No position in baseball is more tenuous than that of the closer. This is not news. But I'll bet that even the most closer-indignant among us baseball fans has to concede that this has been an especially bad year for those bros tasked with turning out the lights and racking up saves. We're officially one week into May, and already I count fifteen closers who've lost their jobs either due to injury or ineffectiveness. One team has even lost two closers already (the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
Closers appear to be dropping at an alarming rate this season, even by late-inning reliever standards. With approximately 46.6% of all major league franchises working with Plan B (or Plan C -- or in the case of the Angels Plan E or Plan A again), let's take a quick look at the reasons why so many stoppers have, well, stopped.
Watch Your Elbow
Tommy John surgery has lost some of its scare-factor as a long-term career killer, but the "zipper" still rears its ugly head and robs players and teams of innings every season. This year, three "proven closers" have already had their seasons shortened (or completely wiped out) due to TJ. Brian Wilson of the Giants at least got two innings of regular-season work before having to go under the knife, something that Ryan Madson of the Reds and Joakim Soria of the Royals weren't able to acquire.
Kyle Farnsworth of the Rays and Drew Storen of the Nationals, two pitchers who combined to save 68 games in 2011, both have not pitched this year due to soreness in their pitching elbows. Farnsworth, who has a "strain" is expected back in a few weeks, while Storen is joined by half of the Nationals' starting lineup on the DL.
The worst of the non-elbow injuries among closers go to the guys who play for teams
atop beneath the Orioles in the AL East. Mariano Rivera tore his ACL, leaving the greatest closer in history on the sidelines for the rest of the season. Andrew Bailey of the rival Red Sox needs surgery on his UCL, but not the elbow UCL, and will miss at least half of the season.
Scott Downs was the closer for the Angels for a couple of days before sustaining a leg injury,
the extent of which is unknown at this time which appears to be a contusion that has him day-to-day. Huston Street has strained his latissimus muscle, and while he may not need surgery, he'll need more than a 15-day DL stint to heal up. And Sergio Santos has already done a few weeks on the DL with a shoulder issue; he probably won't be available until the end of May.
Watch Your Back
Sometimes, matters are a bit beyond the closer's control. Take Javy Guerra, for example. Guerra is actually pitching very well right now. In 12.1 innings of work, he's striking out nearly 12 batters per nine innings, and he hasn't given up a home run yet on the season. But opposing hitters have managed .485 BABIP on him, and as a result, Guerra sports a 5.84 ERA (more than four runs worse than his FIP!) and three blown saves. As a result, Don Mattingly has named Kenley Jansen and his dirty, nasty, filthy strikeout rate the new closer for the Dodgers.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Jordan Walden is just one year removed from a rookie year All-Star selection, but his poor ERA (8.31) might've led Mike Scioscia to drop him from the closer role based on only 4.1 innings of work. But now with an FIP of 4.64 over his current 5.1 innings of work, his season can hardly be considered a disaster...
Seriously, This Is What We're Paying You For?
...unlike Carlos Marmol and Heath Bell, the other two closers who've been dumped from the ninth-inning role. Both of these guys have a similar problem: they're walking guys like it's going out of style. Each player has a BB/IP higher than one, which won't fly. Add in diminished strikeout production and you're looking at a 6.47 FIP for Marmol and a 6.88 FIP for Bell.
Watch Your Back AND Your Performance AND Probably Your Elbow Just To Be Safe
And then there's the strange case of Hector Santiago. Santiago, emerged this season as the surprise winner of the Spring Training closer competition for the White Sox. Given his relative inexperience, maybe you're not surprised that he's already out as closer on the South Side. Hector's FIP (8.15) is actually even worse than either Bell or Marmol - but Santiago has taken his lumps in the HR department, giving up five longballs in just ten innings of work. But his strikeout rate (12.60 K/9) remains strong, and he wasn't necessarily pulled from his role due to ineffectiveness. In truth, Santiago might have gotten the axe simply because of the arrival of a superior pitcher, Chris Sale, who is moving from the rotation to the 'pen to protect his arm.
What Does It All Mean?
Grab those big-time closer bucks while you can, because the ninth inning is no sure thing. Of the top 10 closers by fWAR for 2011, four of them are currently out of a closer job. Rivera, Madson, and Santos are banged up, while Walden has been demoted (at least temporarily). 2012 has seen nearly half of the active teams lose a closer for an extended period of time due to injury, extreme ineffectiveness, or (in one case) Mike Scioscia. And that list doesn't even address Frank Francisco of the Mets, who has already had a 15-day DL stint due to tendonitis.
I'll let other folks tell you all about how the closer is overrated, or how modern bullpens don't use their best pitchers in the most high-leverage situations. But I will tell you this: even at a diminished rate, expect more than half the teams in baseball to be sporting a new and different closer by the end of the season. Relievers are getting injured or being given the hook at a very rapid pace, and whether it's due to injury, ineffectiveness, or due to trade, it wouldn't shock me to see closer turnover in the majors reach 66% to 75% by the end of the season. Enjoy your favorite team's closer while you can, because there's an awfully good chance that they won't be around in that role for too much longer.