Baseball can sometimes be broken down to an individual sport, especially for the closers.
If a batter makes an out, he still has eight other guys that can make a play, his team still has two more outs.
A closer has defenders behind him, but it’s ultimately one pitcher versus one hitter. One pitch can end the game. One pitch can also turn into a blown save.
In a new book, “Closer: Major League Players Reveal The Inside Pitch On Saving The Game” (Running Press - 2013, $15.00), Kevin Neary interviewed 22 of the top 30 all-time closers and explored what made them different from other pitchers.
What made them successful? How do they deal with failure?
Former Nationals and Phillies pitcher Brad Lidge said in the book’s foreword that the fear of failure is the ultimate motivator for baseball’s closer.
“The fear of failure you hear people talk about is a driving force, and it is overshadowed only by the joy of nailing down the victory,” Lidge said. “However, it doesn’t always turn out the way you envision it. Any closer worth his weight hates letting his team down more than letting himself down.”
Neary said that “driving force” motivated many of the pitchers he studied. Several of these famous closers remembered that feeling of fear, more than the statistics they racked up.
“The Jason Isringhausens and the Dennis Eckerlseys and the Brad Lidges all talked about fear, the fear of failure,” Neary said. “I remember Trevor Hoffman. He said to me, ‘Kevin, I have 601 saves in my career. But they are all a blur to me.’ That I found amazing. He couldn’t really remember any of them. But he said the fear of failure and the blown save will always haunt me, which is sad to think about. That is what makes these players so unique.”
Neary said in his discussions with Lidge, the 2008 World Series closer said the media in Philadelphia never really talked to him that much during that magical season where he was racking up 41 saves.
But the next season, when Lidge had a bad outing, there was the media, crowding around his locker after a loss asking him what happened. The story was always more interesting when he struggled, not when he was notching save after save.
The book spans the early years of closers, from pitchers like Elroy Face and Rollie Fingers, to the transition years, with guys like Eckersley and many others. Then all the way to the modern-day closer, featuring several pitchers such as Eric Gagne and Mariano Rivera.
I asked Neary about the Yankees’ Rivera and his former teammate, the Nationals’ new closer, Rafael Soriano. When Rivera went down early last season to injury, Soriano took over and was very successful, notching 42 saves.
Neary has no doubt that Soriano will be able to be just as potent with the Nationals to close out games.
“Soriano is an interesting case because he kind of reminds me a lot of Fernando Rodney, a lot of like a Brian Wilson, or a Lee Smith or Goose Gossage,” Neary said. “It strikes me from seeing him in his early days in Atlanta and with the Tampa Bay Rays, and most recently with the New York Yankees, intimidation seems to be a part of his vernacular. He is going to go out there and intimidate those batters as much as he can. Finesse is not part of his game.”
Of course, you have to have good stuff to be a great closer. But intimidation can certainly play a major role. You see this in Al Hrabosky slapping his glove as he storms on the mound, Jonathan Papelbon with the staredown above his glove or Mitch Williams going after each hitter. Soriano, pulling out his shirt tail each game, shows the hitter and crowd that he means business on the hill.
Neary believes Soriano is one of those special pitchers that combines two major factors you need to be a great closer: “stuff” and intimidation.
“Soriano is going to be successful because, physically, he has what it takes to win a ball game. Just the stuff he throws,” Neary said. “But when you combine that with the intimidation factor, it (becomes) a winning combination. No batter wanted to face Lee Smith, no batter wanted to face Jay Howell, no batter wanted to face Goose Gossage because they had the absolute fear factor that intimidation (provided).”
Interesting how fear can motivate a pitcher to succeed in some cases. And in some cases, intimidation can cause fear in a batter, forcing him to fail in a game’s most crucial moment.
Neary’s book spotlights five dozen of the best closers of all-time, and he said his next book will be on home run hitting legend Hank Aaron. He hopes to get some background for that book from Nationals manager Davey Johnson.