Closing the Deal

April 7, 2019
Intro
 
I’ve been thinking a lot about closers lately. There are two primary reasons, which reminded me of a third.
 
1) The Atlanta Closers
 
In my recent interview with Greg Gajus, Greg made a reference at least a couple of times about how, when he was living and working in Atlanta, it made a lasting impression on him that during the Braves’ remarkable run of success in the 1990’s through the mid- 2000’s, they seemed to run through a lot of closers.   During that span (1991-2005), the Braves finished in first place 14 out of 15 years, but they ran through 9 closers, beginning with Juan Berenguer at the beginning of the era and ending with Chris Reitsma at the end, with lots of turnover in between.
 
2) My Fantasy Baseball Auction
 
I recently participated in my fantasy baseball league’s annual player auction. If you have played fantasy baseball, and especially if you have been in a league that uses the auction/bidding format (as opposed to a straight draft), there’s a good chance you’ve heard the mantra "don’t pay for saves". In essence, the reasons behind that theory include:
 
a)      Often you can find very good options for saves later in the auction, even after the elite options are gone, and you can often find them at bargain prices.

b)      There is a high turnover rate among closers. Quite often, the person that has the job at the beginning of the year will lose his job before the year is over.

On that second point, certainly turnover can occur at any position during the year, but closers seem especially prone to it. Unless you’re a truly established closer with a long track record, it seems that your job is in danger anytime you blow a save or two. A closer’s job is often hanging by a thread, with a willing and able replacement waiting eagerly in the wings.
 
After thinking about #1 and #2 above, it reminded me of something I first remember thinking about over 20 years ago. In the mid-1990’s, after signing with the Reds as a free agent, Jeff Brantley had a pretty nice 3-year run, capped by his 1996 season when he led the league with 44 saves. But, early in 1997, he got injured, tried to go for a while, but ultimately his season ended in May.
 
The Reds had some options to turn to – they had Stan Belinda, who had prior closing experience with other teams. They had a couple of good, young arms in Scott Sullivan and Hector Carrasco. 
 
The Reds instead turned to setup man Jeff Shaw. In most of the early part of his career, he was pretty much a non-descript reliever. By 1997, he was 30 years old, had bounced around a lot, had a career ERA over 4.00, only struck out about 5 (and walked about 3) per 9 innings, although, to be fair, he did have a decent year in 1996.
 
The Reds named Shaw as the closer. I remember thinking, "they’re giving it to that guy?" 
 
Well, you know what happened next. Shaw immediately led the league with 42 saves, and during his 5-year run as a closer for the Reds and Dodgers, he averaged almost 40 saves a year, with a sub-3.00 ERA. 
 
Jeff Shaw represented a bit of an epiphany for me. Certainly, there had closers before him who seemed to come out of nowhere, there have been surprise closers since then, and we will continue to see them in the future. But, perhaps because I had just started getting into fantasy baseball around that same time, it really struck me about how possible it was for someone who had previously been thought of as a journeyman reliever to instantly become a star.
 
"Anyone can Close"
 
In the movie Ratatouille, the famous phrase throughout was "anyone can cook!" As they explained in the movie, it doesn’t mean that everyone can be a great chef, but a great chef can come from anywhere.
 
Sometimes it seems like "anyone can close". Now, obviously, that’s not literally true. Not just "anyone" can close. Many pitchers can’t handle the pressure or the spotlight, and nothing generates frustration among players and fans than having a closer surrender the lead and blow a ballgame. But, it sure seems like teams will change closers on a dime and not lose anything in the transition, and, in fact, often come out of it in a better position. There are a lot of pitchers who can excel for an inning or so at a time, if given an opportunity.
 
This all led me to think about how frequently teams change closers, and some basic questions came to mind, questions such as:
 
  • How many years does a franchise usually keep someone in that role? 

  • How often do you see a closer that only lasts one season? 

  • Who are some of baseball’s great vagabond closers, who get opportunity after opportunity with different teams?

  • Which franchises have been the most stable, and which ones have been the most volatile? 
 
So, I decided to look into it.
 
