Granted it isn’t easy either. The 9th inning is a pressure-filled situation and not any bum from AAA can fill it. However, the perception that it must be filled with a steely-eyed tough-man mentality guy and that those guys are a rare breed is wrong. There are many relievers in the majors able to pitch the 9th inning with a lead, including our very own Phil Coke. Last night when Jose Valverde got injured while warming up, Coke entered a 6-3 game in the 9th inning and set down the Cardinals 1-2-3 without breaking a sweat.
The 2012 season has many examples of closers getting replaced due to either injury or ineffectiveness and the replacements weren’t that hard to find, where a majority of them did an adequate job. By my count 16 teams have replaced their closer at least once at some point during the year; only Jim Johnson, Fernando Rodney, Chris Perez, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Joe Nathan, Frank Francisco, Jon Papelbon, Craig Kimbrel, Jason Motte, Brett Myers, John Axford, J.J. Putz and Rafael Betancourt have been officially remained the closer for their team the whole season thus far (if I’m wrong, correct me in the comments). The Tigers’ Jose Valverde wasn’t officially on the DL, but was day-to-day for 10 days. During that span, Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit picked up a save each with no blown saves. Now that it looks like Valverde will miss more time, I have full confidence in either Dotel or Benoit as the acting closer.
The biggest injury among closers this year would probably have to be Mariano Rivera, the best closer in the history of the game. This sounds like a tough job to take over, no? Since taking over closing duties, Rafael Soriano has saved 13 games in 14 opportunities and recorded a 1.35 ERA. Although it does help to have closing experience. Fernando Rodney (20 saves, 1.10 ERA) and Jonathan Broxton (17 saves, 1.63 ERA) have been full-time closers before and when Kyle Farnsworth and Joakim Soria suffered injuries, it was easy to give them the closer’s role.
It’s not just the veteran’s that have experience that can go back to that role either. Aroldis Chapman had 1 save before taking over closing from injured Sean Marshall and has 8 saves with a 1.57 ERA this year. Addison Reed had no closing experience before this year and has 8 saves with a 4.37 ERA. Ernesto Frieri also had no closing experience and since being picked up by the Angels, has 7 saves with a 0.00 (!) ERA.
Altogether, there have been 41 players to record at least 30 saves since 2009. That doesn’t sound like an elite club to me. So besides injury and retirement, why all the closing changes? Sure, ineffectiveness is one reason. But for example, why did the Yankees sign Rafael Soriano to “only” be a setup man? He had just saved a league-leading 45 games with the Rays the year before. Surely, he could continue to be a closer. Well, one reason is certainly insurance in case Mariano Rivera did get injured (and he did). But a big reason had to be that the 9th inning isn’t the only pressure-filled situation. Think about the scenario in the 7th inning where the starter has gone tired and loaded the bases with less than 2 outs in a 1-run game. That sounds like a pressure-filled situation to be. Think of all the times Mike Adams, who only has 2 saves in his career, has been put in that situation and has a career 2.18 ERA (success!). If he can handle the pressure in that situation, certainly he can handle the pressure situation in the 9th inning. Pressure situations are pressure situations, right? The Rangers know how valuable he is as a setup man, which is why they haven’t converted him to a closer. However, if Joe Nathan has to go on the DL, the Rangers should be perfectly fine with Mike Adams as their closer.
No, not just anyone can be a closer. However, there are several capable relievers out there that can fill the role. In fact, most successful major league relievers should have no problem closing. This isn’t some rare role that only a select few can do.