A lot has been written about the role of the modern closer, and the fact that the position's usage is essentially driven by what many consider to be a flawed statistic, the save. It's been argued—and I'm not disagreeing with the premise—that the save has resulted in the unconventional scenario in which the rules governing a statistic are essentially dictating strategy for major league managers.
I'm not going to claim to be the first person to suggest a team should use their best relief pitcher in what I'll refer to as a pure fireman's role. In other words, bring him in when a high leverage situation dictates it, which more than likely will be to get the most important outs of the game, even if this occurs before the 9th inning.
Of course, the idea isn't unique to me. In fact, this was basically the Moneyball strategy Billy Beane was attempting with Chad Bradford a decade ago. What I am going to do is suggest a few teams who are in a position to employ such a strategy this year.
Let's face it. The baseball community can be pretty set in its ways about a lot of things, so there are definitely situations where this idea just isn't going to fly. For instance, it would just seem odd to me to suggest that the Yankees should remove Mariano Rivera from the closer's role, even if bringing your best relief pitcher into a more high leverage situation earlier in the game might make sense. Besides, the Yanks have a much younger guy in Rafael Soriano to potentially use in a more versatile role.
Which brings me to another point. There would seem to me to be a certain type of pitcher who is better equipped for the inconsistency of such a role. Most importantly, I think this kind of usage probably would suit a younger player, especially given the fact that he might not always have the ideal amount of time to get ready for his assignment.
So, you may be asking yourself, who do I have in mind? At least I hope you are. I'm sure there are potentially others, but there are three teams I'm focusing on here: the Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds.
Let's begin north of the border. The Jays closing situation is actually a little unsettled right now, as it looks as though injuries to Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel will leave them out of action at the start of the season. But, neither should be out for long, making them ideal candidates for such a scenario.
Clearly the most talented arm in this bullpen belongs to Francisco, and it appears he would have been named the closer if not for the fact he's suffering from a sore pectoral muscle. He's posted a better than 3-to-1 K/BB ratio in each of the last three years, and his 2008 and 2009 OPS-against numbers were an impressive .634 and .639.
The only thing preventing similar results last year was bad luck, as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) jumped from .270 and .274 in 2008 and 2009, respectively, to .321 in 2010. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching), which attempts to measure what a pitcher's ERA would have been if not for factors mostly related to luck, was lower in 2010 than in both of the previous seasons.
Making this an easier decision for the Blue Jays is that they have two other relief pitchers who have been reasonably successful closers in the past. In fact, Jon Rauch, who will likely fill the role at the start of the season due to the Francisco and Dotel injuries, did a respectable job filling in for Joe Nathan with the Twins last year. He also served as the Nationals' closer for a good portion of the 2008 season.
Dotel never became the elite closer it looked like he would be when he was dominating as a setup man for Houston a decade ago. Injuries definitely had something to do with that, but when entrusted with the closer's role at various points throughout his 12-year career, he's done a solid job. So, if Rauch falters in the 9th inning role, Toronto can turn to Dotel without having to disrupt the strategy of using Francisco in the way the "fireman" was intended to be used: to put out fires.
At 31, Francisco is actually the oldest of the three relievers I'm suggesting be used in this manner. The others are Oakland's Andrew Bailey and Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman.
Bailey's first two seasons have been nothing short of phenomenal. A 3.6 K/BB ratio and .501 OPS-against, the latter of which is better than Rivera over that time frame, pretty much speak for themselves. He's definitely the go-to guy in the Athletics' bullpen. But, they also signed Brian Fuentes in the off-season, and he's more than capable of being a solid 9th inning guy, which I think is all you really need, thus freeing up Bailey for a more strategic assignment.
Chapman might be a little more of a wild card than the other two, and of course, he has less of a track record by which to evaluate him. Plus, Francisco Cordero is already the incumbent closer. So, it won't be too difficult for the Reds to use him in the role I'm suggesting. But, there is talk that Chapman could be the team's future closer. I say his is the perfect situation to experiment with a true fireman's role.
I guess one common denominator among my suggestions is they involve teams whose second best reliever has experience as a fairly successful closer. I still think the 9th inning is important, even if sometimes the closer is handed the ball with a three-run lead, no one on base, and only three outs to get. But, I think in the three cases I've identified, another pitcher in each team's bullpen is the guy I'd go to in more crucial situations. Of course, that's not to say that situation will never be in the 9th. It's just that, it won't always be, and being more flexible with your best relief pitcher just seems to make strategic sense to me.
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