Not just anyone can close a game. The ninth inning is different than the first eight innings. Along with quality “stuff,” a certain mentality is needed to walk out to the mound and get those last three outs with your team leading by three runs or less.
Or is it?
Managers are typically averse to using someone other than their designated closer in a save situation — they do so only when necessary — but should that really be the case? Could most teams not realistically expect their “second-best reliever” to get those final outs if their “best reliever” was used in a high-leverage situation earlier in the game, and it was prudent to not have him return for the ninth?
I recently asked that question (albeit not always in those exact words) to a cross section of relievers, pitching coaches, and managers. Here is what they had to say.
Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians reliever: “I understand that teams want to keep guys in roles — for the most part, even us — although I feel we’re kind of ahead of the curve in terms of usage. There are times we put guys in different situations, because it might be a bigger point in the game.
“If you have guys who have been here for awhile, or if you bring somebody over who’s proven, like we did last year with Andrew [Miller]… that’s a luxury we have that a lot of teams don’t have. [Bryan] Shaw has been here long enough that Tito knows he can handle just about any spot — any part of the lineup, any inning, any circumstance.
“There are absolutely guys out there who can close but haven’t really done it yet. The majority of [closers] don’t come into the league as a closer — they work their way up to that. And if it doesn’t work the first time they do it, that doesn’t mean it’s going to not work every time.”
Neil Allen, Minnesota Twins pitching coach: “You’ve always got to have a guy on the back burner who is normally your setup guy that you can also use as a closer if need be. But not everybody in baseball has the luxury of having a guy who can come in and shut down the game in the seventh inning. The Cleveland Indians have Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Other teams don’t.
“We’ve got a couple of young men right now. We’ve got Tyler Duffey and we’ve got Taylor Rogers — they’re both having fine years — and would we have a problem with either of them closing if something happened to our closer? No, because they’ve built confidence in us in big situations. At the same time, they’re both young. They’re still learning their trade. One guy [Duffey] is in the bullpen for the first time this year, and the other [Rogers] hadn’t been a reliever until he arrived here last season. It took time for us to understand what they’re capable of, the pressures they can handle. Those guys could do it, because not only do they have good stuff, they’re mentally tough.”
Larry Andersen, Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster, and former reliever: “I don’t know if you can actually tell prior to guys doing it. I use an analogy. If you put a tightrope from the top of the foul pole in right field to the top of the foul pole in left field, and you put a net there, anybody will try it. That’s a setup guy or a middle guy. The closer has to do it without the net. You feel the tension — your whole body tightens up — because one mistake and it’s over. You have to trust that you can walk across that tightrope.
“Everybody has a fear of failure, and very few guys can put that fear of failure out of their mind. As human beings, we don’t want to be the goat. We don’t want to be the guy that let everybody down. Everything that happens prior to the closer coming in is a big part of that game, but because he’s the last one to determine the outcome, he’s looked at as the good guy or the bad guy.”
Tyler Clippard, New York Yankees reliever: “The baseball season is so long that if you go into it with the attitude that you’re going to use your “closer” in the sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth… for an extended period of time, that formula doesn’t work. That’s regardless of who the pitcher is. Because of the length of the season, and the routines… if you break somebody’s routine on a daily basis, they’re probably not going to perform well.
“As for who can close a game on a given day, anybody can do it. I mean, if they’re in the big leagues, and they’re getting outs in high-leverage situations… in any good bullpen, you have multiple guys doing that. Any one of them can do it for one game, if that’s all you’re asking them to do — especially if he’s going well and has confidence.
“I’ve always approached the last three outs the same way I approach outs in the sixth inning. They’re all important. There are obviously factors — it’s the end of the game, and the crowd is more into it, whatever — but if you’ve got the right mindset, it shouldn’t be that much different.”
John Gibbons, Toronto Blue Jays manager: “You should be able to [trust one of your non-closers], but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It is a tough inning. But do you know what you will find? So many times, the guy that is setting up for you is the one getting the meat of the lineup more so than the closer is. It’s amazing how that works.
“I was coaching with Tim Worrell a few years ago. He was both a closer and a setup guy. When he was setting up with the Phillies, Billy Wagner was the closer. He told me the [bullpen] phone would ring in the eighth inning, and it was, ‘Worrell is in the game.’ Wags used to look at him and just laugh, because it was the middle of the lineup.”
