Changing of the Guard  (06/02/00)

You may or may not have noticed but the flame throwing closer going the way of the banjo hitting infielder: increasingly becoming an oddity of the game rather than the rule.  Not too long ago, everyone was looking for the Superman who threw 98 mph with great control, thinking they would be unhittable.  But in today's environment of small ballparks, juiced balls and huge hitters, even those guys are getting tattooed.  More and more, managers are going with groundball pitchers to close out games.  Jack McKeon started the movement last year in Cincinnati by going against conventional wisdom.  He preferred groundball pitcher Danny Graves to fireballing Scott Williamson in the majority of save opportunities.  If he needed the strikeout in a game, he'd give Williamson the nod, but otherwise, he preferred Graves.  But why?

Actually there are two reasons: First, you can't hit a home run on a ground ball.  Managers are realizing that as strong as the hitters are these days, it's hard to keep the ball in the yard.  So they and their GMs are concentrating on finding pitchers who get their outs with groundballs.  Sure, strikeouts are nice, but as Crash Davis says in Bull Durham, "Strikeouts are boring.  Besides that, they're fascist.  Throw some groundballs, it's more democratic."   If they can keep the ball down and get the batter to swing over the pitch and beat it into the ground, they have a better chance of getting the outs.

Then why groundballs over flyballs?  Flyball outs are the least controllable out.  A pitcher has complete control over a strikeout.  It's just him against the batter and with the strikeout, he wins.  There are no other variables.  However, there is still the risk that a mistake will be hit out of the park.   With a flyball, control is shared by the pitcher and the defense, with the additional variable of the air.  Air is very unpredictable, just ask any golfer.  A little gust can carry an easy pop-up over the wall for a game winning bomb.  And a mistake is usually a hitter's highlight film.  With a groundball, control is again shared between the pitcher and the defense, but this time the variable is dirt, and dirt is not much of a variable.  As carefully as today's ball fields are manicured, it's highly unlikely that a hot grounder will bad hop out of the ballpark.  And even a mistake by the pitcher can result in an out.  So the preferred out is a groundball.

The second reason groundball pitchers are gaining favor as closers is that they generally throw fewer pitches than strikeout pitchers.  It takes one pitch to get a ground ball, 3 to strike a batter out.  This is especially important because more and more managers are going to their closers earlier in the game.  There was a time when closers went 2 and 3 innings to finish a game.  Unfortunately, they couldn't do this 4 and 5 times a week because they'd rack up such high pitch totals in each outing.  Then Tony LaRussa devised the 9th inning closer, using Dennis Eckersley in almost half of the A's games.  This was a great strategy as long as your team had a deep bullpen that could get to the closer in the ninth inning.  But with 2 expansions in the past 8 years, few teams have the luxury of a deep bullpen.  Because of this, many games are decided in the 6th inning by a team's 3rd or 4th or even 5th best reliever, in order to preserve the closer for the 9th.  Well, that's just not efficient.

So the new strategy is to bring the closer in earlier to get the crucial outs in the 8th, and because he's a groundball pitcher, he'll throw few enough pitches so he can finish the ninth and not be too worn out to come back tomorrow to do the same.  This is why guys like Danny Graves, with his excellent sinking fastball, is getting the closing nod more often than his harder throwing counterpart Scott Williamson.  It's also why Derek Lowe will be the closer in Boston even when Tom Gordon returns.  It's also the reason why, as bad as he's been at times, Mike Timlin still keeps getting the ball to close out games for the O's.

Enough theory.  The real point here is to find out which guys are gonna be closing.  It used to be that you'd look for the reliever with the best strikeout to walk ratio and if he gave up fewer hits than innings pitched, he was your man.  Now, a more important stat to look at is groundball to flyball ratio.  If he's also superior in the other stats, then you are assured you have your man.

In the National League, Jose Jimenez has established himself as the Rockies closer with his power sinker.  His overall numbers aren't that spectacular, but isolating his most recent 30 days tells the real story: 10.1 innings pitched, 11 hits, 2 ERs, no walks, 10 Ks... 7 saves.  In Los Angeles, if Jeff Shaw continues to struggle, look for Mike Fetters and his 8.00 G/F ratio to get a shot at closing.  In Florida, Antonio Alfonseca is getting hit at an alarming rate - 21 hits in his last 11 innings.  If he can't get things turned around, Braden Looper's 2.82 G/F ratio is worth a flyer.  Mike Remlinger might very well take over the reins in Atlanta if John Rocker continues to put men on base - 24 in his last 7 innings.  Dave Veres has been very good at times in St. Louis, but lately there have been questions about his ability to close consistently.  Tony LaRussa has not ruled out Matt Morris as his closer, especially after his impressive 8 groundball out, one strikeout, 3 inning save of Rick Ankiel's brief flirtation with a no-hitter against Arizona.  Steve Kline will be the closer in Montreal until Urbina returns from arthroscopic surgery.  He has the best combination of G/F ratio and K/BB ratio of anyone in the entire Expo bullpen, including Urbina.  Effective closers are always sought around the trade deadline, so an opportunity could come knocking for Curt Leskanic in Milwaukee should Wickman be traded.  The same is true for Felix Rodriguez in San Francisco if Nen is dealt.

In the American League, Dan Reichert and his 3.22 G/F ratio looks like the long term solution in Kansas City.  Arthur Rhodes possesses the best G/F ratio of any of the Mariner's top relievers.  Cory Lidle has the best G/F ratio in Tampa if Roberto Hernandez is dealt and Larry Rothchild can find enough starters to keep him in the bullpen.  The Minnesota situation is most puzzling.  Hector Carrasco has the best  G/F ratio on the team.  Bob Wells has the worst.  In a bandbox like the Metrodome, one would think that would influence a manager.  But it seems that Tom Kelly would rather give up hits - Wells has allowed 32 in 26.2 innings including 6 homers, Carrasco, just 28 in 28.2 IP and only 2 homers -  than walks (Wells - 6, Carrasco - 14), as Wells continues to get the majority of the saves.  LaTroy Hawkins (2nd best G/F ratio of any Twins reliever, 9 walks, 32 hits in 31.1 innings pitched) might be the compromise if Wells keeps giving up bombs.

Almost all baseball theory is fleeting.  What is effective today might not be effective tomorrow as the game changes.  The stolen base and the speed teams have given way to the mashers and the home run barrages.  Consequently, the fireballers are giving way to the groundballers in the closing ranks.  If they raise the mound next year, that will likely change.  But for now, if you're looking for saves, don't look up in the sky for Superman... you'll find your guy nearer to the ground.