May 16, 2017
The masters in art of relief pitching
endure long struggles to get there
By KEITH GAVE
Turns out, the main ingredients that go into finding and developing a closing pitcher in major league baseball are luck, patience and the occasional divine intervention.
At least that’s the best I could come up with when researching how some of Major League Baseball’s all-time best closers came to their jobs. My goal was to try to answer the question of my broadcast partner, J.C. (in the Afternoon), who wondered during one of our on-air Tigers Insider conversations recently, “Where the hell do great closers come from? Like Mariano Rivera. Was he created in some laboratory?
And if he was, or however it came to be, could the Tigers be so lucky with Justin Wilson as their ace closer for the next decade or so?
The simple answer is no. No one even remotely predicted or suspected Rivera’s unlikely ascent to the Baseball Hall of Fame as the finest closer in the game’s history.
J.C. has been frustrated, like many Tigers fans are this season, by the woeful ninth-inning failures of Francisco Rodriguez, whose 437 saves rank fourth in MLB history. But the way “K-Rod” has been pitching this season, he couldn’t close a book, let alone a baseball game. Enter Wilson.
Most would-be closers in recent years have arrived in Detroit via trade or free-agency, and Rodriguez was no exception when the Tigers traded two minor-league prospects to Milwaukee in November 2015. Detroit hasn’t drafted and developed a closer in decades, but clearly there’s no shame in that. Few other teams have either.
Some of the best closers in the business came to the game as something quite different. Consider:
Rivera, MLB’s career in saves (652) and games finished (952), a 13-time All-Star and a five-time World Series champion, wanted to be a soccer player growing up in Panama. His favorite player was Pele. Baseball was still pretty much a hobby for him. He was a shortstop until he was 19, when a series of injuries put him on the mound as an emergency pitcher. Two weeks later, the New York Yankees invited him to a tryout camp, then signed him to a minor-league contract with a $2,500 bonus.
Scouts considered him a fringe prospect, at best. In fact, they liked his 16-year-old cousin, Ruben, better. Mariano’s early career as a starting pitcher in professional baseball was less than memorable – 4-9 in his first season with Class A Greensboro. Then 5-3 in Class A-Advanced in Fort Lauderdale in 1992, when he overthrew his slider and inadvertently caused damage to his right elbow, requiring surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament.
He was rehabilitating his arm when he was left unprotected by the Yankees in the 1992 expansion draft, when Florida and Colorado joined MLB. He was called up to the majors on May 16, 1995, but even then as a 25-year-old rookie three years removed from surgery his spot on the roster wasn’t guaranteed. In his debut as a starting pitcher for the Yankees in place of Jimmy Key, he allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings in a 10-0 loss, and after posting a 10.20 ERA through four starts, he was demoted to AAA Columbus in June.
That summer, Yankees management considered trading Rivera to Detroit for starter David Wells. During those trade talks, Rivera pitched a five-inning, no-hit shutout in a rain-shortened game, throwing a fastball that routinely reached 96 mph – about 6 mph faster than his previous average velocity. Rivera attributed the improvement to God. The Yankees verified the improved velocity and shut down trade talk immediately.
He pitched his way back to New York as a long reliever and spot starter, finishing with a 5-3 record and 5.51 ERA. In 1996, he was the Yankees’ primary set-up man, pitching the seventh and eighth innings ahead of closer John Wettland. At one point, Rivera pitched 26 consecutive scoreless innings, including 15 straight hitless innings.
So impressed were the Yankees that they chose not to sign Wettland in the offseason and gave the closer’s job to Rivera, who kept it until his retirement in 2013.
Trevor Hoffman, whose 601 career saves are second only to Rivera’s, was drafted in the 11th round (288th overall) in 1989 as a shortstop by the Cincinnati Reds, who liked his arm so much they encouraged him to try pitching. Three years later, the Reds left him unprotected in the expansion draft, and Hoffman was picked up by Florida, where he apprenticed as a closer under Bryan Harvey, before Florida sent him to San Diego in a deal that included Gary Sheffield, who had won the NL batting title the year before. Hoffman quickly assumed the closer’s duties, and the rest is history.
Lee Smith was a flame-throwing starting pitcher when, as a 17-year-old, the Chicago Cubs selected him in the second round (28th overall) in the 1975 draft. He struggled as a starter, prompting his AA Midland manager Randy Hundley to move him to the bullpen. Smith resisted the move so strenuously that he quit baseball to try college basketball at Northwestern State University. At the encouragement of Cubs icon Billy Williams, Smith returned to Midland as a reliever in the 1979 season and made the step to AAA in 1980. He made the majors on Sept. 1, 1980. He spent parts of the next three seasons as a middle-reliever, and even started five games in 1982. But by the end of the season he was closing games and in 1983 he was closing games so dominantly he was selected to play in the MLB All-Star game.
Which brings us to K-Rod and his fourth-place ranking on the all-time save list. He wasn’t made in some lab, either. He’s human, obviously; he errs. He was signed as an undrafted free-agent starting pitcher by the Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels in 1998, and moved to relief duties in 2002 after elbow and shoulder injuries. Because of multiple injuries in the Angels bullpen, the club brought him up in mid-September and he emerged as a post-season relief hero, winning five postseason games before he’d ever won a regular-season MLB game, helping the Angels win the
World Series that fall. In 2003, his first full-season in the majors, Rodriguez was a set-up man. He gave up an earned run in nine of his first 15 games, but rebounded to allow just nine in his last 44 appearances, finishing with an 8-3 record and a 3.03 ERA. It would be two more years before his transition to closer.
Closing out a baseball game is one of the hardest jobs in all of sports. The guys who do it, and do it well over a period of years, like these four men, are awfully special. There are 30 teams in baseball, and barely a handful of them have closers that are lights-out good night in and night out.
Will Justin Wilson evolve into one of those guys? Only time – and luck, patience and maybe the hand of God – will tell.