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  1. #1
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    Red Sox going with the closer-by-committee approach

    Red Sox going with the closer-by-committee approach
    http://espn.go.com/mlb/columns/mcadam_sean/1489225.html
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    By Sean McAdam
    Special to ESPN.com


    It's an old idea made new. It's considered an experiment even though it's been tried plenty before. It's innovative, but somewhat retro, too.

    It's a bullpen led by committee rather than achored by a single closer, and the Boston Red Sox are going to give it a try.

    Deeming Ugueth Urbina too expensive for their budget, the Red Sox waved goodbye to Ubrina's 40 saves and have reconstructed their bullpen, aiming for quanity, and they hope, quality.

    Instead of Urbina being designated for ninth-inning duty, the Sox will this season be able to call upon any number of options: Ramiro Mendoza, Alan Embree, Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin and Chad Fox.

    Every pitcher in Boston's crowded house has served in the closer's capacity before. Howry saved 28 games for the White Sox in 1999, the same season in which Timlin recorded 27 saves for Baltimore. Mendoza was occasionally called upon to finish games in his six seasons with the Yankees and has 16 saves in his career. Embree and Fox, too, have closed, though infrequently.

    The strategy seems a daring one for a team with designs on a playoff spot, but general manager Theo Epstein and manager Grady Little feel the benefits far outweigh the risks.

    And they're not alone.

    "I like it,'' says Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi flatly. "I think they're on to something.''

    "I think it's great,'' adds Oakland GM Billy Beane.

    There's some irony in the fact that three of the game's youngest general managers all heartily endorse a philsophy that was revelant as recently as the 1970s. That was before baseball locked itself into a mentality that one pitcher -- and one pitcher only -- could safely be counted upon to record the final three outs of a game.

    "I think it's a bunch of crap to have one closer,'' says one major league GM. "You pay that guy $5-6 million to pitch 60-70 innings a year. Is he that much of a slam dunk guy? There are very few that are anymore.''

    Indeed, while Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Robb Nen constitute the elite group of closers, there's a significant dropoff after that trio. Take Urbina, whose 40 saves were bettered by just two American League closers last season.

    Yet, of those 40 saves, 32 were obtained with leads of two runs or more. And in the 12 times that Urbina had one-run saves to protect, he failed four times.

    "I think we've created this mindset of what we're supposed to do and everybody's following it, whether it makes sense or not,'' said Ricciardi. "If you feel like you have a dominant closer, then go with him. But if you don't ...''
    Code:
     Breaking new ground  
     The Red Sox are expected to head into the 2003 season with a closer-by-committee bullpen. Here are the amount of saves each pitcher in their pen recorded last season and in their entire career:  
     Pitcher  2002
    saves  Career saves  
     R. Mendoza  4  16  
     A. Embree  2  6  
     M. Timlin  0  114  
     B. Howry  0  49  
     C. Fox  0  2
    If you don't, then "flexibility'' and "options'' are the operative buzzwords.

    "I'll leave it up to Grady to find usage patterns in the pen,'' Epstein said. "(But) the way we've built the pen is with versatility and flexibility in mind. On any given day, we want Grady to have lots of options to attack game situations and opposing lineups.''

    If the Sox need a double play in the seventh, Little can call on Mendoza and his sinker ball. If he needs a strikeout in the same inning, he can go with Embree and his 95 mph fastball.

    Change isn't necessarily a bad idea for the Red Sox, who were the only AL team with a winning record to have a losing record (15-22) out of its bullpen in 2002.

    "I think we get so locked into things that we don't always use common sense,'' said Beane. "Does it make any sense to have your best reliever waiting in the bullpen when the game's tied in the seventh or eighth? By the time the ninth inning comes, it might be a three-run game. A lot of guys can get those last three outs. Why waste your best pitcher there?''

    For too long, Epstein and others contend, baseball has become a slave to conformity. One GM recalls watching a game last season in which the opposition used a lefty set-up man in the eighth inning, only to switch to a right-handed closer in the ninth, despite the fact that three left-handed hitters were scheduled to hit.

    "We get afraid to do something because conventional wisdom tells us it can't be done,'' said Ricciardi.

    But it wasn't long ago that closers routinely pitched multiple innings. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the most dominant relievers in the game -- Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter -- frequently entered games in the seventh and remained on the mound until the final out was recorded. On the Sox's current staff, Mendoza and Embry can be counted on to pitch several innings at a time.

