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The Importance of Out Number 27

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--The division races in Major League baseball are often dictated by the specialty pitchers in the bullpen. A manager's confidence in a closer can wane in the final months of the season, for a blown save in August (compared to one in April) leaves a far more bitter aftertaste.

Leading a game for 8 innings is a must win situation for teams in the hunt for October. This immense pressure--this demand for perfection in an imperfect sport--has begun to mount for certain closers across the league. Some are falling short; fading not only in Pitcher Rating but also in their team's bullpen depth chart.

Guys like Jonathan Broxton and Bobby Jenks were full-time closers, tenured in the position with their current teams, all season long. Suddenly, however, Hong Chih-Kuo has moved to the closer role in Los Angeles while Ozzie Guillen has recently resorted to a closer-by-committee in Chicago. In both cases, a handful of poor outings (in close proximity) cost a pitcher his job.

Broxton and Jenks are like so many closers that came before them; victims of poor timing more so than substandard performances. It is the urgent circumstances of second-place teams that did them in. Whatever the reason, some managers have a level of doubt in their closer all season long. Now that the playoffs are imminent, this doubt can grow to overtake the confidence. It makes the coaching staff second guess picking up the dugout phone altogether.

There is a flip side of the coin, however. Some closers are shining in the pressure situations. These rare pitchers leave the managers with a powerful feeling, knowing that the game can be shortened to a 6, 7, or 8-inning affair. All leads after that juncture are confidently secure. No teams exude this more than Tampa Bay and San Diego. The Rays' Rafael Soriano and the Padres' Heath Bell have combined for a 7-1 record, 71 saves (in 76 chances), and have identical 1.71 ERAs. Beyond mirror-image statistics and the aesthetically odd recurrence of "7" and "1" in those numbers, the two closers can be linked by Cy Young candidacy and division-leading teams.

According to this week's Pitcher Rating, Soriano and Bell are each the fourth best in their respective leagues. This is high praise considering the caliber of pitching in the Major Leagues this season. Soriano ultimately has a better shot to win the AL award, courtesy of Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Roy Halladay all pitching in the Senior Circuit. Bell needs a minor miracle; something around 10 more saves and 3 losses each from all the aforementioned NL aces.

Their best common attribute is that the race for an individual award is the last thing on their minds. Each has a short memory, irregardless of good or bad outing. The only reward for their one-track mentality is out number 27, preferably by strikeout. Bell takes his blue-collar/lunch-pail attitude even a step further. The Padres' hurler, generously listed at 250 lbs., hones in on every batter with the outlook that they are trying to steal food from him and his kids.

Both Bell and Soriano were 2010 All-Stars, yet consistently deflect the spotlight to the rest of the team. They would gladly give up accolades in exchange for an unblemished conversion rate in the postseason. The goal is for the final game of the World Series to end with a respective team celebration. Nothing else matters to these closers.

Elsewhere on the closer front, Billy Wagner still has the opportunity to pass John Franco on the all-time saves list this season. If Wagner gets to 40 saves, it will give him 425 for his career. This would cement him as the career save leader for a left-handed reliever, and in my opinion, cement his eventual place in the Hall of Fame. This would be a far cry from where Wagner was just a few seasons ago. He was being shipped around at the tread deadline, then injured, and then on the fence of calling it a career.

In October of 2009, Wagner told the New York Post on the issue of retirement, "Why wouldn't I? I have nothing left to accomplish." He had no intention of talking with any teams. He felt betrayed by the Red Sox Nation and landed in Atlanta, seemingly against his wishes. Deciding to "stick it out" with the 2010 Braves may go down as a career-defining moment.

Last week, I chronicled the importance of some milestones still out there. Case and point: the difference between 300 career saves and 400 is substantial. If Wagner retired before this season, he would have done so as a card-carrying member of the first club only. His Hall of Fame possibilities would have been slim and none. Now a member of the 400 save club, if he passes Franco and adds a World Series ring to the mix, Wagner could possibly end up in Cooperstown.

Agreeably, the save is now a watered-down stat (for closers do not work the same type of situations or lengths as the past). Statisticians feel that the career saves list will balloon to extreme totals now that a save is "easier" to collect. While 100 saves takes just three seasons for most closers to amass, three seasons might be longer than the lifespan of a modern closer.

This is because the final three outs of a baseball game have become so specialized and scrutinized that pitchers, new to the role, are not given a very long leash to feel the position out. Minor League systems now have closers in waiting, something that past generations never had. Established Major League starting pitchers would try on the role later in their careers. The wiggle room to experiment is gone. AAA affiliates used to groom generic pitchers, now they specifically-tailor heirs to the ninth-inning hot seat.

Another factor in the lifespan of current closers is an organizational trend. In some places, the closer is approached as a rest stop for young pitchers, not the destination. Fausto Carmona and Adam Wainwright were brought up as closers. It kept their innings pitched low while the arms strengthened, and now both are All-Star starting pitchers.

The best contemporary example of moving youthful arms from the back end of the bullpen is Minnesota's Brian Duensing. After 39 relief appearances for the Twins this season, Duensing was converted to a starter. He has now jumped 20 spots in the Pitcher Rating this week, and made manager Ron Gardenhire look like a genius.

If 400 saves is an impressive feat, then the unprecedented 600 will be surreal for Trevor Hoffman. The Brewers' closer needs only two more saves for an uncharted total. What appears to be an easy task has some hindrances on the horizon. Quite simply, the team is not anything special, so save opportunities will be tough to come by down the stretch. The other issue is that Hoffman's career has ended, but no one has passed him the memo. Rookie John Axford (arriving in the Pitcher Ratings this week for the first time - 39th) has emerged on the scene. It subsequently relegated Hoffman to a back-up closer role; a position that is as unique as 600 career saves.

All told, the aging legend may not get very many looks at 600. And given Hoffman's recent conversion rate, the Brewers might need to give him five shots just to get two. Being so close to 600 is the only thing keeping him in the league. If he gets it done, he will thankfully go away. It is nothing against Hoffman, but it is getting tough to watch him struggle. Let's not drag this out for another whole year.

The Brewers organization is in a difficult spot, though. Axford and the team need to use the rest of the season to grow for the future. A future that Trevor Hoffman will definitely not be a part of. The pressure situation of recording outs 25, 26, and 27 cannot be simulated, and the rookie needs all the practice he can get.

The last note of the week on closers is a simple message about Francisco Rodriguez. First, he punched his girlfriend's father. Then, he was arrested (now facing up to 5 years in jail for assault). Now, the Mets are trying to take some of his guaranteed money back. This might be the least of Rodriguez's worries, but he fell out of the Pitcher Rating Top 45. Then again, he might be an avid follower. I could see how falling out of the rankings could sting worse than jail time and losing millions of dollars.

If you are reading this, K-Rod, I apologize for piling onto your worst week ever.

Pitcher Rating August 18
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