August 3, 2012

Closer: The Most Volatile Position in Baseball

By - Keith Smith

I've been playing fantasy baseball now since 1984. You read that right -- 1984. I've learned a lot about the major leagues during that time, but I like to think I knew a lot before then, too.

The biggest thing I've learned (and I REALLY learned it the hard way this year), is that being a closer is probably the most volatile position in baseball, maybe even in all of sports.

Photo by: Jonathan Daniel
For the sake of time (and space) let's look at just the past five years. Anyone remember Salomon Torres? He had 28 saves in 2008. He never had more than 12 in single year prior to that, and he never threw another big-league pitch after that year.

How about Matt Capps? He recorded 42 saves with a 2.47 ERA in 2010. He did have a couple of 20+ save years prior to that (with a much higher ERA), but since then, he hasn't had more than 15 saves and his ERA looks like a hot-air balloon.

Who remembers Jonathon Broxton, the Dodgers bullpen ace in 2009? He logged 36 saves to go along with his 2.61 ERA. While he is putting together a fairly good year this year, 2010 and 2011 were major disappointments for him.

I could go on, and on, and on. Baseball is littered with guys who may have one, two, or maybe even three, great years as a closer. Then for whatever reason, usually an injury (have you ever watched someone throw a pitch in super slow-motion and see the torque placed on their arm? Makes me want to put on an ice pack just watching), they either disappear off the face of the earth, or get relegated to set-up man or long reliever.

This year is no different. Between the two fantasy teams that I "own," here are my closers: John Axford, Heath Bell, Andrew Bailey, Brandon League, Jose Valverde, and Craig Kimbrel.

Let's take a look at how I reached my conclusion of just how difficult life as a closer can be.

Axford had 46 saves and a 1.95 ERA last season. This year, he has 17 saves and a 5.04 ERA. Bell went from successive years of 42, 47, and 43 saves the past three years, with ERAs of 2.71, 1.93, and 2.44, respectively, to this season sitting on 19 saves and a 5.57 ERA. Bailey's been hurt (see above about arm injuries), and Kimbrel is having another spectacular year (but it is just his second major league season, so we have to reserve judgment).

Valverde does have some sustained success as a closer, leading the league in saves three times in the past five years. This season is just so-so (21 saves, 3.71 ERA), so it could just be a down year. Of course, he is listed as being 34 years old, and he is also from the Dominican Republic. Which means there is a chance he is actually 39, and his best days are far behind him.

I say all this simply to tell you that if you are playing catch with your kid in the front yard, work on his stamina and arm angle, and teach him to be a starting pitcher. These days, they basically only have to go about six innings to be considered "quality."

Or better yet, teach him to hit. I hear chicks dig the long ball.


  1. I totally agree. I think you should've mentioned the added pressure of coming into a game with an inning left, a small lead and sometimes even runners on base. Can you imagine having to be "clutch" 30 or 40 times a year? Even the best closers have mental issues after a year or two and it's pretty easy to see why.

    Nice post!

  2. Nice post. Who do you guys think is the best closer ever? I suppose conventional wisdom would point to Mariano Rivera based on the numbers, but numbers aren't always everything.

  3. Closers definitely come and go. Here one year, gone the next. Very rarely do you see a guy be consistently good for a long period of time. Guys like Rivera are a dying breed. And I'd say he's the best of all-time (to answer your question Brian), but my all-time FAVORITE is Dennis Eckersley. He's like the Godfather of closers. Haha

  4. Certainly, Rivera is in the top 5, along with, in no particular order, Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith. Maybe Rollie Fingers, too. He did it back when guys actually threw more than one inning to garner a save! LOL!

  5. Yeah Eck basically perfected that 1-inning save stuff. Lol

  6. Great topic and I love the last line! lol.