The Approach
 
I decided to take a 50-year snapshot of closers, using the time frame of 1969-2018. 1969 as a starting point has some significance for a couple of reasons other than it makes for a nice, round 50-year span:
 
1)      1969 was the first season in which saves were recognized as an official statistic. The concept of a save predates that, and of course saves have been applied retroactively, but 1969 was the first year they were considered an official stat.

2)      1969 was the 2nd wave of expansion that happened in the 1960’s, adding 4 new franchises (Kansas City Royals, Seattle Pilots (later Milwaukee Brewers), Montreal Expos (later Washington Nationals), and San Diego Padres), so this span captures the entire history of those 4 franchises.
 
So, I went with 1969 as the cutoff.
 
I then turned to baseball-reference.com for a little help. One of the sections on that site lists the annual starters at each position for each franchise during its history. Including, lucky for me, the "closer". Now, "closer" can be a misleading and vague label. Teams don’t always have one, distinct closer. Some have closers by committee. Some have the job bounce around to different pitchers throughout a season. But, rather than micro-analyze roughly 1,500 team-seasons, I decided to just go with the pitcher that the site identified as the "closer" for each franchise in each season. I suspect they simply defaulted in most cases to whoever had the most saves, which probably isn’t a bad way to go. In any case, it’s what I used.
 
I then proceeded to compile for each franchise, since 1969:
 
  • Who was the team’s primary closer each year

  • How many years did that person serve that role for that franchise (not necessarily consecutive)

  • How often did each franchise make a change from one year to the next in the primary closer

  • Which franchises were the most (and least) stable

  • Which players had the longest tenures as a team’s closer
 
Comparison to Other Positions
 
One of the premises of this review is that the closer role is one of the more volatile ones on a team. I didn’t do a formal, comprehensive review to compare all other positions to closers, but it’s clear that closers tend to change more often (and tend to have fewer long "runs" of being in that role for a team) that do starters at field positions.
 
I’ll use my Reds as an example. Since 1969, the Reds have had the following players accumulate 5 or more seasons as the primary player at each position (number of seasons as the primary starter are in parenthesis, and these are total seasons as the starter for the franchise, not necessarily consecutive seasons):
 
C: Johnny Bench (12), Joe Oliver (6), Jason LaRue (5)
1B: Joey Votto (12), Dan Driessen (8), Sean Casey (8), Hal Morris (7), Tony Perez (5)
2B: Brandon Phillips (11), Joe Morgan (8), Ron Oester (8), Bret Boone (5)
3B: Chris Sabo (6), Aaron Boone (5), Tony Perez (5)
SS: Barry Larkin (16), Dave Concepcion (16), Zack Cozart (5)
LF: George Foster (7), Adam Dunn (7)
CF: Cesar Geronimo (7), Eric Davis (6), Ken Griffey Jr. (5), Billy Hamilton (5)
RF: Jay Bruce (8), Ken Griffey Sr. (6), Reggie Sanders (5), Paul O’Neill (5)
 
That’s 28 players with 5 or more seasons as the primary starter.
 
You observant folks in the crowd may have noticed that perhaps the most famous Red of all (Pete Rose) doesn’t show up, in part because I’m only counting seasons since 1969, but even if I didn’t cut it off there, he still wouldn’t have qualified at any single position. He moved around the diamond so much, he didn’t reach 5 seasons (for the Reds) at any single position. He had 4 seasons at 2B, 4 at 3B, 4 in LF, and 4 in RF (plus 1 season at 1B). Ironically, the only time he was the starter for 5 years at a position for a franchise was when he started for 5 seasons at 1B for the Phillies.
 
You also may have observed that Tony Perez had two 5-year stints – one at first base, and one at third base.   You may have also noticed that the 2 longest tenures on the team were by shortstops, where Concepcion and Larkin were the starters in 32 of the 35 seasons from 1970-2004, a streak interrupted only by Kurt Stillwell once and Pokey Reese twice. A nice little run of talent at that position for the Reds…..
 
