Red Sox

The end of the traditional closer? Not so fast, say GMs

The end of the traditional closer? Not so fast, say GMs

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The closer hasn’t died, and maybe it shouldn’t. 

The concept of a starting pitcher seems to be evolving faster than the last man standing in the bullpen, the safety-blanket convention of the endgame. Nonetheless, the winds are changing, if slowly. “Closer by committee" isn’t the dirty phrase it used to be, but saves are still sought and valued, and will be paid for this winter.

Starting pitcher Chris Sale closed out the 2018 World Series for the Red Sox, not Craig Kimbrel. Technically, the game was not a save situation. The Sox held a 5-1 lead, one run too many for a save. No one, though, would doubt the pressure that existed in that moment.

Sale pitched out of the bullpen in the late innings for the Sox in the postseasaon. Same for Rick Porcello, who handled the eighth inning in the Sox’ first postseason game of ’18. Roles were freely broken, for the Sox and others — a suggestion that training in a particular role is not always necessary to be effective.

Pitchers would be heavily fatigued were they to be used in the regular season as they are in the playoffs. But put frequency of use aside, and the postseason leaves an opening for a logical follow-up: if roles can be broken in the postseason, if pitchers can be effective in situations they’re not commonly used to, can that be the case as well in the regular season? The closer is often the only pitcher in a bullpen handed a set inning anyway.

As Kimbrel hits free agency, the Red Sox have to consider the importance and worth of having a pitcher whose designated role is to finish games. Kimbrel has not always pitched in the biggest jams, or faced the most challenging parts of the order. He’s not alone. Many teams’ closers are still used in a similarly rigid fashion. The role is by definition, rigid, and inefficient. But still, something desirable.

“We’d like to somebody pitch the ninth inning,” Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “I don’t know what your idea of traditional is, but, we do like somebody to close the game...That designated guy.”

Dombrowski is certainly not alone, but there are dissenting feelings.

Here’s how top executives around the game feel, listed in alphabetical order. (Questions are paraphrased.)

Are closers still necessary?

“I think it’s easier for the managers obviously to have an established ninth-inning guy. Everybody slots down a bit. You get to the playoffs, when I was in L.A., we brought Kenley Jansen in early. It’s just like for years, starters coming: Randy Johnson was coming out of the bullpen. Chris Sale was coming out of the bullpen. So, during the season, certainly it’s nice to have that. A lot of people have talked about the most important outs might be in the seventh or the eighth. I think these are just great relievers. Andrew Miller wasn’t signed as a closer and he got a huge contract. So I do think it’s changing."

What does the postseason show us about roles?

“I think there’s a component of getting the save, getting the ball. There’s a status to the closer, the leader of the bullpen. All those things. And that’s just a hierarchy that’s been established for years. I do think come playoff time, there’s a selfless attitude of, hey, I’m just trying to get outs, and starters aren’t really getting that upset when they’re getting pulled. It’s just, hey, we’re getting outs, we’re lining things up, so on and so forth. The playoffs is a totally different animal with off-days. Everyone’s available pretty much. We got guys like Charlie Morton coming in out of the bullpen as well. Again, that’s not a new phenomenon, right? So for years, starters have come out of the bullpen and tried to get outs. During the season, it’s more real, I guess. But I think in the playoffs everyone just says, we’re just trying to win.”

Are you seeking a closer, interested in Kimbrel?

“I can tell you this. I’ve been asked, so, I know I can talk about Craig Kimbrel and say he’s great, he’s a great Brave, I’m allowed to talk about him now. And I know he’s really well thought of, really highly thought of in the organization. People that played with him adored him. Now, I’ll never get into who we’re going to pursue in free agency for obvious reasons. 

“What I basically said about pursuing high level, expensive relievers with term and significant AAVs: I don’t know that makes a lot of sense for us to allocate the dollars available to that position. Doesn’t mean that there won’t be a day that we do it. Or if the value lines up — right now for this current offseason, we haven’t, we don’t plan to go spend significant dollars and significant years on a reliever. And that doesn’t take anything away from the great relievers that are out there. I just think we have other areas we need to address.”

Do you view the role as a luxury?

“Yeah, I think so. We have a hole in right field, we need to get someone behind the plate. We’d like to get better in the bullpen. Now, maybe we make a trade and we move some salary and someone’s still out there, we may reverse course. But as I sit here today, it’s — we’d like to have it. We’d just, in terms of the list, it’s not as high on the list. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t use it and be better with it.”

