Finding great closers remains a tricky proposition
By Dave Sheinin,
Drew Storen’s road to the Washington Nationals’ full-time closer’s job was newly paved, well-lit, clearly marked and lined with plentiful rest stops. From the day Storen joined the organization, the Nationals basically handed him the keys to a roadster and a GPS device and said, “See you at the destination” — the destination being the closer’s job in Washington by around opening day in 2011.
Storen had been drafted as a closer, plucked out of Stanford with the 10th overall pick of the 2009 draft. He had been developed as a closer, signing with the Nationals immediately after the draft and squeezing in 28 minor league appearances in 2009 at three levels. And he had been groomed as a closer, arriving in Washington in May 2010 to set up for veteran closer Matt Capps — then, following the trade of Capps, converting five of seven save opportunities down the stretch.
By this spring, the full-time closer’s job essentially was his to lose.
But in reality, Storen’s road would not be as easy as it appeared. Nor should anyone have expected it to be.
Historically, teams usually don’t get the luxury of identifying future closers so early in the development process; the great ones almost uniformly take longer, more winding paths to the job. And indeed, Storen hit a roadblock this spring, when a series of poor performances left him in a more tenuous position with the Nationals — at best, part of a closer-by-committee that will share ninth-inning duties.
With only 532 / 3 minor league innings under his belt, Storen, should he eventually ascend to the closer’s job and have a successful career, would be among only a handful of closers in recent history to hold that job with so little professional training.
“I think I’m a little more polished,” Storen said earlier this spring. “Even though I don’t have experience closing in the big leagues, I’ve experienced closing for a whole season [at Stanford]. And a lot of that routine, and learning how to listen to your body, I’m a step ahead of guys who hadn’t done it.
“When you get to the big leagues it’s a whole different story, but I feel like I had a little bit of a head start. My college time was my minor league time.”
Across the majors, we are in an era of transition in the hierarchy of closers. This offseason, two of the most prolific closers in history, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner — who rank No. 1 and No. 5 all-time in career saves, respectively — retired.
And while Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees — indisputably the greatest closer of all time — remains one of the most effective ninth-inning men in the game, he is 41 years old and has not committed to pitching beyond this season.
Rivera, with 559 career saves, has a chance to pass Hoffman (601) for the all-time record this season. But it will be a long time until anyone else threatens that mark: Among active closers, only one — Cincinnati’s Francisco Cordero (290) — owns even half as many saves as Rivera.
“I’m the last old man doing this,” Rivera said with a laugh this spring. “Now they’re getting [closers] so young.”
Indeed, teams seem increasingly willing to turn over the ninth inning to pitchers barely out of college — something practically unheard of a decade ago.
Storen, who entered this spring as the favorite to win the Nationals’ closing job (and who remains a favorite to seize it at some point during the regular season), is 23 years old. Craig Kimbrel, who will be a co-closer for the Atlanta Braves, is 22. White Sox lefty Chris Sale, a 2010 draftee who was in the big leagues pitching the ninth inning by the end of last season, turns 22 on Wednesday.
“I was grateful for them showing the faith in me,” Sale said. “That says a lot about the organization, letting a rookie who just got out of college pitch some pretty important innings for you down the stretch.”
But to many old-school types, what it says about organizations — that they are now giving the closer’s job to rookies with barely any minor league experience — isn’t good. It used to be said in baseball that every team has a great closer in its organization; the trick was to figure out who it was.
“To me, you have to teach guys how to pitch first — as starters, in the minor leagues,” said former manager Davey Johnson, now a special adviser for the Nationals. “Let them build up their arm strength. Then you make them closers based on their mentality and their stuff. They evolve into that role. I think a lot of teams, they see a guy with a great arm, they make him a closer in [Class A]. Then you look at his stats at the end of the year and he’s got 50 innings. How is anybody going to learn to pitch with 50 innings?”
Indeed, a glance at the list of the all-time leaders in saves shows how closers were once developed. Of the top 20 pitchers on the list, all but two (Hoffman and eighth-place Troy Percival) had at least 300 minor league innings and/or at least 30 minor league starts before arriving in the majors.
