Why Suggesting The Tigers Use a Starter as the Closer is The Dumbest Thing You Could Say

Screenshot on 6.14.2013 at 11.23.19 AM

You know how you’re at a party, having a good time, having some drinks with friends? You’re all gathered around the nachos, plucking away at them like some corner musician plugs away at his balsa guitar with nylon strings. Making jokes. You’re in the zone. All of a sudden, you say something a little out there — trying to be funny or controversial, to get some laughs.

But the laughs never come. Everyone stares at you, half chewed nachos in mouth, regretfully sipping your Coors Light, trying to wash it all down. They may change the subject, or hell, they may even walk away, muttering to themselves, the muttering most likely consisting of regret at letting you attend this party.

If I was there, and instead of trying to be funny, but still being controversial, you suggested that the Tigers should use Max Scherzer, or Rick Porcello, or for the love of god, Justin Verlander as a closer, I wouldn’t have walked away muttering. I would have called you an idiot in my head, and then would have gone on to explain to you why you’re so wrong.

It probably would have sounded something like this.

Starters and Closers have completely different roles. Starters can throw 200 innings per year, while a good closer might throw 70. A starter pitches 5-6 innings per start, while a closer throws 1, if you’re lucky. Just by that quick look, a starter has more value. Taking a guy like Max Scherzer — 7th in pitcher WAR in 2013, with a 2.49 FIP — and changing his role to throwing one inning, at the end of the game, is foolish.

Why is that, though? The Tigers need a closer, you say. They’re struggling closing out games. Yes, this is true. They do need a closer. They need a competent pitcher to finish games and give the club confidence that when he’s on the hill in the 9th, the job is going to get done.

Jose Valverde is not that guy. That much, I think most of us can agree on. His middling stuff, consisting of a straight, 92-94 MPH fastball,  is eminently hittable. He is not the kind of guy the Tigers need right now. Jose Valverde has a 5.89 FIP right now, with a .189 BABIP, which is about .100 points lucky. He’s been throwing straight, very hittable fastballs, and he’s been getting lucky on the result when the ball is put in play. The regression to the mean has already begun.

That said, how do we address this hole? Well, according to an outstanding piece by outstanding Joe Posnanski, it almost doesn’t matter, because you’re going to win that game 95% of the time anyway. So, you find someone who doesn’t suck, and you have them pitch the 9th. You can argue with me all day whether or not the “closer mentality” is a thing, or that you can’t measure how the difficult the 9th is to pitch, or whatever, but let’s try and argue things we can come to conclusions from, conclusions like as long as a good pitcher is in the game, you’re going to win the game most of the time.

I find a dedicated closer’s role silly. It shortens your bullpen, takes away creativity, and artificially increases the importance of a guy who’s just getting 3 outs. Why can’t the guy pitching the 9th be matchup related? Or the guy who’s been outstanding lately? Why does it have to be the fat piece of garbage who throws BP? Just because he’s had success in the past?

That’s dumb. Baseball needs to change. If the “closer’s mentality” is a thing, it’s because Baseball did it themselves. They put the importance on it. Having a dedicated closer is a new thing. Starters used to finish games by themselves, because hey, it was the mid 1900s and dammit, we got things done. We didn’t need to rely on some jerk in the dugout who only pitches twice a week to win our games for us.

The original point of the article is you should never suggest that the Tigers use an effective starter as a closer, because this makes the Tigers a worse team. Innings 1-8 are more important than inning 9.

Let’s illustrate this with numbers. In 2012, Craig Kimbrel, who some consider the best closer in baseball, finished 30th in pitcher WAR, at 3.3, while having an incredible, historic season, striking out 16.66 per 9, with a 0.78 FIP. He was completely and utterly unhittable, and according to WAR, was as valuable as Jon Lester, who finished 2012 with a 4.82 ERA and a 4.11 FIP. Reds closer Aroldis Chapman also had a 3.3 WAR, finishing with a 1.55 FIP, striking out 15.32 per 9 innings. So you’re saying, hey dude, some closers are as valuable as starters! You’re wrong! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Scherzer could do that!

Justin Verlander had a 7.0 WAR in 2012. Justin Verlander is more than twice as valuable as the closer who had a completely unbelievable season. Twice as valuable as a guy who allowed just 7 earned runs the entire season. Twice as valuable.

The best closer in 2013, former Tigers great Jason Grilli, has a 1.7 WAR, with a 0.52 FIP. 14.76 strikeouts per 9 innings. Cardinals starter Adam Wainright has a 4.0 WAR. Wainright could end his season, today, on June 14th, and be more valuable than Kinsbrel was in his entire 2012 season. Scherzer finished with a 4.5 WAR in 2012, even after being pretty bad at times in the first half.

Look, you can disagree with WAR, or whatever. I know I’m not completely sold on it. But what it does effectively is illustrate the vast difference between a great starter and a great closer. Would you rather have a lights out, incredible, unhittable closer for 60 innings, or a top of the line starter for 220?

I’ll let you make that choice for yourself.

  • Ed

    Agree with everything except “fat piece of garbage.”

  • verlander

    Terrific post.

    Balsa guitar. Haha.

  • verlander

    Also. Kinsbrel.

  • cestma

    And I agree with Ed.

  • Joe

    Good stuff. In fact, the sabermetrics experts actually advocate that the most dominant pitcher available start a game. So, IF Craig Kimbrell is the most dominant guy on the Braves, he should start. By this logic, the 9th should be handled by another starter or a mediocre middle reliever. Some clubs have put this into practice, at least on the front end; Neftali Feliz is now a starter. Also, the Reds have reportedly explored converting Aroldis Chapman. Tony LaRussa is to be thanked (blamed?) for this closer innovation. His idea worked because he found a guy who could get ahead in counts, and exploit batters’ infrequent exposure to that reliever, in that case, Dennis Eckersley. So, to sum up, a closer must have good fastball command and some other pitch that’s too nasty to get used to in limited encounters. That’s not a high bar, really, and as far as the “closer’s mentality” goes, if a pitcher can’t get some balls and believe in himself, how did he reach the majors to begin with? –Joe

  • Scott Powell

    Finally. Someone else who thinks that closer role is just silly (my word would be lazy). It does shorten your bullpen by a pitcher who throws 50-70 innings (that averages out to be one out per game?!). Smyly is on pace for over 100, 2 and 3 innings at a time. As far as general relief pitching goes, since when was it smart to put in a pitcher for just one inning, and pull him when he’s throwing well?

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