Saturday, June 23, 2012

How Jerome Holtzman Singlehandedly Ruined Baseball: The Art of Closers

It's the Bottom of the 6th inning in a 2-2 game, and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Joel Peralta has just loaded the bases against the Washington Nationals. Prior to 1969, Joe Maddon would bring in his best relief pitcher, Fernando Rodney, but since this is the closer era, Peralta is left in the game. Danny Espinosa is the next batter up, and he smacks a 2-run double to right field, and the Nats take the 4-2 lead. The Rays go on to lose the game 5-2.

In 1959, Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman created the statistic of a save. The official criteria for this is as follows according to baseball-almanac:

  1. He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and
  2. He is not the winning pitcher; and
  3. He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
    • He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or
    • He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batsmen he faces); or
    • He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than one save may be credited in each game.
The MLB officially accepted by the MLB as rule 10.20 in the year 1969 as the first new rule since the RBI was adopted in 1920. Originally, teams did not overreact to this statistic and used their relief pitchers when they should be used. Guys like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage are true relief pitchers. They actually pitched more than an inning unlike the poor excuses that are currently pitching in today's MLB.

At some point during the 80s, managers decided that instead of using relievers in the classic "fireman" role popularized by the above pitchers and many others, they decided that the save was very important. Managers decided to start saving their best relievers for save situations instead of as firemen.

Firemen used to come into the game to "put out the fire" in the toughest situations in the game, whether it be the 6th inning or the 9th inning. Joe Maddon threw Peralta into the game because Rodney is the designated closer for the team. Rodney is by far the best option on the team, and with the bases loaded in a tie game, it was a perfect opportunity to use him to save the game, without recording a save, but of course due to the save statistic, Maddon probably never even considered using Rodney.

The role of relief pitchers completely changed with the advent of the save. Instead of pitching multiple innings taking over from the starting pitcher, they have recently become specialists who can only work one inning and throw around twenty pitches. This is an unfortunate change because now, the relief pitchers is very under-appreciated.  People worry too much about overworking these pitchers, because their arms are not nearly developed enough to pitch on a more regular basis.

According to certain statistics, most notably the study conducted by ESPN's Jim Caple, show that the closer does not help or hurt a team. He studied the seasons 1930 through 2003, and saw that the winning percentage of teams who entered the 9th inning with a lead never changed significantly. This proves that the closer role is not more effective than the old strategy, so why use it?

Many of you may think that without the save, a manager may not know which is the best situation to use the best reliever, which is not true. Part of being a manager is knowing when to utilize the bench and the bullpen, and in the proper situations. If there is a tight situation in the 5th inning after a starter has been knocked out, the manager may choose to save the ace reliever for a higher leverage situation later in the game. Managers are supposed to look ahead, sometimes predict based on hunches, and manage their team accordingly. I can assure you, however, that the best spot to bring in a closer is always at the beginning of the 9th inning.

Sometimes teams don't use their closer in the 8th inning and opt to use a lesser pitcher because the 9th inning is the spot reserved for the closer. They are also worried that having a pitch begin pitching and then sitting down will "throw them off of their rhythm." Unless they have a very long inning while batting, then this is a completely ridiculous way of approaching this issue. There is zero factual evidence that shows that relievers perform any worse if they sit down for about 5-10 minutes. Granted, anything above that is assumed to affect their performance, but even that theory has nothing to back it up.

Wasting the use of the closer with a 3 run lead is useless. Sticking in a lesser reliever will usually get the job done, because all that's being asked of him is to get 3 outs before giving up 3 runs. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes it is not, but at least starting the inning with a guy who isn't as highly regarded isn't a bad thing. Of course, this thinking does not exist because of the save.

The widespread use of the closer is only save situations sometimes causes the pitcher to not be used for a while, because there are no save situations to protect. If a team is involved in a tie game, losing, or has greater than a 4 run lead in the 9th inning, teams are less willing to bring in the closer. If a team does this consistently, then the poor closer may just sit there for a week with nothing to do. Teams may bring him in just to give him some work, but that practice is not utilized as much as it should be.

The effect of the save rule, is that now people think that closers pitch worse in non-save situations. Much like the rest issue, there is nothing to back this up. It is often brought up that adrenaline is a factor in why closers pitch well in save situations. A major league baseball player should not be affected by adrenaline to the point where it drastically changes their performance. If adrenaline is such a changing factor, then they probably would still be stuck in AA ball. "Pitching to the score" is another ridiculous way of thinking. All of a sudden, a pitcher decides not to give up any runs with a 1 run lead, and to give up 4 with a 5 run lead. The Yankees's Rafael Soriano has always been overrated in my mind, but this insane way of thinking is very prominent surrounding him. The "smart" people around baseball say that he is a great closer, and explain his complete lack of production last year on the fact that he was not closing. He just wasn't as good because he was not the one designated to finish off games. Now that he is the closer, he is magically back in good form. No, he had a very bad season last year because sometimes players have terrible years during which they are ot very effective. He obviously fixed his problems during the offseason and Spring Training. Pitchers do not change the way they pitch depending on the lead that his team has given him. If they do, find factual and statistical evidence for me. Go ahead, show me. Nothing changes, and nothing should change.

The worst part of the closer role is the constant questioning about a guy's mental makeup. A question I have heard too many times, is "does this pitcher have the mental makeup to be a closer." There is nothing that says  that certain pitchers cannot handle the pressure of pitching in the 9th inning rather than the pressure of pitching in the 6th. The goal is always to get outs, regardless of what inning it is, and there is, was, and forever will be immense pressure of pitchers to retire the batters whom he faces. Carlos Marmol, will always be an ineffective, and plainly, a bad pitcher. Here in New York, people overreacted to the fact that David Robertson blew his first save opportunity after Mariano Rivera went down with injury. It was one outing, pitchers often have bad days when their stuff is just not working for one reason or another. It became a big issue, because his mind was suddenly called into question as people doubted whether or not he is able to get the final outs of a game. He is by far the best remaining reliever on the team without Rivera, and he should be pitching when it matters most which sometimes comes in the 9th inning and as I have previously stated, it can be at another time during the game. There is nothing in his head that changes whether he is the All-Star David Robertson or an unworthy major leaguer. The Yankees have not even given him another opportunity at this because of Soriano's effectiveness, so it has to be seen if the team is smart enough to stop doubting his "makeup." See, it's so ludicrous that I have to put "makeup" in quotations.

So thank you Jerome Holtzman, for changing the way baseball is played, and certainly not for the better.

Leave a comment with your response to this article.


  1. Replies
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