They are some of the most unnoticed athletes in professional sports.
While their teammates are hitting home runs and stealing bases, throwing touchdown passes and recovering fumbles, they sit quietly on the bench and wait for their opportunity. Often, they are the deciding factor in an intense three-hour game. The sole difference between winning and losing. The X factor.
But which is more important?
Historically, the position of closer is the more prominent role. Closers receive much more glory than kickers. They are often considered to be the backbone of a team, as managers will even build a team around their closer.
They are in the debate for Cy Young Award just about every season and a few (Jim Konstanty, Willie Hernandez, Dennis Eckersley) have even won MVP awards, deservedly also. Many closers are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I have even heard arguments calling Mariano Rivera the greatest pitcher of all time.
Kickers, on the other hand, are considered to be the weakest part of a football team. Literally. They don't get drafted in the first couple of rounds and will never be in the discussion for Most Valuable Player (with the exception of Mark Moseley for the Washington Redskins in the strike-shortened season of 1982).
No coach would ever build a team around a kicker. It's also extremely difficult for a kicker to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and nobody, not even the mother of a kicker, would consider a kicker to be the best player in the NFL.
One of the notable trends between the two positions is the inconsistency of kickers. Historically, many kickers have exploded to have one truly sensational season, followed by many very good seasons. Gary Anderson made all of his kicks in 1998 for the Minnesota Vikings (except for the biggest one). Neil Rackers made 40 field goals for the Arizona Cardinals in 2005.
Closers, on the other hand, generally remain the same year after year. Mariano Rivera has posted an ERA under 2.00 in eight of the past 12 seasons. Joe Nathan, the most underrated athlete in professional sports, has posted an ERA under 2.00 in four of the past five seasons. Jonathan Papelbon has a career ERA of 1.84!
The biggest support for kickers is that they are directly responsible for many of a team's points in a game. They can account for all of the scoring in a game. They can change the tempo of a game with a 50-yard kick right before halftime. Unlike the closer, they play every single game.
The closer, however, can sit on the bench during ten straight losses and not once be called on to pitch. However, I personally disagree with the role of the closer, as preferred by virtually all of today's managers. In a tied game, seventh inning, bases loaded, and one out, I'm bringing in my best pitcher. And if that guy happens to be the closer, let him pitch.
Too many managers today fall victim to the "save" rule. Why is it that a closer rides the bench with his team up by four runs in the ninth inning, but when up by three runs, he's out on the mound? Do the 7-8-9 hitters really strike so much fear into a manager that they need to bring in their best pitcher to "save" the game?
Or do they know that he will get credit for an easy save? I thought statistics didn't matter in today's game.
It's generally the postseason that sets the two positions apart.
It's Game Five of the World Series, tied game, bases loaded, when you find out what your closer is really made of. An average closer will blow a game or two in the playoffs. Maybe more. Facing the best hitters on one of the best teams in baseball is just too much for a mediocre closer to handle. He'll crack.
But the top-notch closers (Brad Lidge, Mariano Rivera) rise to the occasion.
I'm a Philadelphia fan. I just watched the Phillies win the 2008 World Series, on the heels of our closer, Brad Lidge. Would we still have won the World Series with an average closer? Probably not. We probably wouldn't have won the division without Brad Lidge.
Switch to football.
Can an NFL team win a Super Bowl with an average kicker?
Look at the 2007 New York Giants.
Lawrence Tynes did everything he could to blow the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, missing two kicks in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter. But he got a third opportunity, and won the game in overtime.
This doesn't happen in baseball. Look at the World-Series winning closers of the past couple of years, specifically their performances in the postseason.
Brad Lidge in 2008—0.97 ERA in the postseason, perfect in save opportunities. Jonathan Papelbon in 2007—0.00 ERA in the postseason, perfect in save opportunities. Adam Wainwright in 2006—0.00 ERA in the postseason, perfect in save opportunities.
There are closers that are so good that teams just know if they don't get to the starting pitcher or the other relievers in the first eight innings, the game is over. Current guys like Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera. Hall-of-Famers like Dennis Eckersley and Goose Gossage.
What did these guys have in common? They were the best pitcher on their team.
They also won world championships.
A kicker is much different. When a closer is facing some of the best hitters in the world in the most crucial situations imaginable in the playoffs, a kicker feels only the pressure of the big game. A 50-yard field goal is still the same. He doesn't have to worry about the defense of the other team. All he has to do is make the kick.
There is a reason that closers are paid more and receive more glory.
You can win with an average kicker. You will find it extremely difficult to win with an average closer.
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