More than 50 years ago, the late Jerome Holtzman created the save statistic that led to the development and proliferation of the closer role. Managers save their best reliever for the ninth inning, regardless of the situation in the seventh or eighth. Keith Law calls this Holtzman’s folly, described as when getting the closer a save influences a manager’s decision-making. Heart of the order coming up in the eighth inning in a one-run game? Can’t bring the closer in, it’s not the ninth inning yet. The Yankees have operated in that fashion for a long time, but a change might be coming this season.
Of course, the Yankees had an incredible run with Mariano Rivera mostly limited to the ninth inning. David Robertson excelled in the role last year too. This year, there’s no clear cut man for the traditional closer’s job. With D-Rob’s departure, Dellin Betances‘ emergence in 2014, and Andrew Miller now in the fold, the question is: who will close in 2015? Perhaps nobody in particular according to Joe Girardi, at least to begin the season.
In theory, this could work. Really, it should work. David Ortiz due up in the eighth? Use Miller for the inning; not only does he have the platoon advantage over Big Papi, but Miller’s more than capable of the righties or switch-hitters who are certain to bat around Ortiz, like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Facing the Blue Jays? Whenever righties Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion are due up, perhaps favor Betances. Look, both Betances and Miller can get righties and lefties out, but maybe their best use depends on the opponent and situation. Ultimately, the most important thing is that they’re used in high leverage situations.
Additionally, saving one of Betances or Miller for the ninth could be wasteful depending on the situation. In many instances it will be the highest leverage point of the game, and therefore wise to use one of them. But locking one of the two into the final inning risks a lesser pitcher throwing in a higher pressure situation in the seventh or eighth. As an example, teams win around 98% of the time they have a three-run lead in the 9th. That percentage drops to roughly 85% with a one-run edge. There’s probably some selection bias in there considering Holtzman’s folly already ingrained into managers, but it still shows that there’s really no need for your best pitcher in all save situations. David Carpenter or Justin Wilson would suffice from time to time with a three-run lead, thereby allowing Betances or Miller to get some extra rest or pitch earlier in the game if needed.
If the team doesn’t appoint a closer, the greatest concern would be Betances and Miller struggling with in-game preparation. Sure, they know they’re going to pitch late in the game, but is that enough? For now, they’re saying the right things. First, Betances:
Even when I was the eighth-inning guy, sometimes I came in in the sixth inning. You just have to prepare whenever your name is called and try to be ready.”
“I think it might be a little unique, but I think we’ve come to establish that closing, that three outs in the ninth inning doesn’t have to be that specific as it has been historically the last couple of decades or whatever. For me, it doesn’t matter. I feel like I’m starting to throw the ball better here in the spring and that’s what’s important. When they ask me to pitch, I’ll be ready.”
These mindsets are all Girardi can ask for. If the two are willing to give it a stab, why not implement it in the early going? Hopefully he sticks to his guns and leaves Betances and Miller in flexible roles, thus maximizing his bullpen advantage. If the two prove they can handle it, great.
To be fair, I don’t want to imply that having a set closer is the end of the world. Obviously, it worked just fine with Rivera. All told, using the best reliever as a closer rather than a flexible fireman probably doesn’t move the needle too much, but it can be very frustrating to watch a lesser reliever blow the lead in the seventh and eighth with the best reliever watching. That precisely is what the Yankees are looking to avoid, especially with a roster that’s not as strong as we’re used to.
Using Betances and Miller in adaptable roles maximizes their value. They’ll be great regardless of what inning they pitch in, but this strategy just a matter of squeezing out every last drop of value. Like I said, this isn’t a strong Yankees team on paper, so any method to eek out an extra win or two is crucial. I just hope it works right away, because a couple of poor performances at the beginning of the season might put an end to this plan.