I don’t necessarily agree with all of the conclusions that Mike Podhorzer came to about the closers in Milwaukee and Chicago earlier today, but his writeup makes sense, and it is still notable what’s happening in those cities. The fireballing favorite was passed over for a couple of veterans. That’s too bad because the only thing I’ve seen that says much about closer change is fastball velocity and strikeout rate. Neither Matt Lindstrom nor Francisco Rodriguez own real leads over Nate Jones and Jim Henderson in those categories. And yet, it’s the veterans with more service time that are closing right now.
Maybe that’s not by accident. Matt Murphy wrote a great piece about how it’s possible that teams are using veteran closers on short term contracts in order to keep their arbitration-eligible young relievers cheap. No saves means no bucks in arbitration. Whether or not teams are actually doing so on purpose, there are ready examples in Oakland, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay (and now Chicago and Milwaukee) where the arbitration kid lost out to the free agent contract vet. Should we add age to the equation when we are thinking about closer changes?
In the past, Derek Carty has shown that ‘closer experience’ doesn’t matter much to the future. This is a little bit different. Matt Lindstrom doesn’t have a ton of closer experience. But he is older, and signed to a deal, and by having him close, the White Sox might keep Nate Jones cheap.
So, does age matter? Maybe:
We have two “facts.” One: Closers are older than your average pitcher and the general baseball population in general (and might be getting older while the average population is getting younger). Two: Arbitration overvalues closers (at least according to one executive).
We don’t know that these two things are linked, and especially we don’t know how causal the relationship is. After all, Craig Kimbrel, Addison Reed, Kenley Jansen, Drew Storen, Neftali Feliz and Jordan Walden all got their chances before they turned 25. Steve Cishek and Ernesto Frieri didn’t have a lot of service time before they got the jobs.
Does one thing unite those young pitchers? They were all on teams that were reasonably close to contention (other than Cishek). Are the White Sox or Brewers that close to contention? Maybe no. But what about the Indians and Rays? If Jake McGee and Cody Allen are their best relievers, should they be closing by this rubric we’re creating here?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s enough here to add this to our Closer Divining Toolbox. Maybe there’s a slight favorite to the veteran closer, but it’s still possible — and I would say in the case of Nate Jones, who plays for a team that recently gave a young closer the job and let him run with it, perhaps probable — that these two (younger) superior-seeming relievers in Milwaukee and Chicago get their jobs back from the more ho-hum current (older) closers on their teams.
In the end, I’ll bet on gas and strikeouts, and I’m holding Jones and Henderson where it’s feasible for me to do so. Velocity and strikeouts are what you expect out of the role, and they are the easiest skills to find in a short sample. We’ll have to watch a little longer to know if service time is a big deal when it comes to predicting closer changes.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.