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On the Origin of (Specific) Closers: Part 1

At a Mets' message board, one of the recent questions is in regards to the surprising Aaron Heilman this year. I have a hypothesis about Heilman: I think that he would be a darn good closer, really because he has two very good pitches at this point (fastball and a very good changeup), but very little else. He unfortunately has given up quite a few homers, but, much like the world-class Dodgers' closer (Gagne), I think that it can drop if he goes to relief.

Additionally, I've located this scouting report from Heilman's draft days:

AARON HEILMAN RHP, Notre Dame, 6-5, 195, Jr., 21

Big East pitcher of year has excellent control, good mechanics and could be first college pitcher drafted. Overpowers hitters with sinking fastball that hits 92-94 mph and induces lots of groundouts. Has been one of nation's top strikeout artists past three seasons. Future as major league closer likely. Needs to continue development of slider and changeup. -, 2000 MLB Draft

This is not a Mets website, however, and I'll just use the Mets for my context in this situation. My actual question is much like the one that parents hate to get but usually do get from their 10-year olds: where do babies closers come from?

Closers come from a variety of sources. Rob Neyer wrote, earlier in the year, something stating that good starters and great setup men can tend to be good closers. There remains an industry debate, however: what about makeup? Can anyone be a closer?

This is not the issue I'm looking at today, but my blind opinion on it is that while there are a few exceptions out there, generally, good pitchers make good closers.

Closers, Bullpens, and Closer Roots

Steve Treder's recent series at the Hardball Times regarding bullpens and LOOGYs was a solid evaluation of the transformation of relief pitching over time. Currently, most bullpens tend to have a designated "closer," or the guy who comes in to finish off wins, a "setup man," essentially, the typical 8th inning guy, a specialist, a long-man, and a couple of middle relievers. This can vary at times; some teams have two setup guys (San Diego with Linebrink and Otsuka is a good example). Others just have a closer and a mess, like Houston.

For this project, I've created some "closer origin and description" terms for classification. Frequently, more than one will qualify.

  • Proven closer: This is a closer who has been a closer for 3 or more years.
  • Converted starter: This is the guy who couldn't quite crack the big league rotation but somehow made his way into the bullpen. These tend to thrive out of the pen.
  • Doug Nickle: This is a guy who was signed / drafted with the explicit intent of closing baseball games. Starting wasn't really an option for this type. I use Doug Nickle because, for several years with the Phillies, Nickle was frequently synonymous with "closer prospect" without ever panning out. The term is used in jest; Nickle has thrown 20.2 major league innings with an unimpressive 7.84 ERA. These are becoming more common.
  • Relief deity: These guys just have the arms to close, either with mid-to-high 90s gas or an array of unhittable stuff. There are a few of these around.
  • Default closer: This is the bullpen's best arm and the guy that the team is turning to because they can't find anything better. These guys can surprise or can be very mediocre or below average.
  • Crafty veteran: This is a closer who is on the tail end of his career and showing it. He blows saves often, puts many runners on, and his generally past his prime. He's a closer because of his experience rather than his talent, and he's frequently blocking the spot of someone more qualified.
  • Career advancers: This is the type who was a setup man for 3 or more seasons and is finally get a chance to close for the last year or two, (essentially, getting a promotion). Frequently are "default closers" as well, especially on small-market clubs.
  • Minor League Arm: The MLA was a starter in the minors for much of his career, but, somewhere along the lines, was determined to only have a big league future in a bullpen. These are sort of the "hybrids" between Doug Nickles and Converted starters - they weren't minor league closers, but they didn't start more than 1 or 2 games in the bigs.
Each closer will be classified using one or more or these abbreviations: PC, CS, DN, RD, DC, CV, CA, MLA.

