Whither the Closer? Part Two — The Hardball Times

One reason I wasn’t too upset about Dank Lob getting the Closer™ job is that it’s not really that hard under most circumstances, and that whoever rose to the setup job (Reitsma, so far) would wind up pitching in most of the really difficult situations.

But Dan Olb is so bad at his job that every situation is difficult. He’s the relatively rare closer where a three-run lead for one inning is questionable.

A number of sabermetrics types have been critical of the ongoing Closer™ myth. Notably, Bill James attacked it both in the Guide to Managers and the The New Historical Abstract, then was associated with the (widely misunderstood) “closer by committee” bullpen of the 2003 Red Sox. (The Red Sox’s problem, as has been pointed out, wasn’t that they didn’t have a closer, it was that all their relievers sucked.)

Steve Treder analyzes together both Closer™ usage and the rise of the LOOGY. He admits that the LOOGY has some things going for it (but is “more dumb than smart”), but joins in the condemnation of the Closer™ and his increasing specialization.

I don’t like it either, particularly. But there’s one more thing that has to considered, and actually it was the Guide to Managers that made me think of it a few years ago in connection with Bobby Cox.

Closers make the manager’s job easier.

Having a Closer™ in your pen, most of the time, means that a lot of your decisions are made for you. You don’t have to think of the ninth inning with a close lead much at all. Just stick your Closer™ in there and forget about it. When the Braves’ starting pitching was at its peak in the early to mid nineties, starters were routinely pitching into the eighth, and well. Whenever the Braves had a good closer, Bobby didn’t have to make any pitching decisions at all a lot of the time. Maddux or Glavine or Smoltz would go eight, then Stanton or McMichael or Wohlers, whoever was the Closer™ at the time, would pitch the ninth.

It’s a staple of economic theory that people usually do whatever’s best for them, not for the larger systems they are a part of. And it’s a staple of evolutionary theory that traits aren’t selected exclusively for the species but for whatever helps the organism’s genes thrive. (Related: fish penises.)

In this circumstances, managers aren’t doing what’s best for their team (the impact, either way, is probably pretty small) but whatever makes their lives easier. (Nobody ever got fired for bringing in their Closer™ in a tight game.) And Closer™ usage has survived because of that (and other reasons, economic, literary, and emotional) and not because it’s good for teams or baseball.