October 14, 2008

The Age of the Closer?

Remember the long ball?

Yeah…it wasn’t THAT long ago that “chicks dug the long ball” and freaks of nature like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds graced the cover of every sports magazine across the country.

As of late, we’re seeing more and more of Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera than their slugging counterparts. We’ve seen both K-Rod and Trevor Hoffman as the lead story on SportsCenter a few times.

Heck…three of the last five Hall of Fame induction ceremonies have included closers!

We’re living in the “Age of the Closer”, gang…get used to it.

Hoffman’s 554 saves have become the pitching equivalent of Bonds’ 762 round trippers. K-Rod’s 62 saves earned him a nightly countdown on ESPN akin to homerun chase of 1998.

Pretty impressive stuff until you think about it.

I mean, Lee Smith (the former all-time saves leader) wasn’t exactly Hank Aaron on the mound and Bobby Thigpen (the former record holder for saves in a season) was no match for the mythos of Roger Maris. And let’s face it…closing out a 4-2 game still isn’t as sexy as knocking one out of the park and winning that same game 5-4, right?

But regardless of the recent balloon in saves, it isn’t like they’re growing on trees.

Allow me break it down.

One of the most celebrated numbers in the game is 500 home runs and there are 24 players who have eclipsed that total. Give the average baseball fan a few minutes and he can name a number of them. On the other side of the coin are the 23 pitchers with 300 or more wins.

Both are MILESTONE numbers! You get to those numbers and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that would disagree with your Hall of Fame credentials.

So what is the equivalent for the closer? Is there one?

Recently, I had the privilege to talk with former Major Leaguer and member of the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame Jeff Montgomery and he shared some insight on that very topic (and a few others)…what is the milestone for closers?

“300 saves used to be the milestone mark when closers were two or three inning guys but 400 will be the new mark as most good closers will reach the 40 save per year mark even on mediocre teams,” Montgomery said.

He’s right.

As recent as 1994 (when Goose Gossage threw his last pitch), there were only five closers that had eclipsed that magic number of 300 saves. Currently, there are 21 pitchers with 300 or more career saves with Montgomery being one of them with 304.

“The fact that managers started using closers as ninth inning specialists in the late 80’s and early 90’s (as LaRussa did with Eckersley) with so much success has allowed season save numbers to escalate dramatically.”

But will this inflate the number of closers in Cooperstown and will it make people look at the accomplishments of Rollie Fingers, Goose and Bruce Sutter and wonder why they are enshrined?

“Not really,” Montgomery responded. “The one great year will not get anyone any votes for the Hall…Goose and company were established, long term dominant relief pitchers.”

So who gets in?

“I think Lee Smith should be considered for the Hall as well as John Franco. Obviously Rivera and Hoffman will get in with their totals both being north of 500 at their retirement and (that) should help Smith and Franco’s cases for election. If (Billy) Wagner returns and surpasses the 400 mark he should be considered also.”

Smith is at 478 and held the all-time saves mark for thirteen years, but so far…the most support he’s gotten for induction to the Hall was this past year when he garnered 45%.

Franco is (quietly) fourth on the all-time list with 424, but more importantly, he has the most saves ever by a left hander and is one of three with more than 300. Add to that that he is second all-time in games finished (Smith is number one) and third all-time in games pitched…and you’ve got a serious contender for induction in 2011.

After that, it’s a crapshoot since there is going to be some tough competition out there sucking up Hall of Fame votes and only time will tell what the magic number (if there is one) ends up being for relievers to get their piece of the pie.


***Jeff Montgomery played thirteen seasons in the Majors…twelve of them with the Kansas City Royals. He is a three time All-Star, a member of the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame and their all-time leader in games pitched, games finished and saves. “Monty” resides in the Kansas City area and lends his expertise to Sports Radio 810 WHB-AM.***


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1 comment:

E said...

"...and will it make people look at the accomplishments of Fingers, Goose and Sutter and wonder why they are enshrined?"

I already wonder why Sutter is enshrined.