The closer, as a role on a baseball team, is just silly. Being a closer is important in real estate, and it gets you coffee, which is nice and delicious (though you’d think the guys working overtime would need coffee, so it seems a little counter-intuitive), but in baseball we’ve reached a point where managers are somewhat absurd in their adherence to the dogma.
Pretty much since Tony LaRussa created the idea of a closer (John McGraw is documented with actually doing it first, but saves have only existed since 1969 and LaRussa has been instrumental in using a specific pitcher to close), there have been people complaining the pitcher in that role was being used incorrectly. The complainer’s thought process goes: The best pitcher should face the best hitters. LaRussa said no, because the ninth inning is extra hard for some reason, others agreed, and here we are. But now, following the trade deadline, the Cleveland Indians have an opportunity to kill the closer.
The current use of closers is painful to watch...
When your best relief pitcher is relegated to the final inning of a game no matter what, and only when you’re winning, there’s a decent chance he’s going to face a bunch of garbagemen at the plate. It’s terrible to see a soft-tossing LOOGY sent out to handle MVP candidates in the seventh and eighth, while the team's best reliever sits, but that’s tradition, and baseball is stuck in tradition. It’s not even really that traditional, having only been done like this since the '60s or so. That’s beside the point though. It’s a silly practice, and it’s time relief pitchers weren’t used so mechanically.
Those watching the Indians on Thursday afternoon saw newly acquired reliever Andrew Miller come into the game in the sixth inning. In an inning and a third, Miller got three strikeouts as he put down Byron Buxton, Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer and legendary Tribe killer, Max Kepler. Basically, he faced the best punch the Minnesota Twins had. Miller appearing in the sixth was remarkable, because by literally every metric, he is the best relief pitcher on the team, maybe in the American League.
...but the Indians can change all that
When the Indians picked Miller up from the New York Yankees at the deadline, many assumed he and Cody Allen would split the duties of the closer, or would work the eighth and ninth together to "shorten" the game. Allen even reportedly went to Terry Francona and intimated that he just wanted to win, and was willing to do anything, including letting Miller close. For a closer, who as we know are proud men with a Rare Gift to make it through that mystical ninth inning, this was bold of Cody and showed how team-centric he is.
By that token, it could be that Allen recognizes who’s the better pitcher, because Miller is just so stunningly better than Allen, or anyone on the team. Allen’s ERA+ is 186, meaning he’s 86 percent better than the average pitcher, which really is good. Miller’s ERA+ with the Yankees was 305, which is excellent. Allen has struck out 31 percent of the batters he's faced, good for 20th in MLB right now. Miller's K% is 45 percent, absolute best in baseball. Allen has walked 9.9 percent of batters, Miller only 3.9%. The list goes on. The only thing Allen has Miller beat on is saves, with 20, compared to Miller’s 9. When Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances are your ‘pen mates, though, it makes sense.
That is only part of how the Indians can kill the closer though. Miller has spent the last two years with the Yankees as a closer by committee. First pairing with Betances, then as part of a trio when Chapman came over. He pitched all over the game for the Yankees, so obviously he’s accepting of whatever innings he's given. Allen has been able to come during in the eighth inning when Bryan Shaw has created a situation, and has been great for two innings, so it seems he’d be fine with a more flexible role too. When your two best pitchers have demonstrated an ability and a willingness to just pitch whenever they’re needed, any false theories about the ninth being more difficult than the rest of the game are completely moot. Francona appears to be smart enough a manager to recognize that he has an opportunity to buck a trend and hopefully take full advantage of it.
By having Miller and Allen used whenever, the team gets harder to beat. Rather than playing an eight-inning game like teams used to have to do against the Yankees before Mariano Rivera could end things, or a seven-inning game against the Kansas City Royals and their pen in recent years, the Tribe could have your best hitters neutralized no matter the inning. Games feel more winnable when the opponents' buzzsaw is locked in the ninth inning, because teams can tag the lesser arms before the buzzsaw gets involved. Now though, the buzzsaw is just wandering around like some sort of maniac from Texas with a diabolical hatred of college kids. Suddenly you have no chance, and have to rely on that Mendoza-line hitting shortstop and a replacement-level catcher. H.P. Lovecraft once wrote fear is the oldest emotion man has, and fear of the unknown is the oldest of all. When you don’t know where Miller or Allen might show up, the pressure mounts, the fear builds, and you crumble.
It'll take more than Francona's craftiness to kill the closer
What will it take to truly kill the strict adherence to the idea of the closer being last? The Indians have to keep doing this, and have to go deep in the playoffs. Front offices are quite copy-catty. All over baseball after the Kansas City Royals reached the World Series in 2014, media and executives talked about having a bunch of killer arms in relief to shorten the game, along with plus defense and contact hitting.
Whether this is a tenable thing is immaterial -- it’s always good to have good defense and good relief pitching, but the Royals stumbled into that as much as they planned for it. Their winning the World Series in 2015 only bolstered the drive for the ultimate bullpen. The Yankees pinned their slim contention hopes on No Runs DMC. The Boston Red Sox traded some of their finest prospects for Craig Kimbrel. The market for relievers went through the roof, as we saw at the deadline when the Indians and Chicago Cubs each sent the Yankees a number of talented prospects in exchange for a bullpen ace. If the Royals didn't catch a few breaks in the last couple postseasons, perhaps none of those things happen.
If the Indians show this is a way to win, using Miller to neutralize Miguel Cabrera and the Martinezes when they face the Detroit Tigers, for example, without worrying about what inning it is, and they keep doing that deep into October, it will tickle something in the heads of managers everywhere. Old baseball men are sticklers, but more than anything they want to win. If the Tribe wins like this, it will become the new dogma others want to follow. This is a chance to kill one of the absurdities of baseball.
(Now if Indians starters could just stop giving up a billion runs before Miller even has a chance!)