Closer? We don’t need no stinkin’ closer… or do we?

So there has been a LOT of discussion in the blogosphere since Gardy announced that they would be pursuing a “closer by committee” approach last weekend.  Turns out that even friends don’t always agree what this means or whether it works.  Here’s a slice of the debate just in case you hadn’t already filled up on dinner.

JIMCRIKKET:

In football, when a coach says he has two quarterbacks, what he’s really saying is that he doesn’t have one. I think Ron Gardenhire is saying the same thing when he says he’ll open the season with “Closer by Committee”.

Yes, the Twins have some good arms in their bullpen to open the season. I realize they’ve historically been able to identify and develop new closers. But this feels different.

The Twins are not a sub-.500 team just looking for someone to close games in the relatively unlikely event that they have a lead in the 9th inning like they were when Rick Aguilera was given the job. Nor are they a team simply trying to contend in their division like they were when Eddie Guardado succeeded LaTroy Hawkins. 

This is supposed to be “the season” for the Minnesota Twins. This is when they do more than contend. This is the year they’re geared up to fight with the big boys.  This is more akin to 2004 when they handed the job to newly acquired Joe Nathan.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the guys in the Twins’ bullpen. But I don’t see anyone there who I want to see coming in to pitch the 9th inning of a close game. We could argue whether 9th innings are always the critical inning and whether your best shut-em-down bullpen arm should occasionally be used in the 7th or 8th instead of the ninth. But that’s not the point. Right now, I don’t see a guy on this staff I’d feel comfortable going to regularly in any such situation, regardless of the inning.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Guys like Guerrier, Neshek, Rauch, Mijares and Crain have all had considerable success in those situations. But this is where the closer is different. To be a successful set-up pitcher, you need command of more than one pitch and the ability to miss bats with those pitches. This pen has a few of those guys.

But a closer needs more. He needs an out-pitch… something he can throw time after time and know (not just think) he’ll be successful with, no matter how many times that hitter has seen that pitch. “Knowing”… or believing… he’ll be successful every time he enters the game is a mental thing. It’s a discipline. It’s more than having talent. It requires more than confidence. It requires arrogance.

Show me the guy in this bullpen with (a) reliable command of more than one pitch, (b) the demonstrated ability over the past  couple of years to miss bats with those pitches, (c) a legitimate out-pitch, and (d) the mental toughness… the ego… the arrogance to not only be a closer but THE closer on a team who’s goal is not simply to contend for their Division, but to go the distance. Show me the guy you believe is a closer you want to take you to the World Series… and trust to do his job when you get there.

“Closer by Committee” is just Gardy’s way of telling Bill Smith, “I don’t have a closer.”

I believe he’s right.

CAPITALBABS:

First, when Gardy says he’s going to have a “closer by committee” I think that simply means he knows he’ll use more than one person and he doesn’t want to name names…  I don’t think he gets really caught up in definitions. 

Do I think we need a closer?  Absolutely.  Does Gardy?  well, I never get that elusive opportunity to grill him over a beer at the bar but I’m going to make some guesses based on his pitcher selection in the past.  Yes, he likes having a closer.  He’ll work with what he’s got and hope like hell that someone steps up to the plate.  Do we, as Twins fans, need to have that 9th inning guy to turn games over to – especially ones that are ‘on the line’??  No, we thrive on the angst of a nailbiter anyway…  Do the rest of the pitchers on the team?  Yeah, I kind of think they do.  It’s not that they won’t all do their best regardless, but I think they’ll do BETTER.

Here’s where it gets a little… complicated.

Even if Bert is right and the pitcher is the best athelete on the field, pitching is first and foremost a mental exercise.  And a guy with a good arm doesn’t dream of becoming a great closing pitcher.  He likely dreams of being that great starter – who, no doubt, pitches a complete game with no one else’s help – and starts developing his fastball…  What eventually happens though is that, for whatever reason, his great arm isn’t suited to long outtings every 4th or 5th day.  He becomes a relief pitcher.  And no, it’s not because of a much vaunted ‘out pitch’- or the lack thereof.

Yes, the mental belief that you can throw what you want to throw when you want to throw it is important.  It is if you’re a starter too.  Fact is, I would be willing to bet (whatever limited funds I have available) that you aren’t going to last long with a single team in MLB in ANY pitching role if you don’t believe that – even if it isn’t always true.  So it takes a LOT more than belief to be a 1st rate closer.  So, in a way, JC is right.  What sets a closer apart from his fellow members of the bullpen is BALLS. 

Funny thing about these little families of men whose individual success depends on the skills and abilities of their brothers.  In their heart of hearts, they know whether or not they trust or have the trust of the others.

