For several years now, a cult of folks who analyze baseball and its myriad statistics have tried to convert the masses to its opinion regarding closers. In short, the cult contends that closers are both overrated and overpaid. Don't get fooled by the heavy-metal music and the eccentric personalities; the job -- getting the last three outs of a game in which your team has a one- to three-run lead -- is just not that big of a deal.
The argument was made on the field this season and continues to be made in the postseason. The Giants lost Brian Wilson for the season at the beginning of April. The Yankees lost Mariano Rivera at the beginning of May. There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. These were supposed to be horrible losses to irreplaceable players. No more beard. No more "Enter Sandman." Were the two signature closers indispensable? Not quite. As of today, both teams are still playing.
The Yankees had a perfectly fine replacement for Rivera in Rafael Soriano, who saved 42 games. The Giants have pieced together a committee of relievers to close games, with Sergio Romo emerging as the committee chairman. Romo's slight stature limits his durability, so guys such as Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt fill in as needed. Giants manager Bruce Bochy seems to have a specialist for every occasion (fourth inning, two out, one on -- George Kontos, ladies and gentlemen!) and that's precisely the point. The bullpen is interchangeable, and the parts are on an as-needed basis.
Let's take a partial look at Kontos' body of work this postseason, which consists of five appearances and just two baserunners. In Game 2 of the NLDS against the Reds, he relieved Madison Bumgarner in the fifth with two on and one out; he got a double play. In Game 4, he relieved Barry Zito in the third inning with two outs and a runner on; Drew Stubbs fouled out. In Game 5, the series-clincher, he relieved Matt Cain in the sixth with the Giants leading 6-3, a runner on and two outs; he got Stubbs to ground out. In Game 1 of the NLCS Sunday night, he relieved Bumgarner in the fourth with nobody on and two out; he got Matt Holliday to pop out. The Giants lost two of those four games, but every time Kontos entered, he was faced with a situation every bit as important -- and more stressful -- than starting an inning with a three-run lead.
When statistics are removed from a game's context -- in other words, when relievers are judged by stats other than holds and saves -- it's clear that closers aren't all that special. Romo's wins above replacement (WAR) was 2.2 in 2011, when he saved one game, and 1.2 this year, when he saved 14. He was unhittable in '11, slightly less so this season. But if he's going to arbitration, he'd rather have his agent carrying this year's stats into the meeting.
Ernesto Frieri was a no-name Padres reliever before he was traded to the Angels and installed as the team's closer this year. For quite a while, he was the only Angels reliever who didn't resemble a 2-month-old tire fire. And yet, he was considered solidly unspectacular before anyone knew his name, but that was when he was pitching the fifth and sixth innings for the 2011 Padres. There wasn't much difference between his 2011 and 2012 seasons, except for his 23 saves. His WAR this year was 0.6; last year 0.3. Same guy, different inning.
Does anyone think the Yankees' season would have been appreciably different if David Robertson had been the closer and Soriano the setup man? And no, I'm not joking. Yankees fans will recoil at the assumption, since Robertson blew three out of five chances, but stuff doesn't lie, and Robertson has stuff. He struck out 81 in 60 2/3 innings and had a fantastic fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 2.48. Closer or not, his stuff and his numbers are at least equal to Soriano's. If the objective is to get three outs before the other team scores, the choice between Soriano and Robertson might as well be a coin flip.
The choice of ninth-inning pitcher, as many have written, is the only instance when a manager makes a decision based solely on a statistic. Think about it: Managers will bring in their closer to start the ninth if the lead is three runs or fewer, and they'll bring in their closer in the ninth when the tying run gets into the on-deck circle. The statistic dictates the situation. Who needs an agent when the manager handles the statistical side of things?
The Tigers have muddled through with Jose Valverde, until Jim Leyland simply couldn't take it anymore. On Sunday, with the prospect of a 2-0 series lead in front of him, Leyland went with a very ordinary lefty, Phil Coke, who closed out the Yankees with two shutout innings. He's not a closer, but he damned sure closed.
And what has been the biggest managerial mistake of this postseason? I contend it was Nationals manager Davey Johnson's over-reliance on a closer. The Nationals took a 7-5 lead into the ninth inning of Game 5 against the Cardinals, and -- naturally -- they went to their late-season co-closer, Drew Storen. It's necessary to back up a little on this one, because Storen is a young closer coming off April elbow surgery who hadn't thrown three consecutive days all season, and the Nationals are the team that wouldn't allow Stephen Strasburg to throw more than 160 innings and couldn't figure out a way to stretch those 160 innings through the playoffs.
But there was Storen -- also a first-round pick, chosen nine picks after Strasburg in 2009 -- trying and failing to work his way through three outs in his third consecutive day of work. It seemed clear, after Storen issued back-to-back two-out walks to load the bases, that he was gassed. But since Tyler Clippard, the Nats' closer through most of the season, had already been used, Johnson evidently felt he had no option but to ride it out with Storen, who ended up throwing 33 pitches. And that's why the Cardinals are still playing.
And who has been the most valuable relief pitcher in the 2012 postseason? Tim Lincecum. He's getting a bunch of vital outs in the middle innings, after the starters have failed and before the late-inning guys start to get loose. He's not closing, and he's not starting, but he's been the most valuable pitcher (non-Verlander, non-Sabathia division) in the postseason.
The final three outs have attained a mythic stature in baseball. They're made-for-TV moments. And sure, you want a pitcher with good stuff and a strong constitution standing out there to get those outs. But at the risk of pulling back the curtain, there's something you ought to know: There are more of those guys than you think.