    To be sure, there's an economic benefit to the committe approach. Urbina made $6.7 million last season and had he gone to salary arbitration, could have commanded as much as $9 million for 2003. Instead, the Sox will pay Mendoza, Embree and Timlin less than that figure combined.

    For small-market teams in particular, the idea of a multi-headed closer has appeal.

    "I never want to pay a closer $6-7 million when I can pay that to an everyday player,'' said one executive who must watch his payroll carefully. "Baseball is at a point now where you'd better be creative.''

    In Oakland, Beane hasn't adopted the committee idea, but clearly sees the closer as a replaceable part of the bullpen puzzle. This will mark the fourth straight season he has employed a different closer, going from Billy Taylor to Jason Isringhausen to Billy Koch to Keith Foulke.

    Little may find he will have to manage egos as well as innings as the experiment unfolds. Today's players are notorious for their need to have specified roles and the inherent uncertainty of the committee approach is bound to unnerve some.

    "You have to cultivate that,'' said a rival general manager, "and let them all know that there are 3-4 guys who can pitch the eighth and ninth innings.''

    Undoubtedly, many will be watching to see how things unfold in Boston. If it works, expect more teams to follow. If it doesn't, some teams may be reluctant to abandon the single-closer approach. Baseball may not be as prone to immitation as, say, the NFL, but teams are quick to copy what works.

    "I don't see this as risky at all,'' Epstein said. "It's worked before.''

    Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

  2. #2
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    Now that's the first good idea to come out of tha town since baked beans.

  3. #3
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    Originally posted by YankyDave
    Now that's the first good idea to come out of tha town since baked beans.
    I don't know why more teams don't do this. It used to be the norm until LaRussa made everyone forget how to use a pen. If the closer isn't Mo, Hoffman, Nen, or Percival, he's not always the best guy to get the batters out in the ninth. A Roberto Hernandez or Estaben Yan isn't always the guy you want out there in the ninth. These types of pitchers have value, when used properly, but when put out there when the matchups aren't necessarily in their favor is just dumb dumb dumb. When Mo was on the DL, Torre used the "closer by committee" to perfection, and the pen didn't skip a beat with Mo out. Most managers would have probably stuck Karsay in the closer role, when he probably wouldn't have been the right choice 100% of the time.

    This trickle down effect of manager cliches even makes middle relievers be misused. The idea of your setup man, managers are under the impression one guy should always pitch the ninth, one should pitch the eighth, and the rest gets the other innings. Look at Bobby Cox' bullpens, he always has even mediocre relievers putting up good numbers because he uses them right, not limited to roles (though he does have a dominating closer, there never tends to be just one pitcher who pitches the eighth).

  4. #4

    I Agree...

    The Yankees from 1997-2000 could have done this if Rivera ever went down: Nelson, Stanton, Mendoza, Annual New Scrub. Pretty fearsome.

    BTW, I always called Nelson "Ice Cream Man" when he was a Yank because I felt that in his Yankee uniform he looked like an ice cream man. Anybody out there agree with me? Or am I nuts?

  5. #5
    R-I-P, Mr. Nelson Mandela Jersey Yankee's Avatar
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    If the Yanks ever wanted to do this, they could go:

    Rivera, Karsay, Wells, Weaver, Hernandez.

  6. #6
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    It's amazing that some of these cheap teams haven't gone back to the more traditional bullpen before this. As good as Trevor Hoffman is, it's absolutely insane for the Padres to be paying a guy who will pitch 65 of approximately 1500 team innings $9 million this year. Their entire budget will be something like $45 million or $50 million. For the Yanks to make a comparable investment in a closer, they'd have to pay Mo $30 million this year. Out of deference to what I heard one writer call "creeping LaRussa-ism" (absolute genuflecting to the "closer" label) teams completely handicap themselves.

  7. #7
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    I absolutely love it. If it fails..........well, that will be a different story.

    The Save stat have been ruining baseball and pitchers for years (leave it to agents to come up this smooth move). I have been saying this for years. Few teams have had long term suscess with this. The Yankee are one team..............This is a good move for the Sox.

  8. #8
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    I think closer by committee is probably a good idea, but as mentioned, for lower budget teams. If you can afford a near machine like Mariano Rivera, why use anything but? Guys like Rivera, Hoffman, or Percival have the stuff to slam the door, and have the best odds of doing it, against most batters. But if you have anything less, I can't see using a set closer.