Closers of the National League

  • Armando Benitez (PC, DN): Benitez was signed at a very young age and pretty much spent his entire career not starting, so I'll give him a DN tag. He's also a proven closer and a borderline relief deity. His stats in 2004 were otherworldly, but even then, you can see the beginnings of a decline. His 1.29 ERA masked the fact that he didn't strike out as many as he had in past years, only setting down 62 on strikes in 69.2 IP. His K-rate has been consistently plummeting since his masterful 1999 season. While the Mets traded him for far too little (considering that the Marlins offered a package centered around Adrian Gonzalez and they didn't accept it), he's a good closer, but not a great one, and San Francisco overpaid. He's also hurt, which is unfortunate, and losing Benitez, Schmidt, and Bonds in one season is disastrous to each element of the ballclub.
  • Joe Borowski / Ryan Dempster / LaTroy Hawkins: We don't know who will be closing for the Cubs. None of these three are necessarily good closers, although Hawkins is probably best. He hasn't been a good closer, at least according to the media. It seems that he's been blowing a ton of saves in the early going, though, so I'll at least admit that he's been bad.
  • Chad Cordero (DN): Chad Cordero was drafted specifically to be a closer. This used to be less common, but, recently, it has happened more often. Ryan Wagner and Huston Street appear to be on that path, as well, and the way that Cordero has pitched, it doesn't seem like an awful idea. The biggest positive, it seems, in drafting these closer prospects is what would be called "time of appreciation" or something similar in finance. Cordero was out of Cal State-Fullerton as a first rounder in the 2003 draft, and he is already the Nationals' closer. He also picked up 14 saves in 2004 and pitched a grand total of 26.1 minor league innings, all in high-A. Fast becoming his own prototype, and could be a low-cost closer for the next 4 years on Capitol Hill.
  • Eric Gagne (PC, CS, RD): Undoubtedly the model for starters who become closers. Gagne was a big pitching prospect in the late 90s for the Dodgers and won the organization's coveted "Minor League Pitcher of the Year" award, but he never quite was able to start in the bigs. As a starter in 2000 and (for the most part) in 2001, Gagne was average, considering his age and lack of experience. In 253 innings, he showed some good promise, with a solid K-rate (209 Ks), and improved control (he almost halved his walk rate from 2000 to 2001). Early in 2002, Jim Tracy decided to experiment with Gagne in the closer's role due to a lack of room in the starting rotation and on the recommendation of pitching coach Dave Wallace. The rest is history; Gagne is arguably the game's most dominant closer and put together a stretch of 84 consecutive successful save opportunity conversions.
  • Danny Graves (PC, DN, CV): The disastrous Danny-Graves-to-rotation experiment aside, Danny Graves is the epitome of the proven closer phenomenon. He was a prospect with Cleveland in the mid 90s and closed on several levels. He got the Cincy job in 1999 after being traded at the deadline in '97 with a slew of others for Jeff Branson and John Smiley. He peaked at age 28 with a 3.19 ERA as the closer and also started 4 games. At this point, there is little reasonm for Graves' continued closing of ballgames. The only thing he brings to the table is solid control, but he is dangerously hittable and doesn't strike out anyone. Ryan Wagner will soon be in this spot, but, for the time being, Graves is the guy in Cincy. He's the perfect example of why we shouldn't care about saves.
  • Trevor Hoffman (PC, RD): I won't slap Hoffman with a crafty veteran tag because he's still one of the league's best. Armed with a superb changeup, Hoffman's been closing out games in San Diego since they called the park Jack Murphy Stadium. If you disregard his injured 2003, Hoffman's racked up 30 or more saves every year since 1995. He has a career ERA of 2.74, a 10.1 K/9, strong control, and a damn good case for the Hall of Fame. Even at 37, Hoffman isn't unfairly blocking Otsuka and Linebrink, two very capable relievers, from being closers. He's still got it. 400 saves and climbing. Good luck on your trip to Cooperstown.
  • Jason Isringhausen (PC, CS): The second member of Generation-K for the Mets, Izzy was a legitimate ROY candidate as a midseason callup, going 9-2 with a 2.81 ERA as a starter. Izzy was not the same caliber draft prospect as Wilson and Pulsipher (he was drafted in the 44th round), but he's certainly established himself as the best of the 3. Billy Beane stole him from the Mets for Billy Taylor after Izzy had suffered several injuries (including one from punching a trash can). Izzy has been a closer since 2000, and he's been pretty good at it since then. Izzy's peak was in 2002 when he struck out 9.4 per 9 and didn't allow a single homer. He had another very good season in '04, and he's a top-10 closer.
  • Danny Kolb ("H"PC, MLA): I gave Kolb an "honorary" proven closer tag, because the Braves acquired him for a highly-rated prospect after his one very, very good season. The only thing is, his success in '04 is difficult to explain. He had an outstanding first half and didn't give up any extra base hits. But the fact that he struck out less than 4 per 9 (closer to 3) makes any sustainable success for a guy like Kolb difficult.  (He gave up a .299 slugging, which is astounding.) It's possible that he won't be the Braves' guy come August. Kolb came from many years in the minors and also from Texas... where he spent 5 years toiling in their minors. 2004 was his first full season in the majors, where he put up those surprising results. I won't give up on Kolb yet, but he seems to be another reason to not buy into saves. Jose Cappellan is a big time prospect. Closers can be created, and the Braves probably overpaid for this one.
