Tuesday, September 5
By Chris Kahrl
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) will be writing twice a week for ESPN.com. You can check out more of their work at their web site at baseballprospectus.com.
It's always an uncomfortable subject, tackling the birds and the bees. Parents dread being asked the question before they know what they're going to say, and dread even more having to craft an explanation for something that seemed so simple, so easy to explain once upon a time, but now seems a lot more complicated thanks to this crazy mixed-up world we live in. So ask yourself, what will you say when Junior beats you to the punch and asks, "Where do closers come from?"
You don't have to dig very far to get a story from a manager about how his closer never gets rattled by anything, how he has a guy with special talent for finishing the game. But what if closing isn't a talent at all, but just the art of taking the mound when asked and pitching effectively? Intuitively, we believe that players in the minor leagues are taught about hitting or fielding or how to use their pitches more effectively.
Players who are successful major-league starters started off as good minor-league starters, and players who are successful major-league hitters usually hit in the minors. So closers learn to close in the minors, right? What if closing wasn't just a high-profile counting stat, but an actual skill? Wouldn't you want to develop it? If repetition through at-bats or innings pitched is the way to hone your craft in the minors, shouldn't the closers of tomorrow be closing in Oneonta or San Antonio or Tacoma?
I don't take the proposition at all seriously, and I'll probably never be able to do justice to the argument for why closers have to do something different from any other reliever who has to protect a lead in a major-league ballgame.
Consider the 49 pitchers who logged 30 saves in a season from 1990 to 1999 (assuming for the moment that 30 saves is the benchmark for closer effectiveness). Where did these guys come from, and who were they? Is there a particular career trajectory that just screams out to organizations and fans that "this guy will be a great closer"?
Of the pitchers who logged a 30-save season during the 1990s, exactly four were no-doubt-about-it, drafted and developed from day one as closers. Two of them, Mike Henneman and Gregg Olson, were high draft picks out of college. Henneman was picked by the Tigers in 1984, and Olson logged all of 16 minor-league appearances after being picked in the first round in 1988 by the Orioles. They seem pretty cut and dried: pitchers who were supposed to be ace relievers all along.
Among the other 30-save guys of the '90s, only two were unambiguously relievers, Trevor Hoffman and Troy Percival. Hoffman was an 11th-round draft pick by the Reds in 1989 ... as a shortstop, after playing at the University of Arizona. This wasn't a situation where he was drafted to be converted, either. Hoffman was playing shortstop every day in Rookie ball after being drafted. Percival was initially a catcher, but like Hoffman, he was pitching within two years of being drafted as a position player.
Four out of 49? Isn't there a little bit of wiggle room? Yes, there is. Several of the others pitched briefly as starters, making a few starts in Class A (usually to get in regular work), but generally speaking, the expectation was that these guys were going to be relief pitchers. In this group, we've got Rob Dibble (22 minor-league starts), Tom Henke (18 starts in more than 230 minor-league games), Bryan Harvey (seven starts as a first-year pro), Mark Wohlers (31 minor-league starts), Matt Mantei (all of his starts were in the Arizona League), Ricky Bottalico (a career-high 11 starts for Spartanburg in 1992), Mike Timlin (no minor-league starts after his first two years) and Kerry Ligtenberg (who only started in the Northern League, although that is where he caught the Braves' attention). This group of eight guys were pretty much being angled towards relief work very early in their careers.
But that leaves 36 of our 49 closers -- almost three-quarters of the group -- who made their way through the minors as starting pitchers, moved to closing because they struggled as starters or eventually fell into the role. While it's undoubtedly self-serving to lump Dennis Eckersley, a closer who had enjoyed a successful major-league career as a starter before turning to closing, with guys like Roberto Hernandez or Rod Beck or Steve Farr or Mike Schooler, the fact is these guys were all starting in Double-A and Triple-A and even the majors, and the expectation and the organizational goal for each of them was that they were going to be starting pitchers.