Are closers still necessary?

“I guess you can go both ways with it. You could have your traditional guy. I think I personally believe in that still. Because I don’t think everybody’s wired to close a game out...Or you can go the other way, by committee. But I prefer to have a standard closer.

"I prefer the standard closer. Because I just don’t think maybe everybody in my environment can do it."

Does the market matter, then?

"It could. I believe it does. But I also understand it can be done the other way too."

Are closers still necessary?

“I still think the ninth inning is different than the other innings. I don’t know that you need one. But I still think the ninth inning can be a challenge if you’re the last guy standing between a win and a loss. I think when those games get lost, it’s a tougher mental hurdle to overcome than if it gets lost in the sixth or seventh.”

Are closers still necessary?

“If you have a lockdown closer, that’s incredibly valuable. That’s not new. That’s been the case for a long time. I think it’s hard to find a closer that is that dominant, and there are a few of them. I think the challenge, if you don’t have that guy, is, how do you best utilize your bullpen and put players in the best position to succeed? That’s kind of what we faced this past year. We tried a few different guys in that role, and we used guys according to leverage, and that was what our personnel dictated we do. There might be a time in the future where we have a more reliable lockdown closer and we pitch him in the ninth regularly. I think there’s still a place in the game for it."

Are you seeking a closer, interested in Kimbrel?

“It’s not specific to closer. It really has everything to do with trying to find areas to upgrade our team. You know, we’re in a position to explore everything. We’re going to explore the bullpen, we’re going to explore the rotation, we’re going to explore position players, and we’re seeking opportunities to make our team better. I’m not going to sit here and predict that we will add a closer, but we will explore that market.”

What does the postseason show us about roles?

“Postseason baseball is different than regular-season baseball. For one thing, there’s more off days in the offseason. So players can be used frequently or in different roles ands till know that they’re going to have plenty of rest. They usually also know that there’s an end date coming, the season’s going to end.”

If usage is put aside, what about the success in varied roles seen in the postseason?

“It’s an easy narrative when a player who’s not traditionally pitched the ninth inning, fails in the ninth inning. It’s easy to label that guy as not a closer. But every closer at some point was something other than a closer. He was a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, or he was a set up reliever before — Mariano Rivera was a set-up guy before he became a closer. So every closer at some point is a first-time closer. And it’s just a matter of how much rope we give them when they start off in that pursuit.”

Why do closers still exist?

"Because there’s a statistic called the save that shows up in the newspaper and is used in arbitration and — I don’t know. Obviously, the roles in the pitching staff are going to continue to evolve. Tony La Russa was the first one that starts to change that. That was 20 years ago and it seems to be accelerating now. The goal is to get 27 outs with 12 or 13 pitchers in whatever way works best for your talent and your team. And I think we’re going to continue to see teams explore new avenues to do that. And power to ‘em."

What does the postseason show us about roles?

“I think players are interested in their own economics primarily in their careers. And so anything that affects that in a negative way they’re going to initially react negatively too. And so you have to present it to them in a way that is palatable, and eventually the industry will find a way to compensate. I mean, Andrew Miller getting that big deal a few years ago, I think the non-closer relievers have started to become more appreciated and more compensated, and that’ll help it.”

One of you or manager Craig Counsell were quoted during the postseason talking about the desired elimination of bullpen roles?

"It could have been either one of us. We’ve both talked about it.”

Is that an organizational philosophy for the regular season as well?

“Our guys in our bullpen did a tremendous job not worrying about when they pitched. Corey Knebel knew that on any given day, he could pitch in the fifth inning or he could pitch in the ninth inning. Jeremy Jeffress knew on every single day he could pitch in the fifth, or the ninth. And they didn’t care, they just wanted to get outs and hand the ball to the next guy that was pitching.”

Weren’t closers by committee shunned?

“So, I think the older committee-type of philosophy was: we’re not sure we have someone who’s good enough to pitch the ninth inning. So, we’re going to try to cobble it together with a number of different people. What we did this year, we believe, is we had multiple people who were good enough to be that traditional closer-type pitcher. And we just deployed them at various points during the game."

How difficult was that to implement?

"I think Craig [Counsell] did a really good job of working through this, frankly over the last couple years with our personnel. And making sure that everyone understood that they were available at various points in the game and that their goals should be to get outs and hand the ball to the next person."

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