First Pitch: Is the “Proven Closer” Era Over?

Mark Melancon is the latest reliever to derail the "Proven Closer" theory. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Mark Melancon is the latest reliever to derail the “Proven Closer” theory. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

This morning Mike Petriello of ESPN Insider wrote an article about how the closer myth is dying. Petriello pointed out that a lot of top teams this year have gone the cheap route with their closers. Atlanta and Los Angeles are using closers brought up through the farm system. Boston, Detroit, and Oakland are using free agent relievers who weren’t signed as closers, although Boston definitely tried to add “Proven Closers” in each of the last two years before being forced to make the switch to Koji Uehara. Then there’s the Pirates, who currently have Mark Melancon from that trade with Boston over the off-season.

Outside of those six contenders, Petriello notes that three of the 15 pitchers with 25+ saves are signed to non-arbitration contracts of $5 M or more.

I think one flaw to this theory is looking at the current closers, rather than looking at who the teams intended to have as their closers. The fact that Uehara is the closer in Boston doesn’t mean they will no longer pay for closers. They paid for Andrew Bailey in 2012, and when that didn’t work they paid for Joel Hanrahan this year. Chances are they will pay for another closer for next season.

It’s the same situation in Los Angeles. Kenley Jansen is the closer right now, but they signed Brandon League and gave him a shot before Jansen took over. Even the Pirates paid to have Jason Grilli as their closer, although the cost for two years was about half of what Jonathan Papelbon makes per year in Philadelphia.

I don’t think the “Proven Closers” will go away, but this article is just another article that points out why you shouldn’t pay for saves. Every year at the start of the season there are certain teams who worry about the closer position, and go out and find someone who is established in the role. And yet every year a new group of closers emerge from the vast pool of unestablished relievers who only have the talent to close, but lack the experience.

You have to wonder when teams will realize that it makes no sense to pay for relievers. It’s crazy that Jonathan Papelbon got the seventh biggest contract in the 2011-12 free agent market, signing for $12.5 M a year. He wasn’t alone, as Heath Bell signed for $9 M a year. And yet Josh Willingham gets $7 M a year, even though he can play everyday rather than being limited to playing only when the team is winning by three or less in the ninth.

If you’re a team like the Pirates, you don’t want this to end. Look at their string of closers recently.

Octavio Dotel – Signed to a one year deal with an option. Traded after half a season for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo.

Joel Hanrahan – Acquired for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett along with Lastings Milledge. Hanrahan was seen as the fourth best player in the deal.

Jason Grilli – Signed as a free agent away from Philadelphia’s Triple-A team due to a clause in his contract. Later signed as a free agent for set-up man dollars.

Mark Melancon – Acquired for Joel Hanrahan, along with Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan De Jesus.

None of the closers acquired by the current management group have been expensive. All of them have been dealt for value, only for the Pirates to move on to the next unproven closer. Not all of the moves have been perfect. Hanrahan might have fetched a much bigger return if he was traded a year earlier. Matt Capps wasn’t acquired by this group, but was non-tendered after a down year, then saw his value bounce back. But the general concept makes sense. Focus on talent, rather than experience, and you’re going to get value.

The only way teams will actually stop paying for relievers is if the value of relievers goes way down. That means no more trades for big prospects, and no more huge contracts for the best relievers in the game. Their values probably should be in line with bench players — getting less than $5 M per year, and rarely landing any huge prospects in trades. I just don’t see that happening, as some teams (like Boston) either refuse to learn from their mistakes, or have enough money that they don’t need to care about the mistakes.

The Pirates shouldn’t want this to end, and they should take advantage until there are no teams left to take advantage of. If that means trading Mark Melancon this off-season for a massive return, and making the switch to Vic Black or Justin Wilson, then that’s what it takes. There would be people who would complain, but they would be the same people who complained about Melancon when Hanrahan was traded, and the same people who complained about Hanrahan when Burnett was traded. The reality is that the ninth inning is just one inning of work. It doesn’t take anything special to pitch in the ninth inning. I think that has been proven by what the Pirates have done the last few years. Either that, or they somehow went 4-for-4 finding that special skill in Melancon, Grilli, Hanrahan, and Dotel. But I think the answer is more obvious. They went out and found talented relievers who could get three outs, and that’s really all you need for one inning of work, no matter what inning it is.

Is the “Proven Closer” era dead? I don’t think it is. And I hope it isn’t.

Links and Notes

**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 15: Recapping the Slow Deadline; The Pirates Are Legit Playoff Contenders. This week’s episode goes up tomorrow.

