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Why is the Closer No Longer Necessary?

Blue Jays' closer Jordan Romano; photo via All-Pro Reels

Would you rather have the best closer in baseball, but everyone else in the bullpen is below average, or have a bullpen full of guys who are slightly above average? Let’s look at the 2022 season. For baseball fans, Liam Hendriks has become somewhat of a household name, as he is one of the highest-paid closers in baseball. He had a slightly down year last year but still put up a 2.81 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP, collecting 37 saves. But in terms of both bullpen ERA and WHIP, the White Sox placed 19th. Then there are the Dodgers, with Craig Kimbrel as closer. With a 3.75 ERA and a 1.317 WHIP, it is clear Kimbrel had a worse season than Hendricks. So how did the Dodgers place 2nd in bullpen ERA and first in bullpen WHIP? It is because the Dodgers did not spend all their money on a closer and instead spread their money around on a bunch of relievers who are deemed as “specialists”. In the age of analytics, the closer role is becoming obsolete, and replacing it is not one person but rather a group of people who specialize in specific scenarios. Having a star closer does not automatically make your bullpen good, and having a defined closer is almost detrimental to a club.

For starters, let’s look at the top 5 overall bullpen arms on both the Dodgers and White Sox. All stats are via Baseball Reference.

The only stat that the White Sox led in was saves, while the Dodgers took the trophy in every other category. Despite having a much worse closer, the Dodgers had the better bullpen this past season. One would think that this is because the Dodgers just put all their money into the best relievers. However, the above White Sox players combined make nearly $10 million more than the Dodgers players. If you took out Craig Kimbrel, those 4 Dodgers’ relievers’ salaries would combine for less than what Chicago paid Reynaldo Lopez. So that begs the question, what is the point of the closer?

Before I go on, let me briefly explain what a closer truly is. A closer is usually dominant versus both righties and lefties and can pitch in high-leverage situations. They are almost always brought out in save situations, which is the 9th inning when there is a lead of 3 runs or less. The reason I believe this role is not useful for most teams is that sometimes the skills of the hitters outweigh the skills of the closer. Let me show an example with Liam Hendriks.

With the bases loaded and 2 outs, the White Sox decided to have Liam Hendriks come in to face two right-handed batters in a row, culminating in a game-tying grand slam by Josh Naylor. Here are Naylor’s splits versus left-handed and right-handed pitchers in 2022.

It is pretty clear Naylor demolished right-handed pitching last year and was below-average against lefties. So it begs the question, why bring in Hendricks, a righty, to face Miller and Naylor? No matter how good Liam Hendriks is, both Guardians hitters struggled to hit lefties, so it made perfect sense to use one in that situation.

Not convinced? Let’s look at 3 of the top closers in saves from the 2022 season: Kenley Jansen and Jordan Romano, both righties, and Josh Hader, a lefty. Jordan Romano had a great season, blowing only 6 saves. Out of his 6 blown saves, 3 of them occurred when at least 2 of the 3 hitters due up in the inning were better against righties than lefties. Kenley Jansen had 7 blown saves on the season. Out of the 7, there were 5 times when at least 2 of the 3 hitters due up in the inning were better against righties than lefties. For Josh Hader, out of his 4 blown saves, all of them came when 2 out of 3 hitters were better against lefties than righties.

Now, in no way am I saying never put in Hader against guys who hit lefties well. Romano and Jansen also shouldn’t rot in the bullpen solely because they would have to face batters that are great against right-handers. In some cases, especially with Josh Hader, their dominance outweighs the hitter's stats. If the 7, 8, and 9 hitters are due up, and all hit lefties better than righties, I would still put in Josh Hader because he is extremely dominant. However, if the top or middle of the order is due up, and those hitters all hit lefties well, I would not automatically bring in Hader in a save situation, especially considering that when on the Brewers, Hader was paired with fellow dominant reliever Devin Williams. Williams was incredible versus righties, allowing a measly .264 OPS vs. right-handed hitters. I bring up that fact to show that in every situation where Hader DID struggle last season, every single one came against hitters, mostly righties, who had better splits versus left-handed pitchers. But closers don’t earn their role just because of their splits against their opponents. They are in their positions because they are known to pitch very well under pressure. To know when a reliever is dominant in clutch situations no matter who the batter is, let’s look at leverage index.

Leverage index, according to Fangraphs, is a measure of how critical a particular situation is. To calculate it, you measure the swing of the possible change in win expectancy in that given situation. Fangraphs has the stats split up into low, medium, and high-leverage situations. Theoretically speaking, each closer should allow the lowest OPS in high-leverage situations on their respective teams. Josh Hader for example, in 21 high-leverage innings pitched last season, had a .580 OPS against, which is incredible. This reinforces my earlier statement that super dominant relievers like Josh Hader or Emmanuel Clase should almost always pitch in these high-leverage situations, even if they do not have a favorable matchup. But how about the closers who are not as dominant? Let’s look at Kenley Jansen. In 22.1 high-leverage innings pitched, Kenley allowed a .703 OPS, which is below average for a closer. A.J. Minter, however, in 18.1 high-leverage innings pitched, allowed an OPS of just .653. There are plenty of other cases where there are pitchers that are more “clutch” than the closer, proving that there is some spectrum to managing bullpens. Managers have to ask themselves if the skills of their pitcher outweigh the skills of the hitter. In cases like Hader, the answer, a majority of the time, is yes. If the answer is no, then instead of automatically turning to the closer in high-leverage situations, managers should try and play the matchup. One team understands this spectrum extremely well: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays have had a top 5 bullpen for the last few years. However, no reliever on the Rays made more than $4.3 million in 2022. How do the Rays have such a successful bullpen but no big contracts? Let’s take a look at their stats from 2022.

There were ELEVEN different relievers who recorded saves on the year. That is absolutely insane. The Rays are one of a few teams that pitch by committee, which means that there is no pitcher designated for a certain inning. Rather, certain pitchers are selected for certain situations. Most of their pitchers pitch to one side of the plate much better than the other. They are a team full of specialists, and Kevin Cash does a great job reading the situation and picking which reliever fits the job best. Every year, Rays relievers will come and go, as the Rays are also notorious for not giving out big contracts to free agents. But every year, the Rays do what they do best: sign the hidden gems of relievers to short, cheap contracts and put them in situations where they are bound to succeed. In terms of leverage index, most notably, the Rays had 3 separate guys who allowed less than a .700 OPS in at least 10 high-leverage innings pitched. That is incredible, and it is all because the Rays play the matchups rather than relying on the dominance of one guy.

There is a small, elite group of closers that I feel should be put in any high-leverage situation, no matter the matchup. They will simply be better than the hitter in almost every scenario. The majority of the time, however, an MLB team’s closer is not one of those select few. In these instances, clubs should pitch by committee and split the workload. Having one person designated to pitch in the last inning of the game no matter what is setting your team up for failure. Put pitchers in situations where they are more likely to succeed, and see the value of your bullpen skyrocket.



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