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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Who to Close?
by Hal Vickery

Dare I say it? Perhaps it’s time for the Shingo Takatsu era to end. Not that I think Takatsu has done a bad job when he’s closed for the Sox. He blew a save in the third game of the season against the Indians and then had a second bad outing Friday night against the Mariners.

This may not be enough to say that Takatsu should no longer be a closer, but it could be enough to say that Takatsu should not be the closer. This is especially true when you look at the performance of Dustin Hermanson when he has finished off games.

With Takatsu, ever since late in the 2004 season, his relief outings have been an adventure. I get so nervous watching him close that my fingernails end up bleeding. If this keeps up much longer I’m going to have to find a way to start working on my toenails.

On the other hand, Hermanson appears to have ice water in his veins. No junk pitches, no cutesy stuff. Just go out there and mow them down. Whereas Takatsu is starting to remind me of Billy Koch, Hermanson is reminding me of Bobby Thigpen in 1990.

This is not to say that closers can’t throw junk pitches. In my most impressionable years, the Sox had guys like Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher, and Wilbur Wood coming out of the pen throwing knuckle balls. A junk baller in relief can be just as effective as a flame thrower. There used to be a junk ball pitcher in the National League named Bob Miller. I can still remember Jack Brickhouse saying, “Miller has three pitches: slow, slower, and slowest.”

What I am saying is that the idea of every team having one guy designated is relatively new, going back to Tony LaRussa’s Oakland A’s in the early ‘90s. LaRussa decided that he was going to use Rick Honeycutt as his set up man and Dennis Eckersley as his closer. Both pitchers were so devastating that other managers followed suit, with very mixed results.

How often do you hear the geniuses on sportsblab radio talk about how difficult it is to find a really good closer? How often do you hear that you have to have a certain mentality to be a closer? Supposedly some guys (like Mariano Rivera) have it while other guys (like LaTroy Hawkins) don’t.

Maybe the problem is that you have 30 clubs but you don’t have 30 guys with that mentality, or at least the ability to sustain it day in and day out. Maybe in this case specialization isn’t such a good idea.

As I said, I’m not suggesting that Hermanson be the closer for the Sox, although between his performance last year with the Giants when he moved into that role and his performance this year so far seem to indicate that he could be). I don’t even know if I’m suggesting the dreaded “closer by committee” idea that some managers have gone to when they don’t have a single guy who can close on a daily basis.

At heart I’m a pragmatist. When I’ve had job interviews and people ask me my philosophy of education, I generally tell them exactly that. I go with whatever works. Maybe that’s what Ozzie Guillen needs to do with his bullpen. Is there any reason why two, or three, or even four guys in the bullpen can’t close out games depending on the situation?

Is there any reason why everyone in the bullpen has to have a set role to play? “Oh, guys perform better when they know their role?” you say. Well how’s this? “Your role is to get the other team’s batters out, no matter when you come in to pitch.” Shouldn’t that be role enough?

Some modern managers have made an amazing discovery. It turns out that some starting pitchers can go over 100 pitches in a game and it doesn’t hurt their arm, whereas other pitchers have trouble getting to that recently appointed magic number. A few starting pitchers are even being allowed to finish the games they start, rather than being arbitrarily lifted in the seventh inning.

The problem in baseball has always been that if one manager finds something that works for him, pretty soon everyone else is copying what he does, regardless of the original reason the first manager had for employing whatever the change was. Why does every team now use a five-man starting rotation? You’d be amazed at the reason. Several years ago the Dodgers had five guys who could start, and they didn’t want to relegate one of them to the bullpen. So they went with five starters.

Those starters were all successful because, as the Dodgers knew, they were all good pitchers. So what happened next? All the other managers decided that there was something magical about using a five-man rotation. Interestingly enough, even with everyone using a five-man rotation, both leagues still have an overall .500 record. Half the games are won and half are lost. The innovation didn’t work for everyone.

The same is true of the specialized bullpen. It worked for LaRussa with the A’s because he had Honeycutt and Eckersley. Maybe it’s time to break the mold once again and try something different. It beats watching a closer get shelled every day (see Koch, Billy).

If you have two or three guys who can close, use them. Jerry Manuel was a cookbook manager. You could predict his moves because everything was based on the prescribed “rules.” I don’t think that Ozzie Guillen is like that.

However, if Guillen does what I’m proposing, don’t be surprised if the sports media types, whose accumulated wisdom could fit in a thimble and still have room for all the sand on all the beaches in the world, decry his going with “closer by committee.”

Here’s a thought. The Sox decried the lack of situational hitting and have revamped their team, emphasizing just that from their players. Shouldn’t the same be true of managers? Imagine going with the situation rather than a set course for every game.

Now there would be something truly innovative!


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at hvickery@svs.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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