Platooning Closers: Good Idea or Great Idea?

Yesterday, Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez suggested that fireballer Craig Kimbrel and left-handed Jonny Venters might share closing duties this season barring a surprising return by Billy Wagner from presumed retirement. The Braves certainly aren’t unfamiliar with this strategy: Bobby Cox used both the right-handed Rafael Soriano and left-handed Mike Gonzalez in save opportunities in 2009 before Cox went primarily with Soriano. So while the 22-year-old Kimbrel was supposedly slated to be the team’s primary closer after quite a September run and a brief role in 9th inning situations, this option reveals an adaptability that the Braves management is willing to take.

Since the ‘save’ became an official Major League Baseball statistic in 1969, teams and fans have overused the term, misguidedly limiting a team’s best reliever into a closer’s role. Not to say that it isn’t beneficial to have some sort of consistency, but when you save your best reliever for last and don’t employ the flexibility to bring him out during high-leverage inning situations that often occur in the 7th or 8th innings, you do your opponents a service by not optimizing your reliever usage.

So I like this idea. No, I love this idea. This doesn’t undercut Kimbrel’s performance, though. He definitely has the stuff to close and has shown the ability to dominate. His mid-high 90s fastball is characterized by its movement, while his slider, his other plus-plus pitch, gets swings and misses. And the results have been pretty spectacular. Kimbrel struck out the side four times out of 21 appearances in 2010, stranded 92% of runners, and recorded a 0.44 ERA with a 17.42(!) K/9. Turns out that’s the highest single-season strikeout rate in HISTORY for all pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched (h/t to Dark Overlord Appelman for adding single seasons to FanGraphs’ Leaderboards today). Now that’s impressive.

What splitting the closer’s job with Venters may do for Kimbrel is allow him to work on his major control issues and relieve some of the pressure with giving a young player the closer’s job early for an extended period of time. Being able to consistently throw strikes like in September and the playoffs has not been, in particular, the norm for Kimbrel, not with the 6.97 BB/9 in the majors and the 5.00+ BB/9 rates posted in Double-A and Triple-A. And after quite a dominating late-season run, it’s still worth noting that Kimbrel has not thrown more than 25 innings in the MLB including the postseason. It takes time for young fireballers to be groomed, especially ones with such control problems as Kimbrel’s.

Venters, on the other hand, pitched for most of the 2010 season, amassing 83 innings of 1.95 ERA ball and 10.08 K/9, 4.23 BB/9, and 0.11 HR/9 rates, also very impressive but also with control issues. Venters actually didn’t have a great K rate throughout the minors, so I’m not so sure he’ll continue to post such numbers. The hope is that he can keep his very good sinking fastball low and continue to get both whiffs and groundouts, but he’ll also have to work on control issues in light of all the zipping movement on his fastball. The lefty has more experience and very good numbers against left-handed batters (14.79 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 1.97 FIP) that he’ll be preferred over Kimbrel in 9th-inning situations if you have hitters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard coming up. He’s also not too shabby at all against right-handed batters and looks like is capable as one of the few left-handed closers in the game.

Saves apologists will cite the Red Sox closer-by-committee experiment in 2003 as evidence that such an approach does more harm than good, but the Sox simply didn’t have the talented relievers back then to make it work. In fact, earlier this year, the over-reliance on the ‘saving closers for the 9th inning’ fallacy cost Ron Washington and the Texas Rangers Game One of the ALCS against the New York Yankees when Washington marched out five pitchers to blow a five-run lead, none of them being the Rangers’ best reliever, Neftali Feliz. A no-outs, bases-loaded, three-run lead in the 8th inning should be a situation in which you bring out your best stuff. Instead, Washington put his faith in Darren O’Day.

So if the goal of a Major League manager is to improve the chances of winning a ball game, playing matchups and bringing the best relievers in the most pressured situations improves your chances. Keeping the game decisions and a variety of choices in your hands rather than being chained to the myth that a closer can pitch if and only if it is the 9th inning with at most a three-run lead can do a lot for the flexibility of the bullpen. Both pitchers need to work on control issues, with Kimbrel dominating mostly with strikeouts and Venters drawing whiffs from left-handed batters and groundouts from right-handed batters. Heading into the 8th inning of any game, with both ready either to set up or to close the game, Gonzalez can elect to play the matchups and situation, factoring in how much rest they’ve had and managing the bullpen in his hands.

At the same time, while I like this idea to start out the season, eventually Gonzalez and the Braves will concede and elect a closer out of the two. But by then, both pitchers will have worked on their control issues with a little bit of competition between them and a little bit less in-game pressure situations. So even if the Braves eventually do pick a closer, they’ll have done so given more experience and more innings pitched by both young relievers.

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Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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