The Pirates own a precarious one-run lead and are three outs from raising the Jolly Roger. Jared Hughes struggled mightily in the top of the 8th inning, but managed to get through the heart of the opposition’s lineup. The PNC Park crowd nearly tastes victory. 38k strong rise in anticipation of a tidy top of the 9th, hopefully emphatically punctuated by a two-foot whiff on a toxic slider or a called 3rd strike on a breaking ball that floats eye-high then suddenly plummets into the catcher’s mitt.
A streak of lightning flashes across the monstrous scoreboard. The first chord of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck pulses through the speakers. The bullpen door opens and Mark “The Shark” Melancon steps on to the left field warning track and then trots toward the mound like a main event WWE wrestler en route to the squared circle. The crowd — a motley blend of schoolchildren, devoted season ticket holders, and half-drunk loonies — roar as one hungry ravenous beast. The Pirates’ All-Star closer, The Shark, is here, and everyone smells the blood in the water.
However, lost in the spectacle and theatrics of the 9th inning is pure baseball strategy. Melancon should’ve pitched the 8th inning. And Hughes should’ve been called from the pen — or, the shark tank — to face the bottom of the order, less the early-90’s power ballad and video montage of natural disasters on the scoreboard.
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Although the concept of a closer dates back to the early 1900’s, the role of the modern closer gradually evolved when the save became an official MLB statistic in 1969. Bruce Sutter was the first incarnation of what would become the modern version of the closer; he started the 9th inning in 20% of his career appearances. In 1987, John Franco started the 9th in 50% of his appearances. In 1994, Lee Smith started the 9th in 75% of his appearances. But it was Tony La Russa — that infernal tinkerer — who is credited as the creator of the modern closer: a 9th inning-only specialist in the personage of Dennis Eckersley. By the early 1990’s, the Eckersley prototype was copied by the league, and a team’s top relief pitcher was deemed “the closer.” More than two decades after Eckersley’s heyday, the unwritten rule that every team roster includes a closer persists.
But even to this day the former Cardinal’s skipper may be costing the Pirates wins simply because his methods led to the eventual indoctrination of all teams anointing a closer. Teams seem to accept that employing a closer is the most efficient means of sealing a win — barring a walk-off, or extra innings, or otherwise quirky, victory.
Research conducted by Retrosheets — a website dedicated to box scores of pre-1984 baseball games — concluded that, between 1930 and 2003, teams’ winning percentages entering the 9th inning remained unchanged; employment of a closer had virtually zero impact. Baseball Prospectus concludes that calling on the dominant reliever in a more precarious pre-9th inning situation with runners on base earns a team approximately 4 wins per season. Tom Tango (alias) — a noted baseball sabermetrician — wrote in his book The Book: Playing The Percentages in Baseball about the value of having an ace relief enter the game in a more dire situation than the average 9th inning.
Some belief that the concept of the closer has become less about winning baseball games and more about finances. Jim Caple of ESPN says that “Managers feel the need to please their closers — and their closer’s agents — by getting them cheap saves to pad their stats and their bank accounts.” Even the A’s GM Billy Beane concludes that managers use their best reliever in the 9th inning because the media would be too harsh if a less dominant blew the game late.
Perhaps a team’s media coverage would, in fact, be less harsh if said team won four more games per year.
Too often baseball strategy is employed throughout a game only to be ignored in crunch time — be it for reasons statistical, or financial, or fear of harming a player’s psyche, or simple avoidance of spitting on an unwritten rule of baseball. Beginning in 2015, Clint Hurdle should rewrite the unwritten rule of the closer role.
calling on the dominant reliever in a more precarious pre-9th inning situation with runners on base earns a team about 4 wins per season.
In the hypothetical scenario presented early in the post, the more wise choice would be to cast Mark Melancon, the perceived most effective reliever, into the impending hell storm that was the eight inning. Hughes, or another less effective reliever, should face the bottom of the lineup in the 9th inning. (I know, I know; Tony Watson is the typical 8th inning reliever and is arguably as effective as Melancon. In the hypothetical scenario we’ll assume that Watson is unavailable. And be mindful of a wrench in the cogs — granting a pitcher rest. Hurdle normally won’t trot a reliever out a forth night in a row. The point remains, however.)
Managers often maintain that he who is the closer has the toughest mentality, or the highest capacity to stay poised during high-pressure situations…the ol’ “ice water in the veins” cliche. Perhaps that adage is true, but it seems fishy. The closer is nearly always the dominant reliever. But that begs the question: Is a reliever dominant because he is the most poised, or the most poised because he is dominant?
What came first – the parrot or the egg?
Furthermore, is facing the 6-7-8 batters in the 9th inning necessarily a more high-pressure situation than when runners are on 2nd and 3rd with one out in a one-run game and Bryce Harper is settling into the batter’s box in the 8th inning? The reliever most likely to retire Harper should be staring him down, regardless of whether he was accompanied to the mound by an AC/DC video.
Of course, there’s always the worn argument that a “closer” will feel slighted, and his pride seriously dented, if called from the pen before the 9th inning. Too bad. What was it that Tom Hanks said about crying in baseball. ( Hint: There is none). Now take the damn ball and let’s get out of this 7th inning jam before we’re left in the dust. You can watch the 9th inning from the dugout — and celebrate a victory.
And if managers use a closer solely to justify a hefty financial commitment to said closer, or to please said closer’s agent, than baseball is a sham anyway and every game deserves an asterisk. (Moreover, Barry Bonds should not only be in the Hall of Fame, his bust should be topped with a bronze crown of thorns molded from the melted-down busts of lesser-talented entrants.)
Clint Hurdle should be the innovator that Tony La Russa was — by flipping La Russa’s blueprint. Relievers, and their teams, are best served when utilized in favorable match-ups, and not based on a largely meaningless label. It’s time to ditch the so-called closer’s silly entrance music and flashy video for VH1 to run at 4am on weeknight. There’s a damn game to win.