It’s a wonder we ever see a ninth-inning comeback. The men who man the position of closer have pretty much shortened baseball games from nine innings to eight. There were so many overpowering closers this season that scratching out a base hit against them was cause for doing a jig, and actually scoring a run off them meant someone should buy you a cake.
Relievers’ numbers boggle the mind. In 2012, we saw someone notching 50 saves and others with earned run averages under 1.00. The deck just seems to be stacked against hitters facing a fresh arm that can throw 95 mph. In their one at-bat against the relievers, the hitters basically don’t have any time to figure out a weakness. If there is one and generally speaking there is not a weakness among the best closers, from Baltimore’s Jim Johnson to Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, from Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman to Tampa Bay’s Fernando Rodney.
Let’s deal with saves first, since that is the object of the game for a closer, to save, preserve, protect his team’s lead. It’s one thing to surrender a hit or a run, but it’s a Major League sin to blow a save. Do it more than a few times and either you are throwing in middle relief, instead, or you are unemployed.
Baltimore, which took things down to the last day of the regular season before losing the American League East Division title to the Yankees, has counted on Johnson perhaps more than any other team has relied on its closer. He had 51 saves. The record for saves in a season is 62, held by Francisco Rodriguez, set in 2008 with the Angels. Bobby Thigpen’s 57 saves for the White Sox in 1990 was the record for a long time.
Just reading the box scores day-to-day it seemed to me that a zillion guys were accumulating a large number of saves this year. Sure enough, I counted 12 closers with at least 35 saves. Johnson is tops with his 51. Then comes Rodney with 48, Kimbrel with 42, Rafael Soriano of the Yankees with 42 and St. Louis’ Jason Motte with 42, Chris Perez of the Indians with 39, Jonathan Papelbon of the Phillies with 38 and Chapman of the Reds with 38. Joe Nathan of Texas had 37, Joel Hanrahan of the Pirates had 36, and John Axford of the Brewers and Jose Valverde of the Tigers each had 35.
A few observations: No one had more pressure to perform than Soriano, forced into replacing the all-time saves leader in Mariano Rivera when he went out for the season with an injury. Rodney finished with an ERA of 0.60. Kimbrel’s was 1.02. Chapman’s was 1.51. The other thing about Chapman is his stunning strikeout percentage. He had 122 Ks in 71 2/3 innings. The Red Sox let Papelbon walk in free agency and although his new team, the Phillies, had a dismal campaign, he did his job.
One misleading thing about some good closers is their earned run average. By pitching only an inning at a time, any time they have a bad outing giving up a few runs, haunts them. A closer can be perfect eight times in a row, but if he has one really bad day when he gives up five runs, his ERA will pay for it for weeks, if not months. This means that many of the closers with 35-plus saves, but so-so earned run averages, are just as good as the near-perfect ones. It’s just that they had one hugely lousy inning somewhere along the line.
Of the 12 closers with at least 35 saves, Johnson, Chapman, Kimbrel, Nathan, Motte, Soriano and Valverde will be competing in the playoffs one inning at a time. As the post-season beckons, it is fairly obvious that no team can hope to win a pennant or the World Series without a nearly untouchable closer. Plenty of other relievers, as well, set-up men and middle innings guys, will play important roles in determining which team is baseball’s next champion.