Baseball "closers" - could be used differently?

So as I understand it, a “closer” in baseball is a pitcher who doesn’t have much stamina, can only pitch an inning or two at a time, but is super-good during that inning or two, and can potentially do that amount of pitching fairly often, if not every day.

The way most teams use a “closer” is that they have one of them, who they bring in in the 8th or 9th inning when the game is close.
But teams are allowed to switch pitchers during a game as often as they like. Given that, has a team ever experimented with having multiple “closers”, and just using them whenever needed?

So you start with a decent pitcher who can pitch stretches of 4 or 5 innings at a time. 2 innings in, he gets into a jam. So you take him out and put in “closer” #1. He hopefully gets out of the jam, maybe pitches one more inning. Then you put in “normal” pitcher #2, and so forth.
Fundmentally, the 9th inning is basically no different than any other inning, in that runs scored in it count just the same. So if you have one guy who will really dependably pitch you out of an inning, why should it always be the 9th? And why not have more than one such guy?

The concept you’re talking about is called “bullpen by committee” and it does work. It is, however, rarely used.

Remember this basic truth:

**Baseball managers do not manage to maximize their likelihood of winning. They manage to maximize the likelihood they will keep their jobs. **

The reason all teams now have designated “closers” is simply that it is the conventional, conservative strategy, and thus it saves the manager from criticism. If the “closer” starts to suck, generally the closer takes the blame and the manager is held blameless because, hey, he was using his closer, it’s not his fault Closer McSaveston is having an off year. But if the manager elects to use an unorthodox strategy like using 3-4 men as closers and it fails, the manager will be blamed.

This is then exacerbated by two facts:

  1. Few teams have a lot of really good relief pitchers, and
  2. People perceive leads blown in the ninth inning as far more horrible than leads blown in the 7th.

Suppose you have six relief pitchers available to you, and we’ll use six real ones; the six primary relievers for the Detroit Tigers. Here are those six guys with their ERAs and save totals:

Joaquin Benoit: 2.01, 24 saves
Drew Smyly; 2.37, 2 saves
Luke Putkonen: 3.03, 0 saves
Al Albuquerque: 4.59, 0 saves
Darin Downs: 4.84, 0 saves
Phil Coke: 5.40, 1 save

Obviously, Benoit was getting the save opportunities. (Jose Valverde got 9 saves but actually pitched so little I didn’t include him.) Clearly Benoit was also the best pitcher of the group, with Smyly not far behind.

Logically, of course, if the start only goes 6 innings and tonight’s the night you need Albuquerque to pitch an inning (because relievers certainly cannot pitch every night) Jim Leyland will probably summon Albuquerque and Smyly to pitch the 7th and 8th - what order they go in depends on who’s coming up, since Smyly is lefthanded - and will then go to Benoit to pitch the ninth.

If he does that and someone blows the lead, nobody will blame Jim Leyland. If Albuqerque sucks, nobody’s going to rip Leyland for summoning one of his better and more experienced guys aside from Smyly and Benoit. Someone had to pitch the 7th, and if Al gets rocked, well, it’s just too bad the starting pitcher couldn’t go 7.

But suppose Leyland does something unorthodox and goes Benoit, then Albuquerque, and then lets Smyly close. If anything goes wrong, Leyland will be blamed. If Benoit blows it they’ll blame Leyland for using the “closer” in a non closing situation, if Albuquerque blows it they’ll blame him for using Albuquerque in the ninth. Logically it really makes no difference, but the fans and media will perceive it as Very Bad.

Any deviation from baseball orthodoxy has always been ripped by the media and the baseball industry itself. And many fans.

Not exactly so.

First of all, if you’re the visiting team and lose the lead in the 9th inning, you get no chance to get it back.

If you give up a run in the 7th inning, your team has two or three chances to score. In the ninth, you have none or one. Thus there is more pressure in the 9th.

