You can’t spell “closer” without “loser”

Whither the Closer? Part Two — The Hardball Times

One reason I wasn’t too upset about Dank Lob getting the Closer™ job is that it’s not really that hard under most circumstances, and that whoever rose to the setup job (Reitsma, so far) would wind up pitching in most of the really difficult situations.

But Dan Olb is so bad at his job that every situation is difficult. He’s the relatively rare closer where a three-run lead for one inning is questionable.

A number of sabermetrics types have been critical of the ongoing Closer™ myth. Notably, Bill James attacked it both in the Guide to Managers and the The New Historical Abstract, then was associated with the (widely misunderstood) “closer by committee” bullpen of the 2003 Red Sox. (The Red Sox’s problem, as has been pointed out, wasn’t that they didn’t have a closer, it was that all their relievers sucked.)

Steve Treder analyzes together both Closer™ usage and the rise of the LOOGY. He admits that the LOOGY has some things going for it (but is “more dumb than smart”), but joins in the condemnation of the Closer™ and his increasing specialization.

I don’t like it either, particularly. But there’s one more thing that has to considered, and actually it was the Guide to Managers that made me think of it a few years ago in connection with Bobby Cox.

Closers make the manager’s job easier.

Having a Closer™ in your pen, most of the time, means that a lot of your decisions are made for you. You don’t have to think of the ninth inning with a close lead much at all. Just stick your Closer™ in there and forget about it. When the Braves’ starting pitching was at its peak in the early to mid nineties, starters were routinely pitching into the eighth, and well. Whenever the Braves had a good closer, Bobby didn’t have to make any pitching decisions at all a lot of the time. Maddux or Glavine or Smoltz would go eight, then Stanton or McMichael or Wohlers, whoever was the Closer™ at the time, would pitch the ninth.

It’s a staple of economic theory that people usually do whatever’s best for them, not for the larger systems they are a part of. And it’s a staple of evolutionary theory that traits aren’t selected exclusively for the species but for whatever helps the organism’s genes thrive. (Related: fish penises.)

In this circumstances, managers aren’t doing what’s best for their team (the impact, either way, is probably pretty small) but whatever makes their lives easier. (Nobody ever got fired for bringing in their Closer™ in a tight game.) And Closer™ usage has survived because of that (and other reasons, economic, literary, and emotional) and not because it’s good for teams or baseball.

31 thoughts on “You can’t spell “closer” without “loser””

  1. I agree with your premise in principle, but if it were true in the particular case of the Atlanta Braves the Bobby Cox wants to be able to turn his brain off when it comes to late inning pitching decisions, even at the expense of what’s best for the team, wouldn’t he have kept Smoltz in the bullpen?

  2. First, Angus, I don’t think it was Bobby’s call, at least not his alone. Schuerholz certainly had input, and Leo, and probably whoever the suit above Schuerholz is now.

    Second, Smoltz wasn’t happy relieving, and it’s clear that a good starter is better to have than a good relief ace. (Everyone knows this, even when they’re praising the Closer™.) Most relievers want to close, because they don’t have the ability to be more than mediocre starters and for them closing is the glamor job.

    So there were other motivations in play. That can always happen. Similarly, if a Closer™ is doing poorly, the manager (and GM) will want to replace him, but might not if he’s making a lot of money and isn’t too bad. We’re dealing with people, and relations among people are always complex.

  3. The dilemma The Braves have though is who’s going close if not Kolb? Reitsma has done well but we haven’t used him in that position. Being the closer is a mental position. Kolb did well in Mil. because he had no pressure. As a first place team, we are in need of a player that has the mental toughness to pitch the ninth for us, to understand the every game is in important. That’s why a guy like Smoltz can switch from starter to closer with ease, he’s got his head right. When it comes down to it, its just one inning, the good ones figure that out while guys like Kolb act like the weight of the world is on their shoulders and over do it. I don’t think Reitsma has it and I am not sure if anybody in the pen does.

  4. Being the closer is a mental position. Kolb did well in Mil. because he had no pressure.

    I find this argument to be completely without support. It resides in that deep dark recess of us all that would like to find personality traits determinative of success rather than being tall or handsome (or as Mac so elegantly pointed out large genitalia among fish). Arguing a lack of character rather than the lack of control or a second pitch is, in my book, a complete an utter cop out.

    Pressure in Atlanta? You mean having now earned millions of dollars, Kolb is under more pressure than when he was one pitch away from working the QuickE Mart? Winning a game with 30,000 screaming fans in Milwaukee is more pressure than 30,000 fans in Atlanta? Heck, the argument can easily be turned 180 degrees — he now can relax since he has so many talented supporting castmates that he is under less pressure.

