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"Closer" should be a dirty word

Apr 15, 2010, 10:14 AM EDT

Joakim Soria save.jpgI and many others wondered why Trey Hillman never called Joakim Soria from the pen during the team’s seventh inning meltdown on Tuesday. He tried to explain himself yesterday:

“There’s a thought there, but, No. 1, it’s a very
unusual time for Joakim Soria to pitch in a ballgame. No. 2, you’ve
still got those same bats coming up in the ninth in a higher-leverage
situation — because it is the ninth, even if there are no runners on

How on Earth is the ninth inning — with no runners on base, mind you — a “higher-leverage situation” than an inning in which the other team is running laps around the bases and your pitcher is bleeding like he took five to the chest? I read this quote from Hillman and I honestly think that he doesn’t understand baseball. That he believes games can only be won or lost in the ninth inning, because it’s after that inning that the official scorer technically declares one team the winner.

And so what if the seventh is “an unusual time” for Soria to pitch? He’s your closer! You just said you keep him around for the highest leverage situations!  If you’re paying the guy to handle the worst of the worst certainly he can be expected to adjust to appearing in the seventh instead of the ninth.  Anything else, Trey?

“I’m not saying that’s so far-fetched that we might not have to try
that. But . . . I don’t blame any frustration among our fans in watching our
games. I don’t blame them at all. Smoke is coming out of my ears, and
my hat is blowing off, too.”

That smoke is coming out of his ears shocks me, because there’s certainly no evidence that the Victorian-era diesel generator that is apparently Trey Hillman’s baseball mind is operating at all.

Look, I’m picking on Hillman here because he’s the most recent example of this, but the fact is that no one in baseball optimizes their bullpen. The Mets could have and should have had K-Rod in the game in the tenth last night instead of Mejia, but they didn’t, because some sort of orthodoxy has developed that you can’t possibly use your closer in a non-save situation. Instead, Jerry Manuel had a 20 year-old kid pitching in extra innings at altitude instead of his relief ace.

And that’s the key, really: the names we call them. Relief pitchers used to actually be called “relief” pitchers because they’d provide relief when needed. Sometimes they were called “firemen” because they put out fires.  Now? We call them “closers,” and “setup men.” This nomenclature, which designates when they pitch temporally rather than situationally is evidence of the problem. Just like that stuff about the contract walk years a few minutes ago, our brains — managers’ brains — have grown comfortable with the way they use their reliever because, gosh, we already have names that tell us when to use them. It’s lazy and gives them the right not to think about how to win games.

The fact is, games are won and lost at any number of times. If you keep your best relief pitcher — and every manager will tell you that his closer is his best relief pitcher — on his butt, waiting around for that ninth inning save, you’re quite often going to find that there is nothing left to save. Trey Hillman showed us this the other day. Most managers screw this up several times a year.

At some point someone is going to win a division title they otherwise wouldn’t have because they actually deployed their bullpen in a manner which best serves the team’s chances of winning baseball games as opposed to a manner which best serves the rather arbitrary labels we’ve applied to the guys who sit down there. 

  1. Dan W - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    Craig – I do understand the argument, and in a situation where the game really needs “saving” the closer should go in (like last night). That is where the “Save” really is.
    That said, I tend to skew away from the argument that 9th inning is just like any other inning.
    While I do not have specific examples, there have been plenty of good relief pitchers who when asked to suddenly closed have done worse then when they are pitching in the 8th inning or elsewhere. (Ryan Madson last year may be a decent example).
    In the end, I think your best RP should not be confined to only the 9th inning, but when making the argument, the fact that the 9th inning is not like any other inning should be recognized as well.

  2. IdahoMariner - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    well said, Craig. It also strikes me that Soria could probably use the work, since he’s not likely to be needed in the way that Hillman envisions all that often, being that he works for the Royals. In fact, Hillman really is the last guy who should even have a “closer” on his team (next to maybe the Astros) if he wants to stick to these meaningless roles/titles.

  3. YankeesfanLen - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:30 AM

    Seems to me that there IS a team that takes no chances late in the game with a certain #42 that was mentioned here earlier. And the prior manager did it often, much to some people’s consternation.
    Captcha: amerika votes: oh, wait, it’s Tea Party day, isn’t it?

