Closer and Closer

Tom Verducci weighs in on the Sox’ closer, or lack thereof.   The article is quite interesting, and it offers a minor view into the mind of Theo Epstein, a view which helps explain why we Sox fans value him: honesty.  Epstein makes no bones about his dubious "closer by committee" plan in 2003.  And he offers blunt self-criticism of that idea: "I definitely didn’t do a good job of choosing relievers overall".

Digging a little deeper, however, Epstein seems more self-assured that simply slotting relief pitchers into specific roles will work out better (I am dubious), while Verducci believes that the closer role is an overrated one (possible, but not well-proven by the writer).  I am skeptical. First of all, slotting players into specific roles doesn’t necessarily convert them from mediocrities into superstars.  It’s a good idea, and I like the psychology.  A good mindset can assist an athlete excel, without a doubt, but any player needs to have abilities and nerves commensurate with their responsibilities.  It’s a pet peeve of mine when managers thrust players into roles that they are not familiar with; to me that unfamiliarity adds pressure.  But that’s not to say a regular gig is a catalyst to greatness (or even goodness).  It most certainly is not. 

As for Verducci’s "study" showing how the most recent World Series teams have fared, he points out that three of the teams succeeded without a bona fide closer on call.  I find this flawed.  The Cardinals won a division with barely a winning record.  Under normal circumstances, their lack of a closer would have contributed to them golfing in October.  This year their success was a fluke because of the horror of the NL Central and, perhaps, the demise of Brad Lidge (how ironic!).   The Diamondbacks also won the title in flukey fashion, having basically blown a World Series because of their reliance on an unproven closer with a sketchy head.  That they were able to rebound and beat the best closer ever was, to me, a miracle.  It still is.  So that hardly qualifies as a test case for the value of the closer.  And two years ago Bobby Jenks emerged and hasn’t falterd since.  This season Jenks showed that he’s a fine relief ace, and we may look back in a few years and see him with 150+ saves, reinforcing the fact that Jenks was, in fact, already the fantastic relief man that he is today, that his learning curve was very flat.

So we can trust from Verducci’s article that the Sox will have something like a closer in April.  We won’t know who that is.  And we won’t know that the closer in April will also be the closer in October.  And all the while, we’re not supposed to be too concerned.  So I wonder how this will all feel on a cold night about 9 weeks from now, when a Sox pitcher, TBD, strolls in from the bullpen to a random heavy metal song (also TBD), only to find himself unable to stand the pressure.  What then?

52 comments… add one
  • Oakland and Moneyball claims that closers are overpriced. It’s hard to tell coming from NY though, since we have Mo every year..

    Lar January 30, 2007, 5:51 pm
  • I totally understand the “a monkey could finish most games” idea. I do. But there seem to me to be many trickle-down factors that having a solid, proven closer impacts. Team confidence. Fielder’s nerves in late-game situations. Manager decision-making. etc. I know what the statistics say about closers.
    And that’s not to say that the Sox HAVE to go get someone who has closed 150 games, that’s not it at all. I understand Verducci’s thoughts that a closer may emerge, that there may be a player suited to the role who simply has not been put in that role yet. But that is, without argument, an unknown situation. The Sox have a great unknown on their roster, and even when they name their closer they’ll be in the same spot. That doesn’t make me despondent, but it also doesn’t bring great comfort.

    SF January 30, 2007, 5:56 pm
  • I really think Mo is the outlier. Teams do win without closers, but as I’ve said before, it’s much less comfortable to think about it. Teams often go with the hot-hand on the issue (see St.Louis this year), but it’s much more nice to know the guy showing up everynight. Last year with Papelbon we knew that unless something crazy happened (see Dye homerun), the door was closed. That’s a great feeling to have, and NY has been fortunate to have that joy. But, the bottom line is this: it is one hundred percent possible to live with a guy who blows ten or twelve saves and still do very well as a team. All that being said, I think if given the chance from the start, Hansen has the makeup to do this. Laugh all you want, dc, but the kid is only one full year removed from college, and he has an incredible arm – even better than Papelbon. If he gets confidence, which he was surely lacking last year, he’s very capable of doing the job. If not, well, I’m sure we’ll find out early enough and fix the problem.

