Billy Beane Should Abolish the Closer Strategy

T KCorrespondent IAugust 9, 2008

            Not to belittle the significance of Manny-Being-Manny storylines but there’s a development in Oakland that should be catching every baseball fan’s eye as the biggest story in baseball.

            The A’s rookie Brad Ziegler is the best reliever in baseball and yet he isn’t A’s “closer”.  How can this be? Is the Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane crazy enough not to anoint Ziegler as his closer when he’s clearly the best reliever he has in his bullpen?  Well, maybe Beane’s onto something.

Last night, Ziegler notched the first save of his career, pitching two innings of relief to end Oakland’s 10 game skid.  This was his first save opportunity of his career even though he has 37 scoreless innings to his name.

The most interesting part is that A’s closer Huston Street did not come out for the 9th inning after Ziegler pitched a scoreless 8th with a two run lead.  Instead, Manager Bob Geren elected to have Ziegler finish out the game.  Rather than using the “closer” in a save situation, Geren went with the “best reliever”. Why is this significant?

Because Billy Beane maintains that closer-by-committee isn’t such a bad idea.

I’ll refer to a quote taken from the excellent article written by ESPN columnist Jim Caple.  If you haven’t read Caple’s piece “The Most Overrated Position in Sports” then I recommend you do so.  For now, listen to Billy Beane’s reasons why closers are still foolishly used only in the ninth inning…

"I'll tell you why, It's the same reason more football coaches don't go for it on fourth-and-1. Because when it doesn't work, 30 of you guys come storming in wondering why the manager didn't go to the closer. It's turned into a situation where a lot of emotion is tied to that decision, just as a lot of emotion is tied to the fourth-down decision. Even if you know the odds, it's more comfortable being wrong when you go to the closer or the punter.

"The position has become very media-driven. It became a national story when Boston announced it would go with a bullpen by committee.

"Whitey Herzog had a lot of success with a closer by committee," Beane says. "Although now that I think back on it, I'm not sure they called it 'closer by committee' back then. I think then it was just called 'using your bullpen wisely.'”

Billy Beane has never shied away from making unpopular, shrewd baseball decisions. Is he on the verge of trying to do what Theo Epstein could not in 2003—going to a ‘Using Your Bullpen Wisely’?

I’d say this is as good an opportunity to try it out.  Huston Street, who has closed out games for the A’s for the last four years, hasn’t been his normal self.  He’s let up runs in 5 of his last 9 appearances and had 20 baserunners in 9.1 innings over that span not to mention 3 blown saves and 3 losses.  It’s safe to say that the A’s may be better of handing the ball to someone else when they have the lead.

Outside of Street, the A’s bullpen has posted a 3.11 ERA this season, led by Ziegler, Santiago Casilla and Joey Devine.  Only Toronto’s bullpen has a better ERA in the American League so Billy Beane and the A’s have the right pieces to make this UYBW machine work.  Instead, the A’s should use the best relievers when they need to, not when the “save situation” arises.

History tells us that using the strategy of a 9th inning closer really doesn’t improve a team’s chance of winning.  As Caple points out, a study by Retrosheet’s Dave Smith indicates that a team’s chance of winning entering the ninth inning with a lead has remained constant over the course of 73 past seasons.  In other words, today’s teams are no better off using a closer than those before Jerome Holtzman invented the save statistic in 1960.  Smith’s study points out that across all the eras and decades in baseball, winning rates for save situation leads have also remained constant -- one-run leads after eight innings have been won roughly 85 percent of the time, two-run leads 94 percent of the time and three-run leads about 96 percent of the time. 

Maybe it wasn’t that Theo Epstein had the wrong idea in 2003. Maybe it was simply because he didn’t have a good bullpen to implement the closer-by-committee strategy.  Red Sox relievers had a 4.84 ERA in 2003, good for the third-worst in baseball. 

If it doesn’t work this season, I don’t think anyone will blame him for trying. The A’s have won only 3 of their last 20 games since the All-Star break and find themselves 18 games behind the Angels in the AL West.  With nothing to lose in the public relations department or the standings, I hope Billy Beane paves the way for more GM’s to construct and use a good bullpen to finish games before shelling out $46 million for a closer like the Reds did with Francisco Cordero.