    Or is it pressure getting pitching to Dustan Mohr instead of succeeding against Sosa, Pujols, Edmonds, Dunn, and the rest of those batters he faced for years?

  5. Your first point, that it wasn’t solely Cox’s decision is a valid one. However, the other arguments you make, that Smoltz wasn’t happy, a starter is more important that a closer, etc., are arguments (at least in my mind) that the move was made because it was best for the team, which makes them arguments against the idea that Cox looks for the easy answer when it comes to personnel decisions.

    At any rate like I said, i agree with the premise in principle. No one ever second guesses a manager for bringing in a Lidge/Turnbow/Wagner type. I’m just not convinced that Cox fits that mold so snugly.

  6. I guess what I’m saying is that managers think it’s important to have a Closer™. It doesn’t matter who that Closer™ is, if it’s Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera or Dan Dan The Base On Balls Man. What I failed to point out is that the Braves only made the move of Smoltz to the rotation when they had acquired another Proven Closer™. In fact, it rather proves my point; it’s not the quality of the Closer™, it’s the fact that you have one.

    I’m not saying that Bobby is an extreme of the type, now. I was thinking about Bobby’s bullpen use when I came up with the idea, but it holds for most managers generally. The context were three of James’ pieces:

    The essay on the evolution of the bullpen, which is kind of the starting point for sabermetric questioning of Closer™ theory.

    James’ squib about the number of lineups possible with a 25-man roster and how managers will get criticized if they don’t choose the absolute best of several quadrillion choices.

    A line about how complex platooning, like what Earl Weaver did, or Casey Stengel did (and Cox is essentially a second-generation Stengel protégé) is potentially useful, it’s so complex and the returns so marginal that only Weaver and Stengel have been able to make it work. Most managers don’t bother, because it’s not something they can handle.

  7. I think Kolb may be having problems with the pressure of being the closer for a team who has had 13 division titles in a row vs. a team that probably hasn’t had a winning record in that long. So I would imagine the pressure is slightly different when a blown save might be the one that cost you the division vs. being out of last place.

    That much pressure could be just enough to make one grip the ball a little tighter than normal, resulting in control problems.

    I’m not trying to stick up for KolBB, just give my thoughts.

  8. I think it’s hard for many us, even those of us with strong sabermetric tendencies, not to believe that pressure can be a factor in failure. Whatever the scenario may be. I don’t believe in “clutch hitting” as an inherent trait some players possess. I also don’t believe that there is any real difference between pitching in the 8th inning and pitching in the 9th inning of a close game (no sense in arguing that 3 runs ain’t close… that’s the rule). But some players believe in those things, so it has to matter. I just think that it’s more likely to contribute to failure than to success. I firmly believe that Latroy Hawkins can’t “close”, for whatever reason. Even if he’s wrong to think it’s different, he sure seems to. You have to extend this logic a little bit for Kolb – he’s already done this job before. But if he believes in this magically difference in inning numbers, then it’s completely plausible that the added pressure of doing it for a contender has him shaken. Or maybe he believes that he’s lost this magical ability after some bad outings.

    Or maybe his elbow is hurting and he doesn’t want to tell anybody so he’s trying, and failing miserably, to pitch around it.

    Or maybe he’s just not that good. It’s not as though pitchers who weren’t really any good have never had extended periods of success before.

    Now that I’ve written all this rambling, I’ve decided that the problem is most likely one of the last two things: he’s either hurt, or he was just never that good (or some combination of the two).

  9. I firmly believe that psychology can play a part, and too many sabermetrics types — especially those on the “hard”, numbers trump all end — are too willing to forget that players are people.

    That being said, it’s hard to see a pitcher who can pitch with a one-run lead and two runners on base in the seventh can’t hack the glamor job which is usually much easier. I don’t believe that LaTroy Hawkins “can’t close”. I remember a lot of people saying the same thing about Mike Jackson fifteen years ago — “he’s a great setup man but he doesn’t have the psychology of a closer”. He got pigeonholed that way. But at ages 33 and 34 for the Indians, he saved 40 and 39 games. Armando Benitez got that rep once, even though he’s been an excellent reliever for most of his career. Roberto Hernandez got the rep as a good closer, even though he was a pretty ordinary pitcher most of the time. (And blew a fair number of saves every year.)

    I think most of the time, “so-and-so can’t close” has more to do with the psychology of the speaker than the subject.