    Brad January 30, 2007, 6:01 pm
  • much more nice? hahah. Sorry, I’m tired.

    Brad January 30, 2007, 6:02 pm
  • Hello everyone; good to be back! (In case anyone noticed I was gone…:)) I’m with SF on this one – I think the good teams seem to have good, defined closers – Angels, White Sox, Blue Jays, Yanks, Twins, A’s. That can’t be a coincidence. And what hurt the Indians last year? Lack of a closer was certainly part of it.
    I don’t think there’s too much mystique about closers – a good, flamethrowing bullpen arm should be able to do the trick. And who knows if pitching in the 7th is actually more important than in the 9th? Point is, I think its of psychological importance and adds solidity to the bullpen to have an established, commanding closer coming out in the 8th/9th innings.
    I also find it odd that for all their efforts, the Sox weren’t able to locate one this off season. I wonder how much of their new posture is spin and damage limitation.

    Sam January 30, 2007, 6:10 pm
  • I think closers are one of those things.. if they give you an extra 4-5 wins a season, it’s extra valuable when you already win about 85-90 since that might be the difference between going to the playoffs and going to play golf.
    For postseason, if your name isn’t Mo, it might be random.. (Kim in 2001 had an excellent year.. and almost gave the series away..)

    Lar January 30, 2007, 6:26 pm
  • Sam:
    What high-profile closers were available via free agency? Who, besides Cordero, was rumored to be available via trade? The market was/is thin.

    SF January 30, 2007, 6:27 pm
  • “I also find it odd that for all their efforts, the Sox weren’t able to locate one this off season. I wonder how much of their new posture is spin and damage limitation.”
    How many arms are there in the game of baseball who we would consider a ‘safe’ bet as far as closing games in Boston is concerned? I’m not talking about how many guys are there who have saves…how many truly dominant bullpen arms are there who have more or less proven themselves capable of shutting down a lineup for 1-2 innings? Now how many of these would have actually been available?
    It’s an extremely short list. Joel Zumaya could do it…I don’t see that a possibility. The Halos have a great pen…but was giving Justin Speier, who may have been an option, a 4-year deal a particularly good move? Would Scot Shields, 32 years old with a funky delivery and 2006-Scott-Proctor-type usage the last 3+ years have been worth the risk and cost? Chad Cordero’s name was thrown around a lot…nevermind that he’s an NL pitcher in a cavernous ballpark, I think he probably would have been a nice option. But this is Jim Bowden, and was Cordero really worth Ellsbury and Hansen? (I seem to remember rumors that he was asking for 2-3 elite prospects…not totally sure on this, but it is Jim Bowden.)
    It’s real easy to criticize Boston for not having a closer, and it’s a legit concern. But at the same time, while I do blame the FO for some pretty terrible pen acquisitions of late…they haven’t had many opportunities since 2004 to grab another dominant arm. And they’ve done a great job in the draft the last few years, with several flamethrowers just on the horizon. Selling several of them for a quick fix now just wouldn’t make any sense…better to see who sticks in 2007 and pray a couple of kids are ready in 08.
    PS: Jon Lester? Not a possibility later this season? I don’t really see why he can’t pull a Papelbon…by which I mean close a year and then move into the rotation next year, I’m not saying he’d be anywhere near as dominant. I know I’m not the first to throw that idea around…I was just a little surprised Verducci didn’t mention him.

    desturbd1 January 30, 2007, 6:35 pm
  • Lester doesn’t have the control to be a closer. He may have temperament, but not the control. I’d hate to see that experiment in action, in real time.

