Thursday night, the Rangers beat the White Sox 2-1 in 11 innings. The Rangers, the home team, threw Shawn Tolleson in the ninth inning, knowing that a tied game at that point meant there would be no save chance to hold out for. Tolleson pitched the ninth and the tenth before giving way for Tanner Scheppers, who got the win.
The White Sox, meanwhile, were on the road. That meant that, no matter how long the game stayed tied, there might be a save chance out there. As such, David Robertson never saw the field. Daniel Webb finished the eighth and pitched the ninth and 10th, before Dan Jennings came on for the 11th, giving up the winning run. Jennings, carrying an ERA over 7.00, was entrusted with a game in extra innings.
I say this not to bury Robin Ventura. Had the roles been reversed, I certainly imagine Robertson would have pitched the ninth, Tolleson would have stayed in the bullpen and some other pitcher would have been out there for the 11th.
The argument always goes that you don't want to burn your closer in a non-save situation in such games because then, if a save situation does arise, you are using a pitcher not suited to the role, and the only thing worse than losing in extra innings is taking a lead before losing in extra innings.
There is the tiniest amount of credence to that argument. Sure, if a game goes 17, and my team on the road takes a lead, and they're stuck using some guy with an 8.44 ERA, I'm unhappy and frustrated. And it's a tangible frustration, as is the possible frustration if I burn my closer in a non-save situation and he gives up the winning run. The opposite — you save your closer for a possible save chance and use your lesser relievers — is less tangible. "What?" you can say, "[Lesser reliever] is a big-league pitcher. He's got to get the outs." Never mind that you let your best pitcher watch the game.
I'm not the first to pound the table about this. Joe Sheehan hits on the topic in his newsletter once every week or two. Keith Law will criticize it on Twitter (not that he needs a lot of encouragement to criticize anything on Twitter). Plenty of guys have pointed it out.
But it's falling on deaf ears, moreso than just about any other "sabermetric" talking point of recent years. The statheads pushed hard for teams' best hitters to hit second in the order; that isn't close to universal, but it's happening more and more often. Intentional walks have been seen as a crime against smartness; those numbers have been plummeting. Everywhere you look in baseball these days, the numbers guys are having an impact, and strategies are changing. Except with saves.
For the sake of fantasy, this is actually in general a good thing. If teams were smarter about their bullpen usage, closers would be more of a fictional construct. Sure, Aroldis Chapman would earn "saves" often enough, but he'd also see the field in the eighth inning of tie games, or in the seventh when the Cardinals' 2-3-4 hitters are coming up. Bringing in your best damn reliever when it's 4-1 to start the ninth is fine if there hasn't been a better opportunity; saving the pitcher for that chance is gibberish.
In an ideal pitcher-usage scenario, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller would be splitting the saves for the Yankees, with Miller taking the saves that come against lefty-heavy ninth innings and Betances taking those against righty-heavy ones. A team with a super-strong closer and an otherwise-unimpressive bullpen — the White Sox come to mind — might still save the "closer" for the ninth innings, but when the Padres could burn Craig Kimbrel in the seventh, knowing Joaquin Benoit is still out there for later, not-quite-as-important moments? There's literally no reason to save Kimbrel.
For 2015, nothing's going to change. But like I said above, the stathead voices have been heard. Mike Trout bats second. Pitchers doing fine otherwise are getting pulled for the third, fourth time through orders. Shifts are every-damn-where. Things are changing, and while closer usage is lagging behind many (most?) other strategies, it'll catch up.
Francisco Rodriguez still holds the single-season saves record, 62 in 2008. The shift is coming. Rodriguez will keep that record for a long time.
On to the closer rankings:
|1||Aroldis Chapman||CIN||2||Striking out more than 15 guys per nine innings, which is ... good.
|2||Andrew Miller||NYY||1||Striking out almost 15 guys per nine innings, which is ... good.
|4||Craig Kimbrel||SDP||4||If time started on Opening Day, I wouldn't have him anywhere near this high. He hasn't looked special.
|5||David Robertson||CWS||5||Has gone two innings in two of his last three outings, though both games went into extra innings.
|9||Zach Britton||BAL||10||Hasn't allowed a run since May 16.
|11||Greg Holland||KAN||15||He's been getting a few more strikeouts, but the Royals are going out of their way not to overuse him.
|12||Koji Uehara||BOS||12||The Red Sox went away from him Sunday, but only because he had pitched three straight days.
|16||Kenley Jansen||LAD||6||I have no idea what's going on with his health. Long-term, you still like him, but right now? I'm perplexed.|
||27||When he took over the closer role, his ERA was 1.06. It's down to 0.95 now.
|22||Mark Melancon||PIT||18||Just ... just strike a few people out, Mark. The transition into LaTroy Hawkins is unbecoming.|
|24||Wade Davis||KAN||19||It couldn't last forever. Both Davis and Betances gave up their first earned runs of the year last week.|
|25||Dellin Betances||NYY||26||Even with his run allowed, dude is striking all sorts of people out.|
||Something had to give with Fernando Rodney. I'm interested in seeing whether the Mariners will stick with him long-term, but the numbers have been good.|
||His current triceps tightness is worrisome, but I'll still trust him for now.