Do you need a great closer to win it all?

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
6:14
PM ET
As a little follow-up to Wednesday's post on Ryan Madson being a risky signing, I wanted to add a few more comments. It's important to note that the Phillies, with an aging roster, have a more urgent need to win now. Thus, if they believe Madson to be an integral key to their chances of winning the World Series, they should be more willing to take on the long-term risk for an immediate return. And it may be a necessary evil to overpay to secure Madson's services.

The question then becomes: Do they need Madson? The two parts to that question: (A) Is there an obvious internal solution if Madson leaves? (B) Do you need a great closer to win the World Series?

For the first part, the answer is probably no, although Antonio Bastardo was dominant in a set-up role for most of last season before tiring down the stretch and Michael Stutes showed potential as a solid middle guy. Either could probably do a passable job as the closer, but maybe not enough to make Charlie Manuel comfortable (although don't forget the Phillies reached the World Series in 2009 despite Brad Lidge going 0-7 with an ERA over 7.00).

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMariano Rivera aside, a great closer doesn't necessarily produce great results in the postseason.
For the second part, I want to begin with a somewhat arbitrary list of the best closers over the past 15 seasons -- those who did it year after year, the kind of closer you'd be theoritically comfortable giving a long-term contract of around $40 million:

1. Mariano Rivera: Four World Series titles (plus one as a set-up guy).
2. Trevor Hoffman: Reached one World Series (lost).
3. Billy Wagner: Never reached World Series.
4. Joe Nathan: Never reached World Series.
5. Francisco Rodriguez: Won one World Series (as a set-up guy).
6. Jonathan Papelbon: Won one World Series.
7. Francisco Cordero: Never reached World Series (in fact, has never appeared in a postseason game).
8. Robb Nen: Reached two World Series, won one.
9. Troy Percival: Won one World Series (only year in postseason).
10. Armando Benitez: Reached one World Series (lost).

Leaving Rivera aside for a moment due to his one-of-a-kind status (and keep in mind he blew potential series-closing saves against the Indians in 1997, the Diamondbacks in 2001 and the Red Sox in 2004), here's the postseason record of the other nine guys: 40 saves, 25 blown saves. Even removing Benitez (a couple of his blown saves came as a set-up guy), you get 36 saves and 19 blown saves. In other words -- even the best closers have failed a third of the time in the postseason. There's no guarantee Madson would be any different from this group.

Now ... that doesn't mean you don't need or want a good closer to win a World Series. If we combine the regular-season statistics of the past 10 World Series champion closers, we get a 2.12 ERA with 261 saves and 25 blown saves. In the postseason, the 10 relievers went a combined 4-1, with a 1.26 ERA and 49 saves in 56 opportunities. This group of relievers were terrific during the regular season and pretty dominant in the postseason.

BUT ... the list includes two rookies, a midseason trade acquisition, a 24th-round draft pick and two converted minor league catchers. Closers can come from anywhere and World Series closers tend to be guys on a hot streak as much as a proven commodity. Here's the list of those 10:

2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Converted minor-league catcher. Became the team's third closer of the season in late August. Stats: 5-2, 2.25 ERA, 9 saves.

2010 Giants: Brian Wilson. A 24th-round draft pick who spent two years in middle relief and held on to his closer's job despite a 4.62 ERA in his first year in the position in 2008. Stats: 3-3, 1.81 ERA, 48 saves.

2009 Yankees: Mariano Rivera. The greatest closer of all time. Stats: 3-3, 1.76 ERA, 44 saves.

2008 Phillies: Brad Lidge. Acquired from Astros for prospect Michael Bourn. Stats: 2-0, 1.95 ERA, 41 saves.

2007 Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon. Fourth-round pick, became the team's closer his first full season. Stats: 1-3, 1.85 ERA, 37 saves.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. A rookie reliever pressed into closing games when veteran Jason Isringhausen became unavailable due to injury. Stats: 2-1, 3.12 ERA, 3 saves.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie, he had six saves during the regular season after Dustin Hermanson was injured. Stats: 1-1, 2.75 ERA, 6 saves.

2004 Red Sox: Keith Foulke. A free-agent signing in 2004 after saving 43 games with the A's in 2003. Stats: 5-3, 2.17 ERA, 32 saves.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A midseason trade acquistion from the Rangers for a prospect named ... Adrian Gonzalez. Stats: 3-0, 1.41 ERA, 6 saves (with Marlins).

2002 Angels: Troy Percival. Veteran closer had converted from catcher in the minor leagues. Stats: 4-1, 1.92 ERA, 40 saves.

Does this mean the Phillies shouldn't sign Madson or the Red Sox shouldn't sign Papelbon? Not necessarily; I think the question is more: Is the money that would be spent for a good closer worth it? You need a good closer to win a World Series, but there's no guarantee your good closer will actually push you to a World Series title, if that makes sense. It's a little bit of a luck thing to a certain extent -- hope you get lucky and that a rookie steps up at the right time (Wainwright, Jenks) or that your good middle reliever elevates his game in October (Motte) or that your GM can make a deal if necessary (Urbina). Sometimes it's merely hoping that a guy who is consistent has the season of his life (Lidge).

Me? If money is an issue, I'd try and spend the $40 million in other places.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

David Schoenfield | email

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