  10. I think there are two different arguments in what you’re saying, creynolds. First, of course it’s ridiculous to say there is no such thing as clutch performance. Anyone who has ever played any sport knows that a “clutch” situation is more stressful and nerve-wracking than being down 7 in the 2nd inning. There are certainly a large number of “non-clutch” hitters, myself among them. Similarly, there are certainly a bunch of “non-clutch” pitchers too.

    There seem to be two primary arguments as to why this “isn’t true” in the bigs. First, we’re told that any player has to face so many clutch situations to make the bigs in the first place that the process of getting there weeds out “non-clutch” players. I think this is partially true but definitely incomplete. The second argument, which is really the best one in my book, is that because of the high variance in performance for most major league players and the relatively small sample of “clutch” situations that any one player might face, even in his career, it is very difficult statistically to separate “clutch” performance from random variance. As others have suggested, “clutch” ability certainly exists, but the range of ability is probably very small. In other words, in most situations you’d rather go with the “non-clutch” player with a higher true talent than a lesser “clutch” hitter.

    I don’t think that Dan Kolb’s problem is “clutch” situations – he’s an awful pitcher right now no matter what the game is like when he comes in.

  11. There is one objective, non-psychological reason why a pitcher might not pitch as well as a closer as he did as a setup man: closers haven’t reaped the “benefits” of the LOOGY revolution. A manager isn’t going to lift his top reliever just because he’s facing three lefties in a row. If Kolb, like Gryboski (whom he somewhat resembles) has a problem with lefties, that can cause him problems.

  12. I think that pressure does play a part, but I don’t buy that as an excuse. You’re getting paid millions of dollars to pitch eighty or so innings of baseball a season; so what if there’s a little pressure, suck it up and deal with it; however, I think that pressure is only a small percentage of it. I remember reading an article on this website where ESPN magazine interviewed Smoltz a few years ago. They asked him about what he thought about when he came in to close really tight games. He said that only one thing went through his mind, and I quote, “Blown Save”. Smoltz was not immune to the pressure either, he just had the stuff to overcome it. KolBB doesn’t have the stuff. About the only pitch I’ve seen him throw is a fastball. You can’t get major league hitters out with one pitch, especially if you’re having control issues.

  13. I don’t think there’s any objective reason to think that Hawkins isn’t capable of pitching the 9th inning of a close game – maybe my wordiness obscured that point. If Hawkins can’t close, it’s only because he’s convinced himself of what other people have been saying about him, even though it is baseless. And I just find that completely plausible. Somewhere along the way Mark Wholers decided he couldn’t pitch (assuming the elbow problem wasn’t there yet). And Chuck Knoblach decided he couldn’t throw to first (although I suspect he plunked Olberman’s mom on purpose). And Macky Sasser decided he couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. There was no objective reason for any of this. These are extreme examples, but why can’t a guy decide he can’t close? Especially if he (wrongly) believes there’s something special about it.

    Again, though, I really do think that Kolb probably just isn’t very good and may be hurt.

  14. Psychology is certainly important – recall how Smoltz turned around hsi 1991 season after he started seeing a sports psychologist.

    to my mind, “clutch” as it is colloquially used means stepping up to perform better under pressure situations. Me, i figure these guys already operate at their peak, and if they had some ability to “focus” or whatever it is, they’d use it in a lot more than just clutch situations.

    So I regard clutch as the simple ability to maintain your abilities under pressure. it’s much easier to fail than to succeed, there are many more ways to do the former than the latter; Andruw Jones is a great example of someone who fails under pressure situations much more than under normal situations – career OPS of 836 overall; 861 with bases empty; 810 with runners on; 799 with RISP; 733 with RISP and 2 outs; 688 with bases loaded; 755 in the postseason. His numbers are all lower in pressure situations than in non-pressure situations.

    A clutch player, to my mind, is someone who can shut out all the pressure and perform his best at any moment, maintain his game plan and approach, and keep his head in the game.

  15. Leo Mazzone was on 790 The Zone in ATL this afternoon. They asked him if the score is 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th inning tomorrow night, will they bring in Kolb? The answer was, “Aboslutely.” What was lost in by the hosts in that conversation was Leo said he is our closer “right now.” He went on to say that he has to help Kolb have confidence to throw his pitch (poor guy only has one pitch) well.

    Smoltz talked about Kolb’s confidence, so did Leo. I would wager they know a bit about that, so Kolb’s confidence to get his pitch where he wants it is not good right now.

    The hosts went on to discuss the pressure of pitching with 1st place on the line vs. pitching with last place on the line.

