I like closers. Closers are the craziest of an already crazy breed, the relief pitcher. Typically, the closer is going to be the best short relief pitcher in the bullpen – a guy that can go one to two innings on a fairly regular basis, and has a very low ERA and WHIP to go along with a high strikeout rate. I’m all for having great pitching in your bullpen, but I hate the way it’s being used right now. Because of the creation of the save statistic in the 1960s (and it becoming official in 1969), managers seem to have progressively more and more relied on going to their closer in situations that would give “save” statistics to a bullpen pitcher.
Think about the last time a closer came in at the end of the game to nail down a save. For the Pirates, that closer would be Jason Grilli. Jason is awesome; he’s a great pitcher who’s had a long career, and has clearly found a landing spot with the Pirates. He’s not going to be Joel Hanrahan, but really, who is? Did that closer face the best batters that the other team has, or did he face weaker members of the batting order? The majority of the time, closers end up facing guys who are on the back end of the order, in relatively low pressure situations at the end of the game. Why? If you were going to have to deal with the opposition’s best hitters, why not put your best reliever on the mound when those hitters come to the plate, rather than at the end of the game to help boost an arbitrary statistic? It just doesn’t make any sense if the goal is to win baseball games.
I want to recognize the extremely specialized nature of the game at this point in time, but that recognition doesn’t mean that I necessarily like all of it. When you have a bullpen stocked full of guys with specific skill sets, and varying levels of talent, the best thing to do is to pitch them in such an order that you are most likely to win games, not in such an order that contributes to their stat line. As a manager you have to keep in mind that some guys get their jollies from having a good stat line, and all guys get their food money from having a decent stat line. Baseball being the game it is, very few guys get jobs based off of intangibles (unless Clint Hurdle likes their veteran presence), they get their jobs based off of their performance, which is best reflected in their stats. That being said, the save stat is much less important than a pitcher’s ERA, WHIP, or K/9 rate, but rather than remembering that, we look at a pitcher’s win/loss record (which, unless he produces with the bat, is much too arbitrary), or how many saves he makes in a season. We need to have managers run games to win them, and the best way to do that is not by using your best reliever against the back end of the opposition’s batting order, no matter how much it may hurt some arbitrary number on the back of a baseball card. I want Pirates players to win games, not just awards.