Injuries and demotions making closer's role more volatile than ever
Baseball's new epidemic selects its victims carefully. It targets inhabitants of the same community, each of whom can be found residing on the pitcher's mound in the ninth inning of close games.
The 2012 season has seen an inexplicable volatility among closers. Since the start of spring training 14 of the 30 starting closers have lost their job, nine to injury and five more to demotion, turning the bullpen door into a revolving one at the end of games. Even a handful of replacements have followed suit with their ailments. The result is that a closer's job security has never been more tenuous.
The latest evidence came Sunday afternoon in Anaheim. With Jordan Walden -- a 2011 All-Star closer who began this season in that role -- marooned in the bullpen after having lost his job, the Angels first sent Scott Downs to the mound, but he exited with a bruised knee after recording one out. Next, manager Mike Scioscia summoned LaTroy Hawkins, who got the final two outs but broke a finger in the process and is now on the disabled list.
Hawkins has plenty of closer company on the DL, most notably career saves leader Mariano Rivera. Though the Yankees lost Rivera to a torn ACL last Thursday, they only truly experienced what life without the future Hall of Famer will be like on Tuesday night when they had their first save opportunity.
Manager Joe Girardi said Rivera's absence sank in when he was preparing his weekly reference card of relievers before the game, and for the first time in his five-year tenure he wrote a new name at the top: David Robertson. The righthander later entered with a 5-3 lead to face the visiting Rays in the ninth, loading the bases before striking out Carlos Peña to end the game.
"I was a little nervous, yeah," Robertson said after the game. "Tonight I was thinking, You better not blow your first one, or Mo might come in here and smack me around."
That levity from Robertson aside, the last thing he needs is lingering doubts that he deserves to pitch the ninth. Girardi hasn't officially named Robertson his closer, leaving the door open to give Rafael Soriano some chances, but he also said he wouldn't hesitate to go right back to Robertson even if he blows a save.
There's plenty of drama in other cities, too, where five pitchers have been demoted, at least temporarily, due to poor performance. Both of the closers in Chicago (the Cubs' Carlos Marmol and the White Sox' Hector Santiago) and Los Angeles (the Angels' Walden and the Dodgers' Javy Guerra) have been replaced. The same fate has befallen the Marlins' Heath Bell, who signed a three-year, $27 million contract with Miami in the offseason.
Four pitchers have been stricken with season-ending injuries including three -- the Giants' Brian Wilson, Reds' Ryan Madson, the Royals' Joakim Soria -- who have undergone Tommy John surgery. Nationals closer Drew Storen also had elbow surgery, though his was to remove a bone fragment. Such a rash of physical problems is probably coincidental more than anything else, but it does speak to an industry-wide concern about the high number of pitcher injuries.
Nowhere have the injuries been more prevalent than the AL East. In spring training the Red Sox lost Andrew Bailey to thumb surgery and the Rays lost Kyle Farnsworth to an elbow strain; the Blue Jays' Sergio Santos, meanwhile, has been sidelined with shoulder inflammation since April 21 and last week the Yankees' Rivera suffered his knee injury. Those four are all currently on the DL while the Orioles' Jim Johnson recently returned from a four-night hospital stay following a severe case of food poisoning.
The Rays and Yankees, who have each won two of the last four division titles, have sustained success despite being at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to finding new closers.
Since Rivera was installed as closer in 1997, no other Yankee has saved as many as 10 games in a single-season, making the franchise unique for its consistency. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has had 10 such seasons; who can forget Lance Carter's 26 saves in 2003 or Tyler Walker's 10-save campaign of '06?
Though the use of 10 different end-game relievers seems like an awful lot of closers for 16 seasons, there are 12 franchises who used even more during that time span. The average is nine, with only the Yankees and Padres (three) using fewer than five.
"We talk about it on an annual basis how relief pitching really does fluctuate, regarding effectiveness," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "With us we really try to stay away from using the word 'closer.' I have not even mentioned it once this year, nor did I mention it at all last year. We're always just trying to put the best matchup leverage situation together."
Rays reliever J.P. Howell, who saved 17 games in 2009 and who has a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings this season, remembers Maddon's surprising instructions about relief roles when Howell moved to the bullpen prior to the 2008 season.
"He said for everyone to just be on call," Howell said. "Some guys were kind of shocked by that and didn't believe that and couldn't understand that. Like Joe does, in a matter of time he'll prove why he does things."
That the Rays have used so many different pitchers in high leverage situations would seem to allow Maddon the ability to mix and match his relievers with confidence, depending on rest, recent performance or matchup, with less regard to experience.
The majority of relief outings are brief -- the major league average this year is 4.4 batters faced per appearance -- which can distort season statistics with one bad appearance. Then again, the stakes are high in a very results-oriented niche, with binary performance ratings: Did he preserve the lead or did he not? That contributes to the high turnover rate at the position, particularly given the heightened tension and emotion surrounding blown leads in the ninth inning.
"All it takes is one pitch to ruin an outing," Storen said in an interview last September. "I can strike out three guys, but if I throw one bad pitch, give up a solo home run and blow a save, it's a terrible outing. It's a weird sample size when it comes down to it, but I think you have to look at the big picture."
On another team or at another time Robertson would probably dream about closing, just as any person would visualize reaching the pinnacle of his or her profession. For relief pitchers, salary and status are correlated with saves.
Robertson, the Yankees' dominant set-up man, is statistically as good as anyone pitching in the late innings -- 12 shutout innings this year and a 0.92 ERA with a 13. 8 K/9 in 78 2/3 innings since the start of 2011 -- but it wasn't until Rivera's injury that Robertson allowed himself to consider closing at the major league level.
"[Closing] is something I would think about doing, but it's not something you focus on here because you have Mariano," he said. "He's such a stable guy. And he's going to be back next year. We look forward to that. We've just got to hold it together until he comes back."
Robertson marveled when he learned from manager Joe Girardi that Rivera hadn't been on the DL in nine years, saying before the game, "That's why he had so many saves and why none of us really picked them up. I think I have three, and they're scattered through five years of playing."
After completing his white-knuckle ninth inning Tuesday night, he now has four saves, even if this one didn't rate efficiency points the way his legendary predecessor often did.
"Mo would have thrown 12 pitches, broken a bat and we'd have been out of here 20 minutes ago," Robertson said.
Rivera is the hardest act to follow for a novice closer -- but in 2012 he's not alone.