Michael Wexler explores the importance of major league closers stepping out of the confines of ninth-inning roles
In the quest for a World Series, a team’s bullpen is of the utmost importance.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a bullpen is comprised of roughly seven pitchers who come into a game to relieve starting pitchers of their duties. Because relief pitchers are typically only expected to pitch between two and four innings on any given night during the regular season, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of a strong bullpen, especially when big-name starting pitchers take up the most media attention.
Regardless of the weight people place on the importance of the bullpen as a whole, conventional baseball wisdom and fans alike applaud a team’s closer.
By the traditional definition, a closer is a baseball team’s best bullpen arm and is usually designated for the final three outs of a game in which a team is up by three runs or less. The traditional definition, however, is malarkey. Yeah, I said it, malarkey.
By confining a closer to this ninth-inning role, teams spread themselves thin in situations with higher leverage. In big games like the playoffs, a team cannot afford to compete without using their best arm. A perfect example of this is the failure of Baltimore Orioles to utilize their closer Zach Britton in the recent American League Wild Card Game.
Britton, a legitimate Cy Young award candidate, had one of the most dominant seasons as a closer in recent memory. He pitched 67 innings to the tune of a 0.54 ERA with 47 saves and 74 strikeouts. For those who don’t understand baseball jargon, suffice to say his season was historic.
Britton, however, was not used in the extra innings of last week’s AL Wild Card Game against the Toronto Blue Jays that would’ve sent the O’s to the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers. Orioles’ manager Buck Showalter left his best arm unused when the game was on the line, and the Orioles lost and their season ended because of it.
Managers have begun to abandon this approach during this year’s playoffs. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts learned a thing or two from Showalter’s mishap in Game Five of the NLDS. Roberts brought in star closer Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning of a game in which the Dodgers were up by one run with one man on base with the Nationals’ biggest bats next in line to hit. Jansen proceeded to throw 51 pitches for 2.1 scoreless innings, which is unchartered territory for a closer, and the Dodgers held on for the win because of it.
Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman was used in Game One of the National League Championship Series in the eighth inning as the Dodgers threatened with the bases loaded, and Andrew Miller has been deployed in almost every late-inning high-leverage situation since being traded to the Cleveland Indians in late July.
Just because the ninth inning is the last, doesn’t necessarily mean it is of the most importance. The best arm in the ‘pen should come in the game when the situation calls for it, because if the other arms fail to keep the game in check he may never get the shot to come in at all. Closers are given the spotlight, more money in free agency and disproportional love from the fans.
It’s about time that managers started abandoning the traditional confines of their ninth-inning routine and started using them in spots where they are needed most.
Written by: Michael Wexler – firstname.lastname@example.org