Saturday, April 16, 2005
April 16th, 1972
Rich "Goose" Gossage Debuts
One of the great myths to exist in baseball today is that of the (capital-C) Closer. Teams spend great amounts of time fretting about who'll be pitching the ninth inning for them, and often spent great amounts of money attempting to solve the problem. The simple truth of the matter however--and leaving aside here for a moment the debatable worth of modern closer usage pattern--is that there are essentially two kinds of relievers: elite, and everyone else. The elite, of which Gossage is one along with pitchers like Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne, Dennis Eckersley and others. are a valuable group and often paid according. Everyone else is fairly replaceable on a year-to-year basis and teams would be best served if they are unable to acquire (or afford) an elite reliever to simply stick someone in that role and let them close unless they give significant evidence they are unable to handle the job.
This may seem ludicrous at first blush, but it’s spelled out by results. Over the course of a season an ordinary reliever pitching the ninth inning may give up a blown save or two more than an elite one, but on a limited budget, it can work. Perhaps the best examples of this are the two greatest dynasties of the past fifteen years: The Yankees and the Braves. The Yankees have, with the exception of 1996, had Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time, pitching the ninth innings for them. Being the Yankees, Rivera is rewarded handsomely for the task. Meanwhile, the Braves have seen an incredible mix, the pitchers who have served as the team's primary closer is as long as it is diverse: Alejandro Pena (1992), Mike Stanton (1993), Greg McMichael (1994), Mark Wholers (1995-97), Kerry Lightenberg (1998), John Rocker (1999-2001), John Smoltz (2002-04) and now Danny Kolb (2005-). That's eight different closers during the Braves' run. Despite the alleged necessity of a ninth inning specialist, the Braves won one-hundred six and went to the NLCS in 1998 with a man who had fifteen MLB innings prior to that season and won a World Series with Wholers in 1995, who had a combined seven saves in his four career seasons to that point.
Elite relievers are valuable tools. But the notion that a team need have someone with that special, unique something to pitch the ninth inning forty-five times a season and should be willing to pay out the nose for it is a misconception, one players are taking all the way to the bank.