    Not to make a comparison (because Kolb isn’t a rookie like Ankiel was, and therefore should have a bit more experience and maturiy when it comes to handling pressure), but what do the people on this forum belive was behind Ankiel’s implosion? He was a very good pitcher in the regular season, but yet turned into Nuke LaLouche in the playoffs and has never been the same.

  16. Colin,
    Good points. I liked everything except for the Andruw analogy. Any other player and you’re probably right on, but not Andruw. I would classify him as streaky, instead of “non-clutch”. Look at him last year in the post-season, a 1.519 OPS. In his two world series appearances, he’s got an OPS of 1.250 in 1996 and an OPS of .220 in 1999. I don’t think it has anything to do with pressure, he’s just streaky. But good points on maintaining ability and everything else you said.

  17. bwarrend,
    I live in Atlanta too, and I listen to 790 all the time. When Tom Martin was struggling I heard Dimino asked Leo if he was going to stick by him and he said, “absolutely, we’re not going to give up on anybody.” Two days later they released Martin. I wouldn’t take anything that is said by Leo on public radio too seriously. Those interviews are so predictable–Leo’s not going to say anything bad in public, regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes. That said, Kolb probably will still close in LA, but if he blows a few more I don’t see how they keep sending him out there…something will be done if he keeps it up.

  18. This is not my point, its that of Baseball Prospectus, but its directly relevant to this conversation so I’ll bring it up.

    Last year Kolb had an extremely low rate of hits/balls in play. The Sabermetricians in here are well aware of what this means. Essentially, following the McCracken theory of pitching, pitchers have little to no influence on what happens to a ball once its put in play (barring a home run of course which is totally attributable to the pitcher).

    Pitchers who have a low percentage of hits/balls in play one year, tend to regress to the mean the next year.

    What this means is that Kolb was basically lucky last year (as everyone pointed out when the Braves made the trade for him) and this year his luck has run out.

    Combine average luck with base on balls, and little to no ability to strike guys out, and you have the guy we’re seeing.

    This performance isn’t suprising, it was predicted by every Sabermetrician worth his salt, and its only because of the character/closer myth that the trade even happened. Ten years from now, trades like this won’t happen at all, especially to first place teams.

    Kolb, probably has value, just not as you most important reliever. Clearly, the Braves most important reliever (in terms of the guy they’d be in real trouble if they lost) is Reitsma.

    Poor Reitsma, all the guy does is pitch excellent relief day in and day out. That and a cup of coffee with get you the league minimum plus adjustments for service time.

  19. One thing, though… Kolb had good control last year. The walks have come out of nowhere, or nearly so; there was a spike late in the season, but nothing like this.

  20. Keep in mind that we’re talking about a guy who pitched a total of 98 and 2/3 major league innings before this year. There is just not a lot of information to project future performance with.

    Still your point is accurate, his actual W/9 was 2.36 last year. This year its a jaw-droppingly bad 8.30 ( 13 walks in 14.1 innings ).

    With a degeneration in performance that great, the guy has got to be either hurt or messed in the head a la Wholers, Knoblack, or Ankiel.

    At this point I think you really have to demote him in the pecking order (if not to the minors).

    As a side note, compare this to poor Reitsma, sporting a w/9 rate of 1.66 a BBA of .197 and an ERA of 1.08! Mac, next column take a minute to prop up poor Reitsma, the dude rightly deserves the chance to make some cash off the closer’s myth.

  21. I think Kolb has issues, but there were a total of 10 blown saves yesterday. You had 3 in the Braves/Rockies game. I don’t know about sending Kolb down to the minors. He’s not good, but look at these other guys.
    Cordero has 2 blown saves and an ERA of 4.91, 14 hits in 14 innings.
    Foulke has an ERA of 7.94, 21 hits in 17 innings 6 HR allowed (only 8 all last year), 7 BB (only 15 all last year) and only 10 K’s.
    Danny Graves 3.68 ERA (a miracle), 19 hits in 14.2 innings, 10 walks (only 13 all last season) and only 4 K’s.

    Dotel has blown 4 saves out of 10 opps. Benetiz has an ERA of 5.79. Isringhausen and Mota are injured. The Twins’ closer is suspended. The only guy with no blown saves is Jose “Can you Pitch” Mesa, and he is 39 years old.

    All that to say it could be much worse and the choices are limited. If you move Reitsma to the closer role, who picks up his slack in the middle?

