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The Descent of (Specific) Closers: Part 2

We're going to keep going with the Darwinian titles. Why the bio-evolution theme? I don't know... I'm not a science person at all.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the origins and current stati of the "closers" of the National League. The merit of naming a closer not withstanding (that's a whole other debate), pretty much every team has a designated 9th inning guy. Unfortunately, not all closers are equal. Ryan Dempster is not Eric Gagne, and yet they're both considered "closers." That's where these ID tags come in:

  • 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 advancer: 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.

The balance of power in the majors has most of the dominant closers in the NL... but the AL has its fair share of good ones, too.

Closers of the American League

  • Jeremy Affeldt (CS, DC): A third round pick of the Royals in 1997, he gradually wokred his way up the system ladder and has stuck around in KC since 2002. He's currently on the DL but is not a horrendous option for the Royals in closing games. He had a huge arm and a great future as a starter, but arm problems and injury risk have relegated him to the bullpen, to where he has gradually slided over the course of his major league career. Nothing special out of Affeldt so far... and there's nothing in his track record to indicate that he's got a lot of potential for a breakout. Burgos or Sisco will be doing this job at some point, even when Affeldt is healthy.
  • Danys Baez (CS): What can you say about a guy who has, to date, seen his peak at the age of 23? Baez was a big pitching prospect from Cuba in the Indians system and threw in relief for the Indians in part of 2001. In the minors, he was a starting pitcher, so his role for the Indians was mainly just a taste of big league action. And the taste was very good; Baez threw 50 innings and struck out 52. He also walked only 20, and he exhibited excellent ability for a rookie as he posted a 2.50 ERA. As a starter the next year, his numbers and peripherals took a bit of a hit, and he's never quite approached his 2001 level or fully fulfilled his promise. But he's a quality closer, and one more year saving games for the D'Rays will elevate him to "Proven Closer" status. Expect to hear his name a lot in trade rumors come June and July; he'd be an upgrade on a number of contenders.
  • Miguel Batista (CS, DC): It's difficult to fathom, but Batista's been floating around baseball since 1990, and he got his first cup of coffee (more like a tiny free sample) in 1992. Batista's peak year looks to be in 2003, when he was very solid for the D'Backs, posting a 3.54 ERA, good control, low homers, and a lot of groundballs. Batista's 2003 is a guide to success for pitchers without fantastic K-rates (although it was a bit higher for Batista than normal). On his career, Batista has a 1.66 G/F ratio, and back in '03, it was 2.04, which ranked 8th highest in the league. My problem with Batista is how the Blue Jays are paying him. As a "sunk costs" supporter, I'm completely in favor of putting players in their most effective roles, regardless of salary. But Batista's best role is probably not as a closer, and his salary pays him like a good one. Batista makes $4.75 million this year. BJ Ryan makes $2.6 million. Danys Baez makes $3.5 million. Trevor Hoffman makes $5 million. Several young closers, including Turnbow and Chad Cordero, make the league minimum or close to it. So Batista's far too overpaid considering what you'd expect from him. And yet, so far, he's been good, though, posting a 2.12 ERA in 17 innings, and recording 8 saves. So much for handicapping.
  • Francisco Cordero (DN, CA): In another year, you could be looking at Cordero being labeled with all sorts of positive ones, but he still needs another solid year to gain my full confidence. He's 27 now and is entering his prime and is coming off a relatively unheralded 49 save season. 2.13 ERA. 71.2 IP. 79 K, and, most amazingly, 1 HR allowed, and he pitched at TBAP. Cordero started out in the Tigers organization in 1994 as a starting pitcher, but by 1997, still in A-ball, he was switched to relief. His minor league season in A-West Michigan was unheard of: 0.99 ERA, 54.1 IP, 67/15 K/BB, and a promotion. Two years later, he was a piece in the huge Juan Gonzalez deal, and the Tigers lost out in this one. Cordero has gradually worked himself up to the closer's role, and last year was his first breakthrough there. My cynical prediction: Cordero's a free agent after 2006. I think he replaces Mariano in New York for '07, and very effectively.
