They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: The Evolution Of Closers

12
Aug

Bottom of the 9th coming up with a one-run lead, if you have any option who do you give the ball to? Most fans today would say someone along the lines of Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel or Fransisco Rodriguez. They’re guys who have that power pitch, who know how to strike guys out and handle the pressure of pitching in the 9th, and are usually the ones who garner all the credit for finishing up their team’s games. But what about the iron horse relievers from the ’70s that rarely find their way onto any modern list of go-to guys in the 9th, and have closers of today with all the personalities and all the talent become a wasted asset?

One useful way of comparing relievers is to look at how hard they have worked in game situations. A common criticism leveled at current closers is that they have it relatively easy when they earn many saves a year by working only the 9th inning with a two or three run lead while many prior “closers”  had to work two, three or sometimes four innings to earn a save. Did the elite relievers of the 1970s work that much harder, and if so, do they deserve more respect for doing so?

A closer in today’s game is generally the team’s best relief pitcher and designated to pitch the last three outs of games when their team is leading by a margin of three runs or fewer. A closer’s effectiveness has traditionally been measured by the save, an official Major League Baseball statistic since 1969. The MLB rulebook states the following about saves:

Rule 10.20
Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:
(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and
(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and
(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
– (a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or
– (b) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batsmen he faces; or
– (c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than one save may be credited in each game.

Over time, the top long relief pitchers have evolved into the one-inning specialists that we see in 9th innings during “save” situations. A lot of credit is given to today’s closers because the last three outs of the game are usually considered the hardest three to get. Thus, a big attitude and a big arm are their primary choice of weapons.

However, closers haven’t always been the one-inning flash and flair shows that they have grown to become today. Using the save leader from each team in the league, the average closer made his appearances in the beginning of the 9th inning 10% of the time in the 1970s. Contrast that with nearly two-thirds of the time by 2004.1

Tony La Russa is usually credited as the innovator of the position of closer, making Dennis Eckersley the first relief pitcher to be used almost exclusively during 9th inning save situations. Long before modern-day closers started to emerge in the 1990s, closers used to pitch multiple innings to earn a save where as in today’s games closers on average will pitch a mere three outs or around 20-30 pitches to earn a save while also usually being the largest paid relief pitcher on the team. The position of closer has slowly changed to where the best reliever is reserved for times when their team has a lead of three runs or fewer  in the 9th inning instead of pitching during tight, game saving situations.

Mariano Rivera

Writer Jim Caple once wrote that closer’s saves in the ninth “merely conclude what is usually a foregone conclusion.” One-run leads after eight innings have been won roughly 85% of the time, two run leads 94% of the time, and three run leads about 96% of the time.2 So why does best pitcher on the team pitch the easiest outs in the game? What makes the last three batters the hardest?

Baseball Prospectus projects that teams could gain as much as four extra wins per year by bringing their ace reliever into the game earlier in more critical situations with runners on base.3 Modern managers have been making things as easy as they can for their closers, allowing them to pad their stats and their wallets without having to do more work than other relievers. All-time greats Eckersley, Rivera, and Trevor Hoffman worked in only the 9th inning more than 95% of the time which certainly was not the case with the earlier workhorses from the ’70s. Rollie Fingers pitched only the 9th inning a mere 65.4% of the time. Goose Gossage came in to start the 9th in 72.9% of his saves, and Bruce Sutter in 80.5%,4 all well below recent closers.5 Often cited as the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera only had one save of seven or more outs, whereas Gossage racked up 53 total saves of 7 or more outs from 72’-94’,6 making today’s one inning saves seem a lot easier than what they used to be. No matter how you look at it, the earlier trio had to work harder for their saves then the one-inning fireballers of today.

So it’s top of the 9th, there’s no one on base and the bottom of the order is coming up, and you can plan to not expect much as you have a three run lead at the end of the night,who gets the ball now? Mariano, Hoffman or Papelbon? Or maybe now you’ll think about it and hand the ball off to someone else saving your best guy to dig you out of the tightest spots and possibly “save” the game? The one-inning guys of today are fun to watch with many being extremely talented at what they do usually becoming the most recognizable guys out of the pen, but does that make them the most important pitcher on the team? In my opinion you can keep Mariano for one inning each game, but I’ll take Rollie Fingers for three or more any day.


  1. Baseball Prospectus pg. 60 

  2. Jim’s Article on closers 

  3. Baseball Prospectus pg. 72-73 

  4. All hall of famers 

  5. Schechter, Gabriel. “A closer look” 

  6. Rosen, Charlie (2011). Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 213.ISBN 978-0-06-200598-4 

About the author: Hayden Theodorakis