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Detroit Testing The Closer Mystique

The Detroit Tigers are a very good baseball team, and they play in the American League Central, a division that Jayson Stark just graded out as baseball’s worst [1]. While the Royals are attempting to make a run this season, the Tigers have fewer real challengers than any other playoff contender in the sport. And perhaps that cushion is why the Tigers are apparently willing to go into the 2012 season without anything resembling a Major League closer.

The frontrunner for the job is 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski made it clear earlier this week that the job was not going to be handed to Rondon, but was quoted as saying [2] they “hope he wins the job in spring training”, following that up with “in my opinion, he’ll handle it fine.” That’s quite the vote of confidence for a kid who has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues.

In some ways, this experiment is a very new-school approach to the closer’s role. The statistical community has long advocated for lower cost bullpen construction, eschewing the notion of a “proven closer” and simply giving the ninth inning job to a quality reliever without the reputation to demand a big salary. For years, Billy Beane has used pump-and-dump closers as a way to create valuable trade chips and then ship them off for more valuable prospects, dating back to the days of Billy Taylor in the mid-1990s. While Dombrowski is not generally seen as an analytical GM, the idea of creating a closer rather than paying for one is a page right out of the Moneyball playbook.

However, the notion that statistical analysts believe that “anyone can close” is a bit of a myth. This is often the paraphrased argument for the idea of a ninth inning mentality, citing the analytical crowd’s lack of emphasis on things like personality and mindset. While we may not buy into the value of paying market prices for proven closers, it is very clear that not just anyone can successfully hold down a lead in the ninth inning role.

And no, this is not a concession that some pitchers simply aren’t mentally prepared for the pressure of being in the game for the final three outs. It’s the Major Leagues – every pitcher at this level was the local ace for most of their lives, and all of them have pitched critical innings in front of tens of thousands of people. The ones who really didn’t have the personality to handle pressure got weeded out a long time ago. Instead, the real separator for successful ninth inning relief work is a very tangible and measurable skill – the ability to get opposite handed hitters out.

This is the primary difference between a closer and his bullpen mates. A manager has the ability to mix and match setup men based on the handedness of the opposing hitters, and can pick his spots to maximize the amount of right-on-right or left-on-left match-ups in the middle innings. The closer, however, is at the mercy of the draw, and is tasked with facing whichever three batters are due up to begin the ninth inning, no matter what side of the plate they bat from.

This inflexibility means that closers simply face a much larger proportion of opposite handed batters than middle relievers do. Last year, Jose Valverde was the Tigers closer, and due to his ninth inning responsibilities, he only had the platoon advantage against 43% of the batters he faced. Meanwhile, Octavio Dotel (62%), Bryan Villareal (61%), and Phil Coke (53%) all got to face more same-handed hitters than opposite-handed hitters, which is the right role for each since they all struggle mightily against opposite handed hitters.

Unfortunately for Valverde, that kind of same-handed specialist role is the one he’s also best suited for, as he held right-handers to a .191/.270/.246 line last year, while lefties hit .250/.337/.417. Valverde’s 12.6% K% against left-handed batters last season is one of the primary reasons why the Tigers are replacing him as closer to begin with; he simply didn’t have the weapons necessary to get a string of left-handed hitters out on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately for Rondon, his minor league track record suggests that he might not be ready for the ninth inning job either. Over the past two minor league seasons, left-handed batters have posted a .406 on base percentage against Rondon, in large part thanks to a staggeringly high 21.3% BB%. Rondon has dominated right-handed batters, holding them to a dismal .120/.235/.131, but his inability to consistently throw strikes to left-handers should be a big red flag for the Tigers. In many ways, Rondon’s profile is similar to that of both Valverde’s and Villareal’s, and both have rightfully been deemed as unworthy of the closer’s role on a team hoping to contend for the World Series.

The best pitcher in the Tigers bullpen at retiring opposite handed hitters is Joaquin Benoit, but Jim Leyland has noted that he has problems working back-to-back days, so they don’t see him as a legitimate option for the full-time closer’s position. Meanwhile, Phil Coke has bigger problems with right-handed hitters than Valverde did with lefties, and he’s best used in a situational role where he can face as many left-handers as possible.

While the Tigers can hope for Rondon to overcome his problems against left-handers — and it’s certainly possible, given that he’s still just a kid — they don’t appear to have any solid internal candidates to fill the ninth inning role for the upcoming season. I’m not one who believes strongly in proven closers, but I do believe that it takes a minimum amount of skill to pitch in the ninth inning, and that skill is the ability to get opposite handed hitters out. Perhaps Rondon will eventually develop that skill, but he hasn’t yet shown it at in the minor leagues. Phil Coke does not possess that skill. While developing your own closer rather than paying free agent prices for one is a good idea, it’s also helpful to have legitimate closing options to pick from. Right now, Detroit’s bullpen looks like a bunch of guys better suited to the setup role.