Starting pitchers are a little trickier because each team has 5 pitchers each year that can be considered "primary" starters, so it’s not quite the same type of thing as being a starter at the other positions, but just for completeness, there were 14 pitchers listed with 5 or more seasons as one of the primary 5 starting pitchers for the Reds since 1969:
 
 
 
Name
Seasons as Starter with the Reds
Tom Browning
9
Jose Rijo
8
Aaron Harang
8
Bronson Arroyo
8
Mario Soto
7
Fred Norman
7
Johnny Cueto
7
Homer Bailey
7
Tom Seaver
6
Mike Leake
6
Jack Billingham
6
John Smiley
5
Frank Pastore
5
Gary Nolan
5
 
In summary, there have been 28 position players who were the primary starter for the Reds for 5 or more seasons since 1969, and if you include starting pitchers, it jumps to 42.
 
So, how many pitchers have been the primary closer for the Reds for 5 or more seasons?
 
One. That’s it. One.
 
Danny Graves has been the only Reds closer to serve in that role for 5 seasons (and his were not consecutive, as the team tried him as a starter in 2003 after 4 years of closing. It failed miserably, and he returned to closing the next year)
 
Here’s the full listing of Reds’ closers over the past 50 seasons, along with the number of seasons in that role:
 
 
 
 
Name
# of Seasons as Reds’ Primary Closer
Danny Graves
5
Tom Hume
4
John Franco
4
Francisco Cordero
4
Aroldis Chapman
4
Clay Carroll
3
Jeff Brantley
3
David Weathers
3
Wayne Granger
2
Rawly Eastwick
2
Jeff Shaw
2
Raisel Iglesias (through 2018)
2
Rob Dibble
2
Pedro Borbon
2
Ted Power
2
Scott Williamson
1
Randy Myers
1
Doug Bair
1
Bill Scherrer
1
Norm Charlton
1
Tony Cingrani
1
 
Here’s the same list, this time in reverse chronological order, with yellow highlights to show each time the team had a different closer than the year before:
 
Year
Name
2018
Iglesias
2017
Iglesias
2016
Cingrani
2015
Chapman
2014
Chapman
2013
Chapman
2012
Chapman
2011
Cordero
2010
Cordero
2009
Cordero
2008
Cordero
2007
Weathers
2006
Weathers
2005
Weathers
2004
Graves
2003
Williamson
2002
Graves
2001
Graves
2000
Graves
1999
Graves
1998
Shaw
1997
Shaw
1996
Brantley
1995
Brantley
1994
Brantley
1993
Dibble
1992
Charlton
1991
Dibble
1990
Myers
1989
Franco
1988
Franco
1987
Franco
1986
Franco
1985
Power
1984
Power
1983
Scherrer
1982
Hume
1981
Hume
1980
Hume
1979
Hume
1978
Bair
1977
Borbon
1976
Eastwick
1975
Eastwick
1974
Borbon
1973
Carroll
1972
Carroll
1971
Carroll
1970
Granger
1969
Granger
1968
Carroll
 
That seems like a lot of changing. 21 different closers over 50 seasons, an average of only 2.4 seasons for each closer, and no one with more than 5. And, in fact, they actually changed closers 24 times, because there were 3 instances (Graves, Borbon, and Dibble) of pitchers who were designated by the site as the primary closer, only to "lose" the label one season, and then came back in a subsequent season to reclaim the "title". So, in essence, the Reds had 24 seasons out of 50 where the primary closer was different than the year before, just about once every 2 years.
 
Now, are the Reds a particularly volatile franchise for closers? Actually, no. In fact, depending on how you define it, the Reds have actually been one of the more stable franchises in this regard.
 
As one examines other franchises, I think the conclusion is clear. Closing is a volatile role.
 
A Full Review
 
OK. On to the results……
 
A few basic data points:
 
  • The data since 1969 for all 30 franchises represents 1,377 team-seasons, which averages to about 46 seasons per franchise (most teams have 50 seasons during the time frame examined, but the newer expansion teams of course have fewer).
 
  • In those seasons, there were 757 instances where a team ended up with a different closer than the previous season. The change may have been the result of ineffectiveness, injury, trade, free agency, or any other number of reasons.
 
  • That means that in 55% of the team-seasons examined, a team’s closer was different than the year before.
 
