The Toronto Sun’s Ken Fidlin spoke with Blue Jays manager John Farrell about the team’s bullpen, and more specifically the closer’s role.
We’ll use spring training to come out of camp and head north with an identified closer. It not only serves that individual but it serves the rest of the bullpen well that they know what their role is once the season starts.
Evidence actually suggests otherwise. In a recent article by Colin Wyers at Baseball Prospectus, he tells us that the closer’s role is relatively new, originating with Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland A’s in 1988. Shortly after that, the save, first introduced by a beat writer in Chicago, became an official statistic of Major League Baseball, and “now it’s nearly unthinkable that a team would go without a designated closer, a pitcher whose primary role is to pitch in the ninth inning when his team has a lead of three runs or fewer.”
Wyers looks at a ton of numbers, comparing relief innings in baseball from 1950 to today. He finds that “the modern innovation of the closer has allowed teams to preserve one additional one-run lead in the ninth inning every two seasons or so.” However, “while teams have gotten better at holding close leads in the ninth, they’ve gotten worse about having a close lead to protect in the ninth.”
In other words, baseball games aren’t as close as they used to be, and Wyers wonders if that doesn’t have something to do with the best reliever no longer being brought in to deal with the most pressing situation, when run expectancy is at its highest, and therefore win expectancy.
Wyers concludes by summarizing:
Teams that hold their most valuable bullpen arms in reserve waiting for save chances may be winning more close games (although not as many as they may think), but the cost may well be staying closer in fewer games to begin with.
Farrell redeems himself somewhat among the stat nerds a little bit later by admitting that Frank Francisco is the favourite to become Toronto’s closer because of his success against both right and left handed hitters.
Numbers bear that out. When you look at the three or four guys in that mix, the fact that he can attack lefties with that kind of success rate kind of gives him the edge coming in, at least on paper.
While fans should be relieved that Farrell’s apparent criteria for a closer shouldn’t allow Octavio Dotel to be put in too many situations against left handed hitting, “the at least on paper” line makes me nervous over the possibility that the manager will place too much value to the small sample sizes that Spring Training offers.
John Lott confirms my fears to a degree in his list of questions for Farrell. The National Post reporter writes that “GM Alex Anthopoulos says Rauch and Francisco will handle the eighth and ninth innings; their spring performance will determine who sets up for whom.”