THE “CLOSER BY COMMITTEE” MYTH
When promising young closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon struggled mightily in spring training, the Tigers decided to use a “closer by committee” approach in their bullpen. Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Al Albuquerque will each, in theory, have opportunities to close. Coke got the two-out save on Opening Day, after Benoit was effective in nailing down four outs in the eighth and ninth innings ahead of him.
I personally think “closer by committee” simply means “open auditions” with a little on the job training mixed in. I don’t ever remember a true “closer by committee” that ever worked. The only time I can remember it ever being a useful concept was on non-contending teams that needed to gauge their personnel for the next season. And even then my memory is not clear; after all, how many of us spend late summer nights watching non-contenders?
I don’t think you can be successful with three or more of your pitchers not knowing their everyday roles, your expectations for success, or being able to mentally prepare for a certain situation in a given day’s game. (I also think your “shut down” reliever, or closer, should be used in a 2-out jam in the 7th inning versus the other team’s best hitter, but we know that won’t ever happen again on a major league baseball field. That would be when you employ a “closer by committee,” since a “closer” ends a game, and that would depend on whether there was a pressure situation that required your best bullpen arm.)
I couldn’t remember a case in which a “closer by committee” ever lasted more than a month, if even that long. It seems that if a reliever earns two straight saves, he is quickly anointed the team’s closer.
So I Scratched the Surface to learn more.
The “save” has been a major league statistic since 1969, or for 43 full seasons. I won’t go over the save rule, but in its most common and basic application, it’s a reliever entering the final inning with their team leading by three runs or less. We can debate the silliness or seriousness of the category or how it’s applied at another time (when I have a beer in my hand); right now we have some Scratching to do.
I wanted to find teams that “shared” the save load. And, to me, a “committee” implies three or more pitchers; otherwise we would just call it a partnership. The last effective “partnership” I recall was Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco in the mid-1980s with the Mets.
[caption id="attachment_41306" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Mariano Rivera has been part of a committee, but only because of injury. Photo credit: <a title="Keith Allison" href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/">Keith Allison</a>"][/caption]
So I found all the teams since the 1969 season that contained at least three pitchers who earned at least five saves in a season. My search yielded 127 total clubs, or fewer than 3 per season. This is an admittedly crude attempt at defining “closer by committee.” I knew the search would yield a lot of clubs whose anointed closer was injured at some point, but we can’t, in hindsight, interpret every manager’s use of his relievers. It would be hard to make any blanket statements about 127 different seasons.
I needed to sort the data somehow. Although early “closers” included Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Kent Tekulve, I always believed Bruce Sutter marked a new era in closers. Between “inventing” the split-fingered fastball and playing at the time when the first million-dollar contracts were signed, it seemed like a good dividing line. So for my first cut I used 1984, the year Sutter recorded 45 saves for the Cardinals, as my dividing line. I looked at 1969-1983, and 1984-2012 and here is what I found:
|Seasons||“Committee” Teams||Per season average|
|1969 - 1983||67||4.5|
|1984 - 2012||60||2.1|
Seems like a good dividing line. The “committee” approach throughout the 1970s was much more common; after Sutter and big contracts, fewer teams used a committee approach, as we might have guessed.
Then, for a second cut, I took the teams on which one of the pitchers in the committee recorded at least 50 percent of that group’s saves (a group I’d call a “Committee With a Chairman”), and the other groups, in which no pitcher earned 50 percent of the group’s saves (the “True Committees”) Here’s what that cut yielded:
|Seasons||Committees with Chairmen||True Committees|
|1984 - 2012||33||27|
We didn’t learn much there, but we see that the “true committee” teams were limited to just under one per season after 1983 (27 teams in 29 seasons) and, remember, often a closer (often named Huston Street) was injured to create a “committee” situation.
