April 3, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Tommy Hunter (29) reacts as he walks off the field after he gave up a walk off home run to Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Matt Joyce (20) (not pitched) during the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Baltimore Orioles 8-7. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles: The Myth of the Designated Closer

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Today is the day I am going to resurrect and re-publish a latest version of a longstanding article about what I believe is “the myth of the designated closer.” This is an opinion (not held only by me) that I do realize is very much a minority opinion of baseball people at all levels, but it lies at the heart of so much of what I write about relief pitching.

I don’t find anything in the game of baseball quite so frustrating as spending several hours watching my team (the Orioles at this point of my life) play a good game – doing all the little things to win games with situational hitting and solid defense, taking a lead into the 9th inning, etc. – only to have the “designated closer” obligatorily marched in (whether the match-ups are good or bad) and blow the whole thing apart with just a few stupid pitches!

In my previous life before the era of the internet (when there were only the three major networks and a handful of local cable TV outlets) I was a Phillies Phollower while living in that broadcast market. Near the end of this time (and of my years dwelling in New Jersey) was the famous 1993 team of John Kruk, Darren Dalton, Lenny Dykstra, Curt Shilling … and … Mitch Williams, a.k.a. “The Wild Thing.”

It was a great season for the Phillies, but a painful one. They made it as far as the sixth game of the World Series before Joe Carter of the Blue Jays ended their run by placing a Mitch Williams fastball into the left-field seats for a walk-off win. That was the season where Shilling first started sitting in the dugout with a towel over his head. It had nothing to do with sweat! Rather, he could not stand the sight of Mitch Williams pitching relief! Nobody knew where the ball was going when it left his hand, including Williams himself!

(The Wild Thing issued 554 walks in his career of 691 total innings pitched. That is a bit over seven walks per nine innings, and does not include the 52 people who likely still have a dent in their body somewhere from getting plunked. But he did have an opponents’ batting average of only .218. Seeing his 1993 WHIP – walks and hits per innings pitched – as 1.61 helps me understand why I have such painful memories of that season.)

Back in 2003-2005 with the Orioles, Jorge Julio was like the second coming of Mitch Williams. And since then, Orioles fans could name more than a couple “closers” (George Sherrill, Mike Gonzalez, Alfredo Simon, Kevin Gregg, etc.) who routinely loaded the bases before they went to work to attempt to save the game.

But here is my bigger question: why does a franchise always need to go through the wrenching decision as to who is going to be the designated closer? This “designated closer” phenomenon is a rather recent baseball invention. Consider the great 1966 Orioles team. That season, no less than six Orioles recorded saves. Stu Miller had the most with 18; but Eddie Fisher had 13, Moe Drabowsky and Dick Hall had seven each, Eddie Watt had four, while Gene Brabender recorded two.

In those days, managers brought in the best pitcher for the situation at hand. Sometimes, the situation called for the best reliever to match a particular cast of hitters in the 7th inning. But now, the entire strategy of the game is to get a lead by the 7th inning, bring in the designated set-up man, and finish the game with the designated closer.

A baseball writer name Jerome Holtzmann created the “save” statistic in 1960 to rate the effectiveness of relief pitchers. He kept records on his own for nine years, and in 1969, the statistic was officially adopted. In a May 2002 article in Baseball Digest, former Orioles manager Johnny Oates told Holtzmann, “You changed the game. You created the 9th-inning pitcher.” Holtzmann rightly responded that managers changed the game by their decisions, especially Tony LaRussa and Dick Howser. And then, over time, all teams began to look for the big stopper – the one guy who could nail down a win. I think this absorption with designating a “closer” has ultimately hurt the game of baseball.

But here is the real reason closer fascination has evolved. I came to understand this from no less than the mouth of the late Moe Drabowsky himself. A few years ago I was at a luncheon at a Hagerstown Suns game (minor league affiliate of the Nationals). I was standing by the railing watching warm-up drills long before the game was scheduled to begin. The visiting DelMarVa Shorebirds pitching coach walked by and struck up a conversation… turned out it was Moe Drabowsky. So I asked him about this “closer” phenomenon that has overtaken the game since his playing days. He said, “Here is the answer… the manager is in the dugout making a certain number of thousands of dollars a year, and the owner is paying the closer guy 10 times that amount to do a particular job… so the manager is not going to risk giving the ball to anybody else, even if he thinks another pitcher would be better in that situation. The manager is not going to put himself in the position of his choice somehow blowing the game, with the owner then saying to him, ‘Why am I paying this guy all this money to do a job, and then you’re not going to use him!? You’re the guy I don’t need!’

So there you have it! The designated closer is more of a financial reality than an awesome baseball strategy. Hey, the big closer, the big stopper is great, if you have something approaching a Rollie Fingers, John Franco, Lee Smith, or Mariano Rivera on your roster … or a vintage 2012 Jim Johnson. I would suggest that there are at any given time less than 10 of these sorts of guys in the game.

One of the storylines to watch with the 2014 Orioles is the back end of the bullpen situation. Will the Orioles yet sign a person with “closer” experience, or will they give it to someone like Tommy Hunter? I’m not against a person being brought in through free agency or a trade, but I would rather see the team develop three or more relievers who can be expected at various times to be the “go-to” person in the 9th inning. Why not have Brian Matusz expected at certain points to match up well against a series of lefties coming to the plate at the end of the game? Why not develop several pitchers who can be expected to throw strikes and be a tough customer to hit off of in the final frame?

I was much encouraged by Showalter’s remarks at the 2011 FanFest. He referenced the closer role as an egotistical thing and made it VERY clear that nobody is getting anointed with any role they do not deserve and did not earn. He also said, “Some pitchers say, ‘If I knew my role, I’d pitch better,’ and I say to them, ‘Pal, if you’d pitch better, you’d know your role!’

But even with Buck, we have seen heavy dependence upon a designated knockout punch guy in the 9th even when they did not have the right stuff … in 2011 with several guys, and again last year with Jim Johnson when his command was completely lost.

And this much is sure, anyone nicknamed “Captain Chaos” or “The Wild Thing” or “The Heart Attack” should not be allowed in any game after the 7th inning!

(Twitter @OSayOrioles / @BaltimoreWireFS, Email – [email protected])

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