It's interesting to note that some of the 36 closers on the list were successful starters in the minors. Jeff Reardon went 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA in Double-A back in 1978, at which point the Mets converted him to relief. Now maybe they were tackling the issue of finding a closer by converting a viable starter prospect, but at the time, their rotation was in worse shape than their bullpen. Lee Smith was a starter in the Cubs' organization, back when the Cubs were the nursery for a whole passel of future closing stars, from Bruce Sutter to Bill Caudill to Guillermo Hernandez to Donnie Moore and later the Eck. (This was the stretch of time where the answer to "Where do closers come from?" was a simple, "the Cubs.".
All-time left-handed saves leader John Franco was a starter in the minors, as was the Wild Thing, Mitch Williams, and the Astros' Billy Wagner. (You'll find a complete list of the 36 at the bottom of the page.) Go further back from the '90s, and you'll find that great closers like Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage usually started off as starters, too.
In these cases, sometimes there are issues of durability (like Steve Karsay or Jason Isringhausen today), and sometimes there are questions of need that force converting a talented young starter (Billy Wagner never made a relief appearance until he made the major leagues, for example). But the key point to note is that closers come from starting pitchers.
The one guy among the 49 who makes this something more than just shooting the fish I've put into this barrel, the guy I've intentionally skipped, is the Blue Jays' Billy Koch. Koch starred as a starter at Clemson, and all of his minor-league games coming up through the Blue Jays' organization were as a starter. Yet at no point did the Blue Jays consider Koch a starting pitcher at the major-league level. The Jays said they wanted to groom him to be their closer from the point they picked him in the first round in 1996, and nothing, not elbow surgery nor a decent season as a starter in Dunedin in 1998, stopped him from becoming their closer.
Koch could be the front edge of a new tack in player development, perhaps in acknowledgment of or overreaction to most closers' roots as starters. If nothing else, the Blue Jays' development of Koch is a pretty clear example of an organization turning a blind eye to the instructional value of the minors. They let Koch concentrate on getting people out and get good at it, instead of locking him into the dubious learning experience of closing games in Knoxville.
Another question is what to do with somebody like Keith Foulke? Foulke was a good minor-league starter who has been an outstanding major-league reliever, and he will probably log 30 saves this season. But Foulke also has command of four pitches, and if you ask him if he'd like to start again, he's going to tell you yes, but that he'll do whatever the club wants him to do.
While I'd like to believe he's going to get that chance someday, as long as teams and agents believe closers are fundamental building blocks for a successful team, worth millions of dollars, how many pitchers would really be willing to skip the guaranteed millions for something they've already proven they can do for something they think they'd like to do? When the financial disincentives are this strong, it's worth wondering if the major leagues aren't being shortchanged on starting pitching because of the popularity of the save, a stat that measures opportunity without necessarily describing talent.
30-save closers in the 1990s who came up as starters in the minors: John Wetteland, Randy Myers, Dennis Eckersley, Rick Aguilera, Lee Smith, Rod Beck, John Franco, Roberto Hernandez, Jeff Montgomery, Robb Nen, Jeff Shaw, Jeff Russell, Doug Jones, Mariano Rivera, Jose Mesa, Todd Worrell, Bobby Thigpen, Billy Wagner, Mike Jackson, Mitch Williams, Ugueth Urbina, Todd Jones, Jeff Reardon, Mel Rojas, Heathcliff Slocumb, Jeff Brantley, Steve Farr, Mike Fetters, Bob Wickman, Tom Gordon, Duane Ward, Dave Veres, Billy Taylor, Dave Righetti, John Rocker, Mike Schooler.
30-save closers in the 1990s who came up as relievers: Gregg Olson, Mike Henneman, Troy Percival, Trevor Hoffman, Rob Dibble, Tom Henke, Bryan Harvey, Mark Wohlers, Matt Mantei, Ricky Bottalico, Mike Timlin, Kerry Ligtenberg.
Special case: Billy Koch.
Chris Kahrl may be reached at email@example.com.
|Trevor Hoffman is one of the few closers who didn't start in the minors.|