Paunchy Closer: A Dying Breed
Only two years after being a perfect 49/49 in save opportunities with the Detroit Tigers, Jose Valverde was given his unconditional release after a year in which he appeared in twenty games and surrendered six home runs. Valverde’s release signalled not only the likely end of his major league career, but also the passing of yet another paunchy closer.
Looking at the saves leaderboard slender relievers such as Aroldis Chapman, Koji Uehara, and Grant Balfour dominate the list. In fact, using BMI, only Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen qualifies as obese. Jansen has legs like tree trunks, rather than a thick gut.
It wasn’t always like this. The closer role was often occupied by a chunky individual. In the early and mid 2000’s, which I’ll call the Glory Days of the Closer (at least this was when the closer was seen as so important that Ugueth Urbina for Adrian Gonzalez was a fair trade) there were many less than fit individuals that owned the 9th inning.
In order to measure just how great these portly pitchers were, I devised a custom metric which I’ll call the Paunchy Closer Index. The formula is simply saves plus BMI, with a five point bonus for leading the league in saves or making the All-Star game. A candidate must possess a BMI of at least 30. No player is allowed more than one appearance on the list. In the event of a tie, bonus points are awarded for having a high ERA or FIP. After all, what is more interesting than seeing a three run lead being turned into a nail-biting one run game?
Without further adieu, here’s the list of the ten best Paunchy Closer seasons. (All weights are taken off the baseball reference player pages).
10. Joel Hanrahan 2011. 40 saves, 30 BMI, All-Star: 75 points. I also like Hanrahan’s 2012 year where he saved 36 games with a 4.45 and -0.4 WAR. The Boston Red Sox traded Mark Melancon for Hanrahan before the 2013 season. Hanrahan saved four games in nine appearances, but also walked six and surrendered four home runs. He ended up having Tommy John surgery. If he recovers, he won’t be closing in Boston, and probably not anywhere else.
9. Bobby Jenks 2006. 41 saves, 31 BMI, All-Star: 77 points. Hmmm…listing Jenks at 6’4, 255 seems a little bit off, but I’ll work with it. The excess weight caused back issues, and Jenks was out of baseball after a failed 2011 campaign with the Boston Red Sox.
8. Jonathan Broxton 2009. 36 saves, 38 BMI, All-Star: 79 points. Well, at least someone was honest about their weight. Utilizing a fastball that reached 100, Broxton struck out 38% of batters in 2009. Things went downhill from there, but for some reason, the Cincinnati Reds decided to give him a three-year deal for 21 million.
7. Francisco Cordero 2007. 44 saves, 31 BMI, All-Star: 80 points. Cordero was very effective in 2007 with a 33% strikeout rate and a 6.9% walk rate that was far lower than his career norm.
6. Matt Capps 2010. 42 saves, 33 BMI, All-Star: 80 points. The closer that didn’t strike guys out. Capps had just a 17.3% strikeout rate for his career. No wonder the Minnesota Twins snatched him from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
5. Antonio Alfonseca 2000. 45 saves (league leader), 30 BMI: 80 points. Alfonseca takes the tiebreaker over Capps and Cordero because he had a bloated 4.24 FIP in 2003. Also, he was thrown out of a game in 2003 for bumping an umpire with his stomach. Also, he has six fingers on each hand.
4. Rod Beck 1998. 51 saves, 30 BMI: 81 points. If you can’t tell from the picture, Beck was a character. The rotund reliever managed just a scant 6 WAR in 13 big league season, but numbers don’t give him a fair shake. After undergoing Tommy John surgery after the 2001 season, Beck’s career looked to be over. While floating around the minors with the Chicago Cubs, Beck famously lived in a mobile home behind the team’s stadium. He managed to catch on with the San Diego Padres after Trevor Hoffman went down with an injury, and saved 20/20 games, with a 1.78 ERA.
3. Heath Bell 2010. 47 saves, 31 BMI, All-Star: 83 points. Same score in 2009, where his 42 saves led the league. Bell’s weight fluctuated like Kelly Clarkson’s or Jessica Simpsons, so the 250 seems conservative, but let’s not make this highly important metric subject to mere guesswork.
2. Jose Valverde 2011. 49 saves (league leader), 31 BMI, All-Star: 90 points. Nobody could occupy the closer role with as much aplomb as Valverde. While he saved all 49 opportunities in 2011, he did so with an 11.3% walk rate, making things interesting.
1. Bob Wickman 2005. 45 saves, (league leader), BMI unknown, All-Star, (bloated 4.65 FIP, -0.1 WAR) Points: too many to count. I said I wouldn’t deviate from the listed weights, but 6’1, 207 just doesn’t begin to do Wickman justice. Wickman had an inauspicious end to his career. He saved 20 games for the Atlanta Braves in 2007, but was released after getting in a tiff with manager Bobby Cox over being used in a non-save situation. Clearly his 4.23 FIP was too valuable to be used in anything less. He signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks who already had a chunky closer in Valverde. After eight effective appearances with the Diamondbacks, Wickman retired. A Mariano Rivera– like ending it wasn’t.
Unfortunately, these guys are going the way of the dinosaur. Or the dodo. Sure we might be seeing a new breed of ultra-nasty relievers such as Koji Uehara, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, and Craig Kimbrel, but they’re so good its boring to watch. Give me a fat guy who has the decency to give an opponent a chance. Maybe the 6’3 275 pound Bruce Rondon will take over as the Tigers closer next year.