Thoughts: Closer problems everywhere

June, 24, 2013
6/24/13
10:46
AM ET
Is it just me or has it been a lousy year for closers? Witness:
  • Jonathan Papelbon has blown saves in three of his past four appearances, although the Phillies rallied to win two of those games, including Saturday when Kevin Frandsen homered off the Mets' Carlos Torres in the bottom of the ninth.
  • Heath Bell has served up home runs in five consecutive appearances yet will remain the Diamondbacks closer. Of course, he's filling in for the injured J.J. Putz, who had four blown saves in nine opportunities.
  • After Bell served up a go-ahead, two-run homer to Jay Bruce on Saturday, the D-backs actually won the game when they rallied for two runs off Aroldis Chapman, who couldn't record on out. That's three blown saves for Chapman, two of which were blown losses. While he racks up the strikeouts (56 in 33 innings) he hasn't exactly been a lockdown closer.
  • Through May 16, Seattle's Tom Wilhelmsen was perfect in save chances and had a 0.50 ERA. Since then, unable to throw his curveball for strikes, he's had five blown saves in 10 opportunities and lost his job.
  • Boston's Andrew Bailey lost his job as the ninth-inning guy after allowing four home runs in five appearances and blowing three leads. Koji Uehara takes over.
  • Even Craig Kimbrel, owner of one of the greatest relief seasons ever last year, had a stretch in late April/early May when he blew three saves in five appearances, all turning into Braves losses.

So it seems closers -- even guys who have been rock solid in the past -- have been shaky. Overall, however, the numbers are similar to last year. In 2012, teams won 95 percent of the games they led going into the ninth inning; this year, the figure is at 94.6 percent. (Those numbers wouldn't include, however, games like the Reds-Diamondbacks one, when both teams blow leads in the ninth inning.)

What some of these numbers show is how the closer is generally overrated to begin with. Wilhelmsen, for example, has five blown saves and a 4.22 ERA. Kimbrel has a 1.51 ERA. Yet the Mariners are 30-2 when leading entering the ninth and the Braves are 35-3. The Tigers decided Jose Valverde was so bad at closing games that they designated him for assignment; the Tigers are 38-4 when leading after eight innings.

Where we have seen a bigger decline is in protecting eighth-inning leads. Last year, teams won 91.9 percent of games they led heading into the eighth; this year, we're at 89.6 percent. That's an MLB-wide pace of 50 more blown wins -- or 1.6 per team on average, not insignificant in a year where most of the division races figure to be close.

As always, it's having a deep bullpen that's more important than having a great closer. The Blue Jays have surged back into the pennant race in large part because of a great bullpen; they've yet to lose a game they led after seven innings. The Rangers don't have their usual high-powered offense and the rotation has battled injuries and inconsistency but Joe Nathan has just one blown save and he, Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross and Neal Cotts are a combined 14-2.

When closers rarely enter before the ninth inning or pitch more than one inning -- neither Kimbrel, Chapman or Nathan, for example, have pitched more than one inning in an appearance this year and they've combined for one appearance (Chapman) before the inning -- it's the seventh and eighth inning relievers who often have a bigger impact on the game than the closer.

They just don't get the glory. Or the venom.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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