Who Closes for the Blue Jays? Who Cares?

by Douglas Fox | Posted on Thursday, March 10th, 2016
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CBC photo

CBC photo

Major League Baseball first introduced the Save statistic in 1952.   The only rule defining the new metric was that it be given to a pitcher who finished a game but was not credited with a win -regardless of the score.

The new stat was largely ignored, until Jerome Holtzman of the venerable Sporting News added new criteria to better reflect the effectiveness of relief pitchers.  Holtzman felt that relief wins and losses were not a reliable indicator of a reliver’s performance – his research indicated that in Elroy Face’s incredible 18-1 1959 season for the Pirates, in 10 of those wins, he allowed the tying run to score, but got credit for the win when Pittsburgh regained the lead.  Holtzman discovered that Face actually had a more effective season the year before, when he managed only 5 wins.

Holtzman’s Save rule was expanded to include:

– a pitcher must pitch at least 1/3 of an inning;

-he satisfies at least one of the following conditions:

-he enters a game with a lead of no more than 3 runs and pitches for at least one inning

-he enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base or on deck

-he pitches for at least 3 innings.

The Sporting News began using Holtzman’s new rule in 1960, and MLB officially adopted it in 1969.


Initially, the top “Firemen” were multi-inning types:  Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and the incredible Mike Marshall,  who put together perhaps the best single-season ever for a reliever in 1974, winning the Cy Young for Dodgers on the basis of an MLB-record 106 games (no reliever has come with a dozen games of that total), and 208 innings, which resulted in 21 saves.

The role of the reliever began to morph in the late 80s into a specialized role, most noticeably Tony LaRussa‘s use of Dennis Eckersley.  Wanting to preserve Eck’s arm, LaRussa would only use him in 9th inning save situations.  MLB is nothing if not a copycat league, and before long, most teams were using their “closer” exclusively in that manner.  In 1974, Alston used Marshall in a traditional Save situation only 24 times.  In 2004, when he recorded 53 saves, Mariano Rivera pitched in a Save situation 40 times.  And pitched in 32 fewer games than Marshall.

The role of the closer has narrowed so much that few Managers are willing to use their best reliever in anything other than a Save situation, unless said closer needs some work to keep sharp.  And now we’re at the point that few roles on a team are more sacred in fans’ eyes than that of the Closer, now spelled with a capital.  

Which brings us to the Blue Jays, who have three pitchers on their staff who could fill the hallowed role of Closer:  Roberto Osuna, who was a rookie revelation in the pen last year, Brett Cecil, who has one of the best curveballs in all of baseball, and recently-acquired Drew Storen, who may have lost the Closer’s role in Washington last year, but still managed a 10.96K/9 rate last year.

It makes no sense to save any of these arms solely for Save situations; Manager John Gibbons, who we thought was coming around on the analytics side of the game,  would be best advised to use whichever of the three was best suited to any high-leverage situation from the 8th inning on.  His decision could be based on a myriad of factors which would be readily available to him:  who among the three was the best rested, and had the best numbers against the batters in question to get the premium match ups.

Certainly, the Save totals for all three would suffer:  Managers may not admit it, but in the backs of their minds, they know what kinds of data come up for consideration at arbitration hearings.  But it’s better to use your best arms in crucial late-inning situations of close games than it is to hold them back while waiting for some hypothetical lead that often doesn’t materialize.  And the beauty of having three relievers of the quality of Osuna, Cecil, and Storen is that you can rotate them through many of those situations, balancing the workload between the trio, which becomes more and more important as the season wears on.

Fans have been clamoring for Osuna to take on the Closer’s role this year since his smashing 20-Save debut last year.  Since his first MLB Save, which came in a two-inning stint against the Rays on June 22nd, in which he struck out 5 of the 6 hitters he faced, Osuna was used mostly in the 9th until early August, and then almost exclusively in the 9th from that point on.  He saved 19 games in 21 opportunities during that time, but you could make the argument that Cecil was just as dominant.

You can make the argument that players fare better in defined roles.  Certainly, when Storen was removed from the back end of the Nats’ pen in favour of Jonathan Papelbon,
he certainly struggled in a set-up role.  But Cecil is used to working in both the 8th and 9th, and so is Osuna.  It would take some courage and coaxing on Gibbons’ part, but if he was to use the three in tandem, it would likely be worth several wins over the course of the season.  Some would argue that the bullpen-by-committe approach doesn’t work, and point to the 2003 Red Sox as the most recent example. Teams tend to go with that formula when they don’t have the quality of relievers the Blue Jays have.

So it really doesn’t matter who pitches the 9th inning for the Blue Jays.  Bringing in the best reliever in the game’s highest leverage situation should be important than some outdated stat.  The Blue Jays have the luxury of some depth in the back end of their bullpen (which will only be enhanced if Aaron Sanchez fails to land a spot in the starting rotation), and the time has come to use it in a manner that improves the team’s chances of winning close games.  The whole issue of who should be the Closer is irrelevant, and it’s hard to think of another sport where a team deliberately keeps one of  their best players back when the game is on the line because of a statistic.

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Douglas Fox
About the Author

Doug Fox has played, watched, studied, and generally obsessed about baseball for decades, and once played in the Toronto Star Pee-Wee Baseball tournament. He writes about Blue Jays prospects and minor league baseball at clutchlings.blogspot.ca Follow him on Twitter @Clutchlings77.

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