The Miami Marlins have temporarily turned to a closer-by-committee approach due to the struggles of closer Heath Bell. This undoubtedly brings up all sorts of concerns regarding the approach of having multiple pitchers pitch the ninth inning. The cries against the idea of not having defined roles, the concerns stemming from the Boston Red Sox and their "failed" 2003 closer-by-committee approach, all of those things contribute to fan concerns about not having a defined closer.
But that is classic sports panic when faced with an approach that is outside "traditional" norms. Of course, bullpens did not used to always have traditional closers and relief roles based on innings. And indeed, pitchers now are no better at holding leads than they were years ago! So why the concern? Why is there a need for one closer? I could not tell you, but let us look at some of those factors that go into the myth of the failure of closer-by-committee and see
Leads Don't Change
One of the most interesting things about the change in reliever usage is that it really has not significantly added to the holding of ninth inning leads in terms of save opportunities. One would think that such a maneuver that has come to dominate the landscape of relief pitching would be proven to help teams close out more games in the ninth. But as Colin Wyers points out in this brilliant Baseball Prospectus article, the days of having one-inning defined closers have not added to the chances of teams winning close games.
To find this evidence, let’s focus on situations resembling the archetypal save, with one team leading by one to three runs at the start of the ninth inning or later. (These won’t all be save situations; sometimes a pitcher other than the closer will be called upon to start the inning, but most of them will be.)
In the 1950s, a team in such a situation would win its game 90 percent of the time; in the 2000s, a team would win such a game 91 percent of the time. Assuming 44 such chances a season (the average for the past decade), that means modern teams will win an additional game every two to three seasons due to changes in relief pitcher usage. There is a slight countervailing impact from increased run scoring, but with a correlation of just –0.28 between runs per game and these win rates, such an effect shouldn’t be expected to significantly alter these conclusions. In short, baseball has contorted its roster and raised a small class of pitchers up to be multi-millionaires for a very small benefit.
So even having one "true" closer does not add a significant advantage historically. We are no better off now with the entrance music and elaborate entry of the shutdown closer than we were years back. In the end, it turns out quality of reliever is more important than usage.What About the Red Sox?
Yeah, what about those Red Sox in 2003? Well, two things need to be noted:
- Despite the mediocre bullpen numbers (4.87 ERA, 4.06 FIP), the pen was still good enough to keep the Red Sox in more than just contention. Before the team acquired a "closer" in Byung-Hyun Kim (Marlins fans remember that guy all too well), the Red Sox had the second best record in the American League. It was not as if they were losing all that many games to relievers blowing saves
- The relievers the team sent out there were bad.
Again, it comes back to quality being more important than role. It was not likely that the role caused the players to suffer, but rather that the players were unfit for the ninth inning role because of lack of skill. In April, the Sox gave Chad Fox the most chances at saves. Fox had a career 3.79 ERA and 3.91 FIP, He was a decent reliever who pitched poorly in five opportunities. When the Red Sox traded him to the Marlins, he played better, but he was never an amazing reliever anyway. The next reliever who got the bulk of the share was Brandon Lyon, who is the epitome of mediocre reliever (4.17 ERA, 4.11 FIP).
The point here is that, had the Red Sox either had better relievers or just a little more patience, the plan would have likely worked out just fine and their relievers would have pitched about as well as they usually would have. Much like the Marlins right now, the Red Sox then had a number of mediocre guys who were middle relievers thrust into the ninth inning. In their first two months, they ran into just enough struggles that the team panicked and changed ideas. But by season's end, those relievers were just fine. Lyon his his career average 4.12 ERA by year's end. Chad Fox did as well, though as a member of the Marlins later in 2003. Mike Timlin and Tim Wakefield hit their averages as well. It turns out only Ramiro Mendoza was truly a failure, and he was out of the league in two years.
The Red Sox were not a lesson in failure of the closer-by-committee. They were a lesson in failure of small sample sizes and some bad relievers.
Even though we would not expect a huge drop in performance by going to a closer-by-committee, the Marlins are not expected to continue this plan through the rest of the season. The goal here is to rehabilitate whatever is left of Heath Bell and return him to the closer role. Once the Marlins once again feel confident in Bell's performance, presumably after watching him perform in and out of the ninth inning in multiple games, the team will slide him back into the closer role. If that is the case, the closer-by-committee approach will be as temporary as Bell's performance makes it.
In addition, the Marlins have a "proven" closer in the man formerly known as the LeoCoaster, Juan Oviedo. Oviedo's return to the majors is expected by the end of July, and if his performance goes well early, the team could slide him into the closer's spot as well. We know Oviedo is nothing more than another mediocre reliever, but unfortunately, the Marlins do put an emphasis on closer experience and prior save totals, so the Fish may return to the LeoCoaster if Bell still has not improved.
Essentially, none of these changes will make a difference unless one thing continues: Heath Bell's struggles. If Bell is indeed broken and continues to falter, he too will lose his share of the committee's ninth inning appearances and be relegated to lower-leverage duty full-time. And if that is the case, then yes, the Marlins' change to closer-by-committee may help win a game or two along the way. But in no way does the change to a committee approach signal good or bad news in and of itself; the benefit is only tied to Heath Bell's effectiveness. Once again, it is the quality of the reliever that really matters, not necessarily how and when you deploy him.
So the Marlins will temporarily to a committee approach. If all goes well, Bell performs better and the Marlins may return him to his paid role. if not, the committee will likely be just fine, or about as fine as the relievers within it. Just do not count on radical changes just because it is a committee instead of one reliever, because it turns out that this deployment strategy does not change anything.