  • There were 702 "unique" closers. 

    In this context, "unique" refers to the different number of pitchers that a team used in that role. For example, even though the Reds changed closers 24 times, there were only 21 different pitchers that filled that role, as 3 of them had lost the designation only to reclaim it later. 

    If a pitcher filled the role for more than 1 team, he is counted once for each franchise. For example, Rollie Fingers was the closer for the A’s, Padres, and Brewers, so he counts 3 times (once for each franchise).
 
  • The average number of seasons that each unique closer held the job was just under 2.0 (1.96, to be exact).
 
So, that data answers 2 basic questions from slightly different angles. An average closer only ends up with about 2 seasons in that role for a franchise (sometimes the seasons are non-consecutive). And, related to that, teams change closers in a little over half of the seasons.
 
Here’s a look at the distribution of the 702 unique closers by how many years they were in that role for a single franchise, along with a few names that correspond to each group (at least for the first few groups):
 
Years as Closer for a Franchise
Number of Pitchers
 
% of Total
 
 
Member(s) of this Group
16
1
0.1%
Mariano Rivera-Yankees
14
1
0.1%
Trevor Hoffman-Padres
10
1
0.1%
Jeff Montgomery-Royals
9
1
0.1%
Troy Percival-Angels
8
4
0.6%
Dennis Eckersley-A’s
John Franco-Mets
Dan Quisenberry-Royals
Rick Aguilera-Twins
7
8
1.1%
Dave Righetti-Yankees
Rollie Fingers-A's
Lee Smith-Cubs
Kenley Jansen-Dodgers (active)
Tom Henke-Blue Jays
Mike Henneman-Tigers
Todd Jones-Tigers
Dave Smith-Astros
6
10
1.4%
Billy Wagner-Astros
Jason Isringhausen-Cardinals
Rod Beck-Giants
Tippy Martinez-Orioles
Dave Giusti-Pirates
Kent Tekulve-Pirates
Jonathan Papelbon-Red Sox
Joe Nathan-Twins
Bobby Thigpen-White Sox
Goose Gossage-Yankees
5
18
2.6%
 
4
43
6.1%
 
3
79
11.3%
 
2
145
20.7%
 
1
391
55.7%
 
Total
702
100.0%
 
 
I think a lot of fans would have guessed that the 2 longest tenures belonged to Rivera with the Yankees and Hoffman with the Padres. I’m not sure how many others might have guessed that Montgomery is only the third pitcher with 10 or more years as a franchise’s closer.
 
So, more than half the time a closer only lasts a single season for a franchise. And, nearly 88% of the time, a closer’s reign is for 3 seasons or less. A reign of more than 5 seasons happens less than 4% of the time.
 
The Vagabond Closers
 
I was also interested in which pitchers found closing gigs with the greatest number of different franchises. These 13 pitchers had 1 or more seasons closing with 4 or more different franchises, led by Fernando Rodney and Randy Myers with 6 each.
 
Pitcher
Franchises Closed For
Team
Team
Team
Team
Team
Team
Fernando Rodney
6
Diamondbacks
Mariners
Padres
Rays
Tigers
Twins
Randy Myers
6
Blue Jays
Cubs
Mets
Orioles
Padres
Reds
Lee Smith
5
Angels
Cardinals
Cubs
Orioles
Red Sox
 
Goose Gossage
5
Cubs
Padres
Pirates
White Sox
Yankees
 
Ugueth Urbina
4
Expos
Rangers
Red Sox
Tigers
 
 
Huston Street
4
Angels
A's
Padres
Rockies
 
 
Rafael Soriano
4
Braves
Nationals
Rays
Yankees
 
 
Joakim Soria
4
Rangers
Royals
Tigers
White Sox
 
 
Jose Mesa
4
Indians
Mariners
Phillies
Pirates
 
 
Doug Jones
4
Astros
Indians
Orioles
Phillies
 
 
Kevin Gregg
4
Blue Jays
Cubs
Marlins
Orioles
 
 
Tom Gordon
4
Cubs
Phillies
Red Sox
White Sox
 
 
Armando Benitez
4
Giants
Marlins
Mets
Orioles
 
 
 
