3 Runs or Less: Why the League's Best Closers Struggle in Non-Save Situations

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3 Runs or Less: Why the League's Best Closers Struggle in Non-Save Situations
The art of Closing of game. Jose Valverde

The closer role is quite possibly the toughest job in baseball. You're called upon in game-saving situations with your team ahead by three runs or less and asked to "slam the door." Putting the finishing touches on a game is an art, one that is mastered by few. 

Much can be said about the players who take on this role. They are tough, intense, gritty and usually have hard and nasty stuff. The question is, however, why do they struggle when they are brought into the game in non-save situations? 

As of August 2011, some of the leagues best closers have shown the inability to put zeros on the board when the pressure is altered. 

For example, Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon saw his ERA jump from 2.08 in save situations to 4.03 in non-save situations. Arizona Diamondback closer JJ Putz had the same 2.08 ERA in save situations and posted a 4.91 when his team wasn't in that save situation.

The most staggering number to me was that of Detroit closer Jose Valverde, who was a perfect 49-49 in save situations in the regular season. Jose had an outstanding 0.49 ERA as of August in save situations, but when called upon to get outs when the game wasn't necessarily on the line he ballooned to a 6.98 ERA: a drop of -1324 percent!

These situations don't only take place when their teams have a huge lead, often times you see managers go to their closer in a tie game to keep it there and give their teams a chance to win the game. Even in these situations, closers seem to have trouble. Is a tie game too close for closers, is that too much pressure?

So now, the question is why? What is the big difference, you still have to get outs and your job is still to put up zeros regardless of the score. It still takes three outs to end an inning and three strikes to set a man down. 

Why do closer choke in non-save situations?

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Intensity is key. When closers come out of the bullpen in save situations the adrenaline is pumping, the crowd is rocking and the pressure is on. The whole "mojo" is different and the felling of comfort sets in when the team has a bigger lead. These numbers prove to be so astonishing that you see managers hold their closers back when it isn't a save situation.

It is amazing to me that these professional pitchers, all-star type guys, can't perform in any situation. That being said, they are still the go-to guys when the most pressure is on. It's a give and take situation on your closer, and the closer role is still the most valuable role in baseball. 

What are your thoughts on the reasons why closer meltdown when they don't have a game to lock up? 

These statistics were based upon a report done in August 2011 from Closer News

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