Sunday, March 20, 2011
No debate: If a closer can start, make switch
By Brien Jackson
One of the more irritating debates that refuses to end is one that ensues every time there's a rumor that a team might try to convert a successful reliever into a starter. What makes it irritating is that there seems to be a cadre of fans/writers who, specific examples aside, simply don't accept that a good starting pitcher is inherently more valuable than a good reliever. It really shouldn't be this difficult, its basic math; 150-200 innings is more than 65-80 innings, meaning that, over the course of the season, the starting pitcher is going to be get roughly six to eight times as many outs as the reliever in a year.
Opinions vary on whether Texas should move Neftali Feliz from the bullpen to the rotation.
What's more, research by Joe Posnanski suggests that the advent of the closer role, specifically, has had very little impact on teams holding ninth-inning leads. Not even having an elite closer like Mariano Rivera. And in fact, the Rangers were below league average at holding ninth-inning leads with Neftali Feliz as their closer, according to Posnanski's research.
And yet, here we are again. With the Rangers considering moving Feliz to the starting rotation, the debate is once again raging on. And as usual, precious little of the debate seems to hinge on whether or not Feliz can start. That question would certainly be reasonable, but instead we're once again arguing over which role would be more valuable to the team.
Consider this column by Ken Rosenthal speculating about how difficult it would be for the Rangers to replace Feliz in the closer role. But didn't we just see the Twins replace Joe Nathan with Jon Rauch (and then Matt Capps) last season en route to winning their division by a rather comfortable margin? Didn't we see the Yankees pick up Kerry Wood for peanuts, after which Wood turned in a truly dominant performance over the last two months of the season? Haven't we seen teams trading for relievers at the deadline pretty much every season? The truth is, relievers aren't that hard to get, and as you would expect from Posnanski's research, basically any average reliever who finds himself with a lot of save opportunities is going to rack up a hefty number of saves.
More bizarrely, look at the potential trade targets Rosenthal breaks down. Every single one of them is an incumbent closer. There isn't a single non-closing reliever on the list, as though there aren't any relievers out there Texas could trade for and install in the closer spot. Never mind that most of the best closers in the game were non-closers first (including Rivera himself).
This is indicative of the strong bias sports fans and commentators have toward the status quo. This isn't only true in baseball, of course. Consider the near universal ridicule Bill Belichick received a couple of years ago when he opted to try to get a first down against the Colts' defense to clinch a game rather than punt the ball and give Peyton Manning a chance to win the game. As though that were just self-evidently crazy.
The converse of that is that coaches who "play by the book" are basically covering their backside. If your starting pitcher loads the bases with no outs in the seventh inning while your team is holding a two run lead and you, as the manager, bring in one of your middle relievers only to see them give up a grand slam, well you did the right thing and the pitcher just made a mistake. On the other hand, if you bring in your closer to get you out of the jam and a lesser reliever ultimately blows the game in the ninth, you can probably expect to be roundly ridiculed in the papers the next day. The only exception is for teams who don't have an obvious closer in the bullpen, but even those managers generally succumb to the temptation to squeeze someone into the role, as no one wants to have the dreaded "closer by committee."
This isn't to say that good relievers aren't a nice thing to have by any means. Having a really good pitcher or two in your bullpen who can come into the game to get you out of jams can be extremely useful, especially if you use them right, deploying them in high-leverage situations rather than managing the game to get your closer that almighty save. Of course, no one is doing that (though the Rays' Joe Maddon seems to be planning on it), and I definitely don't expect Ron Washington to buck the trend.
If Feliz can start, he should. If that bolsters the Rangers' rotation and the offense generates enough runs, the Rangers won't have any problem finding someone to hold a ninth inning lead 92-96 percent of the time.