As you can see, there’s a real mixed bag there. You have 2 Hall of Famers (Smith and Gossage), but you also have some lesser lights like Kevin Gregg, who was by no means a great pitcher (career ERA 4.24, ERA+ of 102, walked over 4 per 9 innings). Gregg’s lowest ERA in a full season was 3.41. Yet, 4 different teams gave him the opportunity to close. Jose Mesa (a.k.a. "Joe Table") was another one…..he had a 4.36 career ERA (100 ERA+), although Mesa did legitimately have a few good years, including his incredible 1995 season (46 saves, 1.13 ERA).  
 
And, of course, there are the two 6-timers above: Fernando Rodney, who seems to alternate between brilliant and awful in his roller coaster career, and Randy Myers. Both of these players squeezed their 6 closer gigs within a 10-year period (1989-1998 for Myers, 2009-2018 for Rodney).
 
By the way, the Cubs and the Orioles are each represented 5 times in the table above. Not sure what to make of it…..but just an observation.
 
 
Franchise Stability
 
Which franchises were the most stable at closer, and which were the most volatile?
 
As you may have guessed, the Yankees have been the most stable franchise. Rivera is a big reason why, of course, but the Yankees have also had long runs by Dave Righetti (7 years), Goose Gossage (6), and Sparky Lyle (5). In the 50 year span of the study, the Yankees are the only franchise to have 4 pitchers with 5 or more seasons as the closer. With Rivera’s 16 seasons, those 4 pitchers have been closer for 34 of the last 50 seasons (68%)
 
That’s one way to look at stability. Here’s another. 
 
This summarizes the % of seasons from 1969-2018 in which a team made a change from the prior season, so that the teams at the top made changes the least often (average is about 56%). I’m also going to include the longest tenured reliever for each team during this time frame
 
Team
% of Years Made Change at Closer
Longest Tenured Closer
# of Years
Yankees
32.0%
Mariano Rivera
16
Dodgers
38.0%
Kenley Jansen
7
Royals
40.8%
Jeff Montgomery
10
Mets
44.0%
John Franco
8
Giants
46.0%
Rod Bech
6
Padres
46.9%
Trevor Hoffman
14
Cardinals
48.0%
Jason Isringhausen
6
Reds
48.0%
Danny Graves
5
Twins
50.0%
Rick Aguilera
8
Pirates
50.0%
Dave Giust, Kent Tekulve
6
Astros
52.0%
Dave Smith
7
White Sox
54.0%
Bobby Thigpen
6
A's
54.0%
Dennis Eckersley
8
Indians
56.0%
Bob Wickman, Cody Allen
5
Angels
56.0%
Troy Percival
9
Marlins
57.7%
Robb Nen
4
Cubs
58.0%
Lee Smith
7
Orioles
58.0%
Tippy Martinez
6
Nationals/Expos
58.0%
Jeff Reardon
5
Brewers
59.2%
Rollie Fingers, Dan Plesac
4
Red Sox
60.0%
Jonathan Papelbon
6
Mariners
61.9%
Mike Schooler
4
Tigers
64.0%
Mike Henneman, Todd Jones
7
Rockies
65.4%
Jose Jimenez, Brian Fuentes
4
Phillies
66.0%
Jonathan Papelbon, Tug McGraw
4
Braves
66.0%
Craig Kimbrel, Gene Garber
4
Rays
71.4%
Roberto Hernandez
3
Diamondbacks
71.4%
Matt Mantei, Jose Valverde
3
Blue Jays
71.4%
Tom Henke
7
Rangers
76.0%
Jeff Russell, John Wetteland
4
 
And here’s another slightly different way to look at it, although the lists are pretty similar in terms of which teams are at the top and which are at the bottom. This is the average # of years each "unique" (or "distinct") closer served for each franchise (average is about 2.0 years). In the 50 seasons reviewed, the Yankees have had only 14 distinct closers:
 
 
 
 
 
Team
Avg. # of Seasons Closing for Each Distinct Closer
Yankees
3.6
Royals
2.7
Dodgers
2.6
Reds
2.4
Mets
2.4
Astros
2.3
Padres
2.2
Giants
2.2
Twins
2.2
Pirates
2.1
A's
2.0
Cardinals
2.0
Tigers
1.9
White Sox
1.9
Indians
1.9
Brewers
1.9
Cubs
1.9
Red Sox
1.9
Nationals/Expos
1.9
Angels
1.9
Orioles
1.9
Mariners
1.8
Rockies
1.7
Marlins
1.7
Phillies
1.7
Braves
1.7
Blue Jays
1.6
Diamondbacks
1.5
Rays
1.4
Rangers
1.4
 
One more – this is the % of seasons represented by closers who only served one season as the primary closer. Teams with a low % rarely used a closer for only a single season (of course, the quality often has something to do with that tendency). By this measure, the Reds tied the Yankees at the top of the list – they each had only 6 pitchers who had a 1-year tenure at closer.
 
Team
% of Years Represented by 1-Year Closers
Yankees
12.0%
Reds
12.0%
Dodgers
14.0%
Mets
16.0%
Royals
16.3%
Mariners
21.4%
Twins
22.0%
Astros
24.0%
Pirates
24.0%
Cardinals
26.0%
Giants
26.0%
Orioles
26.0%
Brewers
26.5%
Indians
28.0%
Nationals/Expos
28.0%
Padres
28.6%
White Sox
30.0%
Red Sox
32.0%
A's
32.0%
Angels
32.0%
Phillies
34.0%
Cubs
34.0%
Rockies
34.6%
Marlins
34.6%
Braves
36.0%
Tigers
38.0%
Diamondbacks
42.9%
Rays
47.6%
Blue Jays
47.6%
Rangers
54.0%
 
Considering those 3 measures together, I would rate the most stable closer franchises as:
 
1. Yankees
2. Dodgers
3. Royals
4. Mets
5. Reds
 
I outlined the Yankees’ top closers earlier. The Dodgers are led by Kenley Jansen (7 seasons, not including 2019), Jim Brewer and Jay Howell (5 each), and Steve Howe, Todd Worrell, and Jeff Shaw with 4 seasons each.
 
The Royals are led by Jeff Montgomery (10) and Dan Quisenberry (8), who ruled the Royals bullpen in 18 of the 20 seasons between 1980 and 1999 (Steve Farr in 1988 and 1989 was the closer in the other 2 seasons). The Royals also had Joakin Soria with a 5-year run and Doug Bird with 4 seasons (non-consecutive).
 
The least stable would be the following franchises:
 
30. Rangers
29. Blue Jays
28. Rays
27. Diamondbacks
26. Braves
 
The longest tenured Rangers closers have been Jeff Russell and John Wetteland with 4 seasons each, but the franchise had a whopping 27 seasons out of 50 where they featured a closer who only recorded a single season in that role for the team. They were basically at the bottom of every metric I looked at for this review.
 
The Case of the Braves
 
So, what about Mr. Gajus’ example of the Braves that I mentioned at the beginning? Well, by the metrics we looked at earlier, they certainly do rate as one of the more volatile franchises for closers over the last half-century. Since 1969, the Braves have not had a single pitcher register 5 or more seasons as the closer. Craig Kimbrel had 4 (in a row), and Gene Garber had 4 (not in a row). 
 
Garber’s status as a close was a real roller-coaster – he came over from the Phillies and was the closer for the Braves for 2 years, then he lost his role to Rick Camp for a couple of seasons, got it back for a year, lost it again for 3 seasons to Steve Bedrosian, Donnie Moore, and Bruce Sutter, respectively, and then reclaimed it again for a fourth season.
 
In total, the Braves have had 30 different pitchers in the role of closer, a number topped only by the Rangers (36) over this span.
 
