The closer role has undergone perspicuous changes since baseball began.
The first relievers were coined “firemen” because of their ability to get struggling starting pitchers out of jams with minor damage. Pitchers like Dennis Eckersley and Goose Gossage earned their reputation playing this way.
Then, in 1969, the “save” became an official statistic. The game has never been the same since. Now, closers are typically the best pitchers on a team. Their pitches either go the fastest, curve the most, or sink the hardest, but they only pitch in the ninth inning when ahead by three runs or less.
While I would be perfectly willing to abandon the save rule, the last inning in a baseball game is certainly important.
More important than the last three outs of a game in which you lead by three runs, however, is in the fifth or sixth inning of a tied game, when the other team has loaded the bases.
Why wouldn’t you want your best reliever pitching in that situation? In this case, it has become common practice to send a “middle reliever” to try to stop the onslaught of runs. Instead of using your best reliever in this crucial scenario, most managers will save him for the ninth inning and hope his offense can get those runs back.
Clearly, a ridiculous strategy.
Derek Zumsteg did some research on this about five years ago at Baseball Prospectus. He learned that virtually any pitcher could retire three batters before giving up three runs. The best offensive team in baseball this year, the New York Yankees, scores an average of .63 runs per inning. If a pitcher gave up triple that in a save situation he would still be awarded a “save.”
My point is this: It’s not hard to defend a three- or even two-run lead in the ninth inning. A manager wouldn’t see much of a drop in effectiveness if he used an average relief pitcher in these situations in the place of his closer.
In fact, Zumsteg also found that Eric Gagne was only worth three games to his team in 2002, despite having one of the best seasons a modern-day closer could ever hope of having.
Of course, things could easily backfire if a manger chooses to pitch his best reliever earlier in the game. The score may remain close in the ninth inning, where you are forced to pitch a lesser reliever in an obviously higher-leverage situation.
Using your “closer” in emergencies in the middle innings has its risks, but so does allowing an inferior reliever the chance to pitch instead. Your best reliever should be used when the opposing team has the best opportunity to increase their chances of winning, regardless of the inning.
Closers, despite the denouement their name implies, should not be limited to the final innings. As the best pitcher on the team, it is their responsibility, at the discretion of their manager, to take over whenever necessary.
Official Twins Target recommendation? Fifth inning or later; score tied; bases loaded.
(Originally published by me at TwinsTarget.com)