    SF January 30, 2007, 7:16 pm
  • Oh yeah. I thought his minor league walk numbers were better then that, and (hoped) his illness/inexperience was what did him in in the majors. But, they aren’t. So, nevermind.

    desturbd1 January 30, 2007, 7:34 pm
  • re. verducci’s analogy, i’d still rather have peyton manning than rex grossman…
    brad, i’m not laughing…anything can happen…i can afford to be smug with rivera on my side, but i’m not going to be…you guys need to select someone for the closer role…i’m no expert, but i think a closer needs to prepare mentally as much as physically, so knowing that’s the expectation is helpful to the pitcher…i don’t know how many wins a closer accounts for in a given year, because you can’t predict what the outcome would be otherwise…let’s say mo gets 30 saves…how many of those are because he’s mo v. how many the yanks would have won with another guy closing?…with teams that can score a lot of runs and come back from a deficit on occasion, like the sox, it might be less important to have a guy who is lights out every single appearance…i would say that the closer needs to be mentally tough, come in 2 or 3 days in a row, throw strikes, keep the ball in the park, and have a strikeout pitch…i don’t know how many of your current candidates fit that description…papelbon did, except i guess for the physical part which eventually wore him down…

    dc January 30, 2007, 7:37 pm
  • I’m just curious – did the Sox baby Papelbon at all in the beginning? For example, the Indians weren’t very slick with Carmona, and pretty much destroyed his confidence.. did anything of the sort happened to Papelbon?

    Lar January 30, 2007, 7:52 pm
  • I don’t really remember, but it doesn’t look that way. He had more saves in April then any other month (10) and the 2nd greatest number of innings pitched. Looking at his game log…he threw the 8th inning in a 5-run game on April 3, with Foulke giving up a single run in the 9th. From there it was all saves. So, no, they didn’t baby him…he’s just got brass ones and sick stuff, and Carmona apparently didn’t. :)

    desturbd1 January 30, 2007, 7:57 pm
  • I don’t know if this qualifies as babying, but looking at Papelbon’s game log, he pitched in 13 games in April 2006, pitched more than 1 inning only once in the month (the 21st), and did not pitch back to back days until the 28th and 29th. They certainly weren’t riding him hard, at least. His 2005 usage as a reliever was generally similar (no back to backs and only 2 multi-inning outings in the regular season), except for the postseason where both outings were long.

    Froggywomp January 30, 2007, 8:27 pm
  • “And two years ago Bobby Jenks emerged and hasn’t falterd since. This season Jenks showed that he’s a fine relief ace, and we may look back in a few years and see him with 150+ saves, reinforcing the fact that Jenks was, in fact, already the fantastic relief man that he is today, that his learning curve was very flat.”
    About Jenks…if I were a fan of the other Sox, I’d be concerned. His second half numbers were atrocious; batters hit .295 against him and his WHIP skyrocketed to 1.80. His K/9 was still nasty, but he walked 5 more people then he did in the first half, in 13 fewer innings. Further, it wasn’t like he just had one bad month…he had an abysmal July, stellar August, and an abysmal September. Looking back at Rotoworld…he apparently had a sore hip…but who knows…
    I know this wasn’t the main thrust of your post, I’m just procrastinating and it got me thinking about him. Plus I really don’t like the guy…so it’s nice to take an opportunity to sh*t on him a little.

    desturbd1 January 30, 2007, 9:39 pm
  • Verducci touches on this, but doesn’t really discuss it too much. The fact is not many teams at all have a dominant reliable closer from year to year. The Sox haven’t had the same closer in their full-time slot in consecutive years since 2000-01:
    ’06: Papelbon
    ’05: Foulke/Timlin/Schilling
    ’04: Foulke
    ’03: Committee/Kim
    ’02: Urbina
    ’01: Lowe
    ’00: Lowe
    Ironic that Kim, who had a dominant season then nearly lost it in the Series actually helped save the Sox’ season by providing the stabilization in 2003 before collapsing in large part to misuse by Grady Little (imagine that).
    I can see both sides of this argument. Closers are fluky things. Lowe and Urbina both flamed out as closers after 40-save seasons. Gordon was converted midseason from a starter and the next year had 40 saves. Foulke was established then went down with injuries the next two seasons, yet the Sox made the playoffs in 2005 while collapsing terribly the next year with a lights-out closer. The Sox were a Little short of likely winning the World Series in 2003 after a season in which they started with Brandon Lyon saving the majority of their games in the first half.
    On the other hand, I’d feel a heck of a lot better knowing Cordero or Papelbon were going to be on in the ninth every game. What does cheer me is that, as Verducci noted, most saves are actually pretty easy, relatively speaking — and hopefully with the Sox’ lineup and rotation they’ll be even easier than normal. We don’t need a 40-save season out of Joel Pineiro. We just need a 10-save first half from somebody, which hopefuly would give Craig Hansen enough time to take his place as the anointed Sox Closer of the Future.
    For whatever it’s worth, Papelbon definitely wasn’t babied — he and Foulke both pitched Opening Day. Foulke looked terrible. Papelbon was awesome. Papelbon was put into every save situation after that. I still feel bad for Fausto Carmona. Terribly misused during that series in Boston.

