Shifting the closer paradigm

This story was originally published August 18, 2015

In early July, the Seattle Mariners were playing the Detroit Tigers at Safeco Field and Seattle’s starting pitcher – Hisashi Iwakuma – was making his first start since returning from the disabled list and the right-hander wasn’t particularly effective, which was clearly evident after he surrendered three early home runs.

After the Mariners fought back to take a 5-3 lead in the fifth inning, the 34-year-old veteran opened the sixth by giving up the fourth Detroit home run of the night to Yoenis Cespedes and allowing a single to Victor Martinez. Acting manager Trent Jewett had seen enough of Iwakuma and elected to bring in rookie Mayckol Guaipe – who was making his second career major league appearance.

Guaipe promptly yielded a walk and two singles allowing Detroit to score two runs without registering an out. Next reliever up was David Rollins. Like Guaipe, Rollins was making his second major league appearance. By the time the 25-year-old registered three outs, Detroit plated three more runs to take an 8-5 lead on their way to a 12-5 victory.

In retrospect, Jewett was at a crossroads when he strolled to the mound to pull Iwakuma.

Bear in mind, the Mariners had just completed the second worst run-production month in the team’s 38-year history and could ill-afford to fall behind Detroit by three runs twice in one game. Would bringing in his closer – Carson Smith – to replace Iwakuma have given the Mariners a better chance of winning?

Absolutely.

There aren’t any guarantees, but having their best reliever on the mound at such a critical juncture would have given Seattle better odds to get out of the inning without further damage. In no way am I trying to second-guess Jewett’s decision-making because it’s unlikely that any major league manager would have opted to bring in their closer in the sixth inning. Doing so would be a rapid departure of the closer paradigm that exists in the major leagues today.

Using a closer – your best reliever – early in the game is not a newly forged idea by me.

MLB Network’s Brian Kenny preaches this philosophy to anyone who will listen – or anyone who can’t escape. Recently, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill also advocated using a team’s best reliever during key situations – regardless of inning  – when he was a guest on The Bob, Groz and Tom Show on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Adopting this new “business practice” is easier said than done. Beyond the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality that always resists change in any industry, there are other hurdles that managers would have to overcome to use their closer – or any of their relievers – in unfamiliar situations.

One of those hurdles is the frequently offered rationale that assigning relievers set roles – and specific innings – allows them to be better prepared and ultimately more effective.

Jason touched on this consideration when talking to the ESPN Seattle crew and I second his contention that a pitcher can be clear on his role without knowing the particular inning that they’ll enter the game – the situation should matter more than the inning number.

One manager who subscribes to the strategy of reliever utilization by situation – rather than inning – is Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon. The 61-year old’s strategy is to maximize each pitcher’s skill set by creating match-ups that benefit the pitcher –and the team.

Chicago has one pitcher with the majority of saves – Hector Rondon. But, Maddon also has former St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Motte at his disposal and actually has seven pitchers – including Rondon and Motte – with at least one save.

Doing what the Cubs skipper is doing requires an adept communicator – like Maddon – and players willing to be buy into his message. It looks like his players have accepted Maddon’s “bullpen by committee” philosophy as noted by ESPN baseball writer Jesse Rogers. When discussing his manager’s strategy with Rogers, Cubs reliever Justin Grimm explained that the Cubs manager “goes with match-ups. You have to be ready to roll with it.”

Another manager in Maddon’s own division – Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals – acknowledges that his team has discussed using their closer in different situations, although he candidly admitted something that other managers may be reluctant to acknowledge publicly. The save statistic – although obsolete – is an element in contract negotiations for relievers and thereby can be a factor when utilizing a bullpen.

There’s no denying that there are financial implications from shifting away from the conventional closer mentality. But – ideally – contract factors shouldn’t take precedence over making decisions that will put a team in the best position to win.

During a high-leverage situation like the one that Guaipe and Rollins faced during the second major league appearance EVER, wouldn’t having “the best man for the job” in the game make the most sense?

Asking a pitcher to get out of a multi-base runner situation with no out is a tall order for any pitcher – let alone unproven rookies. Just how difficult is it to prevent runs with men on base? Take a look at the following “run-expectancy” table derived from Baseball Prospectus that illustrates how the number of base runners impact run scoring opportunities.

Run-expectancy is the average numbers of runs scored from specific base/out scenarios. For example, with no runner on base and no outs, an average of .4552 runs score. Accordingly, the likelihood of scoring increases from .4552 to .8182 when there’s a runner on first base and no out – like the situation that Guaipe faced.

