Ever since the Cardinals got Bruce Sutter for the 1981 season and became a great team because of his presence, I’ve been a fan of good closers. While there’s a prevailing thought in baseball circles that any good pitcher can pitch the ninth inning and that closers aren’t that important, I think Sunday’s induction of Lee Smith and Mariano Rivera show that, indeed, having a great closer is paramount for a championship team.
Going back to Sutter, when Whitey Herzog took over the team its season save leader was John Littlefield, who had nine. The bullpen allowed more than a hit per inning and nearly a walk every other frame. They had a WHIP of 1.466, which is no way to win. After the season, Herzog not only imported Sutter and, for a day, Rollie Fingers, but imported or promoted Bob Shirley, Bob Sykes and Jim Otten, who joined holdovers Jim Kaat and Mark Littell. Whitey KNEW he had to have a guy at the back end of the bullpen.
That’s not so say that good closers are rare. You can find a good closer. From 2011 through 2017, every team that won the World Series had a different closer at the end of the playoff than they had at the beginning of the year. But the great closers…the ones that are consistent enough to last for years…those are hard to find. In the history of the game, 29 players have recorded at least 300 saves, an average of thirty a year for ten years. Yet only seven of the 23 eligible for the Hall of Fame have been elected. There isn’t much love for the position because of the rules that govern it. A pitcher can enter a game in the ninth with a three-run lead and get a save, or pitch three innings with any lead and get a save.
Most of the time, the lead is less than three. It’s usually at most a two-batter high wire that the closer is walking. Some, like Sutter, Rivera and Smith, can handle the pressure. But there are a lot that can’t. Mitchell Boggs was sensational for the Cardinals from 2010-2012, especially in 2012 when he was the primary setup man for Jason Motte with a 2.21 ERA in 78 games, striking out 58 in 73.1 innings. Motte suffered an injury in 2013 and the Cardinals turned to Boggs, who had eleven strikeouts and fifteen walks in 14.2 innings as a closer. The same thing happened to Mike Perez, who had a 2.48 ERA in 72.2 innings as the Cards setup man for Lee Smith in 1993 but melted down with an 8.71 ERA in ’94. Others that had that problem include Dellin Betances of the Yankees, Hector Rondon with the Cubs, Matt Bush with the Rangers and Pedro Strop in Chicago. Yes, there are tons of guys who ascended to being quality closers from the setup spot…notably Rivera, Kenley Jansen, Wade Davis, Brad Hand and Francisco Rodriguez, among many others.
Any time I’ve ever asked a guy who’s been in the battles, pitched in major league baseball, about getting the 27th out, they say it’s different. 100% of the time. I’ve never run across a pitcher that has said “yeah, pitching the ninth is just like pitching the eighth.” Closers and setup men alike say that the intensity of the situation…protecting a ninth inning lead…is a situation that some guys can handle, and some guys can’t.
So since it IS a position in baseball, I’m glad to see closers get their due at the Hall of Fame. My philosophy is that if you were the best at your position for a period of time, you were the best at what you do and should be in the Hall of Fame. DH Edgar Martinez was inducted this year, and David Ortiz will get in eventually. Like it or not, designated hitter is a position in baseball. Same thing with the closer. Few players have as much impact on the outcome of games as the guy protecting the ninth inning lead. If he fails, the team loses.
Rivera and Smith (who was the first pitcher to get to 400 saves and held the all-time record for thirteen seasons) were clearly the best. The other closers in the Hall, Rollie Fingers, Sutter, Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley and Trevor Hoffman, were certainly the best in the game for a period of time. Same with non HOFers John Franco, Billy Wagner and Jeff Reardon.
It’s a new era. Bullpens are more important than ever, and closers are the anchors to those bullpens. Hopefully Smith joining Rivera in the 2019 class will get more voters to think about and realize the importance of protecting a ninth inning lead.