Nathan became the preeminent late inning guy that he is because of the sheer force of will that drives his intense mound personality.  I can guarantee that he doesn’t have that same intensity 24/7 – who could?  But he goes out to the mound with fire because he believes in himself and because the others believe in him too.

So, out of the group of really excellent pitchers the Twins have now, who has shown that same fire?  Well, no one.  Why?  BECAUSE THEY HAD JOE NATHAN!

There is no reason to expect a change in behavior until you change the status quo and I have to tell you that it really does change the mentality of each and every one of those guys that he isn’t there with them now.

I’m just waiting to see who says, “you know what, I CAN do this.  I know my stuff and I can get any hitter out there if you want me to.  Let me do it.”  And the guy who says it so convincingly that the others BELIEVE him?  THAT’s your closer. 

I’m starting to see a bit of that attitude here and there already.  :)  Gardy is just waiting to see who he really believes.

Or at least that is what this armchair psychologist/pitching fanatic sees when she’s watching baseball.  Maybe she should drink more.

Feel free to serve up your favorite opinion to the buffet and share in the feasting.

5 thoughts on “Closer? We don’t need no stinkin’ closer… or do we?

  1. Closers didn’t used to exist.

    Saves didn’t used to exist.

    There’s nothing magical about the 9th inning. Closers, honestly, are more for the fans than the team.

    Give it to the guy who has the best chance of getting the outs. Go with Lefty/Righty splits. Use two guys in the 9th, use three! One thing Gardy does REALLY well is manage the bullpen.

    But if you gotta pick someone, go with Neshek.

  2. I don’t believe that a team necessarily has to have ONE guy hold down the “closer” position, except that these days, in the post-Herzog/LaRussa world, practically all fans and media expect it. As soon as “the committee” blows two or three 9th inning leads in a short stretch, you know the public pressure to conform to convention will be immense. Either Gardy will have to settle on one guy, or Smith will have to make a trade.

    I agree that mental belief is key. A pitcher who is aggressive, not afraid to go after hitters, and THROWS STRIKES should do fine in the closer role (as in any pitching role), even if he doesn’t have Joe Nathan’s stuff. I just hope that Gardy finds that guy in his bullpen before we all have to suffer through too many failed auditions.

    This is thinking outside the box–because I know the Twins wouldn’t do this unless he really began to struggle in the rotation–but I think it would be intriguing to see Kevin Slowey and his career 4.90 K/BB ratio in the closer role.

  3. Kinda amused by the idea that they HAVE to get a “proven” closer. As others mentioned it didn’t used to be this way. IMO it’s media driven and I blame the Yankees. :-) Yes, it’s hard to lose someone like Nathan, but that’s life in baseball. Remember how the Twins were supposed to be toast after Justin went down at the end of last season? The Twins are going to do things in their own time and way and to me that is what, if anything, “…by committee” might be code for. The Twins have a good (better than good really) track record of finding someone to fill the role.

  4. Forgot to add this part into my original text: What do we do with this supposed front line closer some people want us to grab after this year? You really want to set up the issue when Nathan comes back next year? At what cost? Giving up the a guy from the minors with huge amounts of talent and potential? Really??

    That just seems incredibly short-sighted for something that is a temporary situation. One person is NEVER the difference between success or failure of the season. I think our BP pitchers will perform better if there is some solidity at the back end because it just takes away of of the uncertainty in a given situation. But they are good pitchers (for the most part) who will go out and do the best they can with what they are given. Whether there is a single person assigned the closer responsibilities or not.

  5. “One person is NEVER the difference between success or failure of the season.”

    Really? This coming from a fan of the team who’s had to play a 163rd game each of the past two years?

    The difference between having a quality, experienced lock down closer and not having one would likely make no more than 3-4 games difference in the W column during the season. But I don’t know how anyone could say that would never be the difference between success and failure. And given the Twins propensity for coughing up leads once they get to the playoffs, I think it could make a significant difference in their playoff success as well.

    Remember… getting a Heath Bell or someone similar doesn’t mean you’re getting the difference between that new closer and, say, Matt Guerrier. It means you’re getting the difference between that new closer and Clay Condrey (who would arguably be the pitcher to lose his spot in the pen). When the rest of the arms shift “down” one role, your bullpen becomes that much stronger.

    As for what you do with the guy next year, it’s not really an issue in most cases because most of the pitchers that would be acquisition options would be one-year commitments. But if you DID get a guy locked up for two years, what a bonus that would be! If you think Nathan is going to be his reliable self just 12 months after TJ, you’re being very optimistic. And if he IS… great… you’ve got an extra closer to deal for another needed position player.

    Do you trade your system’s top prospect for a one year rental? Probably not. But there are some talented players in the Twins’s system that have no realistic chance to break in to this line up in the next couple of years. There’s a deal out there to be done, I have to believe.