PART I: Rise of the Closer
Pure hitters are traditionally the biggest movers and shakers in the baseball draft—and I declared as much in a previous column. Nevertheless, short relievers are also capable of a quick ascent to the big leagues. In recent drafts, in particular, it's been in vogue to select one early in hopes that he'll help the big club as soon as September of his draft year.
Throughout baseball's history into the 1970s, major league starting pitchers were expected to go a full nine. The best arms were in the rotation with the bullpen almost a purgatory for pitchers with second-tier stuff. It was long the norm for a club to leave spring training with 10 pitchers, sometimes less.
In the late 1970s and early '80s though, closers burst on the scene in all shapes and sizes. Flame-throwing Goose Gossage, finesse sidewinder Dan Quisenberry and forkball-heaving Bruce Sutter made it both fashionable and effective to have one man to slam the door shut at the end of games.
In the 1990s and 2000s, bullpens became deeper with an assortment of long relievers, middle relievers, set-up men and situational lefties at the manager's disposal. Some clubs even have a specified "groundball guy" like Tampa Bay's Chad Bradford. Big money is given to specialists now as a matter of routine because it's been demonstrated that you simply can't win a World Series without a deep pen. A major league pitching staff today will typically have 11-13 arms.
The closer role itself has become more specialized. While it was not uncommon for closers like Gossage, who was selected to the Hall of Fame last summer, to work 2-4 innings in the 1970s and 1980s, today's closer pitches an inning max—and almost always with a lead.
In our look at the evolution of the closer, I've analyzed the saves leader for each of the 30 big league teams in 2008, and added two others who shared closing duties to the extent of saving 14 or more games. So that gives us a total of 32 closers, and they are noted in the appendix at the bottom of the column.
Where Did They Come From?
--14 were drafted and signed out of college
--7 were signed as international free agents
--6 were drafted and signed out of high school
--4 were drafted and signed out of junior college
--1 was signed out of an Independent League but had four-year college experience
Where Were They Drafted?
--25 of the 32 closers were subject to the draft, yet only two (then-Cubs righthander Kerry Wood and Mets lefthander Billy Wagner) were true first-round picks. Two more (then-Tigers righthander Todd Jones and then-A's righthander Huston Street) were first-round supplemental picks.
--10 of the 25 were selected after the 10 th round.
--Of the 14 college-drafted closers, only two (Street and Red Sox righthander Jonathan Papelbon) were primarily relievers in college. Giants righthander Brian Wilson relieved as a freshman at Louisiana State, but was a starter for the remainder of his collegiate career.
--Of the 32 closers, only one (Street) moved through the minors without making a single start.
--Only two (Street and Astros righthander Jose Valverde) began their minor league careers in the bullpen, though Valverde did make four starts in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League. Pirates righthander Matt Capps also made 10 relief appearances for Pittsburgh's' Rookie-ball club after signing late in 2002, but it was merely to get work. He was exclusively a starter in 2003 and 2004, before making the conversion to closer in 2005.
--The Mets' Wagner did not make a single relief appearance in the minors and has not made a single start in the big leagues.
--4 closers (Diamondbacks righthander Jon Rauch, Nationals righthander Joel Hanrahan, then-Brewers righthander Salomon Torres and Wood) were converted into relievers after having already started games at the major-league level.
Converted Position Players
--Of the 14 college-drafted closers, four were primary position players in college. Padres righthander Trevor Hoffman, the game's all-time saves leader, was a shortstop at Arizona. Rays righthander Troy Percival was a catcher at UC Riverside. Blue Jays lefthander B.J. Ryan was a first baseman at Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) and Twins righthander Joe Nathan was a shortstop at Stony Brook. It's interesting to note that this foursome couldn't make their college pitching staffs and yet have combined for a 1,221 major league saves.
Neither Hoffman nor Percival threw a pitch during their entire college careers. Ryan and Nathan were used so infrequently that scouts had to request they throw for them.
Nathan, Hoffman and Percival were actually signed professionally as position players. Nathan and Hoffman were switched to the mound after two minor league seasons, Percival after one.
Nathan actually quit baseball when the Giants, the team that drafted hum, requested that he move to the mound. He went back to finish his degree at Stony Brook, then changed his mind and decided to give pitching a try after sitting out a year. He was also used as a starter initially.
Ryan was a non-prospect as a college first baseman and would never have been drafted at that position. Then-Reds area scout Johnny Almaraz, however, was impressed with how he threw the ball around the horn during pre-game warm-ups and had Ryan throw one live inning for him. That was enough to convince the Reds to draft the big lefty in the 17 th round. Understandably, Ryan was a willing participant from the get-go.
What's to Learn From Major League Closers
Given the above analysis, it is stunning how many of the game's elite closers are late-round picks, converted starters and/or converted position players. It goes to show that closers are more difficult to identify at a young age or early in the development process than any of the cogs necessary to build a championship club.