Some perfectly good relievers either find the pressure difficult, or don’t have the ability to guarantee a clean inning. I’m thinking of Bobby Parnell of the Mets, who turned into a successful closer this year, after he had been inconsistent in that role when tried in the past. Parnell improved his pitching skills, but has admitted that he finally adjusted to the mental part of the game.

“Bullpen by committee” rarely works. It’s rare for a team to have more than one player in the bullpen who can be counted on to consistently throw scoreless innings.

In addition, pitchers like to know their role in order to mentally prepare; managers who don’t give pitchers roles find they tire out or get rusty so they’re less effective. Though relief pitchers may only go an inning or less in a game, they do have to warm up in the bullpen and being asked to warm up and then sit down becomes tiring. If they know their role, they can adjust their warmup routine. It’s OK to change this for a game or two (for instance, extra innings or a starter being ineffective), but not as a regular thing.

Ultimately, your closer is supposed to be your best relief pitcher. And you want your best out there when the game is on the line. That’s why you don’t pitch him early: while it might make sense statistically to bring him in in the 8th to face the heart of the order, whoever follows him may not be good enough to pitch a scoreless inning against the rest (and, based on statistics, your closer is more likely to do it in the 9th, too). Having the closer pitch two innings can be risky – ptichers lose effectiveness the more pitches they throw (though it probably should be done more)

The current use of relievers has evolved over the years, and saves are overrated – but not by much. Certainly a pitcher who comes in in the ninth inning with a three- run lead (and gives up a run) should get no special recognition of the feat*. Ultimately, though the system evolved because the results were satisfactory. It work. Could something work better? In theory, yes, but the problem with using pure statistics to devise strategy in baseball is that it fails to factor in everything – and especially the human factor. The old model for relievers – a left hander and a right hander who were used depending on who they were facing, and who would pitch multiple innings – does not work as well as the current one. A different one might be tried, and if it works, it’ll be adopted. But why run the risk of something new that doesn’t work when you have something that does?
*We can call that the Jack Hamilton rule; Hamilton got 13 saves for the 1966 Mets, often taking a two- or three-run lead and giving up a run or two – but not the lead. And relief pitcher should have more two-inning saves

Well, it’s not quite that simple and painfree for managers. If, for instance, Albuquerque (or Smyly or Veras blew the lead), people would be screaming for Leyland’s head for taking Sanchez out during a no-hitter (regardless of the fact that he was starting to have control issues and was over 110 pitches on the night).

So I don’t think the formula is just to keep the heat off the manager, because he’ll always get heat if something goes awry when he goes to the bullpen; like RealityChuck said, it lets the relievers mentally prepare a bit when they know exactly what role they’re playing.

Likewise in football, a study a few years ago showed that NFL coaches punt far too often, and they should be going for it on 4th down far more than they do. But if an NFL coach were to do that, he’d get excoriated every time he didn’t make it and the other team drove back the other way and scored, even if on a net basis the strategy was clearly succeeding. If the other team drove 80 yards for a TD after the punt (vs. 40 yards after a failed 4th down conversion), then the pundits would put that all on the defense instead (“The coach did what he should have done.”).

But that’s partially self-fulfilling. If the Yankees or Red Sox wanted to they could easily have one fewer slugger and hire 4 pitchers who would be the closers on small-market teams.

I agree that letting the opposing teams score runs in the 9th inning is somewhat worse than any other inning, but I don’t think it’s as big an issue as it seems. The main difference is that if you’re up in the bottom of the 9th and know exactly how many runs you need to score you can adjust your strategy accordingly.

I suspect, however, and this is one of those things that those Sabremetrics guys could probably analyze in a heartbeat, that if you had 4 or 5 batters-worth of guaranteed nearly-shutdown pitching available, then a situation in the 4th inning with a runner on and the heart of the opposing order coming up is a better time to use those 4 or 5 batters of pitching than the-9th-inning-in-isolation.
I agree that there are potential psychological factors where pitchers are used to the general way things work now, but those could be overcome.

Closers hardy ever pitch in the 8th inning these days. They are almost always brought in in one situation: at the start of the ninth inning when their team is already ahead. That’s one of the arguments against the way closers are used now. If the closer is your best reliever, shouldn’t the manager sometimes bring him in in the 8th if the other team is threatening instead of leaving the game in the hands of a lesser pitcher? And yet that’s usually what happens. The guy who is supposed to be the strongest reliever is reserved for situations where the team already has about an 85% chance of winning.

Not with the way closers are paid.

The Yankees and Red Soxes of the world are doing everything in their power to have 4 guys who “would” be closers on small-market teams, in the sense that orthodoxy being what it is, every team has somebody who is designated as the closer, and most of them are just relief pitchers who get that designation and don’t blow it. You’ve got a small group of pitchers from year to year who it’s hard to imagine being anything but a closer, but then you’ve got this club that people are constantly moving in and out of based on what team they’re on, who gets hurt, who’s throwing well, what a manager prefers, and so on. As much as baseball people love to pretend that there’s something that makes a person a closer, as opposed to just a good reliever, the closer tag is incredibly fluid and dynamic and not only is there nothing stopping teams from just saying “fuck it, this guy’s a closer now,” they do it all the time.

In fact, each of the four teams still currently playing has a closer who wasn’t “The Closer” anywhere last season, and none of those four guys were even the nominal closer on opening day this season. I disagree with Marley about this. Most “closers” aren’t actually getting paid closer money while they’re closing. When we say that a team could have four closers, all we’re really saying is they have a good pitching staff (the allegedly critical mental adjustment notwithstanding, since either way you don’t find out whether you can make it until you’re a closer).

This same thinking comes into play a LOT in sports, not just with regard to gametime decisions.

Did the scouts who told everyone that Tim Couch was THE sure-fire quarterback in the draft of 1999 get fired? Probably not. They’d say, “Well, EVERYBODY thought he was the real deal- he was 6 foot 4 and had a rocket for an arm. How were WE supposed to know he couldn’t play?” If EVERYBODY was wrong, then (in effect) nobody in particular was wrong, and nobody gets punished for bad judgment.

On the other hand, if a scout had told the Saints, “Drew Brees is going to be amazing- take him with the first overall pick,” and Brees hadn’t panned out? That scout would have been fired and blackballed for stupidly telling his team to draft a guy that “everybody knew” was too short and didn’t have a strong enough arm.

Many small market teams already have 3 or 4 relief pitchers who could be the closer on most major league ballclubs, since relievers are relatively easy to develop and in somewhat larger supply than other positions. Look at the Royals - Greg Holland (the closer) is one of the best in the game right now. Luke Hochevar and Kelvim Herrera were pretty lights out as well. Even Tim Collins and Aaron Crow have shown the ability (Collins less likely as a lefty). And when you dig into their organization, you’ll find a full farm system of them. The Pirates also have a couple of good relief arms - Grilli was amazing while healthy, Melancon a little less dominant.

I recall reading something Theo Epstein said a few years ago that there is a huge variance in relievers performance from year to year (with certain exceptions) and it’s one area that is hard to predict statistically.

There is. Every year you see guys get a bunch of saves and then never repeat that kind of performance. That’d be one reason not to pay big money to a closer unless he has a Rivera-type track record.

Another thing to keep in mind is the 6-month march of a baseball season - you cannot manage each game in the regular season as if it is a must-win; you’ll burn your best players out. You need to manage the season to maximize the chance of winning over the course of the entire season. If you notice, in the post-season, the best managers will move away from those conservative practices. Even Mariano Rivera rarely would go more than 1 inning in the regular season, but in the post-season he has done it many, many times.

More to the OP’s point, look back to teams like the Cincinnatti Reds Nasty Boys bullpen of the early 90’s; they did some of what you talk about. It wasn’t until after that that the bullpen roles got so hidebound.