Run Expectancy
   # Runners
No outs
One out
Two outs
   None 0.4552 0.2394
0.0862
   3B
1.2866 0.8873 0.3312
   2B
1.0393
0.6235 0.2901
   2B/3B 1.8707
1.2714
0.5351
   1B 0.8182 0.4782 0.1946
   1B/3B 1.6496 1.1261 0.4396
   1B/2B 1.4023 0.8623 0.3985
   Bases full 2.2337 1.5102 0.6435

When Rollins entered the game, there were men on first and second base with no out, increasing run-expectancy to 1.4023. Bringing in the closer at this key moment would have given the Mariners a better chance of maintaining the lead and eventually win the game.

Sure, using your top reliever so early in the game could lead to losing the game in the ninth inning with a lesser arm. Conversely, letting the game slip away in the middle innings removes any reason to use your available better arms later in the game.

Another common argument is that pitching in a save situation is different from other relief roles. Pitchers – both active and retired – routinely say that pitching in the ninth inning is a different situation. Although I’m sure there’s merit to that point, I’d like to point out that even rookies have succeeded as closers.

Smith is a rookie – as was Adam Wainwright when he was thrust into service as the St. Louis Cardinals closer late in 2006. Wainwright went on to close out the decisive game in each round of the 2006 playoffs, including the World Series.

I’m not suggesting a manager can use any of reliever in the ninth inning. I don’t doubt that it takes a certain mindset to close out games. I’m only suggesting that saving your closer for the ninth inning isn’t always the most optimal use of the best reliever on the roster.

What if the heart of your opponent’s order was coming up in the seventh or eighth inning? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use the closer then?

Yes, that means a lesser pitcher would have to close out the ninth inning. But, if the lead is lost in the seventh or eighth, the likelihood of winning greatly diminishes and your closer is less likely to even get into the game. The below table illustrates just how much the chances of winning changes – when ahead or behind – during later innings.

Inning Ahead % Behind %
6 0.827 0.173
7 0.880 0.120
8 0.926 0.074
9 0.969 0.031
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/15/2015.

As you can see, the Mariners would’ve been a far better position to win the Detroit game if they had escaped the sixth without surrendering the lead – that inning was literally a game-changer. That’s my point – seize the moment when the game is at a turning point by calling for the closer.

Look at it this way – let’s say that you’re nursing a one-run lead against the Toronto Blue Jays in the seventh inning and there’s a runner on base with no outs, and the next three hitters are Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Juan Encarnacion. This could be the most pivotal moment in the game. To whom would you rather entrust the game? Your standard seventh inning guy – who may be your third or fourth best reliever – or your closer?

Shifting away from the current mindset with closers will meet much resistance for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. To be honest, it’s easy for a guy with a few expectancy tables on Prospect Insider or a studio host on TV to advocate changing how closers are used. We’re not going to be held accountable by ownership or blasted by the media and the “blogosphere” if things don’t go well.

To change the norm, it’ll take a manager willing to trend away from the conventional use of the closer and – most importantly – register success in order for other teams to follow suit.

Maddon’s bullpen-by-committee is inching in that direction and his replacement in Tampa Bay – Kevin Cash – dabbled with using his closer earlier in the game on April 22, when the Rays were hosting the Boston Red Sox.

With the game tied in the seventh inning, Cash chose to bring in his closer – Brad Boxberger – to face the heart of the Red Sox order and the right-hander promptly struck out David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and Mike Napoli. This was a case where the Rays skipper preferred to have his best reliever face Boston’s best instead of a lesser arm – definitely a paradigm shift by the rookie manager.

A team like the Cubs or Rays – who don’t have a preeminent closer – and managers willing to be unconventional will be good candidates to break the closer paradigm. Also, a team with a young closer and veterans who are willing to embrace the committee-strategy could eventually lead the charge in redefining the closer role.

The Mariners could be that team be in 2016. With the expected departure of Fernando Rodney, they won’t have a high-priced reliever and their current closer – Smith – will be a second-year player not fixated by the number of saves that he’s registering. It’ll take a strong supporting cast and management that’s willing to lean forward.

Whether the Mariners – or some other team – will be willing to make a rapid departure in 2016 remains to be seen. I believe that shifting away from the standard closer role will eventually happen.

De-emphasizing the useless “save” statistic and finding a better way to effectively measure reliever success – and appropriately compensate their success – would help facilitate change. Eventually, the closer role will evolve as it did when it went from multi-innings in the 1970s to a single-inning role over the past two decades.

All it’ll take is a trailblazer willing to take that first step.

About the author

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team.

You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins