Closers are the Dane Cooks of baseball.
Much of the right-thinking baseball world was flabbergasted last Friday when Jonathan Papelbon signed an (ahem) ambitious four year, $50 million (with a possible 5th year and extra $10 million vesting option) contract with the Phillies. In striking first, Ruben Amaro set what may end up being a ridiculously expensive and glutted closer market and clearly overpaid Papelbon in the sense of what he’s likely to contribute to the team.
This is going to be a busy offseason for closers, as Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, and Matt Capps are all looking for new teams. As such, we’re going to hear a lot this winter about how important closers are to the success of a baseball team. Don’t you dare believe it. Closers are the Dane Cooks of baseball.
Think about it. Comedians and baseball players are both essentially just entertainers. They provide amusement at the club, on the TV, or at the ballpark that provide us a distraction from the life that keeps beating us into submission.
Relief pitchers, in particular, mirror comedians in that they are made, not born. Most comedians are forged by a dark history. They are a bundle of neuroses formed in childhood that leads them to seek attention through performance and acting out at a young age. Or they use humor as a defense mechanism and shield to defend against the insults of other kids. Indeed, stories about unhappy childhoods, addiction, and clinical depression are a dime a dozen among stand-up comedians. It helps give their comedy an edge and pushes them to keep testing the boundaries of what’s acceptable.
Relief pitchers too have a dark history that shapes them. This usually stems from failing as a starting pitcher. Teams tend to give young pitchers every chance to make an impact in the starting rotation, simply because being a starter is so much more valuable to a team’s success than being a reliever. But because of durability concerns, or because their pitching repertoire limits their upside, relievers tend to be players who have washed out of minor league (or major league) rotations. Of the top 10 all time leaders in saves, eight (Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, John Franco, Billy Wagner, Dennis Eckersley, Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, and Rollie Fingers) washed out as starters before they got moved to the bullpen. Of all the “closers” on the market this offseason, only Heath Bell was never really a starter in the minors or majors, but he was originally signed as an amateur free agent and never really considered worth trying in the rotation.
Teams forget this all the time. “Closer” is a label that gets tossed onto failed starters who prove to be adept in the bullpen. The don’t fail for long enough, and are thus rewarded with a chance to make obscenely more money and better entrance music. Ryan Madson is a prime example of this. For years, he got the label that he was mentally unable to handle the duties of closing…and he wasn’t until he was actually given the chance to close in 2011 and saved 94% of the games he was brought into. The vast majority of elite (or even adequate) Major League relievers can save 80%-90% of the games they’re brought into, given that they’ve already proved their mental toughness and baseball ability by surviving the minor leagues.
And yet teams continue to pay through the nose for “saves,” despite the evidence that closers are not magical beings. It’s like how audiences continue to pay good money to Dane Cook. Cook is by far the most financially successful comedian of the past ten years. He sells out concert halls and stadiums. He sells albums by the millions. He is ridiculously successful.
And yet, if you ask comedians or comedy nerds today, the man is the epitome of evil. He covers poor joke telling with physical manicism. He (allegedly) steals material from other comics. He is smug and self-satisfied and annoying, and he’s everywhere. And in his most unforgiveable sin, he takes attention away from other better comedians who deserve the limelight more for their truly bold, creative, and daring routines.
That’s not necessarily Cook’s fault. Indeed, he’s performing the comedy that works for him. We should no more condemn Cook (assuming the allegations of joke-stealing aren’t true) than we should the closers who take the money, prestige, and fame that are offered to them. Look, if you wanted to back the money truck up to my house and pay me for the valuable service of being snarky on the Internet, I would take it and wouldn’t complain. I might even think that I’m earning it because I’m providing you with entertainment. But that doesn’t make me or the job I do more valuable to the world in a real sense.
And it’s not that closers and Dane Cook have never done good work. Indeed, most closers are damn good pitchers, and provide value for their team. Likewise, Cook’s performance in a recent episode of Louie, in which he played himself and he and C.K. took on the joke-stealing allegations head-on, was brilliant. He was also wonderful as a scheezy photographer in Mr. Brooks and good in Dan In Real Life as Steve Carrell’s brother. The real fault lies with the people who do the overrating. Who place more value on pitching the 9th inning or in standing in front of a large crowd and yelling than it’s worth. You like Dane Cook? Why? What do you get from him that you don’t get from other comedians? The Twins want to pay for Joe Nathan? What does he give them that Glen Perkins doesn’t? We, all of us (well, except the Yankees), have a finite amount of resources. And to waste those on Jonathan Papelbon or his comedy doppelganger Dane Cook just doesn’t make any kind of sense. We, the consumers of such things, should strive to do better.