Things are not going well for Francisco Rodriguez. He’s allowed 12 runs in 11.2 innings and he has a 159 FIP-. He has five meltdowns already (appearances with -6% WPA). He’s given up runs in eight of his 13 outings, including five runs against nine batters in two blown games over the weekend. His grip on the closer’s role is precarious to say the least. Brad Ausmus, king of having confidence in his closer, no longer has confidence in his closer. The press is circling the wagons. You can feel a change coming, and the obvious candidate is Justin Wilson who has allowed just eight base runners in 13.2 innings this season.
At this moment, the question the Tigers brass are asking is whether they should replace K-Rod with Wilson. Demoting the closer is a big deal in the modern game. Once you say it out loud, you can’t put it back. So the Tigers are proceeding with caution, but you can feel it coming. Do we replace the closer?
But I want to suggest another path: Don’t.
You initial reaction might be, “but K-Rod is pitching very poorly, we can’t keep putting him into crucial situations?” to which I would reply that you’re absolutely correct. The Tigers should stop giving all the save chances to K-Rod, but they should also decline to name a new closer and should resist the urge to simply replace one failed closer with a bright, shiny new closer. Now is the moment to give up on the closer role entirely.
I’ve been harping on this generally for years, but let me hit some highlights. First, saves are stupid. They are artificially constructed and not a measure of anything particularly important. You can rack up a bunch of saves without pitching that well if you’re coming into games with the bases empty and a three run lead. Conversely, you don’t get saves for getting out of big jams if you happen to do so an inning or two early.
Second, being a slave to the save leads managers to pigeonhole their best reliever into an inefficient role. The ninth inning is the most important inning in some games, but it’s not the most important inning in every game. Sometimes the game is on the line in the 7th or 8th and if you have a closer whose job it is to get saves, you won’t use them in these earlier situations.
Teams would be much better off if managers would be willing to deploy their relievers in the right spots, based on matchup/leverage/etc rather than rigid inning-based roles.
Now the naysayers will tell you that relievers thrive when they’re given a specific role because it helps them prepare. Yet there are two key flaws in this logic. The first flaw is that you can give relievers defined roles without one of those roles being the arbitrary “save situation.” Even if you think lining guys up ahead of time is beneficial, there are better ways to do it. But the second flaw is more compelling. Relievers spend their early careers being used in all sorts of roles until they wind up “sticking” in their 7th, 8th, or 9th inning roles. The system is backwards because it sorts the best relievers into rigid roles while giving the worst relievers no structure. The best relievers should be the ones who can handle some uncertainty in their deployment because they have the experience and talent to handle it.
And the entire concept of roles is foolish more broadly. I don’t doubt that relievers like having a target in mind for when they’re going to pitch, but I refuse to believe elite competitors are so fragile that they can’t handle that target moving around depending on the situation. Instead of having a “closer,” you could communicate to your pitchers before the game that they are likely to be used in a particular spot, such as “the first sign of trouble” or the “first clean inning after we pull the starter.” “We’ll use you in the 8th or 9th if it’s within two runs.” I appreciate the idea that pitchers like to get into their pre-appearance mindset in a certain way, but these are grown men who are capable of handling a little uncertainly. All it takes is some good communication between them and the manager.
For all these reasons, teams should abandon the concept of a closer and relievers who have certain innings. Teams should deploy relievers based on who the best available player is at any given time. But this week I came up with another reason that make a lot of sense. If you don’t have a closer, you don’t have this defining moment where the manager has to announce that he’s demoting his relief ace to a lesser role. It sure seems like it would be a lot better for everyone involved if Ausmus could casually give K-Rod fewer high leverage innings rather than having to officially announce a change. If Ausmus was sometimes using K-Rod in the 9th but also using the Wilsons quite often, it wouldn’t be a big deal to push K-Rod down the pecking order. If all the pitchers were sharing different innings depending on the exact conditions, you wouldn’t have all this pressure on K-Rod to keep his job and the constant questioning about whether Brad believes in him.
I don’t think the Tigers will actually adopt this mindset, but it’s definitely time. It’s a more efficient way to deploy your relievers and it seems a lot easier to handle struggling pitchers when you don’t this big production about whether they’ve been bounced from their role or not. I’m assuming Justin Wilson will get the next save chance for the Tigers, but we’d all be a lot better off if he didn’t get all of the save chances going forward.