Drew Storen, Jonathan Papelbon, and the closer conundrum

This year, the Washington Nationals were expected to be runaway winners of the NL East and strong contenders to win the World Series. They may yet live up to these expectations, but they haven’t so far.

One reason is injuries — to Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Steven Strasburg, Doug Fister, and others. Another reason is disappointing performance by the bullpen, except for closer Drew Storen (injuries to Craig Stammen, David Carpenter, and Casey Janssen contributed to this problem too).

Accordingly, the Nationals have just obtained ace closer Jonathan Papelbon from Philadelphia. The price wasn’t high — a decent, but not outstanding, minor league pitching prospect.

The acquisition of Papelbon might have raised the question of whether he or Storen would be the team’s closer. Storen, as noted, as has been hugely effective for Washington in this role. At the time of the trade, his ERA during 2014-15 was 1.36, the lowest of any closer in baseball during this period. For his part, Papelbon is one of the great closers of all time and, unlike Storen, has not blown a save this season.

But the question of who would close never arose. Papelbon’s contract gave him the power to veto a trade to the Nats. Papelbon said he would use that power unless guaranteed the closer job.

Who should be the Nats closer and who should handle the 8th inning of tight games? I submit it doesn’t matter. Indeed, I would argue that it would hardly matter even if one of the two relievers were clearly better than the other.

Baseball has developed a fetish over which reliever pitches what inning. But in truth, runs count the same regardless of what inning they cross the plate. Thus, a game can as easily be lost or won in the 6th inning as in the 9th.

To be sure, closers are mainly used when the manager knows the game can be won or not. (I say mainly because, for salary reasons, closers are used when they can record a “save” and the “save” rules cover some situations when, as a practical matter, the game really isn’t on the line). Moreover, it’s easy to believe that some pitchers handle high pressure situations better than others. Thus, it makes sense to have ace relievers work the 9th inning in most “save” situations, as opposed to the 6th inning.

However, the 8th inning specialist generally is also used when the manager knows the game is on the line. And the pressure on a reliever in the 8th inning of a tight game can’t be much less than the pressure on a closer an inning later.

Therefore, the 8th inning man and the closer should be considered virtually interchangeable. Stated differently, I doubt that, over the course of a season, a team would gain more than one win if its closer and its 8th inning man swapped jobs, even if the closer’s ERA were a run lower than the other guy’s. (I’m just guessing though; I don’t know of any studies on this matter).

If the Nats problem was with their set-up relievers, rather than with their closer, why didn’t they just obtain a quality set-up man, such as Tyler Clippard who was an all-star when he filled that role for us in the past and who was on the trading block (the Mets, who are in second place in the NL East ended up getting him)?

The answer, many say, is that the Nats don’t trust Storen to close in the playoffs. This lack of trust is based on two playoff games in which he blew save opportunities — in a decisive Game 5 against the Cardinals in 2012 and in Game 2 against San Francisco in 2014.

In my view, two games provide an insufficient basis for concluding that Storen shouldn’t be trusted to close in the playoffs, especially since he was an inch or two away from a called third strike that would have saved the St. Louis game.

But let’s assume that Storen lacks the metal reliably to close games in the crucible of the playoffs. Under this assumption, isn’t it likely that he won’t be able to handle 8th inning chores either?

Finally, I wonder a little about obtaining a pitcher who insists on displacing an extremely reliable closer like Storen. On the one hand, you like a guy who wants the ball in 9th inning save situations. On the other hand, you want a guy who puts the team first and isn’t fixated, as Papelbon is said to be, on chasing the all-time saves record.

The Nats picked up Papelbon’s option for next season. This probably means that Storen will want to move on. They pay the extremely big bucks to closers, not set-up men.

Even so, I’m happy right now to have Papelbon join Storen in the bullpen. And to me it doesn’t matter who pitches the 9th inning.

Today, the pairing was brilliant, preserving a 1-0 win over Miami for Max Scherzer. For the second game in a row, Storen was untouchable in the 8th (retiring three in a row, two on strikeouts). And Papelbon, making his Nat debut, pitched a 1-2-3 9th.

Lights out. Long may it continue.


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