Then I listed the teams in which three or more pitchers earned five-plus saves, and looked up their records. Here’s what I found:
Committees with a Chairman
|2004 Blue Jays||67-94|
|2001 Red Sox||82-79|
|1990 Red Sox||88-74|
|33 Seasons||2852 -2361 (.547)|
|Average Record||86 – 72|
*Denotes Eckersley recorded 73 percent of saves in the “committee” from 1988- 1990 **Denotes strike-shortened season ^Denotes I do not believe what I just saw
A few things jump out here. Last year’s World Champions technically used a “committee” approach, at least in the way we awkwardly defined it. But the reality is that the club used Santiago Casilla initially to close games, only to replace him in July with Sergio Romo, with Javier Lopez sprinkling in seven saves throughout the season. The 2002 Yankees team only used multiple closers when Mariano Rivera missed time, and, as noted above, Eckersley was a dominant closer who yielded some of his team’s many save chances to other pitchers.
Other than those examples, the list is more or less missing dominant teams, though a few contenders and playoff teams did make the list.
The one thing that leaped off the page was the “dry spell” following the 1994 strike: a full six seasons without a committee/chairman team, and then only an occasional example after that. Any guess as to the reason for this would be just that – a guess. Though I would suspect big money closer contracts have something to do with it.
Here are the “true committee” teams, again, those on which no single pitcher earned 50 percent of the committee’s total saves:
|2005 Red Sox||96-67|
|2003 White Sox||86-76|
|2002 White Sox||81-81|
|1992 White Sox||86-76|
|1986 Red Sox^||95-66|
|1986 White Sox*||72-90|
|1985 Blue Jays*||99-62|
|27 Seasons||2,131 – 2,163 (.496)|
|Average Season||79 - 80|
*Denotes 4 closers with 5 or more saves **Denotes 144 game season following strike year ^Denotes “How did that work out in the post-season?”
We see that, collectively, these are .500 teams. My above comment about out-of-contention teams seems to be at play here.
But we again noticed only two such teams over the last 10 seasons and we see only six “true committee” teams since the 2000 season (and only nine among the “committee with a chairman” teams in that time).
What did we learn?
The overall pattern of sharing saves (except in the case of injury) seems to be rapidly declining, even though the phrase “closer by committee” seems to be uttered every year. The big-money contracts of the early 1980s seemed to help define what a closer was, and that a save is a one-inning event, rather than the three-inning variety that yielded saves across bullpens in the 1970s.
The trend’s sudden decline after the 1994 strike is intriguing also. The Tigers seem to be the only team in recent memory to enter a season with a bullpen by committee; that distinction is usually used after the established closer struggles and is (often temporarily) replaced with another option or two.
I don’t want to say that I learned that a “closer by committee” approach doesn’t work, but I see that its use is in considerable decline. Even when an established closer is sidelined, a manager tends to name a single replacement, avoiding the committee scenario.
Having Scratched the Surface, I can help you with your Fantasy team when you hear the phrase “closer by committee.”
How can I use this on my Fantasy team?
- When a manager uses the word “committee,” don’t believe him. He’s buying time for himself to find his most effective closer and to assign roles to the other relievers. Any committee structure won’t last.
- Do not jump at the first pitcher who gets a save. This week, I saw Phil Coke being claimed left and right in Fantasy leagues. While he will get his handful of saves, he should be avoided because he will settle into a lefty specialist role (or one inning option) without a high K total that would be attractive for a set-up reliever.
- Study all the options on a team that says it is using a committee. Notice which pitchers are setting up for the pitcher who closes that day. That can be an entrée to the closer role. A manager might test the arm he prefers to close in the eighth inning before naming him the closer.
- Know that the pitcher who strikes out more batters will eventually be the closer. So pick up the set-up guy who fans more batters. If you can keep set-up men active on your roster, they can be worth a quality start every two or three weeks. Over a 26 week season, the ERA and WHIP contributions and K totals mean a lot.
- Just pick a guy and don’t look back. If you want to speculate for saves, just pick the guy you think will get the job, and stick him on your bench until a closer is firmly established. If you’re wrong, you didn’t hurt your team at all, and now you can grab another free agent who can help your team.
We’ve all served on committees at work or for other organizations. We know that one person usually does most of the work on a committee, or at least takes charge. Major league bullpens aren’t that different. So don’t be fooled by a manager’s word play. He wants to have only one closer – so find that guy before your competitors do and get that advantage in the important saves category.
Tom rarely drafts enough saves and is constantly stashing potential closers. Don’t ask him about the years he rostered Heath Bell when he was on the Mets. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but you should ask anyway: @TomMcFeeley on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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