The mythology surrounding the closer in Major League Baseball makes it seem like you can’t even hope to be mediocre, much less win a championship, without a lockdown star in the ninth inning. 


In fact, if you stop to examine the way that bullpens and closers are used, you will often find that most managers save their best reliever for the last three outs when he could be much more valuable elsewhere. 

But you don’t have to just take my word for it. Dennis Eckersley, who won an MVP and Cy Young Award in 1992 as a closer and went into the Hall of Fame after spending the last half of his career pitching in the ninth inning, spoke on this very subject Thursday to Tyler Kepner of the New York Daily News.

“I don’t want to take away anything from what I did. But it’s not as tough as you think.”

That sentence alone is enough to send certain analysts, like MLB Network’s Mitch Williams, into a frenzy, because they will insist that it takes a certain kind of mentality and ego to pitch in the ninth inning of an MLB game. 

While I can appreciate Williams’ perspective on the topic, because it is what he did when he was a major league pitcher, his views are skewed—his analysis is so bad that it is hard to value anything he says—because it serves his interest. 

But instead of trying to debate Williams on the merits of having the “proven closer,” I will present unbiased evidence that proves a team can be successful and win a championship with some questions in the back of the bullpen. 


Recent History

The basis for Eckersley’s quote in Kepner’s piece was the blown save by Mariano Rivera in Thursday’s Red Sox-Yankees game, which Boston won in 10 innings after scoring a run off the Greatest Closer of All Time in the ninth inning. 

Kepner also noted that the Red Sox have used Koji Uehara as their ninth-inning guy after Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan broke down earlier this season. All of a sudden, Uehara looks like the best reliever in the league since the All-Star break, with a 27-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and five hits allowed in 21 innings. 

You remember Uehara, right? The 38-year-old right-hander who has a fastball that barely breaks 90 mph and who had 14 career saves in four years prior to 2013. 

No one paid much attention to Uehara before this season because he was a successful setup man. Even when he was putting together a terrific season for the Red Sox, the team decided to go with Bailey and Hanrahan because they were “proven” guys. 

But let’s go a little deeper than the 2013 Red Sox. Let’s look at last year’s American League champion Detroit Tigers. 

Jose Valverde was about as mediocre a pitcher can get. He posted a 3.78 ERA with a 5.01 expected fielding-independent ERA and the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career (1.78). Yet he still recorded 35 saves. 

Then the postseason happened, with Valverde giving up seven runs on seven hits in back-to-back appearances in Game 4 of the Division Series against Oakland and Game 1 of the ALCS against New York. 

Tigers manager Jim Leyland pulled Valverde from the closer’s role and replaced him with lefty specialist Phil Coke. You know how crippling that move was for the Tigers? They made it to the World Series before the Giants’ pitching shut down the offense and Pablo Sandoval turning into Babe Ruth for four games. 

The 2007 Cleveland Indians, who were one win away from going to the World Series, had Joe Borowski as their ninth-inning guy. He led the league in saves with 45, despite boasting a 5.07 ERA and giving up 77 hits in 65.2 innings. 

Think of the last team not named the Yankees, whose closer we will get into shortly, to win a World Series where you actually knew who the closer was. Hardcore baseball fans will know Sergio Romo with the Giants last year because that’s what we do. Everyone else would have to look up the roster to figure it out.

It should also be noted that the Giants lost their “proven closer” Brian Wilson to Tommy John surgery early in 2012. I don’t think it hurt them too much. 


Volatile Spot

For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, teams still insist on handing out huge contracts to “proven closers,” even though you can fill an entire 25-man roster with the number that have blown up in grand fashion. 

Here is a list of notable free-agent contracts handed to closers since the end of the 2007 season:

We didn’t even go back far enough to include things like B.J. Ryan’s five-year, $47 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays after the 2005 season that turned into an unmitigated disaster one year later. 

Lidge went from being perfect in save situations the year before his new contract with Philadelphia kicked in, saving 41 games in 41 opportunities during the regular season, to posting a 7.21 ERA in 2009. By the way, he still recorded 31 saves that season. 

I am picking specifically on the closer in this piece, but relief pitching by its very nature is a volatile spot. These are players who have been placed into this role because they don’t have what it takes to start, either because they lack a third pitch to turn over a lineup three times or the violence in the delivery makes them more susceptible to injuries. 

Of the five pitchers listed above, Nathan, Lidge and Rivera all wound up missing time due to an injury. Rivera’s was a fluke thing that happened during batting practice, so we can excuse that. But Lidge and Nathan both had operations on their arms within two years of signing those contracts. 

Taking a much larger look at the volatile nature of relief pitching and closers, dating back to the start of the 2011 season, you know how many teams still have the same closer? 

