Diamond Diaries

Cardinal baseball, from the girls

The Thing About Closers…

The Cardinals’ shut down man is under the microscope.  Ryan Franklin has blown an incredible 4 saves in 6 appearances.  Fans are frustrated.  In postgame interviews, Franklin seems bewildered and emotionally exhausted.  GM John Mozeliak and manager Tony LaRussa are left with a hot potato.  What to do with a closer who can’t close?

Which got me thinking…

When I first began watching MLB games I wondered why closing pitchers (those who came in and blew batters away 1-2-3) were only in the game for brief appearances.  If they were that good why didn’t teams use them earlier or longer during games?  A few years’ worth of baseball games later, I have come to a better understanding of the tradition of the closer, one far different than the everlasting superhero opinion I had first formed.

Closers are magical creatures, the best of the bullpen relievers, sent in to pitch the last few outs of a close game when their team is leading by three runs or less (that special number that gets them the “save”.)  The hero/closer rewards the team with quick outs, saving the game.  <<all cheer>>  But from what I have learned, closers aren’t Terminators that run on Energizer batteries.  A closer’s specialty is mental focus in the highest pressure situations coupled with some variety of nasty, deadly deliveries.  They don’t have to go deep into games or throw too many pitches.  That’s just not in their job description.

The concept of using an elite pitcher in a regular closing role wasn’t born until the 1980’s.  The fact that Tony La Russa (then with the Oakland A’s) is credited with the idea tells me a lot about the rationale behind the position.  La Russa is either brilliant or crazy, depending on whether you agree with him or not.  To me, Tony is one of baseball’s fascinating characters.  I’d give anything to know how he thinks, strategizes and what his eyes see as a ballgame unfolds.  I’m curious if his lineup tinkering and late inning substitutions are just to confuse the fans who try to figure him out.  However the one thing I do know from reading about Tony La Russa is that Tony is a detail guy.  He reportedly relies heavily on split stats and miniscule odds to give him the edge in every single event on the field.  So it logically follows that a closer, much like a LOOGY (lefty one-out guy), would be the perfect tool in a TLR-managed ballgame… until Tony’s mythical hero can no longer channel that closing magic.

So, if there is no clear successor to don the title of Closing Pitcher, then what next?

Twitter exploded with opinions on that subject following Sunday’s blown save and loss to the Dodgers.  It made me wonder, do the Cardinals really need a designated closer?  If baseball got along fine without closing specialists until the 1980’s, is there a proven benefit to dedicating big dollars to collecting a closer just to have one?  How different would our team be if we fell back to a “closer by committee” strategy?  Tony could run his numbers on opposing batters for his late-inning relievers.  If a long reliever was going strong, the guy could close out his own game.  If we had a mixture of inexperienced yet promising shut-down talent that other teams hadn’t figured out yet (read: Eduardo Sanchez) to complement Mitchell Boggs (the heir apparent), why not mix and match?

I certainly respect the tradition of the closer, and in my perfect world the Cardinals would have a lights-out, stereotypical icon waiting in the bullpen, causing opposing teams and their fans to catch their collective breath when he emerged from the bullpen blowing fire and steam.  But the Cardinals just do not have that sort of magical beast on the roster.

Angela laughs when I try to play GM.  She says we’d have the cutest team in the Majors, full of young guys who “deserve a chance.”  But honestly, I ask, why not take a risk on young (albeit unproven) pitcher in the late innings, develop some talent, have a short leash and share the wealth, closing games by committee.  Maybe there are enough crowns to go around?

The Cardinals return home to face the Nationals at Busch Stadium tonight. Jake Westbrook (1-1, 7.63 ERA) will be on the mound for the Redbirds.  In his last outing, the Cardinals scored 15 runs against the Diamondbacks to get him his first win of 2011.  Game time is 7:15 CT.

Go Cards!!

One response to “The Thing About Closers…

  1. The Ssor April 19, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    I’ve always suspected LaRussa’s creation of the “closer” was motivated by selfish reasons to deflect blame. Imagine how much crap managers would get from the press every time a pitcher blew a game in the 9th without a designated closer. I’m sure they’d have to always answer the question “why did you put HIM in??” and defend their decisions. Now, with the closer, all the manager has to say is “what? Its not my fault, I put in my closer! its his fault! hes supposed to close games!”

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