  9. #9
    The idea behind the closer by committee thing is that there really is nothing special about getting the final outs of a game; that some guys really don't have any special ability in the ninth inning while other pitchers struggle in that situation. A corollary of the idea is that games lost in eighth inning are no more damaging to a team's psyche than games lost in the ninth. No one has ever really examined these ideas objectively. Given the new economics of the game, I think we're about to start. It'll be interesting.

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    This closer by committee thing is going to really screw up my fantasy picthers, ha ha.

  11. #11
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    It`s destined to fail.

    See the Pen is mighter with a Closer.

    http://www.sportingnews.com/voices/k.../20030113.html

  12. #12

    Re: It`s destined to fail.

    Originally posted by Michaels07
    See the Pen is mighter with a Closer.

    http://www.sportingnews.com/voices/k.../20030113.html
    I think it could well fail in the Sox's case because they don't have a dominant pitcher in the bullpen. The closer by committeee approach is really a misnomer. What James and others are saying is that if you have a true ace in the pen, he's being wasted if he only comes in the ninth, especially in games with a three-run lead. Bring him in the seventh or eighth, if that's when the game is being decided and let him pitch more than an inning. It makes a certain amount of sense, but there are some potential psychological problems, as LaRussa points out.
    But none of this applies to the Boston situation. They don't, on paper at least, have a true relief ace. Embree was lights out last year but it was his first great season since '97. Plus, with Alan you get very unhealthy splits. He's deadly on lefties, but righties have eaten him alive throughout most of his career. So putting him into the game in the seventh and expecting him to go two innings against an offense that is balanced between righties and lefties will be a bit much to ask, I think. Embree also has never pitched more than 62 innings in a season, and under the Jamesian plan, the dominant reliever would get something like 100 innings. Embree could surprise; he does have terrific stuff. But to bank on it is more wishful thinking than I would like if I were a Sox fan.
    The same sorts of considerations also apply to Timlin. He's also 36 now and his best seasons appear to be behind him, though he was terrific in 2002. The chances are that he will revert to his recent history when a typical ERA was about 4.20 with a lot of blown saves.
    Mendoza has the best chance of being the kind of pitcher James is thinking about, but he's been somewhat fragile. And Howry used to have the stuff to get the job done but he's still not all the way back from surgery.
    Ironcially, it's the Yanks who might well be better served trying the so-called closer by committee thing. They have in Mo and Karsay essentially two closers. I could see using Mo in the seventh and eighth in crucial situations and finishing up with Karsay. Or something similar. And the top three relievers in the pen are all signed for at least two years (after which Mo might well retire), so they would probably not be nearly as worried about their save numbers as they would be if they were under one-year contracts.

  13. #13
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    Re: It`s destined to fail.

    Originally posted by Michaels07
    See the Pen is mighter with a Closer.

    http://www.sportingnews.com/voices/k.../20030113.html
    Nice, an article applauding the managerial work of LaRussa.

  14. #14
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    I think Rosenthal is probably going to be wrong. Closers are not here to stay, at least not in the ubiquitous, everybody's got one way they've been around in recent years where teams funnel every save chance to mediocre dopes like Antonio Alfonseca, Roberto Hernandez and Esteban Yan.

    If you've got a 2002 Eric Gagne or a 2002 Smoltz or a 2000 Rivera, sure, you'll go with pretty much a LaRussa method closer, but only 3 or 4 teams each year have a guy who is both that excellent and so clearly better than his bullpen teammates that every save chance should be set up for him. The major league average on converting saves is something like 80%. Unless you have a guy who's going to convert 98% of those chances, why will you take out guys who pitched great 8th innings to bring in another guy to protect a 3 run lead? It's a waste and it's unnatural managing. So many pitching changes to bring in a closer have nothing to do with game situations and everything to do with the closer label.

    Then there's the economic argument. Teams like the Padres are going to realize that it's insane to spend $9 million of their $45 or $50 million budget on a guy who's going to pitch 65 innings out of their team's total of 1500. If you have a couple decent setup men who can certainly close down 3 run leads most all the time, why not let them get saves. You groom your next PRIMARY closer and you also reduce the save total of your present PRIMARY closer, thus lowering his cost.

