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Memo to Tony La Russa: Forget the Closer Role

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Memo to Tony La Russa: Forget the Closer Role
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It's been a troubling year so far for 38-year-old Ryan Franklin.  The appointed Cardinal closer saved 38 and 27 games in 2009 and 2010 respectively, blowing just a total of seven combined over the two seasons. 

2011 has been a different story for Franklin.  He's blown four out of five possible save opportunities.  That's four more games the Redbirds should have in the win column. 

During the first game of Thursday's doubleheader against the Washington Nationals, Cardinal fans booed Franklin after he gave up a home run.  Franklin reacted—something that professionals should always refrain from.

"They're supposed to be the best fans in baseball.  Yeah, right," said Franklin, according to NBC Sports.

Franklin later apologized for his words, but his frustration can clearly be seen. 

Tony La Russa, the manager who is said to have invented the closer role, has removed Franklin from closer duties in an attempt to try to get the veteran to regain some confidence.  Until then, he's looking at young guns Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte as potential closer candidates. 

My take?  Save it, Tony.  Why try and tinker with the bullpen to appoint a set closer?  Why not pitch to matchups?  If Jay Bruce has gone 0-for-6 against Trever Miller with three strikeouts, why not look to Miller in the 9th if this were the situation? 

Listen, I'm not a pessimist here.  I'm not some closer-hating, old-fashioned baseball critic.  But I've seen the great closers in baseball history; guys like Eckersley (a TLR student), Rivera, Hoffman.  I've seen what makes these guys special, and, unfortunately, no one on the Cardinals has it. 

A little history lesson here: the "closer" role has been seen regularly for about 30 years, give or take.  Here's a look at some of the first ever real "closer" seasons in baseball history:

Clay Carroll (CIN, 1972) 65 G 6-4 2.25 ERA 37 SV
Rollie Fingers (MIL, 1982) 50 G 5-6 2.60 ERA 29 SV
John Franco (NYM, 1987) 68 G 8-5 2.52 ERA 32 SV
Lee Smith (BAL, 1994) 41 G 1-4 3.29 ERA 33 SV

 

The four players mentioned above were some of the first ever relief pitchers to be seen mainly in 9th inning situations alone.  This took place when little was actually known about the closer role. Many managers were taking a chance with their respective ballclub to appoint one pitcher as the set, go-to guy in 9th inning situations.  Compare these guys' numbers with Franklin's season so far (7 G, 0-2, 9.45 ERA, 1 SV).  Granted, these four played a full season whereas the 2011 season isn't even one-fourth of the way through, but still, tell me that one save versus four blown isn't an eye opener. 

Furthermore, it's not like La Russa hasn't seen a quality closer in his time as a manager.  The guy coached the greatest closer in baseball's history for crying out loud!  La Russa saw one of the best seasons ever for a closer. 

In 1990, Dennis Eckersley recorded 48 saves with an 0.61 ERA and 0.616 WHIP for the Oakland A's.  La Russa saw the whole thing from the dugout.  So why is it that he fails to realize that any of these relievers in the Cardinal bullpen just aren't ready to be a closer yet (or simply just doesn't have the stuff)? 

I said it earlier and I'll say it again: PITCH TO MATCHUPS.  I realize that there will be days when starters can only go five to six innings, but all you need is someone like youngster Eduardo Sanchez or a vet like Miguel Batista to throw two to three strong innings. Then, in the ninth, depending on who's due up at the plate, TLR can go a variety of ways: Miller, Boggs, Motte, Franklin (doubtful), Fernando Salas.

It's amazing that the Cardinals have still managed 11-9 with closer woes, including four blown saves.  I'd like to see what they can accomplish with smarter pitching decisions when it comes to the ninth.

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