What things separate a closer from the pack?

By Se Young Lee

Ever since its invention, the concept of a closer has been a hot topic for baseball. The idea of reserving the best reliever for the final innings has caught on to a point where all teams employ a closer. It is up for debate whether this practice is a sound strategy.

While the battle of words between those who prefer the current model and those who consider the “bullpen-by-committee model” is interesting, I have nothing new to add to that debate, nor do I have a particular interest in entering the foray. What I am interested in, though, is what it takes for someone to become a closer.

The common perception of relief pitchers, as far as I can understand, is that they often get moved to the bullpen because of some flaw that prevents them from being a starter. They may not be able to pace themselves to last long enough on the mound; they may not have enough pitches in their arsenal to get hitters out multiple times in a game. Whatever the reason, they are often treated as second-tier pitchers.

Closers, however, are a different case. As of right now, it seems to take a certain something that would convince a manager to entrust that player with the exclusive task of finishing out a relatively close game. What that “certain something” is, though, seems to be up for debate. For example, Detroit’s Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney have far more overpowering stuff than Todd Jones, but Jones is the one manager Jim Leyland hands the ball to in the ninth. San Diego’s Scott Linebrink throws much harder than Trevor Hoffman, but Hoffman is the closer who is approaching 600 saves. Hoffman, along with Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner, are the only current closers that have been successful over an entire career.

And just what is it about closing that makes otherwise promising or even dependable relievers self-destruct? One of the saddest things from the 2006 season was watching Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona’s distraught face as he saw his first pitch to Ivan Rodriguez slammed out of the park for his third blown save in three chances, all of them in a span of six days. And one of the saddest things from this season might be the fate of Brad Lidge, a once-dominant closer who never seemed to have recovered from the monstrous home run he gave up to Albert Pujols in Game Five of the 2006 NLCS. After two miserable appearances early in the 2007 season he has lost his closing job to Dan Wheeler, the former can’t-miss prospect of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

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    Closing, when broken down into matter of probability, seems to be a fairly easy job. The closer most likely will appear in the ninth inning with at least a one-run lead and no runners on base. The opposing hitters are most likely fatigued from playing eight or eight-and-a-half innings of baseball and will struggle to adjust to a brand new pitcher. And the opposing team knows they’re down to three outs.

    Advantage, pitcher.

    But reality is different. When Rivera or Hoffman take the mound, most fans of the opposing team start thinking about what to do after their team loses. When Ryan Dempster, Jason Isringhausen or Joe Borowski take the mound, however, the opposing team’s fans expect at least some intrigue from that last half-inning. The former group of closers has the psychological effect of reducing the game to eight-and-a-half innings. The latter group keeps the game in reach for the opponents.

    What is the difference between them?

    The closest thing to an answer I can provide to you is this anecdote. After shutting out the Texas lineup for one-and-two-thirds of an inning in 15 pitches Sunday night, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon told Peter Gammons: “I had trouble sleeping this spring thinking of not being out there at moments like these. That’s where I belong. That’s where I want to be, where my teammates need me.”

    If that doesn’t sound like what your favorite team’s closer would say, then you’re probably in trouble.

    Se Young Lee is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].