Five steps to a more flexible

Whoa, guys, sorry I’m late with this week’s Single-A closer report. Better late than never, so here goes: Eduardo Paredes has a strong clutch on the Burlington job and is a must-own in all Single-A fantasy formats. Phil Kish is getting the bulk of the saves in Lansing. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for the next save in Great Lakes, I’m recommending David Reid-Foley, even though he doesn’t have a save all year. Call it a hunch.

Oh, you don’t have a Single-A fantasy team that counts saves as a category? No matter, this ought to be relevant regardless. Because in Great Lakes, and throughout the Dodgers’ farm system, we appear to be seeing an aggressive move against Traditional Closer Dogma. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper noticed it first: 

In Great Lakes, four pitchers have one save each. What’s especially interesting is that those four pitchers have each pitched in a wide variety of roles when they weren’t closing, showing up as early as the fourth inning or hanging around to throw three innings in mop-up or extra innings. They are, in other words, getting used to pitching, rather than getting used to a role. The aforementioned Reid-Foley, a converted catcher with 14 career innings and no saves, has appeared this year in the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, and the 14th. Dollars to donuts he’s in line to get a shot at closing a game soon.

Compare that to, say, the Dodgers’ inter-county rivals to the south: The Angels have spread saves among just seven pitchers at four levels. Part of that is influenced this early in the season by how many save opportunities have arisen, but in two of the Angels’ active affiliates there is a clear and exclusive closer: Trevor Gott in Double-A, a 22-year-old acquired in last year’s Huston Street deal, and a minor-league closer in High-A in 2014; and Paredes, a 20-year-old who also closed for short-season Orem last year and, before that, for the Angels’ Dominican League team. Gott and Paredes have nine of their teams’ 10 saves.

What’s odd about treating the ninth inning of a Double-A game the way teams have always treated the ninth inning of major-league games is that, not only does it exclude other pitchers from getting the comfort level in high-leverage that might someday make them an excellent closer-by-committee candidate; and not only does it turn a small handful of minor-league relievers into, essentially, ninth-inning specialists who don’t get used to pitching out of, say, high-leverage jams in the seventh inning on short notice, like Goose and Rollie used to be able to do; but the typical minor-league closer isn’t even likely to be a major-league closer. That’s certainly true in the Angels’ case. Our prospect writers at Baseball Prospectus are in consensus that Gott projects to be an average major-league reliever, not a relief ace; they see him as a seventh-inning guy with perhaps a 10 percent chance of saving 50 games in his career. Paredes projects for something slightly less at this point. Anointing a minor-league closer is wasting the experience on, typically, a low-ceiling reliever who will top out in a seventh-inning role in the majors.

The Dodgers this year are avoiding that early specialization. They aren’t alone in this approach. The Cubs also have 15 pitchers with saves across their four full-season levels, and no pitcher has more than a one-save lead on any teammate. The Rays have 14 pitchers with saves, seven of them with at least two but only one with so many as three.

If I had to guess, I’d say about 26 of baseball’s 30 GMs would love to be rid of the rigidly defined closer role. Probably at least a dozen or so managers, too. As nice as it is to know that you’ll have your best pitcher available for the final three, often most-important outs, it’s just as frustrating to know that your best pitcher will be unavailable for 89 percent of the game. But even with all those GMs and managers wishing for more flexibility, it’s not so simple. There are strong reasons relievers are used this way, and those reasons don’t go away easily. So how does baseball change? Here I offer five steps, all of which—thanks to the Dodgers, but also thanks to other teams and other factors—are in play at the moment.

1. Getting away from roles, generallyWhen the end of the rigid closer comes, we might trace its demise loosely to the rise of defensive shifts, which have been the first big shock to baseball’s rigid-roles structure. If a third baseman can stand in shallow right field without throwing up, why can’t the other roles (“leadoff hitter,” “starter,” “seventh-inning guy,” “closer”) be loosened for the situation, too? The more teams can get their players to be flexible, the more strategies open up to them—the all-bullpen game, the optimized lineup, the corner-outfield swap, the Zobrist, and so on. And the more that teams incorporate and depend on these strategies, the more they’ll need players to be flexible. It’s a feedback loop, and a good one. Of course, it depends first on one thing:

