If you are playing in a league with us and you haven’t begun your fantasy baseball research for 2014, you have fallen behind. Soon fantasy baseball writers will release their ranking lists [How to Choose a Ranking List] for each position, going anywhere from 10 to 25 deep. But before we get to rankings, we need to study the positions as a whole, looking for trends or changes, or anything else that will help us prepare for the upcoming season.
So in the next few weeks we will be surveying each position, pulling back and taking a bird’s eye view of each place on the diamond. We’ve already looked at catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, outfield, and starting pitcher. Today, we finish with the men who finish the games.
Now, before going forward, we’ve talked a lot on this site about how you can use middle relievers to help build a killer pitching rotation without going overboard on the price tag. But generally speaking, when we’re talking about relief pitchers, we’re talking about closers.
History of the Relief Pitching Position
Does anyone know what that is? It is a real two-season stat-line, and looks like it belongs to a pretty good starting pitcher, right?
Well, it belongs to Mike Marshall, which he accrued over his 1973 and 1974 seasons. One other relevant number? Zero, as in the amount of starts that he had. In today’s game, it seems like it would grab front page headlines worldwide if a short reliever records more than three outs in a game.
The truth is, since Babe Ruth became baseball’s biggest gate draw by smashing home run records, hitting more home runs than teams, nothing has changed the way that the game has changed more than the evolution of the relief pitcher, and it’s been a gradual cycle.
We can actually go back to at least Hoyt Wilhelm to find a relief pitcher in a role that’s related to what we now know as the closer. After Hoyt, we had the likes of Marshall, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Sparky Lyle, Dave Righetti, Lee Smith, and Rollie Fingers finishing games. Still, as great as those guys were, they were a little different than what we know now. Starters were still trained to go nine innings and pitched upwards of 300 innings per year. So these guys weren’t coming in to finish off literally every game that their teams won by three runs or fewer and when they did come in, it would often be for 2-3 innings.
That really changed with Dennis Eckersley in the late 1980’s. He had some serious arm trouble as a starter and his career was just about over. Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan wondered if he could give the team one inning to finish games. He did and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Plenty of great names have come since then. John Franco was already around and began to be a one-inning guy like Eck, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, Robb Nen, Troy Percival, and Francisco Rodriguez have all had sustained runs of excellence that could land some of them in Cooperstown.
But the history of the position can’t be talked about without mentioning Mariano Rivera. He took over the job as the Yankees closer from John Wetteland (a great closer in his own right), and went on to have one of the most dominant careers we’ve ever seen, racking up a record 652 saves. More mind-boggling. He did it with basically one pitch — a filthy cutter.
But Mariano notwithstanding, whether we’re talking about the multiple inning closers, or the one-inning guys that the position has morphed in to, we’re generally talking about guys with great fastballs and competent sliders, change-ups, and curve-balls. Or, at least two of those three secondary pitches. We’re talking about guys who strike hitters out at phenomenal rates, probably don’t hold runners well at all, and who often times have big personalities and/or some crazy facial hair.
Modern Trends of the Relief Pitching Position
If we’re talking about closers, the position hasn’t changed much since every team in the league began to copy the A’s winning formula with Eckersley. In that time, though, relievers have changed a lot. From a fantasy perspective, these aren’t good changes.
The game has become so specialized that relief pitchers frequently don’t get the chance to face more than one or two hitters. Actually, it changes the way that offenses set their lineup. Do we really think that Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy were concerned with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig batted consecutively in the lineup? Both were lefties, what if the other team had a Jesse Orosco who could come in and mow them down? Wouldn’t it make sense to put a right-handed bat between them? That just wasn’t an issue back then. Teams weren’t bringing in pitchers for one hitter.
The reason the current model hurts their fantasy value is that while pitchers are put in situations where they’re most likely to succeed, they don’t pitch enough innings to really help your fantasy team in a big way. Also, when you’re not pitching a lot of innings, it only takes a bad outing or two to really skew your ERA and WHIP. Yes, there are relievers who are basically like closers in the seventh or eighth innings, and they’ll face lefties or righties. There are just fewer-and-fewer of them in the game, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
As far as some names: Joe Nathan has been one of the best in the business for 10 years. Craig Kimbrel has been an absolutely dominant force for the last three, while Greg Holland had a nearly identical season to Kimbrel in 2013. Aroldis Chapman is still challenging his own fastball records, Sergio Romo didn’t disappoint in his first full year as a closer. While they weren’t closers all year, Kenley Jansen and Koji Uehara were absolutely dominant forces as closers in 2013. From a fantasy standpoint, the closer position is absolutely stacked — one of the many reasons that you don’t overpay for saves.
The Future of the Relief Pitching Position
I don’t see the game getting much more specialized than it is now. There are actually only two things that I can think of that would make it more specialized.
- The DH rule is unified and unified with current American League rules: If this happens and you see me on the street, please give me a big hug, because I will need it. But throwing my traditionalist leanings aside, this would only impact the way that half of the league does things, and I’m not sure how big the impact would be. Yes, the need to pinch hit would be lessened (not eliminated), but the National League teams would also need to add a DH, and they’d probably do it from their group of bench hitters. If a team carries 13 pitchers, it means they have 12 hitters. Instead of 8 starting hitters and 4 bench hitters, it would be 9 and 3. I don’t see the bullpens getting any deeper if this happens. Not in a grand way, anyway.
- Rosters are expanded beyond 25: In other words, September baseball for six months. That may seem fun, but think of what it’s like watching two non-contending teams play in September. These managers have way too many moves at their disposal, and they seem determined to use them all. Now, I don’t see this happening, but if teams are allowed to add 2-3 pitchers without killing their offensive depth, the game may become more specialized.
Other than that, there’s just not enough room on the roster for the game to become much more specialized. Besides, what could possibly happen, anyway? Pitchers already come in to face only one hitter. Barring a rule change, you literally can’t do anything more than that.
I actually wonder if we’re going to see switch pitching more in the future. That can actually create some hilarious situations if it does happen. But that’s not a new concept and it hasn’t happened in a big way in more than 100 years of Major League Baseball. I doubt it happens in a big way in the future.
The position is in good hands for the future. Look at the 2014 ages of some of 2013’s best closers:
Also, remember, these guys are pitching for one inning. Mariano Rivera was dominant for his whole career, which ended when he was 43. So, even some of the guys not mentioned above that are now in their early 30’s can absolutely be the game’s best closers for another 10 years.
It will be interesting to see what the Cardinals do with Trevor Rosenthal. They could go the Adam Wainwright route and turn him into a top of the line starter. But if he becomes their closer, he absolutely has the potential to be another Kimbrel type. His stuff is impossible to hit when he locates. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan Cook became the A’s closer in 2014, especially if they lose Grant Balfour. Bruce Rondon could well be closing games for the Tigers in the near future, as could Heath Hembree for the Giants.
As the position has evolved, pitchers are now being groomed to be one-inning guys. So, while the position is incredibly deep now, I don’t see that changing any time soon.