So here you are. You've battled back and finally got the game close. I'm talking about less than three runs close. Unfortunately for you it's late in the game. Ninth inning to be exact. Still, you feel confident in your chances. I mean after all you've got the heart of the order coming up, right? Wait. Across field there's someone warming up for the other guys. Just like that, your hopes begin to fade. Three up, three down. Game over.
This all too common scenario plays itself out over and over again throughout the course of every baseball season. But who is this masked man? This man called the Closer. What skills does he possess that can so fill his opponents with dread and elevate his team to victory?
The first ingredient in the recipe for a valid closer is stuff: pure pitching prowess. A closer must have the ability to throw strikes at will. The ninth inning is no place for allowing walks. A closer must be able to locate with a fastball as a primary pitch. It never hurts if he can drop some sauce on that fastball, but a heater in the low 90's in almost always required.
With a fastball in place, next a closer needs a reliable second pitch. This will usually take the form of a nasty breaking ball. The obvious choice is a nice, hard slider. Even so, there are closers than substitute a wicked curve. On the other hand, some closers than can effectively use off speed stuff, but change ups are usually relegated to a third pitch.
The other key item an effective closer needs is attitude. The leap from middle relief to closer is completely mental. The task itself is no different. You're still in there to get men out. The change comes in the fact that there is no one backing you. The manager put the ball in your hand and expects to be able to bring it home.
This mental toughness usually manifests itself in one of two way. On one hand, you get the slightly off kilter type (see Papelbon, John). On the other hand, the attitude produced is the more cold, stoic "ice water in the veins" type (see Rivera, Mario; Lidge, Brad). Personally, I like the ones that are a little crazy. It keeps the other guys guessing.
In the end, what's the role of the closer? Why do you need this guy around anyway? With a capable closer in the pen, you've basically shortened the game for the other team. They are more or less are forced to write off the ninth inning and are pressured to get enough of a lead to take a closer out of the equation. That kind of leverage is worth its weight in gold...or at least World Series rings.