I think both sides of the debate missed a big issue. The general public and traditional media thought we were trying to do a "bullpen by committee," a revolutionary idea. They decided to just blame the whole thing on Bill James, and got it all wrong. On the other side, the new-school guys like you thought, great, they're not going to overpay for saves, and they're going to try to apply what Bill wrote about the ace reliever and unconventional usage to create the "optimal bullpen." The truth was really somewhere in the middle. -- Theo Epstein to Baseball Prospectus, 2004
The closer myth -- the idea that the last three outs are fundamentally different than the first 24, and that only some pitchers have the mental and emotional capacity to get them consistently -- falls apart like week-old crumb cake under any examination. No reasonable person can argue that facing the bottom of a lineup in the ninth inning is somehow harder than facing the middle of it in the eighth. No reasonable person can argue that a tied game is somehow less pressure-filled than one in which you have a three-run lead. No reasonable person can argue that a player can have an ineffable quality that demands he pitch at 9:45 p.m., but falls apart when asked to report to work 30 minutes earlier as needed. -- Analyst Joe Sheehan, a Baseball Prospectus alum
BOSTON -- Ten years have passed since the Boston Red Sox floated their closer-by-committee concept, and were ridiculed for doing so, when in fact the concept was not as suspect as the arms to which then-general manager Theo Epstein entrusted the task. That offseason, Epstein charted a new course and paid big bucks for a proven closer in Keith Foulke, who in turn gave way to Jonathan Papelbon.
When Papelbon became too expensive, in the judgment of the Red Sox, he was allowed to walk and new GM Ben Cherington traded for All-Star closer Andrew Bailey. Then Bailey sustained a freak thumb injury and was ineffective when he came back, so Cherington traded for another All-Star, Joel Hanrahan, and pronounced him as the team's new closer.
Which was fine, until Hanrahan tweaked a hamstring and was replaced by Bailey, who has been sensational, pitching like the guy the Sox thought they traded for last year.
Bailey's save in Wednesday's 6-5 win over the Oakland A's was his fifth in sixth chances, and he got it in electrifying fashion, striking out the side. He has 20 strikeouts, tops among AL relievers, in just 11 innings. Batters from the left side -- and he faced three of them Wednesday -- have one hit in 21 at-bats.
Meanwhile, Hanrahan is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment in Pawtucket on Friday and will be back in a matter of days. He encountered some turbulence in the early going, walking five and giving up three home runs in just 4 2/3 innings, but he also threw a fastball that registered at just shy of 100 mph and has had 76 saves in the past two seasons.
Hard to believe that Hanrahan could lose his job while on the disabled list three weeks into the season, but manager John Farrell has been noticeably reticent about declaring the job is Hanrahan's when he comes back.
Bailey, naturally, is happy to have the chance to prove that the Red Sox didn't blow it when they traded for him, that he is as good as advertised. But make no mistake: He also relishes getting last call. Asked Wednesday if he now looks at it as anybody's job, he said, "Right now, it's mine. The front office, the manager will cross that bridge when it comes."
Earlier Wednesday, when asked a similar question, Bailey said this:
"It's not my decision to make. Obviously, talking to them before the [Hanrahan] trade was made, I told them I just want an opportunity, a chance to win that job, but they know my goal was to stay healthy and prove that I can pitch.
"I think I proved I can pitch. We'll see what happens when [Hanrahan] comes back, but I think we're all on the same page in terms of where we want to take this team, and whatever our roles are our roles are. We'll see what happens. I think we have 25 guys here on the same page. We want to win the World Series.
"I don't think it matters what inning you pitch."
Oh, really? If that were true, then the Red Sox would seem to have the personnel to resurrect the committee approach. They have power arms in Bailey, Hanrahan, Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller from the left side, and Daniel Bard, who was just recalled from the minors. They have a savvy right-hander in Koji Uehara, who in some respects is like Hideki Okajima from the opposite side, not overpowering but able to spot his fastball in the strike zone while putting away hitters with his splitter.
In the season's first game, Farrell showed a willingness to think outside of the box, bringing in Uehara as early as the sixth to pick up starter Jon Lester, then using Bailey for just one batter in the seventh, when he struck out Kevin Youkilis, who was the potential tying run with two runners on.
But Farrell, while a progressive in so many ways, said last week in Cleveland that he still sees the need for a traditional closer and clearly defined roles for his relief staff.
"I think it's important in that eighth or ninth to know, 'Hey, here are the two guys we're going to build back to,"' Farrell said.
And it's easier to do so when you have pitchers of the quality of Tazawa, Miller and perhaps Bard to do so.
"When we have the ability to shut down the seventh inning like that," Farrell said, "we don't have to go to Koji or Bailey or Hanrahan. We're fortunate we have that kind of depth."
A new-age analyst such as Sheehan would argue that the Red Sox might be better served if a Bailey or Hanrahan were summoned to face Mike Trout with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a tie game rather than kept back for the ninth inning of a game all but won.
"It's no secret that I think the closer-centric bullpen has cost more games than it's won," Sheehan wrote in a recent newsletter. "There's no evidence that teams are better at protecting ninth-inning leads than they were 50 years ago, and the effects of shoehorning pitchers into these hyperlimited roles have had clearly negative effects on roster construction, talent usage and the day-to-day operations of a club."
Farrell isn't there yet, and may never be.
"I still believe those roles in the eighth and ninth are vital," he said.
"There's the mental side they prepare for and build up to. The guys before them know this is their time. I just think, as much as you can, have it in line and have confidence that any three guys can go through the middle of the order. That's a huge benefit."
Which leaves open the question: Hanrahan or Bailey? Bailey or Hanrahan? More than a few people await Farrell's answer.