The lineage of closers can, in part, be traced back to Jerome Holtzman’s creation of the save statistic. Table 2-2.1 in The Book outlined how the use of pitchers in the ninth inning with no outs and none on has quadrupled in the past 30 years and doubled since the late 1980s. The other half of that puzzle is where exactly closers come from. Closers are rarely drafted for the role coming out of the amateur draft, with names such as Chad Cordero, Ryan Wagner, David Aardsma, Josh Fields, Huston Street, Chris Reed and Drew Storen being some recent exceptions.
The closer role is revered by commentators and fans for its importance in how teams win games. But where those closers come from remains mostly a mystery. What pitchers did while in the minor leagues, where they are drafted or where they are drafted from offers little clarity.
Minor league track records and prospect lists are poor predictors of future closers. Joe Nathan had just two saves in the minor leagues and brings 361 career saves to Detroit in 2014. Lee Smith saved 21 games in 190 minor league appearances before going on to save 478 games while seemingly pitching for every team in baseball. Brad Lidge worked 81 games in the minors in the Houston organization, and did not save a single game before saving 225 at the major league level. He’s not the only one.
There were 37 pitchers last season who saved at least 10 games in the major leagues. Three of them — Casey Janssen, Glen Perkins and Rafael Soriano — have zero career minor league saves. Twelve of the 37 pitchers have three or fewer minor league saves; 18 of the 37 have fewer than 10 career minor league saves. Additionally, an overwhelming majority have saved most of their games at the major-league level. Just four of the 37 pitchers have more career minor league saves than they do major league saves: Danny Farquhar, Jose Veras, Jim Henderson and Edward Mujica. Conversely, 22 of the 37 relievers collected at least 75% of their professional saves at the major-league level.
There’s also the matter of how pitchers are ranked and viewed by talent evaluators. The following picture is a picture of the top 10 prospect list from the 1990 Gulf Coast League, as published by Baseball America.
All 10 of those top prospects were retired before 2013. A pitcher who did not make that list had a 0.17 ERA while allowing just 17 hits in 52 innings of work, striking out 58 and walking just seven batters. That performance didn’t even garner him the best relief pitcher of the year in the league. Still, Mariano Rivera did just fine for the rest of his career despite the initial slight and the fact he had just one minor league save.
When it comes to where closers have been drafted, the results are much like Mitch Williams‘ command: all over the place. Only eight of the 37 pitchers in the sample size were taken as a top 100 draft selection. The list is led by Jason Grilli, who was a fourth pick in the 1997 amateur draft. Glen Perkins, Rex Brothers, Huston Street and Chris Perez are the other closers from 2013 who are former first round draft picks. There were actually more closers last season who were drafted in the 10th round or later than there were former first-round selections. Greg Holland, Danny Farquhar, Kevin Gregg, Brad Ziegler, Jim Henderson and Sergio Romo were all late picks. Romo — the lowest selection — Romo was the 852nd player taken in the 2005 amateur draft.
There’s also the issue of the undrafted closer. Fourteen of the 37 pitchers were either undrafted amateur free agents, or amateur free agents due to their country of origin. Thirteen of the 14 came from countries that don’t participate in the amateur draft. Heath Bell signed with the Mets as an undrafted free agent in 1998 after not signing a year earlier as a 69th-round pick out of junior college. Bell and Craig Kimbrel were the only 2013 closers that originated from a two-year college. Fifteen of the 37 closers from last season pitched for four-year colleges the season they were drafted; just seven signed out of high school.
Approximately $550 million in contracts have been handed out to free-agent closers in the past seven seasons. It remains a rather uncertain market since many closers continue to struggle to maintain their success. In fact, only six active relief pitchers have at least five, 20-plus save seasons in their career.
|2||Jonathan Papelbon||8||2006||2013||Ind. Seasons|
|3||Joe Nathan||8||2004||2013||Ind. Seasons|
|4||Huston Street||7||2005||2013||Ind. Seasons|
|5||Francisco Rodriguez||7||2005||2011||Ind. Seasons|
|6||Jose Valverde||6||2007||2012||Ind. Seasons|
|7||Kevin Gregg||6||2007||2013||Ind. Seasons|
Given the amount of money teams have spent on closers in recent seasons, teams appear to be more comfortable playing the scratch-off ticket with closers. To date, proven commodities, such as Fernando Rodney and Grant Balfour, remain unsigned just 30 days before pitchers and catchers report. Meanwhile, other teams are reviewing in-house options rather than engaging the Philadelphia Phillies in trade negotiations for the well-paid Jonathan Papelbon. The predictability on how closers are utilized by today’s managers remains constant, but the characteristics of where those closers come from remain a source of some mystery.