Here is the Braves’ full listing since 1969, starting with 2018 and going backwards:
 
Year
Closer
2018
Vizcaino
2017
Johnson
2016
Johnson
2015
Grilli
2014
Kimbrel
2013
Kimbrel
2012
Kimbrel
2011
Kimbrel
2010
Wagner
2009
Soriano
2008
Gonzalez
2007
Wickman
2006
Wickman
2005
Reitsma
2004
Smoltz
2003
Smoltz
2002
Smoltz
2001
Rocker
2000
Rocker
1999
Rocker
1998
Ligtenberg
1997
Wohlers
1996
Wohlers
1995
Wohlers
1994
McMichael
1993
Stanton
1992
Pena
1991
Berenguer
1990
Boever
1989
Boever
1988
Sutter
1987
Acker
1986
Garber
1985
Sutter
1984
Moore
1983
Bedrosian
1982
Garber
1981
Camp
1980
Camp
1979
Garber
1978
Garber
1977
Campbell
1976
Devine
1975
House
1974
House
1973
Frisella
1972
Upshaw
1971
Upshaw
1970
Wilhelm
1969
Upshaw
 
During their amazing streak of success from 1991-2005, when the Braves finished in 1st place every season except for the strike-shortened season of 1994, the best closer they had was probably Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who was reluctantly repurposed from the starting rotation after elbow surgery cost him the 2000 season, and he thrived in that role for a little over 3 seasons before returning successfully to the rotation. 
 
The Braves’ run of success starting in 1991 began with 4 different single-year "closers" – Juan Bereguer, Alejandro Pena, Mike Stanton, and Greg McMichael.
 
Perhaps the pitchers who best epitomized the Braves’ bullpen narrative in this stretch were Mark Wohlers (1995-1997) and John Rocker (1999-2001). Both of them had some success, and they both had a strong ability to strike batters out, and each managed to be in that role for 3 years, but both were ultimately undone by severe control issues. Wohlers has been labeled as one of the more famous examples of "Steve Blass Disease" (a sudden and inexplicable loss of the ability to throw with any control). Rocker, of course, in addition to his wildness on the mound, was also undermined by making controversial statements that didn’t help his situation either. In the middle of those 2, there was also the case of Kerry Ligtenberg, who saved 30 games as a rookie in 1998 (finishing 4th in the Rookie of the Year voting in a strong class, behind Kerry Wood, Todd Helton, and Travis Lee).   Ligtenberg missed the entire 1999 season, and when he returned, he wasn’t bad, but Rocker had taken over his role.
 
Wrapping it Up
 
A few other observations from the data……
 
  • Todd Jones had 2 separate significant runs with the Tigers – he was the closer from 1997-2000, and then bounced around to 6 other franchises before returning to the Tigers to close again from 2006-2008.

    In fact, the Tigers were a bit of a paradox, in that they had several closers with 4 or more seasons as the closer (Mike Henneman-7, Todd Jones 7, John Hiller-5, and Willie Hernandez-4), but all four of those pitchers had "split runs" where they lost the title at some point only to reclaim it later. This all contributed to the Tigers being among the teams that changed closers the most often.

  • Rollie Fingers had 3 gigs of 4 years or more – A’s (7), Padres (4), and Brewers (4).

  • Several well-known closers had 2 gigs of 4 years or more: 
    • John Franco – Mets (8), Reds (4)
    • Robb Nen – Giants (5), Marlins (4)
    • Jonathan Papelbon – Red Sox (6), Phillies (4)
    • Lee Smith – Cubs (7), Cardinals (4)
    • Bruce Sutter – Cubs (5), Cardinals (4)
    • Todd Worrell – Cardinals (4), Dodgers (4)

  • Huston Street had 4 gigs of 3 seasons – A’s, Rockies, Padres, and Angels.

  • Jeff Reardon had 3 gigs of 3 years or more – Expos (5), Red Sox (3), and Twins (3).

  • For the first 10 years of their existence (1977-1986), the Blue Jays changed closers each year, but then they came up with a gem in Tom Henke, who held the job for 7 seasons. After Henke, they proceeded to change closers 18 times in the next 20 seasons, including 11 seasons in a row from 2002-2012.

  • The Rangers had a span of 16 seasons (1976-1991) where they changed closers from the previous year 15 times.
 
Hope you enjoyed reading.
 
