinary extent to which the Closer has been adopted as the model that all teams have followed. In previous eras, there was always a certain amount of variation in the modes in which different teams deployed their Ace Reliever. But since 1993, the Closer model is universal; variations have been rare, minimal, and fleeting — though just within the past few seasons there have been a very few hints of orthodoxy-bucking, that we’ll explore next week.

Average Top Save Producer, 1993-2004:

Year   G  IP  IP/G  W  L  Dec. Sv  Sv/G  Sv/T Sv  ERA+
1993  60  63  1.05  3  4  7.4  31  51.7%   72.2%   149
1994  59  64  1.09  4  5  9.3  25  43.4%   64.5%   135
1995  60  64  1.06  3  4  7.0  30  49.4%   73.5%   157
1996  63  68  1.09  4  5  8.1  30  47.2%   74.4%   146
1997  64  67  1.05  4  5  8.7  29  44.7%   70.4%   145
1998  62  68  1.09  4  5  8.0  31  49.1%   72.6%   163
1999  65  71  1.09  3  5  8.4  30  45.9%   73.2%   142
2000  63  69  1.10  4  4  8.2  29  45.3%   73.1%   147
2001  63  66  1.04  3  4  7.5  30  47.6%   75.0%   136
2002  64  70  1.08  4  4  7.8  33  51.3%   80.6%   147
2003  59  64  1.09  3  4  7.3  28  47.5%   70.1%   163
2004  62  66  1.08  3  4  6.7  31  50.1%   75.2%   160
Avg   62  67  1.08  4  4  7.9  30  47.8%   72.9%   149

The omnipresent application of the Closer model has resulted in one its perhaps more troubling aspects. While there is, as always, a lot of difference in the quality of performance between the best relievers in baseball and the rest, the strict boundaries in Closer usage protocol allow very little difference in the quantity of their usage. Everybody has one, and everybody uses him the same way as everyone else, with little regard to how effective he is.

Top Quintile Win Plus Save Producer, 1993-2004:

Year   G  IP  IP/G  W  L  Dec. Sv   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv  ERA+
1993  70  78  1.12  4  4  7.5  47  66.7%   89.1%   212
1994  66  71  1.08  3  6  8.8  40  61.4%   77.6%   154
1995  63  63  0.99  3  3  6.6  41  65.4%   90.6%   180
1996  69  76  1.09  5  4  9.0  41  59.4%   86.1%   173
1997  70  75  1.07  6  3  9.0  40  56.8%   83.6%   179
1998  71  75  1.05  4  4  8.5  46  64.0%   88.4%   201
1999  67  71  1.06  4  3  7.0  42  62.6%   90.6%   192
2000  71  73  1.04  4  5  8.5  42  60.0%   90.7%   172
2001  72  75  1.04  4  6  9.5  44  61.3%   90.2%   143
2002  73  78  1.07  5  4  8.5  48  65.2%   95.6%   151
2003  70  76  1.09  3  3  6.2  45  64.0%   89.0%   264
2004  70  75  1.07  4  3  6.7  47  67.8%   89.3%   208
Avg   69  74  1.06  4  4  8.0  44  62.9%   88.4%   186

As a result, we’ve witnessed an era in which several obviously great relief pitchers have recorded dazzling rate stats, yet have been strictly limited in their volume of annual contribution. No one doubts that the elite class of Closers over the past decade — which would certainly include Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Eric Gagne, and John Smoltz — are every bit as dominating and effective as the best relievers in history, but it remains a very valid question as to whether they’ve generated as much value in any given season as many lesser talents did almost annually in the more expansive relief roles of the several prior decades.

Furthermore, there has been a generation of other relievers, fine pitchers though not in the super-elite category — the likes of John Wetteland, Rod Beck, Robb Nen, Armando Benitez, and Billy Wagner — who have been lauded as major stars, and rewarded with sumptuously lavish, superstar-worthy compensation, while rarely, if ever, facing more than 300-350 batters in a season. Whatever the wisdom of this development, its historical uniqueness is stark.

So Can We Consider Those Questions, Already?

Okay, okay. Yes, it’s time to consider them. (Answering them, well …) The two questions we presented way up top were:

1. Is this usage pattern a sensible, optimal way to deploy what is almost always the most highly skilled (and certainly highest-paid) pitcher in the bullpen?

and

2. Will we be seeing a similar stat line from the key reliever in the average bullpen 10 years from now, or 20 years from now? If not, how might the usage pattern differ from this one?

We will — you guessed it — attempt the task of constructing answers to these questions next time, when we’ll also (at last!) tie in the questions regarding the wisdom of LOOGY deployment that we raised over the past two weeks. The reason for drawing this whole thing out this way (other than, you know, simple procrastination) is hopefully being made clear: the Closer and the LOOGY are two inextricable elements of the same dynamic. Neither could exist quite as it does without the other.

In closing this time (please, no pun intended), as we ponder what the answers to these questions might be, let’s consider the implications of, and the interplay between, the following four factors since 1986: overall major league Saves per game, the percentage of those Saves garnered by each team’s top Save producer, overall major league Complete Games per game, and overall major league Runs per game.

Year   Sv/G  Sv/T Sv   CG/G   R/G
1986  23.9%   58.3%   13.8%  4.41
1987  23.1%   53.3%   13.3%  4.72
1988  25.0%   63.9%   14.8%  4.14
1989  25.4%   66.6%   11.5%  4.13
1990  26.4%   62.6%   10.2%  4.26
1991  26.9%   61.6%    8.7%  4.31
1992  26.3%   65.5%    9.9%  4.12
1993  26.3%   72.2%    8.2%  4.60
1994  24.3%   64.5%    8.0%  4.92
1995  24.9%   73.5%    6.8%  4.85
1996  24.6%   74.4%    6.4%  5.04
1997  25.1%   70.4%    5.9%  4.77
1998  26.0%   72.6%    6.2%  4.79
1999  25.1%   73.2%    4.9%  5.08
2000  24.2%   73.1%    4.8%  5.14
2001  24.9%   75.0%    4.1%  4.78
2002  25.2%   80.6%    4.4%  4.62
2003  24.7%   70.1%    4.3%  4.73
2004  25.3%   75.2%    3.1%  4.81

References & Resources
A couple of notes regarding methodology in compiling the stats of relievers:

- Putting together the aggregation of top Save producers, whenever two (or more) pitchers tied for their team lead in Saves, the stats of those pitchers was averaged for that team’s contribution to the major league average.

- Putting together the aggregation of top quintile Win plus Save producers, whenever two (or more) pitchers tied for the final spot among the major leagues’ top one-fifth, the pitcher with the fewest Losses was included in the totals for averaging.

- All stats for the strike-shortened seasons of 1972, 1981, 1994, and 1995 have been pro-rated to 162 games.

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Face Forward, Please
Next: Around the Majors: Bonds has more surgery »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *