Baseball’s ALCS and NLCS Are Set: “Established Closers”(tm) Need Not Apply

By: Brian Mangan

I tuned in to the American League Division Series tonight just in time to see the Detroit Tigers’ Joaquin Benoit throw a single pitch.  It turned out to be the final pitch of the night, a fastball which Seth Smith lifted weakly to center for the final out of the game and series, propelling the Tigers to the American league Championship.

It was great to see Benoit, a player who had for so long saddled with a “can’t close” label, close out an enormous pressure postseason game.  It was only his second career postseason save (his first was earlier this week) at the age of 35.  In fact, Benoit is not only a stranger to post-season saves, but regular season saves as well: In 541 career appearances, he has totaled only 37 saves.  Benoit’s 24 saves this year, eclipsed his previous season high of … 6.  ImageHowever, there is no disputing that Benoit has been excellent this year, bucking the odds that so many had saddled him with.  In fact, all four teams in the Championship Series have closers that were either great, or historically great, this season.  Take a look at the teams and players below:

  • Detroit Tigers – Joaquin Benoit:  2.01 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 24 saves, 9.8 K/9
  • Los Angeles Dodgers – Kenley Jansen: 1.88 ERA, 0.861 WHIP, 28 saves, 13.0 K/9
  • St. Louis Cardinals – Edward Mujica: 2.78 ERA, 1.005 WHIP, 37 saves, 9.20 K/BB
  • Boston Red Sox – Koji Uehara: 1.09ERA, 0.565 WHIP, 21 saves, 11.22 K/BB (101 strikeouts!!!!)

It is no surprise that teams in the Championship Series have great closers.  What is surprising, however, is that not a single one of the aforementioned teams closer is the player that began the season in that position.  And for three out of four, they are veterans who are closing for the very first time (and one youngster also closing for the first time in Jansen).

At the start of the year, it would not be overstating it to say that the Tigers had no idea who their closer would be.  The Tigers appeared to originally pin their hopes on the young Bruce Rondon, a right hander with a 100 MPH fastball.  When Rondon failed to perform in Spring Training, the Tigers panicked and the revolving door began (Bleacher Report, March 6, 2013: Top Six Options to Replace Rondon).  Here are the first five Tigers saves this season:  Phil Coke, Drew Smyly, Benoit, and Jose Valverde.  Yes, the Tigers were, at a time, so desperate that they brought back Papa Grande, their erstwhile 2012 closer, to finish out the game.

For the Red Sox and Cardinals, it was a much different story: both teams had Established Closers ™ who they expected would succeed in 2013 who, instead, got injured.  For the Cardinals, the dominant Jason Motte got injured in spring training, requiring Matt Harvey surgery (I’m sorry, it’s still called Tommy John at the moment).  For the Red Sox, Joel Hanrahan was tabbed to start the season at closer before going down.

Uehara was the best in the game this year — do you know what he looks like?

In both cases, there was an additional twist: the player to emerge from the shuffle as closer was not even the first or second player in line.  In St. Louis, analysts thought that Trevor Rosenthal or Mitchell Boggs would take the helm, while in Boston, it was supposed to be Andrew Bailey, then Junichi Tazawa.

[FN] An entire article — hell, an entire book — could be written about Edward Mujica and Koji Uehara’s careers up to this point.  Edward Mujica was discarded by the Miami Marlins, and Koji Uehara, although he was regarded as good, was mostly an afterthought, a nice piece, in the 2012-2013 offseason.  Speaking of which, did anyone else see what Jason Grilli did this season?

For the Dodgers, Kenley Jansen’s ascension to the role of closer was merely a matter of time.  The Dodgers tried to put an Established Closer ™ in the role in the form of Brandon League, but he was just no good.  Jansen,  on the other hand, was and is incredible.

It was only a matter of time. (credit: wikimedia)

Much ink has been spilled over the last few years in sabermetric circles about the uselessness of the closer role.  Most of that is easily verifiable through the numbers, but I prefer to have “teaching moments” when they develop naturally.

It goes without saying that the teams in the ALCS and NLCS are going to be great teams.  What might be less evident is that these teams will often have great bullpens, top to bottom.  For the Tigers, Cardinals, Dodgers and Red Sox, each of these teams needed a second (or third, or fourth!) option to be their closer when their original plans fell through.  Each of these teams had the organizational depth to survive these blows.

[FN] I used to, when the Mets were good, and I cared, look closely at who the Mets’ #6 and #7 starters were on the depth chart in Spring Training.  Why?  Well, because I knew those players were going to have to be good for us to have a chance to last the entire season.  If you lose a starter for a month, you need your #6 or #7 guy to step in and give your team a chance to win.  Punting on 4 or 5 games, even early in the season, even if they are non-consecutive, can easily cost you a Pennant.

The 162 game baseball season is a battle of attrition, where teams must survive the rigors of daily play and the slings and arrows of random luck.  It is no surprise that the deepest teams – often the product of the strongest organizations – are the ones that will make it, or have the best chance of making it, to the postseason promised land.  So don’t sweat it if your team begins the season with Bruce Rondon or Brandon League in the closer role: so long as you have Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, you’ve got the chance to catch lightning in a bottle in the ninth inning.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney in New York City who still shudders at the thought of Luis Ayala in a Mets uniform.

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