On Finishing the Game

With the recent failures of the team’s closer, Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals have decided to go with the notorious closer-by-committee. According to Manny Acta, “Probably most of the duties will be handled by Wells and Tavarez up until Beimel comes back, and then we’ll put him in the mix. Depending on how things go this week, he might end up being the guy.” Of course for fantasy baseball players, this is a disaster. No one player to get the saves means none of those guys are that valuable. But for sabermetrician types, and for baseball in general, this could be a big deal. Especially if Manny decides to simply never name a closer.

The idea is that rather than designating someone to close out games, you designate someone as your “relief ace.” It’s a Bill Jamesian idea, the concept is you put your best reliever in the highest leverage situation. Obviously, you don’t know in the 7th inning if there were be tougher times ahead. But the idea is that if you are the Phillies, the bases are loaded in the 7th with two outs and you’re up by 1 or 2 runs with Adam Dunn coming to the plate, you’d put in Brad Lidge. He’s most likely to keep you in the game so you even have a chance to win it in the 9th. He can probably pitch the 8th as well, but then someone else would close out the game. It is alleged that the Red Sox tried it out a few years ago, but in fact they simply didn’t have a closer named. Employing a relief ace makes sense, it’s when the game is often truly decided, but it’s hard for a manager to make such a drastic change. Imagine the newspaper articles that would be written if that happened and they lost a game in the 9th after being ahead.

Of course, it’s not actually a futuristic Bill James idea, and it’s not actually new. It’s the way baseball used to be played. Some familiar names weren’t traditional closers – although they ended up finishing games and getting saves – but were brought in when they were most needed: Hoyt Wilhelm, Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, Firpo Marberry and many others. If you want to see how relievers turned into closers, check out this article at the Hardball Times. Back when pitchers weren’t so coddled, team aces like Walter Johnson made relief appearances when needed.

Acta has a chance to do something like a relief ace because he doesn’t have a closer. So he can bring guys in situationally, and just keep saying that he doesn’t have anyone he thinks is a closer. Meanwhile, assuming the role gets uesd more traditionally, John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus, thinks Kip Wells could be best suited for the role. He says:

This is my darkhorse for the Nationals‘ closer: Kip Wells. His results have never matched his stuff as a closer and a lot of times many pitchers who fit that profile wind up being good closers for a time. Eric Gagne is a prime example.

Regardless of who gets the saves, I’d love to see Manny do something like the relief ace. Not so much because I think Bill James is right (although I find it hard to argue with), but because it would be cool to see it tried for real. And who knows, maybe it would change the way relievers are used.

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