  • Brad Lidge (MLA, RD): One thing about relief deities - the high strikeout rates are pretty much a necessity. Lidge certainly qualifies. I've mentioned before about how little credit Brad Lidge got for one of the greatest seasons in the history of modern relief. In 2004, Lidge struck out 42.5% of the batters he faced. That is an unthinkably high number, and Lidge was dominant as both a setup man and closer. He is not yet a "proven closer," a term which, to me, is unimportant, but Lidge is easily the #2 closer in the bigs right now. And you could make a case that he's better than Gagne.
  • Braden Looper (DN, DC, CA): Looper's an interesting case. He was taken with the #3 overall pick way back in 1996 and, after making 12 starts in his first year, was scratched from that future and converted into a bullpen arm. (Looper was traded to the Marlins in the Renteria deal, I think.) Looper's really a ROOGY who has survived long enough to get some shots to close. He spent three years as a future closer with the Marlins, and, whenever it seemed that he was ready to take the job permanently, something changed it (in 2003, point to Urbina). 2004 was his first full season as a closer, and he did an excellent job for the Mets, although his second half was not nearly as strong as his first half. Guys like Looper, to me, prove that there are better ways to operate a bullpen than by using the strict closer model. Looper could be a very good late-inning component in a bullpen, but you'd want to couple him with a lefty who gets people out, too.
  • Brandon Lyon (DC, CS): Who'd've thunk this one? Lyon pitched one full season in the minors before getting a rotation spot with the Blue Jays... and he wasn't bad in 11 starts, posting a 4.29 ERA. The starter's magic wore off the next time around and he got shelled in 2002. In 2003, he was a solid reliever for the Red Sox, and after an injury-shortened 2004, injuries have given him the closer spot for the D'Backs. And it looks like he's there to stay; he's already closed out 13/14 successfully. Lyon's got a good fastball and a good curveball, too, so maybe he'll hang around with the others for a while.
  • Jose Mesa (PC, CV): Joe Table is a crafty veteran who is blocking Mike Gonzalez from throwing in the 9th inning. And yet, after a poor 2003 season, Mesa hasn't been bad (he was very solid last year). Mesa's got 13 saves already this year, his strikeout rate is still high (higher than his career average), and he's still getting outs. He's 38, however, and he's not a necessary piece for the Pirates, who pay him $2.5 million. I suspect that he'll be moved at the deadline, probably to a team who will displace an equally qualified candidate. 305 saves and counting.
  • Guillermo Mota (CA): Mota was acquired in the Penny/Choi/LaDuca/Apocalypse deal, and the Marlins showed their intentions to give him the closer's job. He had two saves in a solid 9.2 IP in April... but he's hurt. Mota started out in the Mets' organization and has moved between Montreal, Los Angeles, and now Florida. He's been relieving since 1998, and he put up some outstanding numbers as a minor league reliever. We don't know much about how he will do as a setup man, but he had a very good year last year as a setup man with the Dodgers and Marlins, and was even better in 2003. He's already 32 years old, and he's finally moving up in the world.
  • Chin-Hui Tsao (CS, DC): Started throughout his minor league career and was pretty good at it. He's currently 24 years old, and the Rockies handed him the closers' job (until he got hurt). In 9.1 innings of big league work in 2004, he struck out 11 and only walked 1, so maybe there's something here. He was a consistently high K/BB guy in the minors, where he's thrown 370 innings since 2000. His 8 major league starts in 2003 were fairly disastrous, although some of that has to do with Coors' Field. He was converted to relief in '04.
  • Derrick Turnbow (MLA, DC): This hard-throwing righty (he hits 98 or so on the gun) had one claim to fame coming into this season: he was the first major leaguer who tested positive for a banned substance, way back in early 2004. Turnbow really came out of nowhere this year. To say that I expected him to do anything this year is also unfair. I dug through a few Google pages to try and figure out a little bit about this guy. The Brewers signed him to a 1-year deal back in February, and then, all of a sudden, at some point in March, Ned Yost starting touting him as a possible closer. He's there now. He's a live-arm type, so there's some real ingenuity being used here by Milwaukee.  All the way back on December 13, 1999, the Angels drafted Derrick Turnbow from the Phillies in the 1999 Rule V Draft. He pitched the year in the bigs and went back to the minors. Going into this season, he had 22.1 IP of big league experience in 2003 and 2004. Now he's a closer, and he's acquitted himself well in the early going. Not bad for an obscure Rule V Pick from over 5 years ago.
  • Billy Wagner (PC, RD, MLA): I talked about Brad Lidge before and his 42.5% K/PA last year. Taking it back a few years, Wagner was even more dominant than that: he struck out 43.4% of his batters faced in 1999. Among all pitcher-seasons in which the pitcher recorded 10 saves (there are 1,395 of these), Wagner's K/PA in 1999 ranks #2. He also holds the #6 and #8 seasons, given him the most in the top 10. Wagner was absolutely dominant in his prime. He's a bit past that, but he still brings it at the age of 34. When he's healthy, you don't want to face him in the 9th. I'd say that he'd lose his relief deity status within the next couple of years due to health and age, but, for the time being, he's still one of the best.
American League closers will be broken down in the second installment of this article. The key of abbreviations will be provided with another introduction.