    Paul SF January 30, 2007, 9:52 pm
  • If the Sox have only 10 saves in the first half I am speculating that at least 1/2 of the patrons of this site are not going to be very happy.

    SF January 30, 2007, 10:29 pm
  • What does cheer me is that, as Verducci noted, most saves are actually pretty easy, relatively speaking
    But it’s the HARD ones that we worry about, right? I mean, who among us breathes a sigh of relief at the thought of someone like Papelbon coming in against the Mariners with a three run lead in the ninth inning? I don’t worry too much if Kyle Snyder comes in with that lead: he’s going to get that save almost all the time. That’s low leverage. What about the one run lead against the heart of the Jays’ lineup? Or the Yanks? In August, September?

    SF January 30, 2007, 10:39 pm
  • YOu also have to keep in mind that once the “committee” begins, everyone in the bullpen that shows talent as a middle reliever gets their chance and it makes for an unsure post-starter situation. Many pitchers (not all of course) are as we all are–creatures of habit. The sox need to find someone quickly. IfF they start shifting monthly things could get pretty strange in the post-mortem sections on this site.

    walein January 30, 2007, 11:08 pm
  • Since when has a closer-by-committee ever worked out? Ask Cincy how much they love their multiple closers.

    Andrew January 30, 2007, 11:38 pm
  • Since when has anyone advocated closer by committee? Certainly not anyone on the Red Sox this offseason.

    Paul SF January 31, 2007, 12:06 am
  • …my mom always said that you should finish what you start…

    dc January 31, 2007, 6:27 am
  • Life without Mo is gonna suck.

    Rob (Middletown, CT) January 31, 2007, 8:39 am
  • Rob,
    don’t talk crazy. Mo is never leaving. We’ll just clone him.
    seriously, i’m not sure if this has been brought up, but I’m just suprised the sox didn’t give a one year deal to Octavio Dotel. Last year he was coming off of TJ surgery, so his control was off, thus making him useless to Torre, but don’t most pitchers coming off TJ need a full year to recover. he could be pretty good this year. I kind of wish Cashman resigned him.

    m.g. yanks fan January 31, 2007, 9:41 am
  • The Sox looked at Dotel, and obviously looked at Gagne, and decided both wanted too much, considering the injury concerns.
    That’s understandable, except they forked over essentially the same amount for Pineiro, a guy with significant suckitude concerns.

    Paul SF January 31, 2007, 10:23 am
  • Dotel might be good this year, yeah. He seemed to fit the TJ recovery pattern: control is the last thing to come back. His velocity was there, his control wasn’t. Result: he got hammered.
    Where did he end up, and at what years/dollars?

    Rob (Middletown, CT) January 31, 2007, 1:17 pm
  • dotel went to KC for a one year $5 million deal.

    sf rod January 31, 2007, 2:49 pm
  • “…That’s understandable, except they forked over essentially the same amount for Pineiro, a guy with significant suckitude concerns.”
    And this is my exact issue with those who say, ‘No one was available.’ In actuality there were some arms out there that are better risks than what they currently have, and at a similar price.
    I also have a problem with the notion that taking a gamble on someone at a steep price isn’t worth it when the Sox have no one, including Pineiro. While the closer might be overrated by some, I don’t see the Yanks winning without Mo, nor do I see the Sox winning in 04 without Foulke. It’s a prerequisite for post-season success, at least in the AL.
    And can a Sox fan please explain to me why the “committee” approach will work this time (or why Theo thinks it will work), when it imploded last time?

    lp January 31, 2007, 3:17 pm
  • Or better yet, when did a team with a “closer by committee” ever win the WS?

    Andrews January 31, 2007, 3:28 pm
  • I still say Papelbon will become the closer again sometime in ’07.