Closers are the elite of the elite. They are supposed to have filthy stuff. They are supposed to be unhittable. So how come only two (out of 25) were taken in the first round of the draft and 40 percent were chosen in the 11 th round and later?
In many cases, the obvious power arms were picked early while the inexperienced (Ryan) and the sneaky, finesse types (then-Rockies lefthander Brian Fuentes) went late. But there are notable exceptions, such as Wilson, whose fastball has been clocked upwards of 100 mph. He was merely a 24 th round pick by the Giants out of LSU. At age 26, he saved 41 games in 2008.
I would suggest that makeup is the real separator. A great fastball and a knockout breaking pitch obviously will help, but there are plenty of great arms who don't make this list. Many of those "great arms" play smaller roles in the big leagues and some are stuck in the minors.
I respectfully disagree with the statement Red Sox baseball operations advisor Bill James, renowned author of the Baseball Abstract, made years ago that anyone can close a ball game and that the ninth inning, with a lead, is just another inning. It takes a tremendous amount of mental toughness to step in against major league hitters battling every pitch with a game on the line; and come out on top consistently from one pressure cooker to the next, day after day. There's no other position like it in professional sports, although some have alluded to NFL kickers in that light. But some football teams have only one or two games a season when a last-second field-goal attempt determines the outcome of a game.
It goes beyond just good stuff to make a major league closer. It takes a pitcher with a great competitive edge, and one with resilience.
Relief Pitchers and the Draft
Given the evolution of major league bullpens through the years, scouting departments have had to adapt their strategy to scout potential closers accordingly.
It was a given in the 1970s and most of the '80s that none of the top college arms in the draft would already be relievers. Essentially, if they weren't good enough to start in college (or the minors), they surely couldn't pitch in the big leagues.
The most notable example of a college closer being drafted in the first round came in 1988, when Baltimore took Auburn righthander Gregg Olson with the fourth overall pick. Olson had saved 10 games that season for Auburn while striking out 113 in 72 innings—mostly on the strength of a dynamic breaking ball. It was not lost on other teams when Olson saved 27 games for a struggling Orioles club and earned American League rookie-of-the-year honors just a year after being drafted.
My own first recollection of a closer going in the first round was 1993, when Old Dominion righthander Wayne Gomes was selected by the Phillies. But I would consider 1997 as the first watershed draft for college closers.
The Tigers had the No. 1 overall selection that year for the only time in their history. Six-foot-10 lefthander Ryan Anderson, a local product, was the anticipated favorite to be the Tigers pick but in the end they took another Anderson—Matt Anderson, a closer from Rice—largely because of the team's desire for immediate help. At the time, I recall many scouts who were up in arms that a short reliever could be drafted first overall. The closer role was still one that a pitcher was supposed to grow into, not one that should be predetermined.
Despite a 98-102 mph fastball and an equally dominating 90-92 mph slider, Anderson fell short of expectations as a big league reliever, posting a career 5.19 ERA over parts of seven seasons. No primary closer has been chosen No. 1 overall since and teams largely avoided selecting them early in the next five drafts. The short relievers who did come out of the 1998-2002 drafts were mostly converted starters.
But another breakthrough for the college closer came in 2003, when Houston's Ryan Wagner (Reds), Cal State Fullerton's Chad Cordero (Expos) and Rice's David Aardsma (Giants) were all prominent first-round picks. Wagner and Cordero reached the big leagues in the same year they were drafted, while Aardsma opened the 2004 season in the Giants bullpen. Cordero became on the game's best closers by 2005.
In 2004, the A's hit the jackpot by using a sandwich pick on Street, a dominant closer for three years at Texas. Suddenly, every team had their eyes out for a short reliever who could make it quickly. The prevailing thought was that if a hurler had premium stuff and ice-water veins, he could get big leaguers out in the ninth inning with only minimal seasoning in minors. Cordero and Street had proved it.
The Changing College Closer Scene
With more and more college closers being drafted in the first round, the college game has evolved recently to the point where a team's best arm is often coming out of the pen.
No longer is the closer role relegated solely to the likes of Jack Krawczyk, who set a then-NCAA record with 49 saves during a four-year career at Southern California and led the Trojans to the College World Series title in 1998 as a senior. The wily righty, whose velocity topped in the low-80s, was only a 25 th-round selection of the Brewers and a minor-league journeyman thereafter. As a testament to his persistence, Krawczyk was a two-time minor league all-star who reached as high as Triple-A, but his lack of stuff kept him from a big league call-up.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon for a prominent Division I program to put its most powerful arm in for ninth inning duty in lieu of the weekend rotation. Scouts can now view these pitchers first-hand as closers rather than have to resort to their imagination watching them work only as a starter.
