Like most big league teams, the Tampa Bay Rays value velocity and command in their closer. A slow heart rate is preferable, and a short memory imperative. Experience is nice, but optional. A young pitcher with talent and moxie beats a veteran with fringe stuff and a weak constitution any day.
Manager Joe Maddon, who’s not averse to using novel defensive alignments, sluggers in the leadoff spot and other unorthodox strategies to squeeze every drop out of his roster, takes a more traditional approach to picking his closer. Firsthand experience tells him that an inner toughness separates the legitimate save men from guys who are just passing through.
“I do think the last three outs are tougher,” Maddon said. “Everybody amps up a little bit there. If you’re in the wrong ballpark and somebody gets on base, it gets louder. You feel the intensity coming from the stands, and you have to be able to control your emotions pretty darned well.
“It’s not [always] about getting it done. It’s about what happens when you don’t. If a guy fails a couple of times, is he still going to be able to hold up? It’s easy when you’ve nailed 10 or 12 or 14 in a row. But you can really measure the quality of that pitcher by how he reacts when it doesn’t go well.”
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay’s closer this year, has checked off every box in his first three months as a Ray. He’s converted 21 of 22 save chances, with an accompanying 1.07 ERA, .176 batting average against and 0.77 WHIP. Those numbers put him on track for his first career All-Star appearance in July.
He’s also living proof that few teams can beat Tampa Bay for adapting to challenging circumstances and adjusting on the fly.
Rodney is on his way to becoming the eighth reliever to lead the Rays in saves over the past eight seasons. Tampa Bay will become the first big league team to achieve the feat since the Chicago Cubs, who produced a different save leader each season from 1998 through 2005 before Ryan Dempster enjoyed a successful three-year run in the role.
Closers, of course, come in all shapes, sizes, arm slots and income tax brackets. The New York Yankees have had the best of all worlds since the arrival of Mariano Rivera, who’s converted 608 of 681 save opportunities (for an 89.3 success rate) and helped the team win five World Series. In return for his sustained brilliance, Rivera has pocketed $145 million in career earnings.
A different approach was revealed in “Moneyball,” when author Michael Lewis provided insight into Oakland general manager Billy Beane’s strategy of pumping up closers and then spinning them off for more than they were worth.
“You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer’s role, let him accumulate some gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off,” Lewis wrote. “You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for much more than you’d paid for it.”
Tampa Bay’s approach to the closer role is driven more by economic realities than a specific philosophical bent. The Rays have MLB’s 25th ranked payroll this year at $64.1 million, and they rank 29th in the majors in attendance. When executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman looks for ways to improve the club, finding a closer is not at the top of his priority list.
“It’s not by design that we have somebody different lead us in saves each year,” Friedman said. “It’s dictated by resources. We have ‘X’ amount to allocate to field the most competitive roster we can. We can’t afford to pay a guy $10 million or $12 million a year to throw 70 innings, so our approach is to have as many good, high-upside arms as we can and figure that one will fall out.”
Tampa Bay’s closer job wasn’t exactly a cauldron of pressure in the franchise’s first 10 seasons, when the Rays surpassed 70 wins only once and never finished within 18 games of first place. Roberto Hernandez saved 101 games from 1998 to 2000. He handed the baton to Esteban Yan, who gave way to Lance Carter, who yielded the job to Danys Baez, who held onto the role until the Rays traded him to the Dodgers.
Since Baez’s departure, 29 pitchers have recorded at least one save for the Rays. The list includes starters (Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine), situational lefties (Trever Miller and Randy Choate), below-the-radar guys (Gary Glover and Dale Thayer) and a pair of Chads (Harville and Orvella).
Unlike Beane, Friedman hasn’t had the luxury of spinning closers into gold. Al Reyes saved 26 games for the Rays in 2007 before kicking around the Mexican League. At age 41, he’s now pitching for the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings of the independent North American Baseball League. Troy Percival, who succeeded Reyes in 2008, retired the following year because of back problems and several other physical maladies.
