The Closer Mystique

June 24, 2009 | Comments (0) | by Arcturus

Watching Kevin Gregg blow his third save of the year against the Tigers the other night got me thinking about closers. It seems to me that there are very few elite closers in the game, past and present. What makes an elite closer is something I like to call Closer Mystique, which I believe is made up of three elements, listed below in no particular order:

1. Reputation.
Don't underestimate the value of this factor. Much like the outlaws of the Old West, an elite closer generates a reputation throughout the majors. If the closer has a significant reputation, he's on the hitter's mind even before he throws a single pitch. This mindfuck often leads to desperation at the plate, enabling the elite closer to dispose of the hitter without even needing to make good pitches. Building a solid reputation takes time and perseverance. No one in the game has more of a reputation than Yankee's closer Mariano Rivera. He's been closing for the Yankees since the Bronze Age and while he's modified his technique to compensate for age, he remains one of the most effective closers in the game, his success enhanced by the rock solid reputation he's built as a stopper. Guys just expect to make outs against him when he pitches. Other pitchers whose reputation added to their success are Trevor Hoffman, Bruce Sutter, Rob Nen, and Eric Gagne (during his Dodger tenure).

2. Ability
This is pretty much common sense, but ability is an important factor, which itself has two elements, Velocity and Location. If you don't have the first, you better have the second. And without the second, it's unlikely that you're going to have a long career as an elite closer, even if you can throw the ball 100+MPH (See Farnsworth, Kyle). Most of your elite closers are going to be able to bring the heat. What distinguishes a closer from a middle reliever is the ability to not only pitch at high velocity, but to make good pitches. It's highly important that an elite closer keep his walks to a minimum, thus limiting the number of baserunners. Since closers usually pitch in tight games, this is crucial to maintaining the lead. There are guys (like the aforementioned Farnsworth) who can throw a fastball 100 MPH, but have no control over where it goes, or they leave it right over the plate, like Zumaya did for Hoffpauier the other night. So all the velocity in the world is useless without location. You can get by for a while on pure speed, but eventually a major league hitter is going to catch up to it and hit it a mile. There are only a few closers who have been able to get by with reduced speed, relying on location. Guys like Sweaty Joe Borowski, denzien of the backdoor slider, are rare and usually aren't successful beyond a season or two. Too be truly successful over multiple season, I truly believe you need a combination of velocity and location, perhaps best exemplified by Francisco Rodriguez. (It doesn't hurt that K-Rod also has his whiplash delivery, which helps befuddle the hitter even further). A few other closers with this perfect recipe of ability include Joakim Soria, Lee Smith, and Billy Wagner (when healthy). Add Carlos Marmol to this list when he's got his location working for him.

3. Mentality
Mentality can be broken down into two elements: Personality and Intensity. An elite closer has a personality very different than any other pitcher on the staff. He has the ability to come into the game with everything on the line, put it all out there on the field, and then come back the next day and do the same, regardless of the results. An elite closer cannot be afraid to lose games. Failure will happen, but the elite closer will refuse to acknowledge said failure and move on. There are no yesterdays when you're a closer. The good closers know this, the mediocre ones let failure get in their head and they flame out. A closer also has to have intensity. The best closers aren't just pitchers, but intimidators. They stare in at the plate with steely eyes and pitch not for the win, but for the kill. And they have to do this as many times as their manager will allow during a given week. The best closers have a fire unmatched by any other player on the field. The best example of mentality in action was the late Rod Beck. He stared in at the plate with a sniper's intensity, his twitching arm a further distraction for the hitter. The Shooter gave his all every single game and he refused to allow defeat to affect him. K-Rod, Mariano Rivera, and Bruce Sutter are all pitchers who show that intensity and disregard for losing that an elite closer must possess.

Thus we have what I believe to be the makeup of a great closer. I think if you have at least two of these elements, than you can close in the big leagues. If you have all three, you can be considered truly elite.