2. Getting players comfortable with this. Which means starting them young, as the Dodgers are. We’ve been talking about the Dodgers’ minor-league relief decisions, but you can see hints of the same attitude elsewhere on their fields. For instance, in Rancho Cucamonga, the promising first base prospect Cody Bellinger has begun playing some center field. Now, big-league clubs have always been, oh, optimistic about prospects’ defensive futures, and it’s not uncommon to keep a player as far up the defensive spectrum as possible for as long as possible. But Bellinger was drafted as a first baseman, spent last year as a first baseman exclusively, and is quite likely going to be primarily a first baseman in the majors. But what you don’t want Bellinger to think is “I’m a first baseman.” You want him to think “I’m a defender,” a defender who happens to usually be stationed around first base. We don’t know what shifts the Dodgers will be using by the time Bellinger is in the majors, but they might need him to stand directly behind second base, 30 feet in the outfield some day. Or stand where the second baseman usually stands, or where the third baseman does, or anywhere, really—who knows? Or they might need him to play center field, even! If he thinks of himself as a first baseman, he’ll be uncomfortable elsewhere. If he thinks of himself as one of seven athletes standing behind the pitcher with a glove, he might not be. Same goes for his spot in the batting order, for that matter; Bellinger is the classic no. 3 hitter, but he has batted third, fourth and fifth at times this year. My guess is the Dodgers will bat him second, and perhaps leadoff, at some points to come.

3. The players’ finances can’t depend on the save, part 1. Saves are worth something in arbitration. It’s been convincingly argued that teams can actually save money by signing established closers instead of giving their young relief aces save opportunities, thus suppressing their arbitration earnings; it’s been convincingly speculated that this has already happened. For teams, this salary suppression has the secondary benefit of freeing up said relief ace to pitch in a non-rigid role, so that now the manager has access to his best reliever all game instead of just in the final frame. All well and good, unless you want a ticked off young reliever who realizes that you’re giving his millions to an inferior Latroy Hawkins. The partial solution we’ve already seen, and that all indications will continue because of broader market forces within the game: Sign these guys to pre-arbitration extensions. Once Sean Doolittle has a seven-year contract, it really doesn’t matter (to his income) whether he saves 35 games a year with a 2.00 ERA or seven games a year with a 2.00 ERA. He might still care—there’s a prestige to the save, still—but prestige and money tend to stick together, and if the money isn’t in saves anymore the prestige might not be long following.

4. The players’ finances can’t depend on the save, part 2. Of course, most (or at least many) relief aces aren’t young pitchers whose salaries are determined by the arbitration system. Many are veterans who want to get some of that Papelbon money. Good news here, too: The market is pretty close to taking care of it.  Before the offseason last winter, Tim Dierkes ranked his top 50 free agents at MLB Trade Rumors. On that list were nine relievers, some established closers, some fallen closers (or shaky closers), and some good relievers with no saves at all. And, when those nine relievers hit the market, they… got paid pretty much perfectly in proportion to how good they were, or at least how good Dierkes thought they were. (Dierkes is smart, so I’ll consider those interchangeable.) 

Pitcher Saves? AAV
D. Robertson Proven Closer $11.5M
A. Miller Non-Closer $9M
L. Gregerson Non-Closer $6.25M
S. Romo Former Closer $7.5M
F. Rodriguez Proven Closer $6.5M
R. Soriano Proven Closer Unsigned
C. Janssen Proven Closer $5M
P. Neshek Non-Closer $6.25M
J. Grilli Former Closer $4M

A more rigorous analysis would probably find that saves still matter a bit on the market. But it’s nowhere near as obvious as it used to be. —

5. Enough teams put enough emphasis on “optimized” strategy that they just go for it, without worrying about being the only freak in the group.

Sabermetrics , or whatever you call it, aren’t what they used to be. We used to spend a lot of time on things like optimal closer usage, or batting orders, or sacrifice bunts. Now, as often as not, we’re talking about clever service time manipulation, or tanking to win, or rumors of super computer purchases. But the small stuff is having a comeback: See it in how teams use the second spot in their batting order; see it in the record-low pace of sacrifice bunts this year. The optimized bullpen is probably going to happen, too, long after some of us had more or less given up on it. It’s probably happening right now, a bit quietly, in a bunch of Midwestern minor-league cities.