Closers Are Generally Overrated

I read a good article by the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner this morning about closers.  What I took away from it is that except for the very best closers, those who are clearly the very best and most consistent relief pitchers in baseball, closers are fungible, since a team’s top set-up man can usually step into the role and perform just as well if the team’s established closer leaves or gets hurt.

This not in the least bit surprising, since most effective closers really only need two plus pitches to be effective.  Since starters need at least three or four good pitches to be effective, there are going to be many, many more effective relievers than effective starters.

The article lists a great number of closers who got big free agent contracts but were replaced in the closer role long before their contracts expired.  No surprise there either — free agents in general are overpaid and entering the decline phases of their careers.

Needless to say, almost all quality relievers prefer to be closers than set up men, not just because closers are much better paid.  In today’s game, closers’ roles are very narrowly defined — they mostly pitch the last inning of games in which their teams have a saveable lead.  Top set-up men pitch more innings each year and pitch in many more different situations, which makes their jobs more uncertain and more difficult.

For pitchers with the talent to be a major league team’s top set-up man, the little bit of extra pressure that comes with being the team’s closer is almost insignificant.  The very act of being a regular major league player means facing daily pressure to perform and win no matter what part of the game is being played.

The lesson seems to be identify good pitching prospects in the draft, develop them as effective major league relievers, and you will have pitchers who can step into the closer’s role when you need them.

The one purported advantage of having an established closer is the “calming” effect it has on the team’s other players.  An established closer gives the team confidence and one less thing to worry about, or so the argument goes.

As the article states, this alleged psychological effect is just about impossible to verify.  I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting that teams actually perform worse in subsequent games after the team’s closer blows a save and loses the game.  Major league players are professionals who have plenty of experience bouncing back from tough losses by the time they reach the majors.  Also, it seems to me that the moment that an untested closer steps in and pitches about as well as the preceding established closer did, the team is going to have the same sense of assurance it had with the established closer.

What is most important about this perception is that many people in baseball still believe this established closer benefit exists.  As long as this is a widely held belief, some teams will continue to overpay for established closers who could be more cheaply replaced by other relievers who are just as effective.

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