Do you need a closer to win World Series?

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
9:04
PM ET
The obvious answer here is: Well, of course, you do. Starters rarely throw complete games anymore in the postseason; in the past 10 postseasons we've had just 19 complete games. Only two starters have thrown more than one in that span: Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee, with three apiece.

But what I'm really getting at: Can the Detroit Tigers reach and win the World Series without Jose Valverde closing games? Valverde had 35 of Detroit's 40 saves this season, but two disastrous outings against the A's and the Yankees clearly made Jim Leyland lose confidence in him.

So far that hasn't mattered, as Phil Coke has closed out the past two wins. Coke has a good arm -- and as we saw last night when he struck out Raul Ibanez, the ability to put away left-handed batters with that nasty slider -- but he didn't have a good season. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only 11 allowed more walks plus hits per inning than Coke. But maybe Leyland has discovered a hot hand. Sometimes that's all you need. Look at World Series champions during the wild-card era with some issues at closer.

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA pair of disastrous outings appears to have cost Jose Valverde his role as Tigers closer.
2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Didn't pick up his first save of the season until Aug. 28. Remember, he wasn't perfect in the postseason, either. He gave up two runs in the ninth in Game 2 of the World Series as the Rangers won 2-1. And he gave up two runs in the top of the 10th on Josh Hamilton's home run in Game 6, only to be rescued in the bottom of the 10th when the Cardinals tied it up.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. When Jason Isringhausen got injured late in the season, the rookie got two saves the final week and then four in the postseason, as he pitched 9.2 scoreless innings.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie who started closing games after Dustin Hermanson got injured. Jenks had six saves in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, although the White Sox also threw four straight complete games in the ALCS.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A trade acquisition, Urbina eventually took over the closer role from Braden Looper. Jack McKeon used him extensively in the postseason -- 13 innings in 10 appearances (the Marlins played 17 games total). He did pick up four saves, although he also had two blown saves in the playoffs and allowed five runs in 13 innings.

2001 Diamondbacks: Byung-Hyun Kim. Kim had a good regular season and did pick up three saves before falling apart in the World Series, but this team rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson all the way.

The point being: You don't need your closer to be perfect to win it all. The Tigers lost Game 4 against the A's, but won Game 1 against the Yankees and certainly have a shot to win it all. It is worth noting that all the pitchers above had much better regular-season numbers than Coke. Valverde did pick up a save earlier against the A's, so another question: Since the wild-card era began, has a team won the World Series with different relievers closing out games?

Yes. Sort of.

In 1995, Mark Wohlers was Atlanta's closer. But after he allowed a home run and a double to begin the ninth in Game 4, Bobby Cox used lefty Pedro Borbon for the final three outs in a 5-2 game. Three other teams also won a World Series with more than one pitcher getting a save during their postseason runs, but the saves came in unique circumstances. Ramiro Mendoza got a save for the Yankees in 1999, coming in during the eighth inning of a 4-1 game and staying in for the ninth when it was 6-1. Looper got a save for the Marlins in 2003 in the 11th inning of an National League Championship Series game and Mark Buehrle got a save in the 14th inning of a World Series game for the White Sox.

What Leyland will have to do is rather unique in recent postseason annals. As Paul Swydan wrote today Insider on ESPN Insider, using multiple closers wasn't so unique prior to the wild-card era. Maybe Leyland sticks with Coke. I suspect we'll see Octavio Dotel or Joaquin Benoit at some point.

It won't be as easy as running Mariano Rivera out there, but it can done. It just requires a little thinking outside the box. And if any manager is capable of that, it's Leyland. Remember, this is a guy who with the Pirates once started a relief pitcher in a playoff game.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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