The Closer Role Is Slowly Dying

Last night, with the Red Sox and Rays tied 5-5 in the seventh inning, Kevin Cash brought Brad Boxberger into the game. On the one hand, this was a bit weird, because Boxberger has been serving as the Rays closer while Jake McGee is on the shelf, pitching exclusively in the ninth (or 10th) inning so far this year. On the other hand, it was a bit awesome, because Cash recognized that there might not be a higher leverage situation in that game than facing David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and Mike Napoli with the score tied.

Rather than risk a weaker member of his bullpen giving up the lead to Boston’s best hitters, Cash went with his relief ace, and Boxberger responded by striking out the side. The Rays then took a two run in the bottom of the seventh inning, and after regular setup man Kevin Jepsen pitched the 8th, the Rays handed the ball to Steve Geltz to pitch the ninth inning, where he recorded the first save of his career.

After the game, Boxberger said this to about his usage.

“It’s a little bit different than the rest of the year has gone,” Boxberger said. “But Cash told me and [Kevin] Jepsen a little bit earlier that we’re just going to try and preserve anything we have.”
And preserve they did.

“It obviously worked out tonight and this was the first go of it,” Boxberger said. “So it’s a little bit different for us, but I think going forward it’s going to help keep us in some more ballgames. Just do what we can to win some.”

The idea of the ninth inning holding special powers where only the chosen can pitch has been propped up by a few decades of everyone treating it that way, but slowly, teams are starting to shift away from that rigid structure. While there may be enough value in having predetermined usage patterns to keep from going all the way back to pre-closer relief usage, it seems that it is more efficient to have the flexibility to at least make exceptions to the ninth-inning-only idea. Different isn’t always received well, but as more outings like Boxberger’s occur and random middle relievers start converting lower leverage saves, the idea of the sanctity of the ninth inning will wear off.

This change will likely occur at a glacier pace, but it is beginning.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago


7 years ago
Reply to  Ben

Don’t celebrate so quickly.

1) Brad Boxberger is not a Proven Closer™. He’s got 7 career saves scattered over 3 seasons. This is worlds apart from doing the same thing with Papelbon or KRod or Nathan or Kimbrel or Rodney or Street.

2) It’s the Rays, who haven’t had a problem defying baseball orthodoxy. Looks like their rookie GM and rookie manager might continue that.

7 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Yeah, this is a bit of a clickbait title. It should have read “One very tiny data point that suggests the slightest of weaknesses in the continuing role of the closer”, but then who would have clicked?

Happy Fun Ball
7 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Click here to see this one crazy trick that could mean the end to closers as we know them (Obama HATES this!)

7 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Exactly. BTW, is no one here old enough to remember the rash of “Death of the Closer” articles in the early 2000s when the Red Sox announced they were not going to have a closer?

Paul Kasińskimember
7 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Don’t you mean the Kenyan Usurper?