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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