    Andrews January 31, 2007, 3:29 pm
  • LP, this is not a committee approach. The Red Sox in 2003 went into the season without a closer, saying they would simply pick the best pitcher for the given situation. There were no defined roles. This year, they are saying there will be a closer, there will be defined roles. There will be no committee. This is a pretty obvious distinction.

    Paul SF January 31, 2007, 3:35 pm
  • Yes. Further, the problem with ’03 wasn’t necessarily the idea of having no pre-defined roles… it was that the guys the Sox had that year kinda sucked. You need some talent.
    Obviously the best-case scenario is to have a top-flight, dependable (!) closer like Mo. But there aren’t many of those. Most relievers are neither as good nor as consistent.
    The desire to have a lights-out closer, which is important not only to win ballgames but for the psychological effect (Mo doesn’t always save the game, but it FEELS like he does), may well lead the Sox back to Papelbon. We’ll see.

    Rob (Middletown, CT) January 31, 2007, 3:43 pm
  • That’s absolutely right, Rob. Based on the stuff Theo has said, I think he regrets the ’03 experiment less because of the idea and more because he poorly executed it. Though Timlin and Embree ended up being pretty useful in the long run, Timlin particularly so.
    Sadly, I’m not sure that the Sox have a much better collection of talent this offseason.

    Paul SF January 31, 2007, 3:49 pm
  • “This year, they are saying there will be a closer, there will be defined roles. There will be no committee. This is a pretty obvious distinction.”
    Because there are competency issues regarding the closer role, the clearly defined roles will be blurred very quickly. The only way there is no committee is if their designated closer on opening day gets the job done and I don’t see that happening.
    Theo’s “clearly defined roles” spin sounds a lot like Bush on Iraq. OBVIOUSLY, just because he says it’s so, don’t make it so.

    lp January 31, 2007, 4:07 pm
  • Well, no argument there, LP. That risk certainly does exist. The main difference is it’s not intentional, and that teams have recovered from such situations to fund a closer and do well in the postseason.

    Paul SF January 31, 2007, 4:14 pm
  • The ’03 experiment was flawed because of the idea itself. The Jamsian premise, if I recall, was that someone like Urbina wasn’t worth the cash to come in and play such a specialized, save situation only role. Instead, tap into the collective bullpen and bring out your best available arm in the tightest situation. (Nevermind that a tight spot can come up again in multiple points in the game)
    But we find that Timlin and Embree, who are fine relievers, but not the elite closer types, couldn’t get the job done. And the rationale was that the Sox needed better guys to do it right. To me, the next level up from those two would be a set-up/closer caliber player – which would defeat the entire premise because you would have to pay them a closer’s salary.

    lp January 31, 2007, 4:19 pm
  • The mental aspect is a huge part of BB, according to most players; The Jamsian premise runs counter to the belief that the most successful closers have the mental fortitude to get the job done in the 9th, with the game on the line. Timlin’s numbers 8th v 9th seem to bear that out. A great closer has a certain aura on the mound, which surely gets in hitter’s heads. Mo has it, Paplebon had it last year, for example.
    IMO, a committe doesn’t bring that element to the game.

    Anonymous January 31, 2007, 4:44 pm
  • That was me.

    Andrews January 31, 2007, 4:45 pm
  • But even “successful” closers go away, which I think makes the Jamsian premise credible – which really depends on the money, I think. Overpriced isn’t quite overvalued. In the last few years, “sure-fire” closers like Chad Cordero, Gagne (though it’s an injury), Lidge (no one knows what’s going on) have gone down, so unless you had a Mo that can do it year in year out.
    And not to poke at Paps, but he only did it for one year (to his credit, it was dominating).
    Probably not worth paying 5-10m for 60-80 IP. Hence the overpriced.. overvalued, I don’t think you can accurate measure the confidence Mo gives the Yanks, or the fear that the other team gives Mo..

    Lar January 31, 2007, 5:56 pm
  • “Probably not worth paying 5-10m for 60-80 IP.”
    In the postseason, a good closer can make all the difference, so IMO, they are worth that kind of money. IMO, the sox don’t win in’04 without Foulke; the Yanks don’t win without Mo any number of years. I think it’s money well spent.

