What Is The Real Meaning Of A "Closer" Anyway?
I’m hopping mad. I generally believe that Joe Torre is wise enough to manage through the toughest spots. But Friday night against the Orioles, Torre made several crucial mistakes that have raised many questions surrounding the bullpen. The question at the end of the road here is the following: with the tying run in scoring position in the eighth inning, who should be standing on the mound for the Yankees?
Recently, controversy surrounding the idea of the “closer” has resurfaced amongst analysts and the media. Certain members of the press have questioned the amount of respect that these end-of-the-game pitchers have garnered. Is all of the hullabaloo really worth it? Are Jose Mesa’s 21 saves that much more crucial to his team than Brendan Donnelly’s 1.06 ERA and other various contributions?
Clearly the answer should be a resounding “no”.
But the problem lies deeper. There’s not much wrong with the save as a statistic (the three-run rule is questionable, but some standard needs to be set), but there is a problem with the closer as a concept. Closers generally are awarded large contracts based on their accumulations of saves. But more importantly, the closer should be the one pitcher on a team that the manager can depend on to get a crucial out in a key situation. Why else should he exist?
Is it such a big deal if the closer “nails down” a 10-7 victory when he enters the game to start the ninth inning? Without checking the numbers, I feel more than confident in saying that the vast majority of games are decided in innings other than the ninth. Sheer logic shows that the ninth only has a 1-in-9 chance of being the decisive inning. So why are the best pitchers in the bullpen always being held onto for the ninth inning?
Which brings us to Friday night in Baltimore.
Here’s the situation. The Yankees are ahead by a score of 2-1 with Roger Clemens pitching an excellent ballgame. He comes out to start the eighth inning because the first batter is Luis Matos, a right-handed batter who was 0/2 against Clemens on the evening.
Clemens retired Matos with a swinging strikeout. The next batter was B.J. Surhoff, another batter without a hit against Clemens on the evening. But Surhoff is a left-handed batter, and Joe Torre likes to play the matchup game.
So the skipper brings in lefty specialist Jesse Orosco, a 46-year old pitcher with a 7.36 ERA since joining the Yankees and a penchant for retiring southpaws. In fact, Orosco’s only job on the team is to retire left-handed batters. But Friday wouldn’t be his night. Surhoff lined a double to left-center field to put the tying run in scoring position.
Let’s clarify. There’s one out, the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run coming to the plate in the form of Baltimore’s arguable best hitter – Jay Gibbons. Let’s classify this as a “crucial out”.
So what does Joe Torre decide to do? He sticks with Orosco, ostensibly because Gibbons is a lefty. Who is warming in the bullpen? Jeff Nelson, a slider-throwing righty. Where is the Yankees’ best pitcher, Mariano Rivera? Sitting in the bullpen.
Orosco served up a single to Gibbons that allowed pinch runner Jose Morban to score from second without much trouble and tie the game.
Just in case you got lost along the way, the tying run has scored and the go-ahead run is on first base, and Mariano Rivera still hasn’t gotten up.
Torre finally makes a pitching change, and it’s Jeff Nelson. Nelson, whose presence on the team is questionable in the first place (Benitez has tons more talent, and because I was on vacation I didn’t have an opportunity to sound off on the trade), recorded an out before allowing an RBI double to Larry Bigbie that allowed the go-ahead run to score.
One more time. Baltimore’s leading now, and Rivera is still sitting down waiting for the call from Torre.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the big question is this: why didn’t Torre go to Rivera with the game on the line? For what reason did the manager hold off on using his best pitcher, and arguably one of the best relievers in the game? Was he hoping that the tandem of Orosco and Nelson would be able to get out two of the Orioles’ best hitters (Gibbons and Batista) without allowing a hit?
The point is that Rivera’s purpose on the team is to help the Yankees win ballgames. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that the turning point in the game (to that point) was the bottom of the eighth inning, where the Yankees lost their lead and nearly the game. Torre, if asked, will likely say that he was holding on to Rivera to use in the ninth inning. He won’t say that part of the reason for that is so Rivera could get another save to pad his stats. Someone else could have “closed” the game in the ninth. Chris Hammond or Antonio Osuna are fine in non-pressure situations (like starting an inning with no baserunners aboard), or Armando Benitez – a reliever with almost 200 career saves – would have filled that inning nicely. But the ninth has become Rivera’s inning, even if it’s not the inning in which he’s truly needed.
Putting in Orosco to face the lefty Surhoff wasn’t a mistake. Leaving Orosco in the game to face Gibbons with the tying run at second base was a big mistake. That situation was tailor made for a so-called “closer” to come in and snuff the rally. But Rivera was nowhere near the mound, or even the bullpen mound.
The Yankees got lucky on Friday. A timely homerun from Aaron Boone gave the Yankees back their lead, and the Yankees went on to win with Rivera grabbing a save in the bottom of the ninth – albeit with some difficulty – with a shiny new three-run lead.
The Yankees can’t get lucky all the time, and if Torre is truly committed to winning he’s going to have to start using Rivera where he is actually needed: on the mound with the game on the line.