After nearly 20 years of going with a single closer, the New York Yankees, of all teams, don't have one in 2015. At least, not officially.
What in the name of Mariano Rivera is going on?
That's right: Yankees manager Joe Girardi essentially has declined, on multiple occasions, to name a closer, even though the end of April is approaching and the team has played 15 games through Wednesday.
It might sound crazy to some, especially in the Bronx, where Rivera became not only a fan favorite but a legend while helping the Yankees secure the ninth inning—and five World Series titles—all while racking up the most saves in baseball history with 652.
In a way, it's ironic, almost poetic that the organization that boasts the all-time saves leader now apparently refuses to declare any one pitcher as the one to nail down the final three outs.
This could be a sign of things to come. And maybe it should be.
Heading into the year, the expectation was that Dellin Betances would take over for David Robertson—who very capably replaced the retired Rivera last year—but Betances fought through a dip in velocity and command troubles during spring training, leading the Yankees to turn to free-agent acquisition Andrew Miller early on.
So far, Miller has done the job, converting all five of his opportunities, but Girardi has yet to put the label on the lefty, according to Erik Boland of Newsday.
That is keeping in line with what Girardi said just before the start of the regular season, as George A. King III of the New York Post reported: "We could go by where [the opponent is] in the lineup or use both [Miller and Betances] ... I think if you do it that way, and as long as you are prepared, it has a chance to be advantageous, too."
The point was clear, the change in approach profound: The Yankees, who for the better part of two decades employed baseball's best-ever closer, don't have a definitive ninth-inning guy.
They might have two, though—only Girardi can use them as he sees fit in the late innings, rather than exclusively in the ninth.
Both Miller, 29, and Betances, 27, were utterly dominant in 2014. While the former posted a 2.02 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 103 strikeouts in 62.1 innings during his time with the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, the latter pitched a whopping 90 innings over 70 games and had a 1.40 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and topped all relievers with 135 strikeouts—a Yankees record, supplanting none other than Rivera.
Betances also led all relievers in win probability added (WPA), a metric that measures how much a player helps or hurts his team's chances of winning a game based on the situation, including the score and inning.
Sure, Miller seemingly has seized the job so far, but as he told King, "I am ready for whatever and adapt to the situation. There is no established closer, we are all flexible."
"Whatever the situation I am in," Betances echoed, "I want to help the team win."
Indeed, a big reason why this no-defined-closer tactic is working for the Yankees to this point is because neither Miller nor Betances has ever been a closer before.
Entering the year, the two have had very similar career arcs. They both were top prospects long ago who failed as starters, converted to relief and finally came into their own in a different role and years after they were expected to.
Also prior to 2015, Miller and Betances had just two career saves—combined.
"If you name one [of Miller or Betances as the closer], you do it that way," Girardi told King, "or...there are some of the things you can do if you don’t name one."
Like, say, using either of these two in a sort of "relief ace" position, depending on the matchups, game situation, recent work load, etc.
The traditional thought over the past quarter-century of baseball, ever since Tony La Russa began deploying and popularizing the idea of specialized bullpen roles, has been that a team needs a set closer to thrive.
Recently, however, a sabermetric strategy has developed that is much more freeing—and it's starting to catch on, little by little. That is, forget needing a specific pitcher to get the final three outs of a game, and instead use your best reliever(s) when needed the most, as dictated by the game flow.
As Brian Kenny of MLB Network wrote for Sports on Earth:
It's not as if this is some crazy, sabermetric theory. It's just basically working off the '70s model of the Fireman. At some point, a manager will abandon the lazy, modern usage of the closer and utilize his bullpen properly, using his relief ace for the high-leverage spots, as early as the sixth inning, and using that pitcher for longer outings.
When that happens, the rest will follow suit, as they did with defensive shifts. It will happen, and it has already begun.
The Yankees aren't quite adopting that hook, line and sinker, but they are at least flirting with the idea. And more power to Miller and Betances for going with it.
"I know I've got the saves this year, but [Betances] really went through the meat of [the Tampa Bay Rays] lineup today," Miller said after notching his fourth save against Tampa Bay on April 19, according to Boland. "If you look at who had the heavier burden today, it was him. He came [into] a much tougher situation and got more outs."
In that game, Betances came on with the Yankees up 5-3, a runner on second with one out in the bottom of the seventh in Tampa Bay and emerging rookie Steven Souza Jr. headed to the plate.
After a wild pitch moved the runner to third, Betances escaped the jam by striking out Souza and getting Asdrubal Cabrera to ground out to end the inning. He then pitched a relatively easy bottom of the eighth, allowing only a walk, before turning things over to Miller, who registered the save by striking out the side following a leadoff double.
As fate would have it, a few days later, the progressive-thinking Rays provided another example of a team going with its top reliever in a big spot—and not in the ninth inning.
On Wednesday, April 22, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash chose to go with current "closer" Brad Boxberger in—get this—the seventh inning. Why? Because the Rays had just used a four-run sixth to tie the Boston Red Sox, who were sending sluggers David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Mike Napoli.
In other words: That's about as big a spot and as high-leverage as it gets.
The result? Boxberger battled, throwing 23 pitches—including 12 against Ramirez alone—but he struck out all three to keep the score tied. The Rays went ahead in the bottom half of the frame and won 7-5.
The reason this strategy has been gaining steam recently has to do with the fact that there are only so many Riveras or Craig Kimbrels or Aroldis Chapmans to go around.
As front offices and managers become more willing to consider different ways of doing things—and more adept at executing these new strategies, like defensive shifting or lefty-righty platoons—they are realizing there's no reason to be slaves to the somewhat silly saves rule.
Granted, Miller is the only Yankees pitcher with a save so far, so let's not call what the Yankees are doing a full-blown revolution.
But it's going to be very interesting to see how Girardi handles, say, the seventh or eighth inning of a close game with two or three big left-handed hitters due up. In that situation, the right call would be to bring in the lefty Miller based on the matchups. If he gets the job done, Betances would still be around to take care of the ninth.
The way the Yankees and Girardi are handling their late-game strategy to this point is commendable. That's not to say this approach isn't without potential pitfalls.
Fortunately for Girardi, both Miller and Betances have been very good early on—not to mention, they both have been on board and are saying the right things too—eliminating any potential second-guessing from the New York media, which is always ready to do just that.
As much as this should become something of a blueprint for other MLB clubs—use the best arm(s) in the highest-leverage situation, save rule be damned—it's not going to happen overnight.
For the Yankees, it works because Miller and Betances have little experience closing, so there's no I'm-the-closer ego getting in the way. They also happen to throw with opposite arms, making a go-by-the-matchups tactic that much easier.
And don't forget: Miller and Betances also are pretty darn great relievers individually as well as when teamed together. That solves a lot of problems, too.