    Andrews January 31, 2007, 6:19 pm
  • I like my IMO’s. Yeesh!

    Andrews January 31, 2007, 6:20 pm
  • Well, you can’t use Mo in that argument, because that’s just not fair. =)
    As for Foulke, he was good a few years, but where is he now? I guess if you’re doing the Marlins strategy of priming at one year (twice) and then sell off it might not be so bad, but I don’t know.

    Lar January 31, 2007, 11:50 pm
  • …rivera is an anomaly for a few reasons:
    …i won’t bother to detail each of those relative to mo’s success, since i think we all agree this is what has made him such a legend…i can’t recall too many other closers in history that have been so dominant and dependable, over such a long period of time…
    …closers seem to be great for a couple of years, then you need to recycle them…my advice to the sox would be to decide on someone soon with the right ingredients [from my earlier comments] and let him settle into the role…if it’s only for this year, so be it…

    dc February 1, 2007, 9:18 am
  • …by the way, someone mentioned “oakland and money ball”‘s opinion on the value of closers…look, until “oakland and money ball” actually win something, i’m not impressed…they give the good old college try every year, but like the sf’s like to remind me about the yanks, they make a quick exit…

    dc February 1, 2007, 9:22 am
  • In “Oakland and Moneyball”‘s defense – even making the playoffs isn’t trivial (*cough*). All you can do is fix the dice as much as you can in your favor – it’s a crapshoot.
    And it’s not like closers were the reason why the A’s lost..

    Lar February 1, 2007, 9:36 am
  • but oakland was at its best when they had good closers pre- and post-money ball: fingers, eckersley [sp.], foulke…

    dc February 1, 2007, 10:16 am
  • To clarify, I believe the philosophy (Moneyball anyhow, not necessarily Jamsian) is more along the lines of “closers are overpriced – we can groom them and then trade them off” – which they did with Koch, Foulke, Isringhausen (sp?), Dotel, and now we’ll see if they keep Street. But as you can see, all those closers were at least above average in those years.
    And they pretty much won the division every year or every other year – in 2004 they finish 1 game out and in 2001, they had 102 wins, but didn’t win the division because of those insane Mariners. And I believe in that playoff a certain someone made “the play”.. =)
    From that span from 1999 to 2006, their record is 23 games (or about 2.5 games a season) better than the Sox (the Yanks are about 26 games better than Oakland, but then you consider the payroll..)

    Lar February 1, 2007, 11:00 am
  • “From that span from 1999 to 2006, their record is 23 games (or about 2.5 games a season) better than the Sox (the Yanks are about 26 games better than Oakland, but then you consider the payroll..)
    A little misleading, though, considering the divisions and the unbalanced play. No doubt, the Oakland style of management has been very successful — at least in the regular season.

    Paul SF February 1, 2007, 11:14 am
  • Didn’t mean to be misleading, merely forgot in my haste. Not comparing the Yanks for a second, AL East should be easier than AL West during most of that span, wasn’t it?

    Lar February 1, 2007, 11:52 am
  • not to be overly cynical, but the fair comparison would be to take a look at the whole picture…i keep hearing that regular season records don’t matter, so the argument that the a’s overall record is close to the yanks and other spenders sounds a bit hollow to me…so in the period of time that “moneyball” has been on the scene [beane became the gm in ’97], what’s been the comparison between say the yank’s brand of moneyspendingball v. oakland’s brand of moneyball in terms of post season success, including ws, divisions, attendance [that is fielding a team fans are actually interested in watching], revenue, and other typical measures of the success of a baseball business plan…don’t get me wrong, i admire the a’s ability to get a lot of mileage by running the team on a shoestring budget, but if postseason, fan interest, and generating revenue are the measures of success, i think they come up short…

    dc February 1, 2007, 1:31 pm
  • I wasn’t arguing for varying level of success – just that closers are overpriced, using the A’s as an example. They win year in, year out, most years with a different closer. Buy low (easy), sell high (relatively easy).

    Lar February 1, 2007, 1:54 pm
  • And as a YF, you don’t have to tell me regular season records don’t matter! ;)

    Lar February 1, 2007, 1:54 pm

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