Neal Shaffer: J. Johnson’s struggles illustrate why baseball should rethink closer role

Timely piece of work on Tuesday from SI’s Tom Verducci about struggling closers around MLB, with our own Jim Johnson starring as co-Exhibit A with Fernando Rodney of the Rays. It’s worth a read, but here’s the salient point:

It’s not a surprise that Johnson, 29, and Rodney, 36, are struggling, especially given their age and workload last season. The surprise would have been if they pitched as well this year as they did last year.

I’m on record as one who argues against statistics (advanced or otherwise) as the be-all, end-all of baseball analysis and decision-making. I’m also on record as one who generally agrees that old-school things like gut instinct are important. Here’s a rare case where the two schools point in the same direction. Verducci is right about the role of the closer. It’s time to rethink it.

Neither the gut nor the numbers support the notion of holding the closer’s role sacrosanct. The latter measure will show you that almost all closers have a short shelf life. The former measure tells you that it just doesn’t make a ton of sense to manage one position on the staff one way and every other position another.

This is not to say that it’s impossible for a player to succeed in the role. Even the Orioles have a history of guys who have, for a time, done just that. Let’s not forget that Jorge Julio had some time in the sun, saving 25 games in 2002, 36 in ‘03, and 22 in ‘04. (Examining how it was possible to have had 36 saves on that awful ‘03 team would make a great post of its own some day.)

No, the point is that it does neither the team nor the player any good to insist that a closer is a closer and that the rest of the staff floats around him. Closing is a specialized gig, certainly, but so is coming into a one-run game with one out and runners on first and second. In that situation, the manager goes with some combination of the right matchup and his sense of who’s got what it takes that day. Maybe that’s the same guy 85 percent of the time, but it’d be insane to suggest that it must always be the same guy, no matter how well he’s pitching or how much sense the matchup makes.

It’s time we start thinking of the ninth inning as three critical outs instead of The Ninth Inning, and using the best man for the job. If that’s one guy more often than not, then great. But there’s no reason it has to be that guy game in and game out.

Johnson is a hell of a pitcher and a huge asset to the staff. Insisting that he’s only good in one role - and potentially riding him in that role until he burns out - seems like a waste. Tradition, just this once, be damned.

Neal Shaffer regularly blogs about the Orioles at The Loss Column, and his work appears here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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