Why It is so Difficult to Find Consistency at the Closer Position

Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterJuly 2, 2013

Hitters have been up against this in the ninth inning since 1997.
Hitters have been up against this in the ninth inning since 1997.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

"Relief pitchers are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

OK, that may be paraphrasing Forrest Gump's mother's famous line, but that doesn't make it any less accurate.

Relievers, after all, are a fickle animal, and closers fall under the same umbrella.

That's the nature of the beast when dealing with pitchers who are either failed starters, inconsistent performers from year to year or prone to various and lengthy injuries—and in many cases, all three.

The exception that proves the rule, of course, is Mariano Rivera. The longtime New York Yankees closer was, in fact, a failed starter, but he's also been remarkably healthy and productive since taking over the closer gig in 1997.

Back in March of 2011, the Washington Post created a dynamite graphic showing just how incredible Rivera's run had been to that point, by comparing his tenure to every other team's closers from 1997 on.

Alongside the visual—which you'll want to see, so do click the link—ran this caption:

Major league teams often struggle to find and keep a reliable closer for more than a handful of seasons. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera, however, has proven exceptionally reliable and durable, holding the role a record 14 consecutive years with the same team.

The key takeaway from the graphic? From 1997 through 2010, 17 of baseball's 30 teams had used eight or more different closers.

In other words, more than half the teams in the sport averaged a new closer every other season—at least—over that 15-year span.

Rivera's reign will come to a close when he retires at the end of this season, meaning the Yankees, at long last, will be joining every other team in the never-ending quest to find a ninth-inning solution.

If the Yanks want an example of what that can be like, well, they can just ask their arch rivals.

The Boston Red Sox know all too well.

In just the season-and-a-half since letting closer Jonathan Papelbon move on, the Red Sox have acquired Mark Melancon, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan with the intention of making them their ninth-inning arm at different points.

All three have failed.

After saving 20 games for the Houston Astros in 2011, Melancon was such a disaster last April in Boston—he went 0-2 with a blown save and allowed 11 runs over his first four appearances—that he was sent to the minors for a month and eventually was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates last winter.

The 28-year-old right-hander, wouldn't ya know it, is excelling in Pittsburgh, where he's sporting an ERA under 1.00 as the setup man for baseball's most surprising team.

Melancon, of course, is handling the eighth inning while the ninth belongs to Jason Grilli, who was a veteran journeyman until the Pirates determined he was so good that he could take over at closer for Hanrahan, who was shipped during the offseason to—you guessed it—Boston.

While Hanrahan was an All-Star for Pittsburgh in both 2011 and 2012, his stint as the Red Sox's closer came to an abrupt end when he struggled, hit the disabled list and wound up needing Tommy John surgery that will keep him out the rest of 2013.

That meant the closer job was turned over to Bailey, acquired in the winter of 2011 from the Oakland Athletics, for whom he was Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Star. The injury-prone 29-year-old missed most of his first season in Boston after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, but he was more than ready to replace Hanrahan.

Until, that is, he missed about a month with a biceps injury and then struggled so badly in June, blowing four saves and giving up nine runs in 10 appearances, that Boston cried uncle and handed the reins to Koji Uehara.

Whether Uehara, a 38-year-old who owns all of 18 career saves in the majors, can hang onto the gig remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: The Boston Red Sox, in first place in the American League East, are once again on the lookout for a closer.

Almost makes one long for the days of Keith Foulke, doesn't it?

By the way, who was the guy who led the Red Sox in saves last year, their first sans Papelbon? That'd be Alfredo Aceves, who wasn't particularly good (5.36 ERA) but did manage 25 saves.

This season, though, Aceves has been returned to a spot starter role, and it's no secret Boston has been searching for a way to unload him.

This rundown, by the way, leaves out Eric Gagne and Bobby Jenks, two former All-Star closers the Red Sox acquired at different times to help out Papelbon in the late innings, who then blew up in Boston.

What's funny in all this is that the Red Sox may not learn from their very own history. 

In fact, they've been linked to—drum roll please—Papelbon, who's now with the Philadelphia Phillies.

That would just bring everything full circle, wouldn't it?

Especially if Papelbon, who's blown four of his past six opportunities, returned to Boston and either struggled badly or succumbed to the first major injury of his career.

That would prove once again that when it comes to relievers, even closers, you never know what you're gonna get.