Pity the closer. Often armed with a 98-mph fastball and a mean-looking beard, these pitchers have been trained to come in late in games and dominate hitters in what often looks like adults striking out ten-year-olds. A successful save is seen as the appropriate outcome given the situation, and is not often celebrated as a result. Blown saves, on the other hand, are largely calamitous and looked upon as a complete failure on the part of the pitcher.
Last night saw the very unusual circumstance of both teams’ outstanding closers getting hammered within an inning of each other, enabling the incredible see-saw battle late in the game. Failing in save situations is not terribly unusual—the league-wide average for save percentage is usually around 70%. But the last teams standing tend to have the best closers, as they’re the ones who’ve been indispensable in getting their teams there in the first place. Accordingly, the save percentage for all teams this post season stands at a more substantial 80%.
The two pitchers who are closing in this World Series—the Rangers' Neftali Feliz and the Cards' Jason Motte—had both been a perfect 5-for-5 in save situations heading into last night’s game. Given the graduated nature of these save statistics, it’s pretty clear that as your closer goes, so goes your team to a large extent, especially in the post-season.
It seems that as the pressure of the games become ever more important, the high-profile instances of dominant pitchers collapsing late in games are more numerous as well.
In this post-season alone, we’ve seen the Detroit Tigers’ Jose Valverde, who went an unheard-of 52-for-52 in save situations this year, blow up in Game 4 of the ALCS, serving up 4 runs in 1.1 innings, as Tigers lost the game, and soon, the series.
Although not a closer, Texas flamethrower Alexi Ogando has been used during the playoffs as something of a late-innings special weapon. After a near-perfect (1.30 ERA) season and dominant postseason—two wins out of the bullpen in the ALCS and a microscopic 0.87 ERA heading into the World Series—he’s been pummeled for 7 hits and 3 earned runs in 2.1 innings of work. So what happened?
Post-season history is a graveyard of closers who dominated in the regular season, and who wilted when the lights were at their brightest, and their nerves got frayed under the incredible pressure. It must be pretty hard to maintain the mental quiet and focus necessary to do something like throw a ball 99-mph with precision while the weight of the moment is on your shoulders.