John Hiller just threw back a fistful of pocket-linted Sloprin.
To justify the save, it’s said that a pitcher needs extra guts, or grit, or intangible “makeup,” to pitch in the ninth inning. This is indeed a mystery of faith, with no evidence to prove it. So closers have taken to adopting special behavior and insignia to feed this myth. The facial hair, the stare, the fist-pump, the sprinting entrance from the bullpen, the theme song: closers are circus clowns. (Valverde one of the biggest.)
They perform this act to advance the pretense that even easy save situations are incredible tests of courage. And, amazingly, all of baseball has swallowed it. That’s why piling up easy saves brings in millions of dollars, which is the kind of market inefficiency which should have driven Billy Beane and sabermetric-savvy front-office consultants bonkers decades ago.
Yes, it makes sense to use your best remaining reliever to finish a game with a one-run lead, but you could use anyone in the pen to protect a three-run lead. The dirty little secret is that a team could prosper without a closer and in so doing save itself millions. Of course, they’d be depriving the fans of that climactic clown act. Yet a savvy manager could do what managers did pre-Holtzman: use the reliever best suited for the game situation. Different men would pitch at the end of different games, because in each game the batter/pitcher matchups are unique.
In my opinion, nothing has more degraded baseball than the closer folly. The Tigers could restore some sanity. Of course, I doubt they have the right manager to handle this task. But at the moment they have the right personnel: a mix of live young arms and craftier veterans in the bullpen — and no reliever being paid the market price for closers (which itself compels the manager to use him as one by rote).
Jim Leyland, you have been given free will. Will you shock the baseball world and exercise it?