  22. I don’t think that it’s fair to justify Kolb’s failures by pointing out that other closers are doing poorly. I’ll admit that for some odd reason, a lot of good closers have bottomed out this year for whatever reason, but I don’t see why that makes it okay for Kolb to pitch poorly. And besides, there are closers who are getting the job done, like K-Rod, Hoffman, Nathan, and even Brazoban for LA. That said, I don’t think that there’s a guy on this forum that wouldn’t love to see Kolb come full swing and become a dominant closer; after all, that’s what were paying him to do–but if he continues like he has been, he’s only going to hurt us. Every game matters, especially with the Marlins looking as strong as they are. If we keep him in there it could end up costing us ten or twelve ball games in the long run, which could mean the division title and possibly the playoffs. I’d like to see Kolb succeed, but if he can’t get it done I say get him out of there before it costs us too much. As for who will pick up the slack in the middle, Bernero, Gryboski & Sosa have all looked pretty decent to me.

  23. Kolb hasn’t been some master of control throughout his career. Prior to 2004, his control was rather shaky. And now it seems to be shaky again. Also, the guy’s only really had about a 6-7 month span of pitching well. From June of 2003 through the All Star break last year. Other than that, he’s been, at best, mediocre. Usually worse.

    I think creynolds hit the nail on the head about Kolb’s “problem”: he probably isn’t a good pitcher.

  24. I agree. I’m not trying to justify Kolb’s problems, just saying it could be worse. We got spoiled with Smoltz. We forgot the meltdowns of Wohlers and Rocker, and used Smoltz as our guide to how good of a closer the Braves should have. The only way the Braves could do as good is to have someone the caliber of a Gagne or Lidge (who was great last year, but has little experience). I believe Leo was saying they thought they could make Kolb better than he was last year if they could get him throwing his pitch with more confidence. The Braves are smart enough to pick up someone like Mesa (not my first choice) if the need arises. I think you need Reitsma in the middle. He is the anchor there and the other guys are good, just not as good.

  25. Is it possible that all the recent Closer(tm) meltdowns are due, in part, to what Mac is saying about the automatic nature of modern bull pen strategy? When Rivera blew two games against the Sox earlier this season, it was pointed out by pundits that the sox have seen him alot in the last two years and know how to hit him. Perhaps a complacency has set in with some of these pitchers, and they haven’t developed new pitches; or haven’t had the opportunity, because, despite their high salaries, they only pitch one inning every few games.
    This doesn’t adress KolBB’s situation. I believe his problem is more than partly mental. He has said as much. In the New York Times last Sunday, he talked about how big Smoltz’s shoes are to fill and attributes much of his trouble to that. “I’m fighting myself out there”. Last month in the AJC he said after a blown save, “I lost my concentration”. Maybe he is hurt, but why not say that? Wouldn’t he be relieved to be able to say “I can’t get my Change-up working like I want it because my elbow’s a little sore”? How does admitting that, except for his brain, everything is fine ease anyone’s fear including his own? “Hey, sorry about those losses I got you Smoltzie, I could pitch fine, it’s just butterflies”.

  26. Oh, God, no trades. We go out and get an “established closer” for a prospect, and the “established closer” flops, so the solution is to trade more prospects for another “established closer”? No thanks.

    I would like to leave Reitsma where he is. But the problem is that he’s earned the next shot so you have to give it to him. It’s not just about psychology here, but money, since closing’s the only place where relievers make top salaries.

  27. I think a lot of guys hide injuries so they don’t lose their jobs. Maybe “hide” is a little too harsh — maybe it’s more of a “play through it” kind of thing. Certainly happened with LaRoche last year — I would think management would have to know about it. I mean, he obviously isn’t throwing anything but fastballs, right?

  28. Getting an ‘established closer’ is the last thing the Braves need to do now. I agree in principle with creynolds and Kyle S, KolBB just isn’t that good of a pitcher. The Brewers sold high. Fortunately we also sold high because Capellan was probably at his peak value given the history of Braves pitching prospects that go to other teams. But at least the Brewers have SOME upside.
    In my mind its not who closes but who we use in the high leverage situations that decide a ball game. If Kolb continues on his current path he may be relegated to the Sosa/Juan Cruz role of pitching when it doesn’t count.

  29. “If Kolb continues on his current path he may be relegated to the Sosa/Juan Cruz role of pitching when it doesn’t count.”

    Fine with me.

  30. People act differently under pressure in every walk of life; why shouldn’t it be true of baseball players? Clearly, the best pitchers have the confidence to throw the pitch they need to throw even in tight situations. Common sense suggests that not all pitchers can do this.

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