Toronto Baseball Guys
Saturday, July 25, 2009
  Closer Shmoser

Question: If you look into the 2009 Jays bullpen, how can you determine which player is their closer?
Answer: He's the most ineffective one.

Why is it, that Jays fans have to fear closers entering a game regardless of whether it’s theirs or their opponents’? Jays closers stand on the mound and look afraid to throw the next pitch. They sweat, take eons between actions, and lose all sense of what they want to do. They’re like an eighties movie nerd infiltrating a party at the Jock’s house.

Scott Downs has been stellar for the Jays over the last few seasons. Last year's numbers were tremendous -era 1.78 and an OPS of 0.584-, and his start to this season was absolutely sick, with an era of 0.59 by early May. Since that point, Downs has produced some wretched performances. He's blown three saves, and picked up two losses, while ballooning his era to 3.06.
What's changed over that time? For starters, he's become the closer. Once it became clear that the incredible shrinking Ryan wasn't meant to pitch as a featherweight -Hey look on the bright side BJ, if the $ 15 million you're "earning" right now dries up, maybe you can sell your weight loss secrets- Scott Downs was installed as the closer. Since that time his results have ranged from capable to baroque. Anyone watching the most recent Jays fiasco -converting a 9-1 lead into a loss- just knew that the two run advantage given to Downs in the ninth wouldn’t be enough.

The Blue Jays current closer experiment has gone awry. Not only is Downs a below average stopper, he’s also been ripped from his comfort zone of set up and middle relief--a position that he fills as well as anyone in baseball--Downs’ weakness as closer probably comes from a combination of the added pressure and the irregularity of "closer" innings. Downs seems to work better when he’s being used with a high and regular frequency. Sometimes closers can go nearly a week between appearances and these conditions don’t seem to optimize Downs’ performances.

My Recommendation
It’s time the Jays go back to closer by committee. Having a bullpen full of arms expecting that they might get to close can have several benefits:

Hot Hand:
This way, Cito can go with the arm that’s been most effective lately. We all know that every third day Brandon League manages to get his hose under control. Take advantage of these good days, rather than stubbornly sticking with his closer just because he’s managed to earn that contrived label. This will also allow Cito to stick with a guy if he was lights out in the eighth inning, rather than going to a new arm that may or may not be on.

Reduced Pressure:
Jays’ closers tend to perform like favoured Canadian Olympians not competing in Trampoline or 100 m finals –full credit to Cockburn, Karen and Johnson Ben-. Without the closer label, expectations are reduced and there is less pressure on the pitcher.

The Cream Might Rise:
A lot of pitchers can throw shutout innings. The ability of pitchers to do this in the last inning of the game seems to be different than it is in the first eight. Clearly Scott Downs is...err...was the Jays most effective pitcher out of the bullpen, but that was in a non-closing role. Maybe pitchers like Jason Frasor or Jeremy Accardo have the right combination of stuff and mental makeup. They’ve already done it, with pretty good results:

Player: Frasor
Year: 2004
Saves/Opportunities: 17/19

Player: Accardo
Year: 2007
Saves/Opportunities: 30/35
Maybe guys like Brian Tallet, Brandon League or Jesse Carlson are just weird enough that they prefer pitching under pressure. The mustache and the tatoos suggest as much.
Using all of them to close out games might help Cito realize that one or more of these guys have the makeup it takes to be a closer. Perhaps one of these guys will shock us all and succeed. It worked for Anthony Michael Hall in "Sixteen Candles".
 
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