For Contenders, Closers Found on the Cheap

For years, proponents of advanced statistics have been trying to push forth the idea of bullpen volatility, arguing that unless you have a truly elite reliever in his prime — think Mariano Rivera — it almost never makes sense to spend huge dollars on a ninth-inning option. Closers, the argument goes, are made, not born, and often all that separates the All-Star in the ninth inning from the relatively nameless seventh-inning setup man is the simple opportunity to collect saves.

For many of those same years, plenty of baseball’s front offices have been doing their best to prove that argument invalid, spending tens of millions on “proven closers” and getting burned in the process. Just recently, you can look to Heath Bell‘s single disappointing year in Miami, orBrandon League losing his job in Los Angeles by June, or especially the $51 million Philadelphia gave to Jonathan Papelbon prior to 2012. As the Phillies collapse due to increasing holes in their aging roster that might have been filled by that money, their return on that investment is merely declining velocity and complaints that Papelbon “didn’t come here for this.”

In a sport that is often notorious for its reluctance to accept change — note how many still want to award the Cy Young based on “wins” — it appears the myth of the high-priced closer as a requirement for success is finally dead, or at least close to it. If the playoffs started Thursday, not a single one of the six division winners would be using a closer they paid top dollar to on the open market.

Championship trend

That’s a trend that may have gained popularity over the past two Octobers, since both of the two most recent World Series winners took home the title with inexpensive internal options who were forced into the role during the season. In 2011, Jason Motte took over for the Cardinals after Fernando Salas and others faltered earlier in the year; in 2012, it was Sergio Romo on the mound as the Giants won after Brian Wilson blew out his elbow. Motte and Romo had each come up as relatively unheralded prospects through their organizations, and each had a mere three saves entering those seasons.

Instead, this year’s contenders have found their ninth-inning options in nearly every other way except for large free-agent spending. For example, Boston thought it’d collected more than enough options for the back end of its bullpen after trading for Andrew Bailey from Oakland last year and Joel Hanrahan from Pittsburgh this year. Unfortunately, that duo combined for just 35 2/3 innings this year before each went down with season-ending arm injuries. In their absence, the mantle of “closer” now falls to 38-year-old Koji Uehara, signed for a simple one-year deal over the winter — and all Uehara has done is prove to be one of the most reliable relievers around.

When the Red Sox acquired Hanrahan, part of the return to Pittsburgh was righty reliever Mark Melancon, who was joining his fourth organization in four years and had spent most of 2012 in the minors after putting up a 6.20 ERA for Boston. As the Pirates make their shocking run to the playoffs, they owe a great deal of thanks to Melancon, who has turned his career around partially due to increased usage of his effective cut fastball. He was a first-time All-Star this season setting up fellow reclamation projectJason Grilli, and has recently taken over the closer job himself as Grilli has missed time due to injury.

Grooming them on the cheap

In Atlanta and Los Angeles, the Braves and Dodgers are both using closers they developed, though in very different ways. Craig Kimbrel was a third-round selection by the Braves in 2010 who managed to harness his control problems in the minors, and was a star nearly from the moment he made his debut in the big leagues. Kenley Jansen, meanwhile, spent years in the Dodgers’ system proving that he was never going to hit enough to make it as a catcher before being converted to the mound. Once he did, the Dodgers attempted to block him with both Javy Guerra and League before acknowledging that the League signing was a mistake this year. Since 2011, Jansen and Kimbrel are two of just three relievers with a strikeout rate north of 14 per nine innings.

Like Boston, Detroit and Oakland are using free-agent closers, but no one that they signed with the idea of closing at the time. The Tigers have struggled all year to find a reliable ninth-inning option after rookie Bruce Rondon and veteran Jose Valverde were each unable to answer the bell, and they’ve instead turned to 36-year-old Joaquin Benoit, signed to a much-maligned three-year deal after 2011. Acting as a full-time closer for the first time in a career that dates back to 2001, Benoit has been outstanding for the Tigers as they’ve surged ahead of Cleveland in the American League Central.

It’s a similar situation in Oakland, where Grant Balfour signed with the Athletics for a mere $8.1 million guaranteed over two years following 2010, plus a 2013 option that the club exercised. Balfour spent his first year in the Bay Area setting up for Bailey and Brian Fuentes, then briefly won the job over Fuentes in early 2012 before getting demoted. After spending most of the summer setting up for Fuentes and then Ryan Cook, Balfour won the job back in August, and parlayed his success into his first All-Star appearance this year at age 35.

All told, the six closers for the division leaders are making a total of just less than $16 million combined this year, which is only slightly more than the $13 million Papelbon is making by himself. None of them have guaranteed contracts past this season, though some will remain under team control. While we’ve focused here on the likely playoff teams, it’s a trend that is being seen throughout baseball; of the 15 pitchers with at least 25 saves through Wednesday, only three — Joe Nathan, the legendary Rivera and Rafael Soriano — are signed to non-arbitration contracts of $5 million or more.

As Buster Olney wrote in July, just three teams still have the same closers they did just two years ago, only because closers rarely have a long shelf life. Time and again, closers have proven to not be worth huge investments of years or money, and we’re seeing teams around the sport finding success in staffing the back of their bullpen in other, more efficient ways.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

One Response to “For Contenders, Closers Found on the Cheap”

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  1. Anon21 says:

    Hey, just a suggestion. I realize articles like this are cross-posted on ESPN Insider, but when they are posted to Fangraphs Plus, it would be nice if the player-name linker was switched to Fangraphs player pages. The ESPN player pages obviously leave out a lot of info that the typical Fangraphs reader will probably want to know.

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