Rafael Soriano saved 45 games for the Rays in 2010 and parlayed his success into a $35 million free-agent deal with the Yankees. The Rays offered him salary arbitration and came away with two draft picks as compensation.
Tampa Bay’s past two closers have always had a flair for throwing heat. Kyle Farnsworth saved 25 games last year and was expected to retain the closer role, but he’s been out all year with an elbow injury. Joel Peralta and Jake McGee were closer candidates for Tampa Bay coming out of spring training, but Rodney jumped to the head of the pack with a win and two saves in the season-opening series with the Yankees.
“In this game, confidence is everything,” said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. “All of a sudden he notches a couple of saves, and he feels 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”
The Tampa Bay Rays are going to become the first American League team since the 1992-99 Toronto Blue Jays to have eight different save leaders in an eight-year span.
Three years after recording 37 saves in Detroit, Rodney has revived his career thanks to startlingly better command. He has 33 strikeouts and five walks (for a ratio of 6.6-to-1) after entering this season with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.69-to-1. He’s strictly a fastball-changeup pitcher, but he has enough confidence in the change to throw it more than 30 percent of the time — and in any count.
Hickey worked with Rodney in spring training on glove positioning and his placement on the rubber, and made what he calls a few “minor tweaks.” But Rodney’s resurgence is more the result of a serene mindset than better mechanics. During the offseason, Friedman flew to the Dominican Republic to sell Rodney on the idea of coming to Tampa Bay. The Rays assured Rodney that he would get his opportunity, and they signed him for a modest base salary of $1.75 million.
People close to Rodney describe him as an athlete who responds better to a pat on the back than a kick in the behind. The Rays threw a caring arm around his shoulder, encouraged him daily, and he’s responded. Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia, Rodney’s previous two managers, are both highly regarded in the industry. But they’ve never ranked high on the nurturing, warm-and-fuzzy scale.
“I have good communication with Joe,” Rodney said. “They have confidence in you here and they let you play the way you know how to play. They don’t put any pressure on you or have any rules here. You’re going to feel comfortable when they keep giving you a chance.”
As Rodney continues to perform, he is gaining currency as one of the most popular players in the Tampa Bay clubhouse.
“I’ve been impressed by what a great guy he is,” Hickey said. “When he’s on the other team you look over and see that glare and the menacing look and the hat turned sideways, and you think, ‘This guy is probably a jerk.’ But he’s 180 degrees opposite that. He’s a big teddy bear.”
The stakes are high
Years ago, baseball researcher Dave Smith of Retrosheet studied every game from 1930 through 2003 and determined that one thing hasn’t changed since the Great Depression. Regardless of pitching strategy, teams that carry a one-run lead into the ninth inning win about 85 percent of the time. The success rate improves to 94 percent with a two-run lead, and 96 percent with a three-run lead. Those numbers provide ample fodder for critics who consider the closer job the most overrated in sports. (See: Caple, Jim).
Managers, who are entrusted with sweeping up the wreckage from blown saves, have more things to consider than conversion rates. As Maddon points out, two or three blown saves can be enough to send a team into a tailspin. And Friedman concurs that a walk-off defeat resonates in a way that the box score can’t fully explain.
“It’s probably more demoralizing to lose a game that way than any other way, so it can start to seep into a clubhouse,” Friedman said. “There’s a definite risk when you go with someone different every year.”
As the manager of a low-payroll team in a less intense media market, does Maddon have the luxury of exercising more patience with his closer than, say, Joe Girardi or Bobby Valentine? “I don’t deny that,” he said. Just consider the frenzy that erupted in New York when Rivera went down with a knee injury this season, or the chaos in Boston when Theo Epstein considered going with a closer-by-committee in 2003.
Whatever the Rays are doing with their bullpen arrangement, it seems to be working. Closers might be overrated, but so is continuity. And a revolving-door policy can work as long as the right guys keep walking through.
Crasnick: Rays have revolving door at closer
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