On Saturday night, Jason Grilli came out of the Pirates’ bullpen and struck out the side of the Braves’ lineup, one of the top offensive squads in the National League.  It took me back to a conversation last fall that I had with some folks.

Other Pirate fan: “I hear the Pirates are going to trade Joel Hanrahan.”

Me: “Yeah.  Looks like it’s going to be to the Red Sox.”

Other Pirate fan, slightly perturbed: “Why do the Pirates trade all their good players?”

Me: “Well, Hanrahan was showing signs of slipping last year.  Plus he’s going to make about $7 million in arbitration…”

Other Pirate fan, face growing red: “$7 MILLION?!  NUTTING IS TOO CHEAP TO KEEP THE HAMMER?!?  HE’S A PROVEN CLOSER™!!!”

Me: “Mark Melancon is pretty good.  He was the closer for the Astros in 2011…”

Other Pirate fan, veins pulsating on forehead: “THE ASTROS?!?  THEY SUCK!!”

Me: “Yeah, but the Yankees were grooming Melancon to be Mariano’s successor….”

Other Pirate fan, speaking in tongues: “BLAHATHLKJGA$@!##!$”Me, slowly backing away: “………..”

Hanrahan ended up getting traded to the Red Sox (for Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan DeJesus, Jr.) and getting $7.05M in arbitration.  The Pirates were able to re-sign Jason Grilli to a 2 year deal worth $6.75M total, with his 2013 salary being $2.25M.  To date, Grilli has been nearly un-hittable with only 3 hits and 3 walks in 7 innings against 11 strikeouts.

If you have the chance to buy a product for $7 or a product of the same quality for $2.25, which would you choose?  Exactly.  What if you could have two of those lesser cost products for the cost of one $7 product?  Everyone likes getting 2 for the cost of one.  That’s why trading Joel Hanrahan, or any other reliever before they get too expensive in arbitration, makes sense.

Relievers are replaceable.  Relievers are only relievers because they are failed starters or didn’t have enough quality pitches to stick as starters.  Many were worried how Grilli would respond to becoming the closer, but he has been just as good (if not better) than Hanrahan has been the past 2 years. And when it is Grilli’s time to move on, Melancon should be able to step in and take over the position.

It’s not a matter of using the Dark Arts to create a closer.  You only need two things. First, you need one dominant pitch.  Second, you need a strong mental nature to be able to fail one night and come back the next ready to dominate. That’s it.  No eye of newt, lizard tail, waiting for the fourth moon of Saturn to eclipse Mars.  Most closers have a dominant pitch and an above-average second pitch, like Grilli’s fastball and his slider.  But some closers, like Rivera rely on just one — a perfectly executed cutter, but a closer like Trevor Hoffman relied on a change-up.  That’s like trying to rob a bank without a gun.

Closers are groomed, not conjured out of thin air.  The closer that many Pirate fans were lamenting the loss of last fall, Joel Hanrahan, was a failed closer when he was obtained as the second piece in the trade with the Washington Nationals back in 2009.  It’s hard to believe, but that trade was actually heralded as a Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge trade, with Sean Burnett and Joel Hanrahan as the secondary pieces.  At the trade he was traded here, Hanrahan had a 7.71 ERA and was replaced as the Nationals’ closer.  The Pitcher Whisperer, Ray Searage, counseled him and worked on his delivery, turning him into the dominant pitcher he became.

A typical closer will pitch between 60 to 70 innings per year.  Yet, because of the flawed notion that a Proven Closer™ is a necessity for a team to succeed, the closer position has been vastly overpaid in recent years.  My personal opinion is that no reliever should be paid more than $5M per year.  Any more than that is just over-allocating money to a position.  The Phillies decided they needed a Proven Closer™ a couple of years ago (rather than attempt to fill the position in-house and re-allocate the money elsewhere), so they signed Jonathan Papelbon to a 4 year/$50M deal and are paying him $13M this year.  Last year, Papelbon pitched 70 innings and earned $11M.  To put that in perspective, a top flight pitcher will give you 200 to 210 innings.  Extrapolating Papelbon’s salary to that would result in him being paid $33M last year as a starter.  All that money to just pitch 1 inning per game in less than half the games.  A team will pitch 1,458 innings per year, so why would you overspend for a player that pitches in just 4 to 5% of those innings?

The next great revolution in managing will be when a manager breaks away from the rote notion that the designated setup guy pitches the 8th inning and the Proven Closer™ pitches the 9th inning.  How many times have you seen a closer come in to the 9th inning with a 3 run lead (the maximum run differential in order to rack up the all-important save) only to face the 7th/8th/9th hitters in the batting order?  All the while the setup guy had to slog through the far more dangerous heart of the order in the previous inning.  If you’re paying big money to the closer, why wouldn’t you put him in the most high leverage situation to preserve the win?

The mindset is that if you use the Proven Closer™ earlier than the 9th inning, say in the 7th inning if the bases are loaded and your team is up by one run, you won’t have him around to finish the game off.  But that’s backwards thinking — if you have a lesser reliever lose the game in the 7th or 8th inning, there won’t be any game to save in the 9th inning. This isn’t to say to use the Proven Closer™ in the 5th inning — there’s still plenty of chances to come back on both sides of the dugouts — but rather to use your best reliever in the highest leverage situation in the later part of the game.  Stop being rigid and using The Book and start realizing that every game counts. If you lose it in the 7th inning it’s the same as blowing a save in the 9th inning.

The closer position has become a prestige position in baseball in the last 15 years or so, but it’s really just the last guy to throw the ball for your team.  It helps that he has a blazing fastball with movement plus a short-term memory for failure, but that’s it.  He’s just a guy.  And usually one that learned as an apprentice to the previous Proven Closer™ on the team.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Kevin Creagh

Steel City Buzz Pirate Blogger