One of the first columns I ever wrote, many years ago, was something about the way major league managers refused to break the sacred "closer commandments." I think it featured a lot of "Thou Shalt Not" phrases that seemed clever at the time.
I'm convinced that, eventually, managers will eliminate the position of "closer" and simply use various combinations of relievers to close out games based solely on the situation. But that time is certainly not now. Think about it.
You're a major league manager. Your team holds a slim lead heading into the ninth inning. What do you do?
If it was the sixth inning, you would simply stick with whoever had pitched the fifth if he had done a good job. If it was the seventh or eighth, you would consider leaving in the previous pitcher and then you would situationally mix and match against each successive batter, relying on statistics and probability to dictate whether to go to the left-handed reliever against the left-handed hitter, etc.
But it's the ninth. So it's a stupid question.
Today's manager does not carefully consider all options when it comes to the above scenario. He simply brings in his closer, giving it about as much thought as he would give to putting on his cap.
It's simple. If a team leads by one, two, or three runs in the ninth inning, it's closer time. Even if someone else just pitched a 1-2-3 eighth. Even if the closer is a righty and three consecutive lefties are due up. Even if the closer has been struggling.
(At one time, closers came in to put out fires - hence the old nickname "firemen" - but today's closer almost never enters prior to the ninth, even if it's the key moment of the game, and he rarely enters in the middle of any inning.)
The save is the most overrated statistic in all of sports. Major League Baseball teams score, on average, just over four runs per game. That means, on average, they post a run in just under every other inning. The majority of innings are scoreless.
So, chances are, no matter who is pitching for the other team, a club will not rally to win a game in the ninth inning. Given a lead, particularly a lead of two or three runs, and a bases-empty situation to start the ninth, any pitcher should be able to hold on most of the time. Relying on the same reliever to close out every game is starting to feel as outdated as allowing starting pitchers to go the full nine.
Which brings us to Orioles closer Jim Johnson. He is not an All-Star despite being the major league leader in saves with 32. Nor should he be.
This is not particularly an indictment of Johnson, who is not having anywhere near the type of year he had last year but is still a perfectly fine and dependable pitcher. Nor is it an indictment of Orioles manager Buck Showalter, one of the best in the game. It's just a continuing indictment of what the position of closer has become.
Through Friday night, when he came on with a three-run lead in the ninth and threw one pitch to earn yet another save, Johnson had entered 38 games in save situations this year (all statistics courtesy baseball-reference.com). He had earned saves on 32 occasions, true, but also had a major-league high of six blown saves.
Only eight of Johnson's 32 saves had come in a one-run situation. He had gone 8-for-12 when entering with a one-run lead, 11-for-12 with a two-run lead, 10-for-11 with a three-run lead, and 3-0 with a four-run lead (and the tying run either at the plate, on deck or in the hole).
Six may not sound like a lot of blown saves in all those opportunities, but consider that 21 other closers began play Saturday on pace for 30 saves. On average, they had 2.5 blown saves. In fact, seven of the 11 pitchers with at least 22 saves had blown two or fewer (including Oakland's Grant "24-for-24" Balfour). Again, every team has a closer. And every closer is successful most of the time.
That Johnson would regress a bit after his remarkable 2012 campaign is not a surprise. He had 51 saves in 54 opportunities. But his strikeout rate (5.4 per nine innings) was quite low for a closer, meaning he allowed many more balls to put into play than the likes of Fernando Rodney or Craig Kimbrel.
However, teams batted just .254 against him on balls put in play. That meant two things. First, he was pitching well, getting a lot of routine grounders and keeping the ball in the park. Second, he was lucky, because on average throughout MLB, batters hit .297 on balls put in play last season.
This season, the opposition is hitting .311 against him on balls put in play. That also means two things. First, he's not pitching nearly as well, allowing a lot more hard-hit balls that not even the best fielding team in baseball can track down. Second, he's been a little unlucky because MLB hitters are batting .296 on balls put in play this season.
None of this means Johnson should lose his job - even though the truth is half the pitchers on the staff could do a more than passable job considering many of the top closers in history were failed or converted starters - it simply means putting in Johnson to start the ninth inning shouldn't be a reflex move. (It should never be a reflex move for any manager.)
If Tommy Hunter blows away the opposition in the eighth inning, perhaps he should start the ninth. (Showalter actually did this against the Yankees a few weeks ago and it worked out quite well.)
If Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz are due up in the ninth, perhaps southpaws Brian Matusz or Troy Patton should start the ninth.
And, in the unlikely event that a starting pitcher has gotten through eight innings, pitching well, it is still within the rules to let said starter try for a complete game.
None of this would be disrespecting Johnson, it would simply be trying to come up with the best way to get three outs. That's what managers do in every other inning. At least until they have to start faithfully following the "closer commandments."