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How Do You Develop a Closer?

By Mike Silva ~ April 24th, 2010. Filed under: Mike Silva.

Are closers made or born?

The retirement of Eric Gagne got me to thinking about the genesis of elite closers. Over the twenty years of following baseball I have seen the local teams employ a number of top flight closers. Dave Righetti, John Wetteland, and Mariano Rivera have closed for the Yankees, while the Mets had a number of different firemen, most notably Brooklyn born John Franco. With bullpens so important it made me wonder how one develops the criteria for a closer.

Can a closer be developed? The greatest closer in history still pitches in the Bronx, but no one knew who he was when called up in July of 1995. As a matter of fact, the two best closers in the American League last year, Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera, began their career in the starting rotation. As a matter of fact, the Yankees have a number of former failed starters turned ace closers in Goose Gossage, Dave Righetti, and Wetteland.

Most teams seem to just stumble into a closer by luck. Often it’s a starting pitcher that failed in their rotation stint. You need someone who typically throws hard, misses bats, and is durable enough to pitch daily. A perfect example is Yankees setup man Joba Chamberlain, who could be the poster child of failed starter versus stud reliever.

The other way to develop a closer is draft one out of college. Oakland did this when they took Huston Street in the 2004 draft and Montreal did the same in 2003 when they drafted Cal State Fullerton closer Chad Cordero.

Although advanced metrics doesn’t value a top closer more than a couple of wins above the pedestrian one, it’s virtually impossible to deny that not every pitcher can close out a ballgame. In 2008 the Mets tried a situational “bullpen by committee” approach with notoriously solid relievers like Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman. The result was a disaster as none of their setup men could handle the responsibility of the ninth. I think Steve Phillips had the best quote over at AOL’s Fanhouse:

“Stuff is clearly important to having success in the role of closer, but there are pitching staffs full of guys with great stuff that can’t pitch in the ninth inning. Every out is not created equally. The last out of the game is tougher to get than any other and the pressure is just different. Character and makeup are essential for a closer’s success. The best closers have no fear of failure. They throw their pitches and trust their stuff, surrendering to the outcome.”

Another point Phillips made, which is often overlooked, is how a bad bullpen can become contagious. I mentioned the 2008 Mets, who saw everyone slump at one time after Billy Wagner went down for the season. In early 2009, the Yankees bullpen was a mess and had to be completely revamped. Yes, there were talent gaps in both those situations, but it always seems that a streak of bad performances out of the bullpen leads to bigger issues. How many times does a blown save change a season or produce a winning streak? The 2004 ALCS is a perfect example of that exact scenario.

So it brings me back to my question: How do you develop a closer? How do you find out who has the “stomach” for those last three outs? With the cost of starting pitching is it wise to pull the plug early on “Joba Chamberlain types” just because they can bring gas late in games? What happens if said pitcher doesn’t have the makeup for the ninth? The flip side is the inherent risk on wasting a high draft pick on a college closer (see the Mets and Eddie Kunz), because if you are wrong than you could potentially pass up a future impact player to fill a situational need.

Personally, I agree with Phillips and don’t think everyone, regardless of stuff, can close out ballgames. I am dying to see Joba Chamberlain get a few save opportunities to see how he translates into the ninth inning. Knowing the flaws in his makeup I believe we may see some troubled waters, at least in the early going. With that said, Jenrry Mejia hasn’t proved he is so valuable in the bullpen where you can justify the Mets pulling the plug on his starting career.

Developing starting pitching is hard enough, but a closer seems to be even harder to come by. That is why when you find one, via a trade, draft, or internally it’s just as important as a solid middle of the rotation starting pitcher. Maybe it’s time to find out early who has that “mentality” to pitch the game’s final three outs and develop him as such. Precious jobs are on the line and a GM can’t take a risk on statistical ideology that minimizes the value of closers. Perhaps it’s time for a forward thinking organization to implement their own development program and philosophy on who takes the ball in the ninth. Maybe it exists and we don’t know about it. Is this even a debate with how the modern game is played? I don’t think so.

Mike Silva is a freelance writer and radio host since March of 2007. This website is his own personal "digest" of New York Baseball He's also hosts NYBD Radio on Blog Talk Radio and 1240 AM WGBB. Check out his sports media commentary at www.sportsmediawatchdog.com. Check out his official website, www.mikesilvamedia.com
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5 Responses to How Do You Develop a Closer?

  1. birtelcom

    Pedro Feliciano career:
    OPS of batters against him in the
    5th inning: .871
    6th inning: .718
    7th inning: .710
    8th inning: .621
    9th inning: .568

    save situations: .683
    non-save situations:.684

    high leverage (most clutch) situations: .677
    low leverage (least clutch) situations: .675

    This does not seem to me to be a portrait of a guy who is likely to pitch any worse in closing situations than he does otherwise.

    It seems to me a closer should be (1) the best pitcher a team can find who is (2) not for whatever reason likely to fully succeed as a starter (limited pitch repertoire, limited arm stamina, etc.). I’m not convinced about the whole theory that some guys are temperamentally suited or unsuited for pitching in ninth inning save situations.

  2. Stu Baron

    Joba’s been anything but studly of late…maybe he could use a stint in the minors…

  3. MetsKnicksRutgers

    Heilman’s ERA was over 5 in 08, that isn’t the best example and birtelcom debunked the Feliciano myth. Your best reliever should come into the highest leverage situation plain and simple. If that is in the 7th or 8th inning. I would rather have a relief ace come in with men on base and a 2 run lead in the 7th than giving up that lead and not even being able to use him.

  4. Mike Silva


    There is plenty to agree on bringing your ace closer in the 7th, but what about the next two innings? If only pitchers could go multiple innings that would solve the problem. The issue is starters can’t go more than 5-6 innings making the 2-3 inning save nightly an issue.

    Regardless, I do think there is some merit to the whole “bullpen slump” that Phillips discussed because we have seen that happen where “mysteriously” everyone in the pen slumps at the same time.

  5. MetsKnicksRutgers

    Mike — I understand your point aboiut the last 2-3 innings, but were a team to blow a one or two run lead in the 8th or 9th at least the manager knows that he lost with his best pitchers having an appearance. If a lead is blown in the 7th because we let a LOOGY pitch to a RH platoon guy whilst intending to save a closer for a save, is a waste of paying said reliever 10 million plus a year. That 08 team was flat out awful in the pen. When Wagner went down we needed the offense to play even moreso over its head which unfortunately didn’t happen (because i thought that was a really good team, santan and pelf were amazing and we had 4 MVP candidates in the lineup). IMO the slump had more to do with everyone in the pen being exhausted. Torre, Willie, and Jerry outright destroy relievers, even young ones. Look what torre has done to Troncoso and Belisario out in LA, and prior to that Scott Proctor and Sturtze. Look what Jerry is doing to Nieve now.

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