Three: Atlanta (Craig Kimbrel), Cleveland (Chris Perez) and the New York Yankees (Mariano Rivera), 

Some have left via free agency or trades. Some have gotten hurt and been unable to pitch. Others have fallen apart, losing that closer’s mentality they used to have at some point. 

You can’t predict relief pitching on a year-to-year basis, especially with the “proven closers.” If anything, those are the worst arms to trust, because the second you go into a season believing your ninth inning is taken care of, inevitably something happens to change everything. 

The Red Sox had no designs on making Uehara their closer until they were forced to by things beyond their control. And even without him in that role, they still had the best record in the American League. 

Teams piece together bullpens and closers all the time. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who won the World Series, started the season with Fernando Salas as their closer. As a team, the Cardinals recorded 47 saves, of which he was responsible for nearly half (24). But Jason Motte, who had all of two saves coming into the year, was on the mound to close out Game 7 of that series against Texas. 

You can find arms to get outs, whether they are in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning, everywhere without fear of having to invest eight figures into a single player. 


The Mariano Effect

To me, the worst thing that ever happened to the ninth inning is Mariano Rivera. Some will argue that it is Jerome Holtzman, who is credited with inventing the criteria for the save stat in 1960. I can certainly see the case for that, because saves have changed the way relievers are used, when they are used and even arbitration for players with less than six years of service. 

But I would point to Rivera as the biggest problem for modern-day relievers. And I say that as someone who believes the Yankee closer is one of the few, if not the only, from this generation of relief pitchers who belongs in the Hall of Fame. 

And, actually, the fault doesn’t lie with Rivera the person; rather, it belongs to the idea of Rivera. More specifically, the Legend of Rivera. 

Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York wrote a piece in March 2011 where he picked the Greatest Yankees ever, with Rivera third behind Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. 

The argument was based on the fact that Rivera has been considered the best at what he does for nearly two decades, and the five titles the Yankees won between 1996-2009 would not have happened were it not for the star closer. 

Certainly, when taken on the whole, no one can touch Rivera’s postseason numbers. He has thrown 141 innings over 96 games with 42 saves, 86 hits allowed (two home runs), 110 strikeouts, 21 walks and a microcosmic ERA of 0.70. 

Yet, when you put things in context, that aura and reputation might not be all it is cracked up to be. Of those 42 saves, 33 have been in games that the Yankees won by at least two runs and 15 were games the Yankees won by three or more runs. 

So not all of the innings Rivera threw in October fall into the high-leverage situation, where the opponent has the greatest opportunity to tie or take the lead in a game. It is in those moments when you want to use your best reliever. But because we have designated the closer as being only for the ninth inning, teams will often use an inferior pitcher in the biggest spot of the game. 

We only hold Rivera’s numbers in such high regard because he has been able to pitch in October so much. But that is more a credit to the work done by the starting pitchers and offense than Rivera. Yet we created this mythology around Rivera because he is the one closer in this current era of baseball to never break down. 

Whenever a team finds someone who can close games, and does so in a dominating fashion, we immediately start to wonder if he will be the “Next Mariano Rivera.”

Right now, that title currently belongs to either Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, depending on your preference. But I can’t tell you if they will make it through this year and 2014 without having some kind of arm problem or lose some gas off the fastball that makes them easier to hit. 

Again, this sounds like I am bashing Rivera, which is not my intention. I am just trying to provide a context for how valuable he really has been. Anyone who thinks his performance has been more valuable than Derek Jeter, or Jorge Posada, or Paul O’Neill or Bernie Williams to the Yankees over the last 15 years is fooling himself buying into mythology. 


The Final Word

There is a place for closers on an MLB roster—no one will deny that. But this idea that some guys have the mentality for it is a joke. You are either good enough to get outs or you aren’t. We overreact to small sample sizes when a pitcher blows two saves in a row because that isn’t supposed to happen.

Yankees fans will insist that David Robertson isn’t a closer because he blew a save opportunity against Tampa Bay in May 2012 and gave up a game-winning run to the White Sox in the ninth inning of a game one month later. 

To me, the best time to use a closer—I prefer to call it the relief ace—is in the biggest spot of a game. If that moment happens to be in the ninth inning, so be it. But there are times when a team will be threatening in the seventh or eighth inning. 

Let’s say the bases are loaded in the seventh inning of a game where the Reds are leading by two. They have Aroldis Chapman, J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure available to use out of the ‘pen. Since Chapman has been designated the closer, he’s not going to even be warming up to come in in this spot.

Hoover and LeCure are fine pitchers, but they are also more likely to give up a hit than Chapman. 

If you are limiting yourself by putting your third- or fourth-best reliever in that spot, eventually you are going to lose some games that you might otherwise not have and potentially cost yourself a postseason berth. 

Closers have gotten vastly overrated in their importance because of the way that the media discusses them and the way teams have been using them for the last 20 years. 


If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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