  4. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    The fact is, games are won and lost at any number of times. If you keep your best relief pitcher — and every manager will tell you that his closer is his best relief pitcher — on his butt, waiting around for that ninth inning save, you’re quite often going to find that there is nothing left to save.

    Cough, Joe Torre, Cough
    Good move Torre, losing G4 in the WS without using Rivera at all.

  5. Josh Fisher - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:37 AM

    Hillman’s tactical failure is painful to watch, but it’s Moore’s fault too. A premium relief ace is the last thing a speedbump team needs. It’s simple: Soria would be worth more to just about any other team than he is to the Royals. Add in his ridiculously-benign contract and you’re looking at an asset that must be flipped.

  6. Jonny5 - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:43 AM

    Agreed!Did you see how many RP’S were trotted out in Philly last night by both sides? Wow! And for the people who thought the Phills bullpen was the Achillies heel? I say think again. Maybe it was just Brad Lidge? So far the Phills Pen is running about a 1.5 ERA.

  7. ralphdibny - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    It is my understanding that closers develop a nightly ritual based on the fact that they will only appear in the ninth inning. People love routine, and it takes a special kind of personality to thrive on the unexpected night after night. This is why we see ninth-inning men, eighth-inning men, and so on. As you note, by thinking about these roles temporally instead of situationally, it makes everyone more comfortable, but at the expense of maximum efficiency. So Hillman probably can’t just call on Soria in the seventh–he would be mentally and physically unprepared. Not that I’m disagreeing with you, Craig. I’m just emphasizing that it’s not as easy as playing your Soria card two innings early. Utilizing relievers in the fashion you describe would require a complete restructuring of the bullpen, a complete change in reliever mental and physical preparation that would need to begin in the minors and be emphasized throughout the organization. It would probably affect free agent signings, and would most likely require a change in how relief pitchers are evaluated. I’m all for a team trying this, but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. Patrick - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    The real dirty word here is the word ‘save’ since that’s the reason closers become so untouchable. If we stop saying a pitcher ‘saved’ 35 games a year and start saying they DNS’ed (Did Not Screw Up) 35 games a year, we’d start to realise how absurd the sanctity of the closer is.

  9. JE - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    Since when did a relief pitcher’s “comfort level” trump everything else, including common sense?

  10. ecp - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    Craig, you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth on this one. I don’t disagree with your premise (and I’m no Hillman fan), but first you slam Hillman, say he “doesn’t understand baseball,” and state that “there’s certainly no evidence that the Victorian-era diesel generator that is apparently Trey Hillman’s baseball mind is operating at all.” Then you turn around and admit that actually, “the fact is that no one in baseball optimizes their bullpen” and “I’m picking on Hillman here because he’s the most recent example of this.” Oh, and “Most managers screw this up several times a year.” Yesterday, when you brought this up in “And That Happened,” commenter Accent Shallow over at THT wrote, “How fair is it to kill Trey Hillman for failing to do what no other manager in the majors would do?” I echo the question: If he doesn’t understand baseball, then 29 other managers don’t understand it either, nor do they have operating baseball minds. Hang all of them, not just one.

  11. Jonny5 - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    It’s just 3 outs they need. And half of them can’t do that right either. SP making less than closers blows my mind no matter how high the ERA may be. Put a “closer” in for 5 innings and watch them be just terrible. “closer” is the same thing as “luckiest pitchers in baseball” IMO. They get paid far to well for really just being “not good enough to throw more than 2 innings”.

  12. shyster reader - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    Baseball is a stat-driven game. I get that. But this really is the epitome of the tail wagging the dog.

  13. Howie B. - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    COPO – That’s all I kept thinking about when I read this posting. I was at that game, my head buried, afraid to look. The game started so promising, too – remember that was supposed to have been Clemens’ last game; speculation was that he was going to retire after the Yankees won the Series that year. Then, after Clemens got tagged for three in the 1st inning, he settled down and then Ruben Sierra(!) hit a game-tying triple (Ruben Sierra!!) in the 9th. Oh, Joe, Joe, Joe. *heavy sigh*

  14. Craig Calcaterra - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    Lots of of managers screw up their bullpen.
    I’ve only seen Trey Hillman actually say that a no-runners on, ninth inning situation is higher leverage than when a team is actively losing a lead in the 7th.
    I think most managers use their bullpens the way they do because of habit and egos and the primacy of the save stat and the press and all of that, and that they actually realize that not all games are “saved” in the ninth. You know Jerry Manuel knows that K-Rod is better than Mejia and would have given the Mets a better chance to win last night. But his job is on the line, he’s not thinking rationally and if he does something unorthodox like put his closer into the game in a non-save situation he knows he has to answer to a hostile press. They lost yesterday, but the story isn’t about Manuel today. It’s about how Mejia needs to learn to handle the pressure. Mission accomplished for Manuel.
    Hillman, however, appears to actually believe that the ninth is the most important inning regardless of the situation. And that’s frankly shocking to me.

  15. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    Forgive me as I think I’m about to confuse something JoePos wrote with something you may have, but isn’t a team like the Royals precisely the type of team who should try these “radical*” ideas? they aren’t winning the WS this year, they aren’t going to challenge for the division title. What’s the harm in trying something that goes against the grain of “conventional” (ha!) thinking?
    If it doesn’t work, they lose the game but what’s really changed. If it does work, maybe they win a few more than they lose, and who knows what happens.
    *its not really radical to use your best reliever in the highest leverage situation, but baseball’s idea of forward thinking is batting the pitcher 8th instead of 9th…

  16. Handwasher - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    The most hilarious thing in this for me is that Hillman thinks the Royals might, at some point, be *leading* in the ninth. He funny.

  17. ralphdibny - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    Not to get all philosophical and stuff, but I think “comfort level” trumps most things, including common sense, for all of us, in baseball and in life. I wish it weren’t so, but our biggest fear is fear of the unexpected. There is a reason why Calvinball is not our national pastime.

  18. scatterbrian - Apr 15, 2010 at 1:24 PM

    “How on Earth is the ninth inning — with no runners on base, mind you — a “higher-leverage situation”…”
    Trey answered that. “…because it is the ninth”
    So there.

  19. dprat - Apr 15, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    How hard can this be? Give Hillman (and all the other managers) an iPad permanently locked into Fangraphs’ Live Win Probabilities. When the little green Leverage Index bar turns red, put iPad down, walk to mound, take ball from dude standing there, hand ball to your best reliever. Solved.
    Now, on to finance reform and that immigration stuff.

  20. GimmeSomeSteel - Apr 15, 2010 at 1:51 PM

    IIRC, the Diesel engine was invented after the Victorian Era.
    If you’re trying to say, “Some baseball managers aren’t very bright”, that comes under the category of, “Telling us things you know we know”.

  21. JE - Apr 15, 2010 at 2:08 PM

    I don’t doubt that “comfort level” exists, but if fielders can switch positions and batters can hit sixth one day and seventh the next, I fail to see why pitchers are capable of starting the eighth inning of a one-run game but somehow is emotionally incapable of being inserted into the ninth.

  22. ralphdibny - Apr 15, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    I’m not disagreeing with you. I wish my favorite team would employ their relievers based on situation rather than inning–I think it would give them a huge advantage. And I think relievers would adapt quickly if some team would establish these new behaviors. I’m just trying to explain why they don’t. I mean, baseball management aren’t idiots, despite what some fans say. Is it ridiculous that baseball teams don’t expect their relievers to be more flexible? Absolutely. But over the past thirty years a culture has evolved in baseball where relievers aren’t expected to be flexible–first the closer, then many of the top set-up men. It evolved for many reasons. Partly because the save statistic pushed it in that direction, partly because it makes the ends of games easier to plan for everyone, partly because you can use your relievers more often (and they can throw harder) when you limit their pitches per appearance, partly because of the LaRussian use of matchups. My point is that it will take a lot more to change reliever use than Trey Hillman suddenly deciding to surprise Soria by throwing him in the seventh inning. What if Soria pitches poorly, either coincidentally or because of the closer mentality that, ridiculous or not, pervades baseball? We’ve seen the same thing happen whenever anyone tries the closer-by-committee. Everyone hates it, and it quickly falls apart.
    And my recaptcha is “redoing 8th,” which is just spooky.

  23. keithcash - Apr 16, 2010 at 5:01 AM

    This site really blows.

  24. KG - Apr 16, 2010 at 3:35 PM

    Yup, asserting a clear and obvious way for teams to win more games – man, that really blows. That’s the worst!

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