Dan
 
 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

nettles9
Excellent article.
12:07 PM Apr 11th
 
arnewcs
How closely (positively or negatively) correlated are closer turnover and a team's winning percentage?​
12:32 PM Apr 10th
 
jrickert
An additional observation about the vagabond closers teams. The Cubs and Orioles appeared on the table 5 times. The Brewers and Dodgers had none of the vagabonds as closers.
6:27 AM Apr 9th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks for all the comments, guys.

Terry - I didn't even realize you knew my wife's cousin Matt :)

Chuck - Good question, but I suspect the closers would tend to also have lower ERA's than the #2 guy listed in most cases. I guess a formal study might be in order......

Greg - good to hear from you....thanks for providing the spark that got me thinking of this topic....

SteveN - For the first year of the study (1969), I did compare to 1968 to see if there was an actual change. So, for example, the Reds changed from Clay Carroll in 1968 to Wayne Granger in 1969, so that counted as a change. The Braves, however, used Cecil Upshaw in both 1968 and 1969, so that did not count as a change.

Thanks,
Dan
7:42 PM Apr 8th
 
wovenstrap
It does seem like the Braves were employing a specific philosophy on the subject, given that they were so successful during that span. Just like in the fantasy draft scenario mentioned in the article, you can imagine franchises deciding that closers are overvalued. Obviously Kimbrel is currently seeking employment even as we speak.

It reminds me a little bit of something that has happened in the NFL with respect to running backs. Basically, you don't spend a #1 draft pick on a running back because that skill is eminently replaceable (usually) but also highly dependent on other factors, such as having a competent offensive line and very likely, an effective passing attack as well. You pay for quarterbacks and linebackers and wide receivers.
3:02 PM Apr 8th
 
ventboys
Nice piece, Dan, a lot of stuff to unpack.

Choosing a closer is sort of like finding a good auto mechanic, isn't it? You find one you like, you keep going back until something goes wrong -- either you figure out the mechanic isn't as good as you thought or is chiseling you or something went wrong with your car and you blamed the mechanic, etc. -- and you go find another one because, well ... there's another mechanic across the street, or sometimes even in the same shop.

In this analogy, Mariano Rivera is Mr. Goodwrench and Fernando Rodney is your wife's cousin Matt who took a class at the community college and has a back yard full of half-finished projects.

You'll take the Beamer to Rivera, know it'll get done properly, and you won't even look at the bill before you pay it. You won't take anything you care about to Rodney, but he works cheap and you know he'll find some way to get it back on the road, even if he usually breaks something else while he's at it.
1:09 PM Apr 8th
 
chuck
Thank you, Dan. Lots of interesting things in here, especially how 2 of the best teams over this time- the Yankees and Braves- had very different ... what? ... practices, philosophies, or just experiences with having a regular closer.
Side question. What would be your guess here?...
Who has the lower ERA, on average: teams' closers, or the guy with the most relief innings (or next-most, if the closer has the most)? That is, the guy BB-Reference identifies as Closer, or the guy immediately under him in their table?
9:31 AM Apr 8th
 
SteveN
Closers in 1969, the first year of your study. Do they count as a closer change?
8:25 AM Apr 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Good work, Dan. I will never understand why teams make a big stink about who their closer is. Lots of times their designated closer has an off-year for no predictable reason at all, and lots of other times when the closer gets injured or goes FA or something, some no-name zhlub becomes the closer and does a good job. There's a reason it's such a rotating door: every club has three or four guys who could do as good a job closing as anybody else.
7:03 AM Apr 8th
 
greg1990
Kerry Lightenberg was the Brave that sold me that there were many more pitchers capable of closing than had the job. The Braves signed him out of independent ball in 1996, he tossed 60 good innings in AA/AAA in 1997, and was handed the job three weeks into the 1998 season. For a non-contender that may have been a pedigree for a closer, but I would think highly unusual for a defending division champion. Bobby Cox was never afraid of young talent, one of the keys of the Braves long run.
10:20 PM Apr 7th
 
bearbyz
Wow a lot of work. The Twins have been fairly stable. I think they made some changes in the 70s because the previous years closer went free agent.
8:19 PM Apr 7th
 
doncoffin
An amazing piece of work , Dan...Very interesting.
7:59 PM Apr 7th
 
 
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