A Change In Strategy; Parity Strikes
- Could Closer-By-Committee Become The New Trend?
Tony La Russa is making the change from one closer in Jason Isringhausen to a closer by committee as a manager/player decision because Isringhausen’s confidence at the moment appears shot; Ned Yost of the Brewers had little choice but to yank Eric Gagne out of the closer’s role because he was such a disaster waiting to happen; the Blue Jays have been using a variation of the closer-by-committee as they wait for B.J. Ryan to be able to return to full time closing; but could this “new” trend of using whichever pitcher is most appropriate for the ninth inning become the way most other teams run their bullpen?
Unless a team has had a dominating, shutdown closer like Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan, it has always been a matter of finding a pitcher who was able to mentally handle the responsibilities of closing and got the job done (messily as the case may be) most of the time. For years, La Russa was blamed for creating the “one-inning closer” with Dennis Eckersley, but that was a matter of maximizing the strengths of his players rather than some template of how everyone should be utilized. Eckersley was better pitching one inning and one inning only and that’s how La Russa used him. While with the White Sox and Cardinals, La Russa has always had another guy he could use to close and early in his managerial career, wasn’t shy about using his short relievers for extended stretches as was the norm in that era.
The idea of using a “closer-by-committee” has been attempted by teams in recent years, most notably the Red Sox. The Red Sox strategy in 2003 failed because most of the relievers that they had comprising the committee weren’t very good in whatever role they were in, the manager wasn’t on board with the concept and the press and fans were so ruthless in their contempt of the radical change that it was doomed to fail; but the main reason it failed for the Red Sox was because the pitchers they had—-Chad Fox, Brandon Lyon, Ramiro Mendoza—-couldn’t do the job. The Cardinals, Brewers and Blue Jays are not in that situation.
The decision to remove the established closers in Isringhausen and Gagne has been made by the manager and not by the front office as was the case with the Red Sox. At this point in his career, La Russa can do things like this because he’s La Russa. Just like the decision to bat the pitcher eighth, he has the cachet to decide to use other relievers in the ninth inning and not have the press and fans call for his head. It also helps that little was expected of the Cardinals this year, they’re surprisingly in first place and the erstwhile closer himself is on board with the decision. With the way La Russa and Dave Duncan have rejuvenated the careers of the likes of Ryan Franklin (right), Randy Flores and Russ Springer with the Cardinals, they can use the lefty, Flores, to retire two lefties in the ninth inning and think nothing of bringing in Franklin to get the last out with no thought to who’s padding their stats with the “save”. It’s a sound strategy if everyone’s in agreement with the concept and the personnel dictates that it might work.
The situation with the Brewers is quite different, but the result is the same. How much longer could they go with Eric Gagne coming into games carrying his gasoline can and blowing up the games? Gagne has been so terrible that the Brewers had no choice but to take him from the role and hope for the best. The problem they have is that the Brewers don’t have many relievers to say, “this guy’s reliable”. Guillermo Mota, Salomon Torres and David Riske have all closed at one time or another with Riske probably being the most reliable. They have lefty Mitch Stetter whose strikeout numbers indicate he might be able to do the job, but with the way they’re likely going to need every win they can get to maintain competitiveness, they couldn’t continue betraying the rest of the team by repeatedly using Gagne and losing games because of it.
The streaky Blue Jays have a very good bullpen with numerous pitchers who can do the job in the ninth inning. It looks like they’ve been using the various pitchers out of necessity in waiting for Ryan to be able to return to duty on a daily basis, but they could at least consider continuing the practice as long as it works.
It took La Russa to start the idea of using the closer in only the ninth inning; now that he’s started using his entire bullpen when necessary to get the outs and win games, how long before other managers who don’t have the Riveras, Papelbons or Nathans follow the trend and do what’s best for the ballclub rather than what is easiest to explain to the media? It’s simple to say, “he’s the closer and the ninth inning is his domain” rather than make a decision and live or die by it. La Russa’s never been afraid to do that and that’s why he’s an innovator and Hall of Fame manager. It might even work, too.
- Parity Strikes:
Has anyone else noticed that no team has gotten off to such a hot start that the rest of their division has thrown their hands up in the air and said, “well that’s it, I guess”? Even the teams that are in tough divisions and have played horribly (the Padres) are only nine games out of first place, which is still reasonable albeit unlikely striking distance of getting back into the race.
The Diamondbacks looked like they were about to disappear into the distance, but have stumbled over the last week; the Red Sox have been up and down; the entire National League East is out of whack; and no team in baseball can give up, start trading veterans and not be accused of trying to shed payroll at the expense of winning a few more games. By the All Star break, several t
eams are likely to fall back to where they were expected to be, but as of right now, every team can make a case for holding onto their players and taking a shot at a playoff spot because no team is playing well enough to make the assessment “we can’t win” realistic.