  • Octavio Dotel (CA, CS): Dotel remains an enigma in the closing world. A starting pitching prospect with the Mets, his high strikeout rates were a consistent factor through much of his development (save 1997, for some reason, possibly injury). The Mets promoted him slowly, considering his 1998 minor league successes, and Dotel was an important piece in the Met postseason run in 1999. His Met claim to fame is as the winner in Game 5 of the NLCS, the postseason classic that ended in Robin Ventura's grand-slam single. Then he was traded, along with Roger Cedeno to the Astros in the Mike Hampton deal. After a year of experimenting with Dotel in the rotation again with little success but a lot of strikouts, Dotel found his niche in 2001. As a premier setup man for a premier closer, Dotel struck out 12.43 batters per 9 innings in 105 IP and gave up only 5 longballs. 2004 was his first as a closer anywhere, and he split time in Houston and Oakland, where he posted another huge K/9 rate of 12.87. Dotel has often been criticized over the past few years as lacking the "closer makeup," but I disagree with that (he did give up a lot of homers in 2004). Dotel had been exceptional until melting down against the Red Sox. Rumors have swirled about Dotel's trade value since the offseason and will continue to swirl until he's traded or until the deadline passes. In the meantime, Dotel has a sore elbow at this point, which is worth monitoring.
  • Keith Foulke (PC, RD, MLA): Disregarding a slow start this year, Foulke is one of the best in the business. Sporting a fantastic changeup, he'd quietly been one of the best until last year's playoffs, when he was untouchable at times. Foulke was one of many acquired by the White Sox in the White Flag deal in 1997, and, at the time, was described as a projected 4th or 5th starter who won Class AA Texas League Pitcher of the Year in 1996. With the Giants in 1997, he started 8 games and was ineffective in them, but the White Sox put him in the 'pen, and, by 1999, Foulke was turning heads and starting to close games. In retrospect, you can understand why the White Sox traded Foulke in 2003 (a deal which I think is a crowning Beane achievement), because Foulke's K-rate had been in decline for a few years. His control had improved, however, and Beane took a shot in trading Koch. What we do know, now, is that Foulke has put up sub-3 ERAs every season since 1999, and that, up until this early season, there was no reason for me not to bestow upon him "relief deity" status. His control has been impeccable and he still strikes batters out. I won't let a bad month and a half diminish that. Keith Foulke's still a top tier closer.
  • Eddie Guardado (PC, CS, CA): "Everyday Eddie," as they call him, spent 13 seasons in the Twins' organization before he graduated and left for the rainy pastures of Seattle. A starter for much of his minor league career, it took Guardado a long time to adapt to middle relief and realize his potential as one of the game's top relievers. Guardado never quite ascended that high, but he's at least an above average closer. He spent his career in middle relief until some point in 2001, when the Twins started giving EG some save opportunities (this was a full 6 seasons after Guardado had started his work in middle relief for the Twins). In 2002, he was the full-time closer and had an exceptional season, saving 45 and striking out a lot of batters (9.3 K/9). Guardado was never an exceptional reliever in the vein of Dotel or Mariano Rivera, but he was good enough to be a very good closer, and, for the past 3 years, he's been very, very good. Lefties can't touch him; he's given up a .187/.206/.259 line to lefty batters, and a .214/.275/.390 line to righties since 2002.
