The True Value of a Closer  (05/16/00)

There has been plenty of commentary over the past two years about the value of a closer.  Much of the debate began when Tom Glavine won the 1998 Cy Young award over 3 more deserving candidates, including Padre closer Trevor Hoffman.  The debate was stirred even more when the Pads gave Hoffman a very starter-like 4-year, $32 million contract.  The Yankee's closer Mariano Rivera soon followed up with similar demands for his services.

For a long time, pundits have maintained that closers are simply the best relievers, who themselves are simply failed starters.  Apparently, Felipe Alou doesn't think so.  Last week, it was revealed that the Expos closer Ugueth Urbina was going to miss some time due to injury.  So what does Alou do?  He converts the ace of his staff, Dustin Hermanson, into his team's closer.  While it's true that Hermanson was drafted and came up through the minors as a closer, he has been starter since day one with the Expos and was handed the mantle of staff ace after Pedro Martinez was traded after the 1997 season.  So why would a manager who is so well respected take his best pitcher, according to the pundits, and put him in a "secondary" role as a closer?

Well, for one thing, he can use Hermanson in more games as a closer than as a starter.  Starters average 30-33 starts a season.  Closers average 60-70 appearances.  Getting your best players in the most games possible is generally a good idea.

And while they don't pitch as many innings, the outs closers record are more valuable.  If a starter gives up 4 runs (which is about major league average), his team still has time (in the form of outs) to make up the difference.  If a closer gives up 4 runs, with few exceptions, his team just lost.  Unless a starter records a complete game (a rarity these days), his job is to keep his team in a position to win.  The closer's job is to seal the deal and make sure the team wins.  No pressure there.

Speaking of the pressure, why is it that most closers only last about 4 or 5 years in that role?  Rarely does one find a guy who can close out games for a career.  Most of them close for 3-6 years and then disappear into middle relief.  Why?  Well, for one thing, closers are just 1 guy on a team of 25 (or 4% of the total manpower), but are the goat in over 15% (about ML average) of the team's losses.  If the team wins, he was just doing his job.  But if they lose, he's the one who blew it.  What kind of toll does that exact on a player's psyche?  For guys who have spent their entire life being the best at what they do, being responsible for so many losses has to be crushing.

Making it even harder is the fact that closers face heightened competition.  Closers never face the opposition's pitchers or their weakest hitters, with few exceptions.  The average starter faces about 4.3 to 4.4 batters per inning.  If he goes 8 innings, that means he faced 35 batters, which is almost 4 times through the order.  This means that the closer comes in to face a pinch hitter and then the top of the order.  If the starter only goes 6 or 7 innings and the middle relief has some trouble, the closer comes in to face the heart of the order.  Either way, the closer comes into a game staring down both barrels of the opposition's offense with few cupcakes in sight.  So in addition to the enormous amount of pressure they work under (do your job or we lose), closers generally have the toughest guys to get out to do it.

So with all that is against them, why do so many people try to diminish their accomplishments?  Yes, he only has a few outs to get, but when a closer is successful, he deserves to be considered one of, if not the most valuable pitcher on his team.  He conquers the other teams best hitters time and time again while under he pressure of being the sole caretaker of his team's potential win.

This also begs the question: is it because of closers that pundits can't find statistical evidence for clutch hitting?  They claim there is no statistical basis for players hitting better in close and late situations or with men on base.  Could it be that hitters have a greater challenge in those situations?  It's highly likely that in the late innings in close games the hitters will face the opposition's best pitcher, their closer.  Is it a wonder why the averages are down?

So maybe Felipe Alou wasn't crazy to ask his best starter to fill in the closer role.  Of course, maybe Alou should have looked at Hermanson's career ERA as a reliever (6.32) before making that decision.  That kind of evidence might have led him to believe that starters are simply failed closers.