Chris McShane over at Alderson Avenue took a look today at some potential free-agent/non-closer relievers who might be able to serve as the Mets’ closer next season. There are some interesting names on the list, and I think that is going to be the direction Sandy Alderson goes to find his ninth inning guy.
I wonder sometimes if being a closer is easier than being an set-up reliever. It would seem that on the mental side, closing would be more difficult because if you blow the game, that’s it — there aren’t any more inning for the team to get the lead back. It’s all on you. But if you’re the closer, you’re also pitching the same inning every night, rarely asked to get more than three outs, and often protecting a sizable three-run cushion. When you show up at the ballpark, you know what you’re going to be asked to do every night. And those factors all favor a pitcher, maybe more than we often acknowledge — if you go on Baseball-Reference and look at the most effective pitchers, as measured by ERA+ (500 inning minimum), 11 of the 20 most effective pitchers are closers (or have a lot of saves). Eight of those 11 closers have pitched in the past ten years. We’re talking about every pitcher over the last 111 years who has thrown 500 innings; more than half of the elite, elite ones are closers. The modern closer role has let teams take a pitcher who otherwise wouldn’t be good enough to even start, and turn him into Pedro Martinez for 65 innings a season.
Meanwhile, setup men sometimes pitch multiple innings, often come into games in the middle of an inning with runners on base, never know which inning they’re going to pitch in when they come to the ballpark . . . there isn’t necessarily the stress of the ninth, but there’s still stress, and it’s compounded by an uncertainty. There’s an argument to be made that pitching setup is more difficult.
The Rays took the much-maligned Kyle Farnsworth and turned him into an effective closer this season. I wonder, if someone studied the issue deeply, if relief pitchers are actually more effective working as a closer than as a setup man. Are the best relief pitchers used as closers because they’re the best relievers, or is there something about the usage pattern that makes closers the best relievers? Because the closer role is the only relief role in history that has a regular usage pattern associated with it, and there might be something to that.
I guess the point is that the Mets might be better off signing a non-closer on the cheap, sticking him in the ninth, and then watching him transform into an elite reliever. Maybe it’s just the usage pattern.