**Here is the newest episode of Pirates Roundtable Live: VIDEO: Pirates Roundtable Live — Episode 4.

**Pirates Sign Dominican Outfielder Jeremias Portorreal.

**Prospect Watch: Three Hit Nights For Dilson Herrera and Wyatt Mathisen.

**West Virginia Drops Lakewood For 19th Time; Barnes Likely Out For the Year.

**Minor League Schedule: Taillon Makes Second Indianapolis Start.

**Alex Rios Acquired by Texas Rangers.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/115522615427589477970 Mike C.

    great article Tim, though I’m sure most fans of this site knew this for a while.
    and with all the criticism NH receives, some rightly so, we have to give him props on his amazing bullpen assembling skills. once might be luck, but year after year becomes a track record.
    just hoping like you no one outside pittsburgh reads this.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I know the subject was Closers, but you could have passed on mentioning Matt Capps. His last year with the Pirates he had 27 Saves, which was good, but the 4-8 record with a 5.80 ERA and 10 HR’s in about 50+ innings was pitiful. And, he was making $2.5 mil and on his way to Arbitration where his 27 Saves alone would have meant a healthy increase to a projected $3.5 or $4.0 mil. He came up in 2007 as a well built, hungry kid wanting a chance, and was a fan favorite. By 2009, the only thing that increased faster than his ERA was his waistline and he was being referred to by the fans as Fatt Capps. Getting non-tendered by the Pirates was a wake-up call for him; he worked himself back into shape, and he returned to form in 2010. He did well for awhile but posted another 10 HR’s in 2012 for the Twins and was non-tendered by them. He signed a minor league contract with the Indians earlier this year.

    • buster09

      I was on speaking terms with Matt emjay,and though there is a bit of truth in what you say,Tracy and his ” pitching coach ” running Capps out there game after game when they knew he was hurting didn’t help when he was in the Pirate orginization. What happened after I can’t speak to,but I thought at the time that NH sort of sold short on him.

      • emjayinTN

        It was a tough decision to make, because if he bounced back, the Pirates would look like they made a bad decision; they made the same type of decisions with Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm, and others. Sometimes players need a change of scenery and the challenge to prove their former team wrong. Capps pitched like a man on a mission with the Nationals and salvaged a MLB career for a few more years and made some good money as a result. Same same for Sean Burnett.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Regarding Capps, I felt at the time that he was due for a bounce back. He did bounce back, and the Nationals got a pretty good prospect for him.

      On the flip side of that move, they traded Dotel for a good return, so in the end it was a wash.

      • emjayinTN

        NH has been a magician at finding aged, seemingly finished relievers and regenerating their careers with the Pirates. Dotel was not wanted by anyone, and Veras was a steal also. Hanrahan was a guy who needed the change of scenery as were Melancon, and to a lesser extent, Jason Grilli.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    Great piece Tim. Definitely a fan of playing this market. I think it is one area the Buccos can keep an advantage. I’m all for trading a relief guy if it can bring a good return. Melancon has amazing value right now. Years of control, all star, closer experience for a contender, low cost.

    What do you think his value actually IS Tim?

    I’m sure a majority of yinzers would detonate the Clemente Bridge if they got rid of him. And you are right, it’d be the same ones carrying torches the last time.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Melancon has three years of arbitration after this year. I’d have to look and see what kind of relievers were traded with that much control to determine the value. I could do a Trade Value, but those aren’t as accurate for relievers, since the value of relievers is low, and teams constantly pay more than that value.

  • skliesen

    I have a feeling the fans of the Nationals, and going back way back, the Angels of the late Donnie Moore’s day, would agree the 9th inning is just another inning come October, Tim.

    The reason Mariano is universally recognized as the best reliever ever, isn’t because of his successes April-September. It’s what he’s done in October.

    And that’s why teams like the Red Sox (and many others) will always be willing to pay for saves!

    • maguro

      Donnie Moore was a proven closer, though. So were Papelbon and Huston Street when they melted down in the 2009 playoffs. Just being a proven closer doesn’t that you won’t blow postseason games.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The thing is, Rivera is a great reliever. That has nothing to do with saves. He doesn’t get saves because of some special skill that allows him to pitch in the ninth inning. The only skill he needs is that he’s a great reliever and can get outs in any inning.

      Rivera is also the exception when it comes to relievers. A large majority of relievers are inconsistent. They aren’t good every year like Rivera. And that’s a big reason why you don’t pay for saves or relievers. You’re rarely going to get a guy that is consistent like Rivera.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    I happily remember us trading a parttime closer, Ricky Rincon for someone named Giles.

    You’re correct Tim….keep ‘em coming!

    Foo

  • leadoff

    One note about the Pirates choices for the closer, they have yet to put a kid in that spot and they have several young guys that can throw very well. Black did not get the call when Grilli went down and would not have gotten it even if Melancon was not around.
    The Pirates do value the closer more than people think, it would appear that their system calls for an experienced vet that knows how to get people out whomever he may be, that is the guy they look for.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      They did have Matt Capps in there at age 25. Hanrahan took over at age 28, and Melancon is pitching this year at 28.

      I agree that they wouldn’t bring up a guy like Vic Black and have him close right away. But I could see someone like Black closing after a full season of success in the major league bullpen. So I don’t think they’ll be like Atlanta with Kimbrel, but they also don’t need too much experience.

  • buster09

    leadoff : + 1 !