Let’s start with a legal term and stipulate that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history.
Even so, I am not voting for him for the Hall of Fame, and three people come to mind as part of the reason why — Craig Kimbrel, Adam Viniateri and Taylor Dakers.
Kimbrel, of course, was the Red Sox’ closer last year, and his performance in the postseason was an abomination. When he pitched, Boston’s victories felt like defeats. In 10-2/3 innings he had an ERA of 5.90, and permitted 19 baserunners.
He was also 6 for 6 converting saves — a perfect record.
In the Patriots’ 32-29 Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 1, 2004, Vinatieri kicked a field goal with 9 seconds left to provide New England with its margin of victory, a play that was described as “clutch” and “game-winning.”
However, Vinatieri missed a 31-yarder in the first quarter and had a 36-yarder blocked in the second.
On Nov. 16, 2008, in Springfield, Dakers — a second-year goalie for the AHL Worcester Sharks — stopped a mere 11 shots, most from near the blue line — in a 3-0 victory to record the first shutout of his professional career. Asked after the game how excited he was, Dakers replied, “To be honest with you, any living member of my family would have had a shutout tonight.”
The point being that The Save — the baseball kind — is the lowest-hanging fruit on the game’s statistical tree. Closers are its naked emperors.
Kimbrel was perfect in his postseason saves because saves are so easy to come by. Had Vinatieri made either of his two earlier field goal attempts in 2004, the score would have been exactly the same, but because he made one later rather than sooner, it made everyone forget the two previous failures.
Just because something happens at the end of a game doesn’t make it intrinsically more important that happens at the beginning.
And Dakers’ shutout? Just about any living major league pitcher can record a save, that’s how easy they are to come by.
The Closer has evolved into a role created to justify a statistic. Don’t take my word on that. There are higher authorities who speak to it.
One is Terry Francona, whose managerial skills are likely to take him to the Hall of Fame.
Francona’s creative use of his bullpen in the Cleveland Indians’ postseason ventures may be a first step towards destroying the Cult of the Closer, and when asked about it at the annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner in 2017 he said, “The way salaries are structured, I don’t blame guys for wanting to close games. This is how Cody Allen’s going to make some money. He was every bit as important to us when he was pitching the seventh and eighth as he is now pitching the ninth.”
Francona later added, “If the (save) rules were changed, you might start seeing guys used differently.”
Ditto former St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who once told baseball writer Derrick Goold, “…There are contracts involved. There are personal statistics that help drive personal achievement as far as salaries go. For us to be completely oblivious to that I think is a mistake as well.”
Rivera was 82-60 with a 2.21 ERA and 652 saves, all but 10 of his 1,115 games a reliever. For most of those games, though, he was presented with “clean innings,” tools designed to make it as easy as possible for the closer. He didn’t have to face batters a third, or even a second, time around. He rarely came in with men on base. He didn’t have to conserve energy and pitches to stay in the game for as long as possible to allow the closer to get a save.
He was great in the ninth inning, agreed, but if he was that great why not bring him with the bases loaded and nobody out in the seventh or eighth? Why not use him as a starter?
Baseball is a game of exposure. The more you play, the more accurate your numbers. The opposition figures out your weaknesses. You get tired and fight through injuries. Closers don’t have to deal with that. As Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez once told me two years ago, “If I had been a reliever, I’d still be pitching. With my training program and conditioning, how I kept in shape, I could have gone for a long time.
“I’ll tell you one thing — I was a reliever for one year (1993) and I was never tired that year.”
Rivera never won an ERA title because he never pitched enough innings — about 70 a season on average — to qualify. Would you award a pennant to a team that only played 70 games no matter how good its record in those games? A hitter who batted .400 in 300 plate appearances would not be recognized as the batting champion, would he?
What is different about closers? Why do they get a hall pass when it comes to the numbers?
Because what they do is the last thing you remember about a game (see Vinatieri above). Chris Sale lived a dream when he was on the mound for the last out of the 2018 World Series, but it’s fair to say that David Price’s seven innings as a starter had a lot more to do with Boston winning than Sale’s one.
Managers, Francona once said, are judged by how they use their bullpens. He was also fond of saying that momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher, never mentioning relievers. He is right — the baseball public is focused on what happens at the end of the game and woe to the manager who screws it up no matter how exemplary his job performance is otherwise.
Imagine if Buck Showalter never manages another major league game. His distinguished career may best be remembered for his failure to use Zach Britton in a playoff game in 2016. Closers don’t make managers good, but they can make them look good, or bad. That’s a perception, though, and not a reality.
Pete Palmer, a renowned sports researcher, analyzer and statistician, had a piece in last spring’s Baseball Research Journal about relief pitching strategy. He discovered that in games where a team is ahead but more likely to lose because of the score and runners on base — a true save and not some statistical creation — the team saves leader (closer) now comes in about 5 percent of the time.
Palmer cites a research paper by Dave Smith — “The Myth of the Closer” — which concludes that in the last 100 years of Major League Baseball, the likelihood that a team that leads going into the ninth inning will win has not changed.
Ergo, who needs a closer?
All of that said, nobody I’ve talked to about this agrees with me on Rivera. Francona, Matheny, Martinez — they would all no doubt cast Hall of Fame ballots for Rivera if they could vote. Even Palmer writes that Rivera is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. The class of 2019 will be revealed Jan. 22.
My thought on the Hall of Fame is that it is more than numbers, that its members must have the kind of presence that would make somebody buy a ticket — not hometown fans, but general baseball fans — just to say they saw him play.
Rivera fits that description. He is a larger-than-life performer whose character is impeccable. He has had a long career, albeit in a role I do not value, a role I equate with a PAT kicker in football or a shootout guy in hockey.
If Rivera had been that seventh- or eighth-inning guy who came in with the bases loaded and wound up with 100 saves and not 652, would he be Hall of Fame material?
Maybe, but I don’t think so.
Without a doubt, though, Rivera is going to be elected to the Hall of Fame on this ballot, so whether or not I vote for him is irrelevant.
With baseball becoming increasingly dependent on analytics, I think that closers will eventually evolve out of fashion, but the opposite could happen. Maybe new research will determine them to be the most critical components of a pitching staff.
I could be wrong about all of this, and everyone I have the debate with says, “I see your point, but Rivera is different.” Maybe he is and I’m just missing something.
Rivera could be the first Hall of Famer elected unanimously. I think I’m right about closers, but not so much that I would deny Rivera a chance to be the first unanimous Hall of Famer.
Thus, I’m not voting this year. A submitted blank ballot is “no” vote for every candidate, so I’m doing a Switzerland and not sending one at all.
—Contact Bill Ballou at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BillBallouTG.