“For me, it’s important that you have enough innings” in the minors, Rivera said. “You may have the ability, the stuff. But the innings are important. You learn to pitch as a starter. And not only that, but you strengthen your arm. You get stronger as you pitch more and more.”
Most start somewhere
Rivera’s path to the ninth inning was typical of closers of his generation. He spent virtually his entire minor league career as a starter, compiling 67 starts and 4301 / 3 innings before cementing a job in the majors. His big league career began as a starter in 1995, but he was switched to relief by the end of that season, then spent all of 1996 as a setup man to veteran closer John Wetteland, before taking over the closer’s job for good in 1997.
“I can see both sides,” said Capps, the former Nationals closer now with the Minnesota Twins, who was a starter until his fourth minor league season. “Being a starter and learning to pitch through adversity and finding something that works on the fly — those were important lessons for me. Those were experiences you can’t get as relievers.
“But at the same time, guys who have closed in college, they knew before they even got to pro ball the atmosphere of the ninth inning, what it’s like to pitch with the game on the line.”
The Nationals, back when the franchise was still the Montreal Expos, were one of the first organizations to draft a college closer in the first round and install him quickly as their big league closer. The pitcher was Chad Cordero, out of Cal State Fullerton, and after a mere 261 / 3 minor league innings in 2003, he was in the big leagues later that season, and was closing games by midseason 2004.
In 2005, the Nationals’ inaugural year in Washington, Cordero was an all-star, saving 47 games with a 1.82 ERA. But he tired by the end of that season, under a heavy workload, and has never quite been the same since, his career eventually derailed by shoulder surgery.
“It might have been a little too much to do right away,” Cordero said. “But I enjoyed it. I had a good time. I wasn’t going to say no [to the opportunity]. I definitely wore down [in 2005]. Maybe part of that was getting into it too quick.”
Six years after the organization drafted Cordero, the Nationals made a similar move with Storen. In 2009, the team held both the No. 1 and No. 10 overall picks. Knowing that Stephen Strasburg, the obvious first overall pick, would require a record-breaking signing bonus, the Nationals were looking for someone with the No. 10 pick whom they could sign at or below the recommended “slot” figure. They also wanted someone, preferably a pitcher, who could get to the big leagues in a hurry.
Storen was their man — even though the notion of rushing a closer to the majors went against the principles of General Manager Mike Rizzo.
“My approach is the old-school way,” Rizzo said. “We made an exception with Storen because we felt he was the quickest guy to the big leagues from that draft and we had the Strasburg thing going. But to me, all relievers are failed starters who have some qualities you like that makes them better prepared to get three guys out than to pitch for six or seven innings at a time.”
A mentality for the job
The failed-starter theory would certainly apply to Cole Kimball, a promising 25-year-old prospect who could be in the Nationals’ bullpen by midseason and who might one day challenge Storen for the closer’s job.
Kimball, a 12th-round draft pick in 2006, came into the Nationals organization as a starter and remained primarily a starter for his first three years of pro ball — a mostly forgettable stretch in which he went a combined 10-18 with a 4.92 ERA. But in 2009, the team decided to make him a reliever, and by the end of 2010, he was the top closer prospect in the organization, going a combined 8-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 18 saves that year between Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg.
“As you get up to the higher minor leagues,” Rizzo said, “you either figure out that, A) this guy can really help us in the big leagues as a reliever, or B) he doesn’t have the repertoire, the makeup or the thought process to be a seven-inning pitcher, so you kind of close them up. It’s for different reasons for every pitcher. Sometimes it’s to push their focus in to three outs, as opposed to six innings.”
Kimball, whose high-strung, full-bore personality meshed with the ideal closer mentality, took to the role immediately, likening it to the volunteer fire department work he did as a teenager back home.
“It’s almost the same thing,” he said. “When the bell goes off [at the fire station], you jump up and go. When the phone goes off [in the bullpen], you jump up and go.”
Kimball’s path to a big league closer’s job will never be as smooth as that of Storen, who is two years younger and, at least conceivably, could block Kimball’s path for years.
But in the end, it may not be such a bad thing that Kimball has had to wait for his opportunity. Storen’s road may be cleaner and straighter, but the road Kimball is on is well-worn and time-tested.