Brandon Kintzler, Minnesota Twins reliever: “From my own experience, the ninth inning, and that last out, is by far the hardest to get. A few times I’ve had two outs and nobody on, and either lost the game or had to battle to get that third out.
“I’ve done both roles, and I’m not taking that sixth, seventh, or eight inning away from anyone — they’re definitely tough outs to get — but it’s just a different animal in the ninth inning. That said, once guys get to set up a bunch of times, then they can go into the ninth inning and try it out.
“Everyone thinks, ‘He’s a future closer? Why? Because he has good stuff.’ But you have to see what’s inside of him first. It’s not stuff in the ninth inning — it’s what’s inside. That’s the difference.”
Brandon Maurer, San Diego Padres reliever: “I think anybody should be able to. If the opportunity arises, you should be able to go out there and fulfill it. They’re possibly the hardest [outs to get] mentally, but not always. You might be down there toward the bottom of the lineup.
“For a given game, maybe you look at matchups and splits. You look at some numbers. Or maybe you go with your gut, with who you trust that day.”
Blake Parker, Los Angeles Angels reliever: “They always say the last three outs are the hardest to get, but it’s not always against the meat of the order, so there is something to [using your best reliever before the ninth]. You have to learn how to handle situations, and deal with that emotional stress, even when it’s not the ninth inning.
“You always want to be ‘that guy,’ but you always want something to strive toward, as well. You set goals for yourself. You can’t just break in and be a closer. You have to establish yourself a little bit. You have to get some innings under your belt and put up some zeroes. If you pitch the way you’re supposed to, you’ll work your way to the back end. I’d love to close someday.”
Larry Rothschild, New York Yankees pitching coach: “Until you see them in that role, you don’t know. The ninth inning isn’t the same as other innings. As much as people want to believe it is, it just isn’t. There’s a lot that goes into the ninth inning.
“Some guys can actually be better in the ninth inning — they know that it’s three outs and the game is over — but for others, it’s a burden. How do you recognize the guys that can do it? You can say, ‘Well, he’s got the stuff to do it, and the makeup,’ but until you see him do it, you don’t really know.
“Cleveland had three guys that were kind of interchangeable, and if you have that… and the postseason is a different animal altogether. There’s a lot more that goes into it than high-leverage situations, to just bringing the closer in and living with the rest of it. Theoretically, it’s going to be a high-leverage situation later. Can you prove that? No. You know that it’s high-leverage right now, but… it’s a tough thing. If you feel you’ve got guys who can fit that bill, yeah, it becomes easier.”
Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles Angels manager: “It’s going to vary team to team. You have to get into the specifics of who you have. Some guys… I think there’s an emotional bridge to get over, to handle those last three outs, especially when you fail. A lot of eighth-inning guys have that same mentality — they don’t have any problem — but some guys are just more comfortable pitching in the seventh and eighth innings.
“Cleveland did it last year in the playoffs with an incredibly deep bullpen packed with power arms. Any one of them were comfortable pitching in the ninth inning. Some teams aren’t built that way. Our team is more of a matchup pen right now. We have guys we’re looking to have get outs in certain innings.”
Pete Walker, Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach: “You have a designated closer, but I do believe that when certain situations come up in the eighth inning — or even the seventh inning — it’s the highest leverage situation you’ll have. The game is on the line. and you may not get to your closer. I think it’s very valid — it makes a lot of sense — to go that route. Some managers feel comfortable just having that guy for the ninth inning, but I think the more that managers do it, the more it will become a standard.
“[If the closer isn’t available], it’s often who fits that role on a given night. It’s not necessarily just the setup guy. Because of the matchups, and where you are in the lineup, maybe one of the other relievers better fits that role. But no matter who it is, those last three outs — I don’t care if it’s a one-run led or a three-run lead — are some of the toughest ones to get. The pressure of the game, the feeling in the stadium, the adrenaline rush. It is a different animal. Closing out games consistently isn’t easy.”
Justin Wilson, Detroit Tigers reliever: “Just because it’s the ninth… if you get the three outs, the game’s over. That’s the only real difference. I guess the atmosphere isn’t quite the same — the fans, and even sometimes the hitters. Maybe their at-bats are a little bit better in the ninth? The hitters kind of have the same feeling as pitchers do — three outs and the game is over. That’s something I don’t think about, though. I’m just concerned with what I need to do out there, regardless of the inning.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.