  • Dustin Hermanson (CS, DN, DC): Is it Marte? Takatsu? Hermanson? Ozzie Guillen? Guillen keeps changing closers very quickly, so it's difficult to get a read on who the ChiSox are actually sending out there for the 9th. Hermanson, in the early going in 2005, has been exceptional in the role, so it looks like he'll stay until he struggles a bit, when Marte or Takatsu, the hotter hand, will probably take over the role. There probably is more wisdom to this strategy than conventional wisdom would allow, simply because, at this point, closers can be made and a guy like Hermanson, who is "proving" his worth, might be able to be moved at the deadline for a better player. (The Billy Taylor phenomenon, I'll call it.) Hermanson has an interesting and unusual history. He was drafted #3 overall by the Padres back in the 1994 draft (a draft whose first 11 players have not done well at all, with Jaret Wright being the most successful among them. Nomar Garciaparra was #12). Hermanson was a minor league reliever for the Padres who put up questionable numbers but was a big prospect. He was traded to the Marlins for Quilvio Veras, then in the same offseason, traded to the Expos in a package for Cliff Floyd. The Expos made him, this reliever with 44.1 very bad major league innings in relief, a starter. And he was very good for two years, 1997 and 1998. Hermanson found control for the first time at basically any level and kept his walks down. He also posted sub-4 ERAs, and the young hurler was solid for two years. His stats (and strikeout rate) fell apart in 1999 and 2000, continuing into 2001 when he was dealt to the Cardinals. In 2002, He ventured back to the bullpen for the first time, and, in 12 appearances (and 1 start) with the Red Sox, he was disastrous. Really the first time he found a "home" was in 2004 with the Giants. Necessity forced him to be the closer, and, while he was not superb, he was adequate enough to get a contract from the White Sox. This year, he's been spectacular. So he was a closer prospect who became a starter for much of his career, and, at the age of 32, is finally back to closing out ballgames, and, so far on the South Side, he's doing a darn good job: he's gone 19.1 scoreless innings so far and has been the game's best reliever.
  • Joe Nathan (CS, MLA): Nathan was acquired by the Twins in a heist for the hated AJ Pierzynski (someone needs to explain to me exactly why he's so hated, but I'll take the word of others) after pitching excellent baseball for hte Giants in 2003 as a reliever. Nathan was a big starting prospect who shot through the SF system and reached the majors at the age of 29, pitched in 90.1 big league innings, and posted a 4.18 ERA. The peripherals were worrisome, though; he was walking too many, not striking out enough, and giving up too many homers. He fell apart in 2000 with a 5.21 ERA, and he couldn't recapture is abilities in the minors all the way through 2002. And yet, he was converted to a setup man in the bigs in 2003 and turned his career around, posting high strikeout totals and winning 12 games. That was enough for the Twins, who ended up getting a premier season from Nathan: he put up a 1.62 ERA and struck out 11.1 per 9. Those peripherals were outstanding as a whole, and the struggling 24 year old was just a distant memory. Nathan needs one more season like last year's to establish himself as an elite closer / RD, but so far, it's looking that way. (He's got a 20/1 K/BB so far.)
  • Troy Percival (PC, DN, CV): There was a point in his career when Troy Percival struck fear into the hearts of his opponents. In those days, Percival was the equivalent of any premier pitcher, unhittable, unflappable. 2002 was the last year of the unhittable Troy, and he's been declining ever since. Last year, his K/PA declined, for the fourth straight year, all the way down to 15.6%. The Tigers gave him a contract because he can still close out games, theoretically; he's not quite washed up. It was painful, unfortunately, to call Percival a crafty veteran because he can still pitch. But Uggy Urbina could be closing games here, too. Percival, since his professional debut in 1991, was trained, built, to be a closer. The Sports Illustrated season preview back in 1996 (I think), did something on middle relievers. For his one season in that role, he was the best (he rated the highest in a complex equation they set up), setting up for the all-time saves leader: Lee Smith. He's been doing it as long as anyone, but, unfortunately, the Tigers paid for Percival two years too late.