The 2007 draft was reflective of the college game following suit to Major League Baseball. At the time, I was scouting primarily college players for the Cardinals and it was revolutionary how many premium arms were coming out of college bullpens that spring.
Among the closers who were selected in the first round and supplemental first round that year were Clemson lefthander Daniel Moskos (Pirates), Vanderbilt righthander Casey Weathers (Rockies), Maryland lefthander Brett Cecil (Blue Jays), Louisville righthander Trystan Magnuson (Blue Jays) and Oregon State righthander Eddie Kunz; that's a whopping five college closers selected in the first round.
While Cecil has become a starter in pro ball, the others are currently being groomed as short relievers. The Pirates used Moskos as a starter to begin the 2008 season, but he made nine relief appearances towards the end and is likely to stay in that role in the future.
Incidentally, there were two other college closers in 2007, whom I thought had even better stuff than the five noted. They were also first-rounders, though under different circumstances. Georgia righthander Josh Fields didn't sign with the Braves as a second-rounder, only to be re-selected in the first round by the Mariners in 2008 (he still hasn't signed). Georgia Tech two-way star Matt Wieters, the fifth overall pick in 2007, decided to give his other position priority and the strapping catcher is on the verge of stardom behind the plate for the Orioles. Fields and Wieters could not only throw in the mid-upper 90s but had exceptional second pitches. In fact, Fields had the best curveball and Wieters the best slider I'd ever seen in a college pitcher.
Then in 2008, five college closers were taken in rapid fire between picks 19 and 27 in the first round. Texas Christian righthander Andrew Cashner (Cubs) is in the process of being converted to a starter while Fields, Arizona righthander Ryan Perry (Tigers), Arizona lefthander Daniel Schlereth (Diamondbacks) and Miami righthander Carlos Gutierrez (Twins) remain on the closer track.
Another college closer caveat involves Arizona's bullpen. It had two first-rounders in 2008 in Perry and Schlereth, yet neither served as the primary closer. Sophomore righthander Jason Stoffel was the man in the ninth for the Wildcats and he is projected to be a first-round pick himself in 2009. The idea of having three first-round arms in a single college bullpen would have been unfathomable even five years ago.
Why No High School Closers?
I'm hard-pressed to remember a pure high school closer going early in the draft. With seven-inning games only two and sometimes three times a week for most high school teams, it doesn't make as much sense for a high school coach to use a premium arm exclusively in the pen as it does for a college coach. The high school coach can often have his cake and eat it too by starting his ace on Tuesday, watch him shut down the opponent in less than 60 pitches, then use him again as a closer later in the week.
High school pitchers who go on to become closers are invariably converted starters; the six high school products among our 32 major league closers were starting pitchers not only as preps, but also to begin their pro careers.
I don't anticipate the day when high schools fall in line with colleges and Major League Baseball by using their best arm exclusively in relief. But stranger things have happened.
Lessons For the Draft
The biggest lesson that major league teams can take from drafting closers is to be wary of investing heavily in a pure closer out of college. With Cordero shelved by a labrum tear, Street (since traded to the Rockies) is the only big money "pure closer" on the list. He was signed to an $800,000 bonus. Every other closer was a conversion, be it as a starter or shortstop.
Since so many top closers have floated in from other streams, it does behoove teams to continue to draft a number of strong arms, both early and late, with the hope that even one among the group emerges into that role. Serendipity has a way of making baseball men look like geniuses if they give it a chance.
I suspect this demographic will change in the coming years as the bumper crop of college closers from 2007 and 2008 emerge, but there's still something to be said for both the conventional wisdom and doubt that surrounded the Tigers' selection of Rice closer Matt Anderson first overall in 1997.
Part II of our topic on closers will rank and discuss the top closer prospects for the 2009 draft, as well as provide my views on what's important to look for from a scout's perspective.
The group of 32 top major league closers from 2008 includes, in decreasing order of saves, Francisco Rodriguez (Angels), Jose Valverde (Astros), Joakim Soria (Royals), Brad Lidge (Phillies), Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox), Brian Wilson (Giants), Joe Nathan (Twins), Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Francisco Cordero (Reds), Kerry Wood (Cubs), B.J. Ryan (Blue Jays), George Sherrill (Orioles), Brian Fuentes (Rockies), Trevor Hoffman (Padres), Bobby Jenks (White Sox), Kevin Gregg (Marlins), Troy Percival (Rays), Salomon Torres (Brewers), Billy Wagner (Mets), Brandon Lyon (Diamondbacks), C.J. Wilson (Rangers), Matt Capps (Pirates), Todd Jones (Tigers), Jon Rauch (Diamondbacks/Nationals), Takashi Saito (Dodgers), Huston Street (A's), Ryan Franklin (Cardinals), J.J. Putz (Mariners), Jonathan Broxton (Dodgers), Mike Gonzalez (Braves), Jensen Lewis (Indians) and Joel Harahan (Nationals).