First Pitch: Everything That is Wrong With the Closer Position

There was a big situation in tonight’s game that pretty much summed up all of my feelings about what is wrong with the closer’s role. The Pirates had a comfortable 8-4 lead in the seventh inning. Then Jared Hughes and Tony Watson combined to give up three runs while recording zero outs, making the score 8-7.

Watson was pulled and Brad Lincoln was brought in with two runners on. Lincoln responded with two key strikeouts and a fly out to escape the jam and preserve the lead. The Pirates scored three runs in the top half of the eighth, adding some insurance and gaining back their four run lead.

Jason Grilli preserved the four run lead in the eighth. The Pirates carried that four run lead in to the ninth inning, where Joel Hanrahan came on in a non-save situation. Hanrahan pitched a scoreless inning, allowing just one walk, and the Pirates took the game 11-7.

To recap, the Pirates used their best reliever to get through an inning where they had a four run lead. They also used their second best reliever an inning earlier to preserve another four run lead. But with the bullpen falling apart, the other team gaining momentum, and the tying and go ahead runs on base with no outs, the Pirates opted to leave their best guys in the bullpen, all because you can’t use your best guys prior to the 8th and 9th innings, even if your lead might not make it to those innings.

Lincoln has been outstanding in the bullpen this year, and tonight was just another key example. He’s looking like a closer candidate in the future. Unfortunately, that means he’ll be limited to ninth inning duties, and the Pirates will have to find someone as good as Lincoln to handle all of those key situations that a closer can’t participate in, all because they come before the ninth inning.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Phillies 11-7. Kristy Robinson’s notebook looks at the three key homers, plus the key relief appearance by Brad Lincoln.

**Prospect Watch: Home Runs Hurt Taillon; Hanson Leaves Game.

**Live game reports: Indianapolis, West Virginia, State College.

**Pirates Claim Oscar Tejeda, DFA Doug Slaten.

**Shairon Martis was traded to the Twins.

**Gerrit Cole Shows No Signs of Concussion.

**Clint Hurdle feels the mentality is different this year.

**Surveying the National League: Part 2 of 2.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Matt Clements

    I have read several articles recently about this topic. Why does the entire league buy into this? It makes zero sense.

    • john.alcorn

      The limiting factor here is human psychology. There is a mountain of anecdotal evidence that bullpens function better with defined roles. The Red Sox tried to challenge this about 7 or 8 years ago and suffered disastrous results. It just works better when each guy has a defined job to do. On paper it makes sense to use guys as the situation dictates, but in practice it doesn’t work. There’s a reason that even the most forward thinking teams like the Rays still use a structured format. They figured out that just about any guy can close, but they still designate roles.

      • Marcus J

        Exactly. Defined roles help you survive a 162 game season. Not only does it help the players with their mindset it also helps prevent burning individual bullpen arms up. Without defined roles it makes collectively managing the pen more difficult. For a long season collectively managing the pen is a greater priority than managing individual instances. In the playoffs any manager worth his salt will alter this strategy and shorten his pen.

      • Tim Williams

        Right now they have defined roles. All I’m saying is that instead of using Lincoln in that situation, the Pirates use Hanrahan. And that’s not just last night. That’s all the time. Whatever Lincoln’s defined role is, give that to Hanrahan. Then give someone else the defined role of pitching in the ninth inning. Nothing changes here, except your best reliever isn’t limited to the 9th inning, and can be used in a more important situation.

        • john.alcorn

          Gotcha, I’m all for not having your best reliever being limited to the closer. In an ideal world your best RH and best LH would be the setup guys to work the 7th and 8th as needed. Then you would have your 3rd best guy work the 9th with a clean slate (no one base).

        • Richard Ya’Zhynka


    • wtmiller

      If we’re talking psychology, this is a good starting point. There’s all sorts of data that shows that people simply don’t like making decisions. It’s easier for a manager to go on autopilot and reflexively put reliever A in for the 8th inning and reliever B for the 9th. No decisions to make that way.

  • Lee Young

    I remember clearly Face and Tekulve coming into a game in the 7th and finishing the game.

    Another problem with pitching today is the starters are geared to only go 6. Remember what AJ said about JMac….that he was happy having gone 6. AJ had to encourage him to go more innings.

    • wtmiller

      A lot of years, Teke’s role wasn’t all that defined. Not only did he frequently pitch more than an inning, but Enrique Romo and Grant Jackson often got save ops. Jackson had 28 saves during a 3-year period when Teke was ostensibly the closer, with a high of 14 in 1979.

  • John Lease

    Eventually a manager will go back to using guys the way they used to, when they needed them. Anyone should be able to mop up a 4 run lead.

  • Murray Passarieu

    I totally agree. The closer position is a scam concocted by the union and the players to get huge contracts for guys that go one inning. I wish I could convince my employer to just let me work one quality hour per day where I really give it my all.

  • burgh_fan

    I agree with what your saying in theory but in practice it might not work that way. It appears what you are saying is the 7th inning in last night’s game was the time teams should use their closer. Thats good in theory but its possible the pitchers who are closers aren’t good with coming in with runners on base. If your closer was an extreme ground ball pitcher or just a pitch to contact guy you don’t bring him into that situation.

    The highest pressure situations are theoretically the best time for your best relievers but in practice more has to be considered.

  • Tim Williams

    If closers can’t come in with runners on base (high pressure situations), then closers shouldn’t be the best paid relievers in the game. If you’re only expected to come in and pitch one inning in the ninth, with no runners on and a 1-3 run lead, then why is the closer role that important?

  • leadoff

    Then Jared Hughes and Tony Watson combined to give up three runs while recording zero outs, making the score 8-7.

    Is not a good example of using best pitchers. If the defense would have made simple plays they would have gotten the job done in the seventh inning without Lincoln, then Grilli and Hanrahan would have finished the game off in normal fashion. As Grilli said when he had to close a game, it is a different feeling trying to close than pitching any other inning. IMO, the eighth and ninth innings are the toughest to pitch in baseball, what I would do is pitch the best bullpen pitcher I have against the prime part of the batting order, whether it be the eighth or ninth inning, I think the the heart of the order is harder to get out in the eighth inning than the bottom part of the lineup in the ninth inning.

  • Tim Williams

    I agree with what you said about the defense. Had they done their job, it wouldn’t have been necessary to bring in Lincoln. But what happened, happened. Lincoln did have to come in. And that’s a situation where they need their best reliever.

    As for the “heart of the order” comments, I agree. We’ve seen that many times where the 8th inning guy has a tough three outs, while the closer gets the bottom of the order.

  • Jeffrey Bobeck

    The all-time example of this was Rollie Fingers, who routinely threw two innings and often didn’t “close” the game. In perhaps his best season (1974) he made 75 appearances, finished 59, and was credited with a “save” for only 24. To the point of “defined roles”: Maybe there’s a middle ground. You could keep the “closer” role for the classic 9th inning save situations, but additionally annoint a fireman like Lincoln who, when brought in in the 7th, would be EXPECTED to go at least two, and finish if possible. 162 games is a long season, there are enough situations to created enough defined roles to keep people happy (and win games).

  • Tim Williams

    That’s one thing I don’t understand. Right now Bryan Morris is used to going 2-3 innings per relief appearance. But when he comes to the majors he’ll only throw one inning. 2-3 innings at a time would lead to high innings counts, but as a former starter, that’s something Morris is used to.
    I don’t think relievers should go multiple innings every time out. But I don’t understand why some don’t do it more often. You see it when a team is losing, but you rarely see it when a team is ahead.

  • HamburgBucco

    Hi Tim,
    any chance we will find a team willing to trade us a decent hitter for a closer like Hanrahan ? And when will we see the return of the weekly chat ?