by Matthew Taylor
Orioles closer George Sherrill gets a passing mention in Jim Caple's column, "The most overrated position in sports," an intriguing discussion of how the value of closers has become exaggerated in this era of one-inning saves.
Caple uses the Mariners as an example, but he could have just as easily used the Orioles. Consider that the loss of BJ Ryan and his 36 saves following the 2005 season allowed for the emergence of Chris Ray and his 33 saves in 2006. Ray's elbow injury in 2007 then allowed for the emergence of Sherrill (31 saves and counting) in 2008.
Again, look at the Mariners. They once traded Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb out of desire to get a "proven" closer for the stretch run. That was a disastrous deal. And as the team has shown over the past nine seasons, completely unnecessary. In 2000, the Mariners signed Kazuhiro Sasaki, who was a reliable closer for three seasons. When he got hurt in 2003, they went to Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was better. They replaced Hasegawa and Sasaki with Eddie Guardado, who was just about as effective. Then they replaced him with Putz, who was even better. And when Putz got hurt this season, they subbed for him with Brandon Morrow, who has been just as good. And they also traded away George Sherrill, who has 30 saves for the Orioles.
That's five consecutive relievers who have all been highly effective closers. Some were high-priced free agents. Others were inexpensive middle relievers who got promoted. The point is, not only were the Mariners able to continually find a closer, they even had potential closers to trade away.
Sherrill went from a specialist to closer by circumstance and wound up on the All-Star roster, a move that few, if any, O's fans expected. (By comparison, check out this prescient December post from Bleeding Blue and Teal titled "Save George Sherrill.")
It's easy for Bird watchers to overvalue the role of closer considering the still-fresh memories of the likes of Armando Benitez and Jorge Julio (although Julio did finish third in 2002 Rookie of the Year voting, ahead of the likes of John Lackey and Carlos Pena).
Given the torturous experience of losing to the Yankees in the 1996 playoffs, we O's fans also easily recall the dominant Rivera-to-Wetteland relief combo and let that influence our thinking. If memories of that duo haven't produced any potential "Ryan-to-Ray" or "Ray-to-Sherrill" references in conversation, you're not talking enough O's baseball.
Ultimately, though, Caple makes a convincing case against the closer. Are you sold on his argument?
Recent O's Saves Leaders
2007 Chris Ray - 16 saves
2006 Chris Ray - 33 saves
2005 BJ Ryan - 36 saves
2004 Jorge Julio - 22 saves
2003 Jorge Julio - 36 saves
2002 Jorge Julio - 25 saves
Speaking of Rivera ...
Check out this New York Times article from the 1997 season, "Rivera Adjusting To Role As Closer." Seems he didn't think that closing games was so easy when he first got started.
"Mariano Rivera purposely places himself in a time warp every time he pitches for the Yankees. It is not 1997, it is still 1996. It is not the ninth inning that Manager Joe Torre is summoning him for, it is the seventh or eighth. It is not a potentially game-ending spot, it is another situation as a setup man.
Rivera developed these mental tricks after the first 10 days of the season, when he sputtered as John Wetteland's replacement as the Yankees' closer and mishandled two of his first four save opportunities. Suddenly, doubts about Rivera emerged, and some floated into his mind, too. He eliminated them expeditiously. He stopped thinking about the ninth.
'I tell myself that it's last year,' Rivera said. 'I say, 'O.K.: Mo, you've got to go get two or three innings. Go do the job.' That is what I have to do. When Joe calls me, I don't think it's the ninth. That relaxes me.''"
[Image Source: Bleeding Blue and Teal. Click photo for original.]