It’s Closing Time in the MLB...Or Is It?

Timothy DavisCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2008

Bringing closers into a game too early, or in a non-save situation, is, by far, the worst move that a manager can make in the major leagues.

It does a number of things when they give up a lot of runs or lose the game: it lowers the self esteem of the closer and the team moral (the team possibly feels they cannot trust the closer), upsets the fans (and who wants to do that?), and raises my fantasy stats (not the good kind of raise).

This year there have already been two examples of managers making this mistake: Lou Piniella bringing in Kerry Wood for the Chicago Cubs and Charlie Manuel bringing in Tom Gordon (who is currently the closer while Brad Lidge is on the DL) for the Philadelphia Phillies.

And it was Opening Day...or should I say Opening Week?  

The Kerry Wood situation is the most puzzling to me because Lou Piniella’s biggest concern is the health of his players, especially Kerry Wood who has been on the DL more times than I am able to count (and I know how to use a calculator). Pinella’s goal is to get Wood’s arm strength up in the beginning of the year and then slowly move him to pitching in days close in session.

So why did he bring Wood into the game in the ninth inning when the score was 0-0? 

There is no reason to bring in your stopper in this situation, especially when you’re not trying to use him in days that are close together at the beginning of the year. Is there some magical ball in the dugout that Pinella looks into to know that he’s not going to need Wood to close out Wednesday's game? 

Charlie Manuel basically did the same thing, putting Gordon in in the ninth, except the score was 6-6. Gordon gave up five runs on four hits in 1/3 inning to the Nationals (no that’s not a typo), which, at the conclusion of the game, gave him a 135.00 ERA for the day/season.

I’m not just picking on these two baseball geniuses, but all managers in baseball. Last year there were two very distinct examples of how detrimental this idea is to a closer, namely Mariano Rivera and Joe Borowski.

April 27, 2007 the Yankees are losing to the Red Sox 7-4 and Rivera is warming up in the bullpen, probably doing side work. When the bottom of eighth finishes Rivera seems to be picking up his stuff to sit back down because he is probably done with his side work, but instead of sitting, he’s making his way out onto the field.  

I know what you’re thinking, “Well they’ve probably used up a lot of their bullpen and Rivera was the only person left to finish out the game, even though there’s no chance for a save.”

This would be true except that Torre had only used three other pitchers besides the starter so far in the game, and the day before Torre used two of the same people he used in the current game. There are fresh arms in the pen. 

Now you’re probably thinking, “He probably needed to get his work in. How many days has it been since he has pitched in a game?” 

This is probably your best argument because it had been five days since the last time he threw in a live game situation, but this, in my opinion, is the worst idea I have ever heard of in my life!

So much can happen in a game—a ball hit up the middle can hit and injure the pitcher (ask Mark Prior, Matt Clement, or Roy Oswalt), a pitcher can get hurt backing up a play (ask Kyle Farnsworth), or a pitcher can be attacked by bugs (ask Joba Chamberlin).

There is no reason, in my opinion, to risk putting your pitcher in a live game situation when you can easily have him pitch in a simulated game behind a pitching net.

Why, also, would you want your biggest rival to see your closer more than they already do?

They had to use Rivera in almost every single possible way in May to get his confidence back. Yes, even Marino Rivera, arguably the greatest closer of all time, had to get his confidence back.  

My theory is that they feel it’s an unimportant inning that they are pitching in, so they just work on a new pitch or a new slide step—almost what they do in Spring Training.

To prove the point of closers going into non-save situations nonchalantly I took a look at Mr. Borowski’s numbers last year and complied them into two different sections: the stats he received at the end of the year and the stats he would have received if he didn’t pitch in non-save situational games/innings.

2007, including the playoffs:

75 G, 71.2 IP, 40 ER, 45 SV, 60 K, 5.07 ERA 

2007, excluding 10 games that had non-save situations:

66 G, 63 IP, 16 ER, 45 SV, 55 K, 2.29 ERA

Using these new numbers for comparison, there was only one player to have more saves then Mr. Borowski last year: Jose Valverde. His numbers were:

65 G, 64.1 IP, 19 ER, 47 SV, 78 K, 2.66 ERA 

Also, still using the new numbers for comparison, there were only six full-time closers who had a better ERA than Borowski: J.J. Putz, Takashi Saito, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Manny Corpas, and Jeremy Accardo.

Some might say these numbers are skewed because every closer is going to go through bad outings all year. This is true, very true, but to go through 10 non-save situations where the closer gives up, on average, 2.4 earned runs per outing is a bit extreme.

Also, those of you questioning Borowski’s ability, last year he only gave up three runs in September (two runs in one outing and one run in the other outing) when the team was in a playoff push. The game in which he gave up the one run was a non-save situation.

Teams carry enough pitchers on their pitching staff that they could probably go without using their closer in non-save situations. I’m not saying they should only use their closers in save situations, but, as I have proven above, there have been many instances were it can come back to haunt the player, team, or manager. 

By using Borowski—or any closer for that matter—in these non-save situations it has not only had an obvious strain on his numbers, but probably a mental strain on him too.

This would put a mental strain on any pitcher. He would probably start thinking to himself that he can’t get the job done, but in hindsight he is getting his job done. 

Basically it is simple: Major league managers, don’t use your closer in non-save situations unless absolutely necessary. This will help team moral and player self esteem, keep the fans happy, and not ruin another fantasy year for me.