  15. #15
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    it could work ... If a reliever is doing good, he could be kept in for another inning. The Braves bullpen of '02 (Remlinger, Hammond, Spooneybarger) were all of closer quality, and the Red Sox actually poured money in their bullpen for once.

    The problem is that no one in the bullpen is super reliable, it is not like they sub two eras last year.

  16. #16
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    I guess Tom Verducci reads Ken Rosenthal, and decided to do his own column on the subject. He's a supporter of the notion of deep bullpens to help close out games. But also agrees that if you have a Rivera or Hoffman, you know who to give the ball to. But then again, some teams have Roberto Hernandez as that go-to guy.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ins...01/14/insider/

    Will the Red Sox skipper manage without a stud closer?
    Posted: Tuesday January 14, 2003 1:50 PM

    If you thought Grady Little had a difficult job last season -- a rookie manager attempting to win in the crucible of Boston while trying to get Manny Ramirez to play, Pedro Martinez to pitch and Tony Clark to hit -- just wait until you see the plate-spinning act he's being asked to pull off this year. Now he has to win by using his bullpen like no champion has in 15 years. I hope he pulls it off.

    The Red Sox have no closer, having wisely allowed Ugueth Urbina and his cushy job to take a hike to Texas. There are "construction workers" on The Sopranos with tougher jobs. Instead, Little will use Ramiro Mendoza, Alan Embree, Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin, Chad Fox and possibly Tim Wakefield (if he's not starting) as multiple options for the late innings.

    Such arrangements have been called "closer by committee," but that's mostly been the name for a temporary system until one guy gets hot and the manager anoints him as his closer. Here's hoping that Little sticks to his plan. If Timlin, for instance, happens to close a few games in April, Little shouldn't join the chorus of 29 other managers and start using the veteran right-hander as if he were Dennis Eckersley.

    Think about it: every manager in baseball uses his bullpen in precisely the same manner, whether he has Mariano Rivera or Juan Acevedo at the end. Imagine all NFL coaches using the 3-4 defense.

    The copycat school of managing makes no sense when you consider a recent study by the Elias Sports Bureau which found that teams with the modern specialized bullpen don't protect leads any better than teams from 40 and 50 years ago, when closers didn't exist. In fact, the conversion rate is slightly lower.

    Give credit to Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and advisor Bill James for at least questioning why your best reliever can't pitch when the game is in the balance, not just when a lead needs to be protected. (Although, let's be honest, necessity is at work, too; Boston would rather have Rivera or Trevor Hoffman in the ninth.)

    Critics point out that with the exception of the 2001 Diamondbacks, who had two historically great starting pitchers, no team since the 1988 Dodgers has won the World Series without a stud closer. Well, what a surprise. That's because the strategy of every team in this era is to designate one guy to get all the saves. The stat is the result of the universally accepted modern strategem as much as the value of a closer.

    Can the Red Sox pull off this act of swimming upstream? Of course. First, look at what they need to replace by jettisoning Urbina, the prototypical pampered closer. Urbina ...


    pitched exactly one inning in 52 of his 61 appearances.

    obtained only two of his 40 saves by getting more than three outs.

    saved only one game in which he entered with the tying run on.

    blew six saves.

    saved only seven games when the Red Sox led by one run. (He had twice as many three-run saves.)

    The Red Sox decided Urbina's 40 saves were so important that they left him on the curb for Texas to recycle. Boston knows closers fall off trees. Eric Gagne? Come on down. Jose Jimenez? Go for it. Mike Williams? Forty-six saves, no problem. (Literally; not once did Williams have to come in for a save with the tying run on.) The Rangers even relied on Hideki Irabu (for a while).

    The save is the most overrated stat in baseball. It is the only statistic that dictates conventional strategy. A three-run lead in the ninth? The Pavlovian manager brings in his closer. If it doesn't work out in the ninth, no matter what the lead or how well the previous pitcher was throwing, the manager can always tell the media, "Hey, that's the closer's job. It's his spot." Translation: "Hey, hey. I'm off the hook."

    And that's where Little's gumption will be tested. There will be nights when, given his lack of an obvious choice to finish a game, the Red Sox will lose a lead and the media will grill him about why he didn't use pitcher A, B or C. Guaranteed. The challenge for Little is not to cave to these skirmishes. He has to be a Mac kind of manager. (No, not Johnny Mac.) Think different. Believe different.

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