  • Mariano Rivera (PC, RD, MLA): That roar you hear? That's the Yankee Stadium crowd when the first chords of Metallica's classic "Enter Sandman" play over the loudspeakers. There's no better moment in baseball, and I've seen it live a couple of times. It's an absolute treat, bringing back memories of "Wild Thing" and Major League. Rivera was a starting pitcher for much of his rapid ascent through the minors, and he even started 10 games for the Yankees in 1995. But he was converted to setup in 1996, and he was overwhelming. Rivera's stats, when you look back at them, were never the best in the league, especially his strikeouts. But his control was; Rivera consistently keeps guys off base via the BB; he hasn't walked more than 20 since 1996. And he was difficult to hit every year, throwing cutter after cutter after cutter. Rivera's on his way to Cooperstown, too. Mariano and Trevor will be making the journey at about the same time, I'd assume and I hope. At some point, he stopped being able to pitcher to the Red Sox, but we'll see how that keeps up down the stretch this season. Rivera practically invented the term "relief deity," and he did it the nonconventional way: good (not unbelievable) strikeout rates, and a ton of groundballs.
  • Francisco Rodriguez (MLA): On his career, the 23 year old has struck out 33.5% of the batters he's faced, and he's also 23. Made a full-time closer this year for the first time, he carries on Percival's torch with pride, dignity, and Ks. His control is average, but it's certainly good enough based on his stuff. He was a starting pitcher in the minors, and I almost want to know what he could have done in the majors are a starter. They changed him to a reliever in 2002 in AA after putting up a 5.38 ERA as a starter (even though he struck out 11.6 per 9). It was probably a good move; that year in the minors vaulted him up to the majors and a spot on the World Series roster. The rest is history with K-Rod. There's very little to say except that the Angels made a very nice move to choose quality over loyalty. Rodriguez is the Angels' best reliever and is probably one of the best in the game already. Los Angeles is not a good city to be down in the 9th...
  • B.J. Ryan (DN, CA): He's a lefty, and in 2004, lefties probably would have been better off not bothering; they hit .094/.164/.160 against him. Righties have a bit more success, but they're still well below the league average. He's another high-strikeout guy with explosive stuff. This is his first season as a closer, and, while he's not quite at the top of the league, he's very good. He was groomed to be a closer in the minors, but His control has never been his best attribute, and he's not a young guy like K-Rod; he's 29 already. The Reds traded him back in 1999 to the Orioles in exchange for Juan Guzman, and it's safe to say that the Orioles got the better of that deal. Ryan was a middle reliever and a LOOGY for a while, but he's a bit too qualified for that role at this point. It would be interesting to run a "closer platoon" with a guy like Ryan, where Ryan closes out the games with the tougher lefty bats, and a righty-specialist closer (Looper) takes the games with more righty bats (with some overlap). Either way, Ryan's tough, and it's not like righties do too well against him either. He's a fine 9th inning option on his own.
  • Bob Wickman (PC, CA, CV): Wickman's still pitching? He's got 11 saves already this year, but nothing else is looking too good. Early on, his strikeouts are way down, and, while I don't think that he'll finish the year with 3.77 K/9, it'll be another dropoff. Wickman was never more than an above-average reliever; the best comparison I can think of is a much worse version of Mariano Rivera: fewer strikeouts, more walks, and a lot more groundballs. He throws a "heavy sinker" which helps induce all those grounders. Wickman started out with the White Sox, and, after a couple of nice minor league seasons, was dealt to the Yankees in a deal for Steve Sax. He was a starting pitching prospect throughout much of his career, and after going 14-4 with the Yanks in 1993 (everything else was pretty miserable about his stats), he was moved to relief. Wickman's found himself in a couple of other large deals, too, and he finally got a chance to close for the Brewers in 1998. The "overvaluation of a proven closer" got Richie Sexson to the Brewers in 2000. The Indians didn't really have a spot for Sexson, but it's still very interesting how often that can happen. Wickman's OK, but there are many setup men around the league who could be doing a comparable job (and, very possibly, Howry and Rhodes could be comparable).
Part 3 of this series will be a look at closer salaries and the current market for closers in baseball.