Closers are priced at a premium because they are the best relievers in the bullpen. When the game is on the line during the highest leverage situations, managers can turn to their closers to put the nail in the coffin. However, the game deciding situation does not always take place in the ninth inning. Many times, the crucial moments occur earlier in the game, yet most managers are reluctant to bring their closer into a non-save situation. It has almost become an unwritten rule in the modern game. While closers are supposed to be the players finishing games, their established roles should not determine when they can be used. History has shown that teams who will save their best reliever for the save situation usually tend to regret it.
Why save a player for a scenario that may never occur. Logically speaking, a team should always use their best assets when they have the opportunity to, especially in the postseason. There is no purpose to saving a team’s top arm if the season might end the next day.
During the regular season, there are two general rules for closers. If the team is at home, they pitch their closer in the ninth if their team is ahead by three runs or less or tied because there will be no more save situations after. If the team is on the road, they save their closer until they take the lead and a save situation arises.
The issue with the latter is that taking the lead is not a guarantee. The team may lose the game due to the ineffectiveness of another reliever before the closer even gets to come in. This is why managers should not play to the save statistic, but to the situation. Though because this “rule” is so ingrained in the minds of most major league managers, they often fall victim to the status quo.
An infamous example of this trap happened during Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS, when Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez did not turn to his All-Star closer in the eighth inning of an elimination game. During his tenure with the Braves, Craig Kimbrel was the most dominant reliever in baseball. From 2010-2014, he held a 1.43 ERA, converted 186 saves, and struck out 14.8 batters per nine innings. He was untouchable during this span with a 0.903 WHIP. Even when they did reach, it was via the walk 40% of the time, as hitting off him was near impossible. With all the prowess Kimbrel displayed in the bullpen, it would bewilder a manager to not put him in whenever trouble begins to brew.
One of the most impressive statistical accomplishments Kimbrel was able to achieve during his time in Atlanta was preventing the long ball. His ability to keep the ball in the ballpark was a major contributor to his success. In this postseason game, the Braves were leading the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 in the eighth inning. David Carpenter started the inning and gave up a leadoff double to Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig. After the first at bat, Kimbrel was locked and loaded, as he was ready to enter the game, but Gonzalez was reluctant to pull the trigger too early. Third baseman Juan Uribe was at the plate and after two failed bunt attempts, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly decided to give him the hit sign.
It is noteworthy to mention that Carpenter did have a phenomenal 2013, posting a 1.78 ERA, but he was no Kimbrel. In 2013, he had a 1.21 ERA and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, as a RELIEVER. Uribe would blast a 2-2 hanger deep into the Los Angeles night, giving the Dodgers the lead. For reference, Kimbrel had only allowed 0.4 HR/9 in 227.1 major league innings, while Carpenter had allowed 0.9 HR/9 in 125.2 innings. The sample size alone should have been enough of a sign to Gonzalez.
Sticking with the set-up man, who had been getting the job done all year is fine in the regular season, but when the stakes are high, a manager should use his best weapon available. There is no reason to preserve the closer for a moment that may never come. The Braves would end up losing this game in the top of the ninth inning, as Kimbrel remained in the bullpen during Atlanta’s entire eighth inning unraveling. He only pitched once during the four-game series. One of the most valuable players on the Braves roster pitched just over an inning in their most important series of the year, despite there being multiple off-days for rest. Mismanagement at its finest.
Closers are determined by their ability to pitch in the toughest moments. If they can pitch in the clutch, they can secure a victory or keep a game close. The bottom-line is that they can be put in any situation if they are truly a great closer, even when a save opportunity does not present itself. Why give an opposing team a chance to come back if it could be prevented in that instant. Players and coaches always discuss playing one game at a time. Though, the same logic should apply during the actual game. A manager should not be preparing for the ninth if they cannot make it through the seventh. Teams play based off the flow of the game, as games never go as anticipated. Obviously, a starter leading right into the closer is ideal, but when a pitcher gets knocked out early, adaptations need to be made. Everyone wants their best reliever to finish the game, however, taking or maintaining the lead should take precedence over how the ninth might look. A closer cannot save a game while trailing.
The save situation can blind managers in so many different ways. Not only will they save their closers for save situations, but they will only use them in save situations. Therefore, negating rest, matchups, or any other variables, when a save situation occurs, as a manager will automatically call for their closer. A prime example of this strategy proving to be flawed is in the case of Edwin Diaz in 2019.
Diaz was the best closer in baseball in 2018, saving a Seattle Mariners franchise record 57 games with a 1.96 ERA. After being traded to the New York Mets in a blockbuster deal during the off-season, Diaz appeared to be on a similar pace. Prior to the last game he pitched in May, he had a 1.64 ERA, saved 13/14 games, and had gone eight consecutive appearances without giving up an earned run.
On May 29, 2019, Diaz would be pitching for the fourth time in the last five days, as the Mets held a three-run lead entering the ninth inning. Mets manager Mickey Callaway opted to turn to his closer despite the lack of rest and sizable lead because the save situation occurred. Diaz ended up allowing six consecutive batters to reach base, ultimately leading to a walk-off sacrifice fly off the bat of Alex Verdugo.
There is no harm in letting other players close games. Just because a situation is set up nicely, does not always mean it has to be played the same way. Pitchers are human, they need rest. A save situation occurring should not automatically dictate the need to use a closer. It makes much more sense to put a team’s best asset in during a high leverage situation in the eighth, then a comfortable one in the ninth.
Callaway’s decision to push Diaz the extra day not only cost his team the game, but derailed the All-Star closers entire season. After pitching to a sub 2.00 ERA prior to this appearance, Diaz threw to an 8.00 ERA the rest of the way. This overuse obliterated his confidence, as the young flamethrower was unable to return to similar form until the next season.
Modern bullpens are evolving. There are even teams that like the Tampa Bay Rays who have an opener and intentionally have a bullpen game every fifth day. Definitive roles are good to set the structure of a rotation and bullpen, but there are no rules that must be followed. Games should be managed through intuition, not by tradition. Closers being the only ones who could save games is like saying only speedsters could hit leadoff or only sluggers can hit cleanup. A player’s role is to help their team win games, not to be subjected to a single role. Flexibility is an advantage.
Tough decisions sometimes have to be made, and that may mean thinking outside the box and going against traditional baseball, but if these decisions produce results, then it can all be worth it. Managing plays is just as vital a role in a team’s success as the players themselves. Utilizing all 26 players on the roster to the best of their ability is what managers get paid for. Establishing a game plan is great as a guideline, but managers should always expect the unexpected. Do not be a slave to the save.