One of the most spoken about topics on the Hot Stove this winter was who the Nationals would bring in to replace the departing Mark Melancon. As the months passed and elite closers were signed, people began criticizing the Nationals for failing to address what critics felt was a glaring need on a contending team. Instead of succumbing to the media’s criticism, the Nationals held tight, content with their in-house options. In an era where teams sign below average relievers like Fernando Rodney to close games based on the archaic logic that the best closer options are the guys who have closed before, the Nationals were able to liberate themselves from this flawed thinking.
When the Nationals extended offers to closers Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen before these relievers went on to sign record breaking contracts, they showed they were eager to bolster their bullpen. Once these guys were no longer options, they recognized that no reliever left on the market would be an improvement to the players they already had. Instead of signing free agent relievers with closer experience like Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla, or Greg Holland or trading for veteran closer David Robertson, Mike Rizzo wisely stayed put. Sometimes the best signing or trade is the one that never happens.
With that said, let’s take a look the guys who look to occupy the closer role for the Nationals in 2017. The leading candidate for the job is longtime setup man Shawn Kelly. While Kelley only has 11 career saves, it would be foolish to lower his value based on a lack of opportunity. While I understand the logic behind the common baseball adage that “the last three outs are the hardest ones get”, we are able to look at how relievers do in high leverage situations to get a fuller picture of how would-be closers may fair if they are plugged to the high-pressure role of closing.
In Kelly’s career, he has posted a 1.74 ERA in high leverage situations, showing that he certainly possesses the “clutch gene”. This also extends to the Nationals other closing candidate Blake Treinan, who has posted a gaudy 0.61 ERA in high leverage situations throughout his career. This number becomes especially important when you compare it to the fact that David Robertson posted a 3.60 ERA in similar situations in 2016 and an even worse 7.13 ERA in high leverage situations the year before.
The Nationals also have top relief prospect Koda Glover set to join their bullpen in 2017. After opening eyes with a triple digit fastball and a low-90s wipeout slider at the end of last season, manager Dusty Baker has all but named Glover the closer of the future.
Part of the doubt about the Nationals bullpen comes from the uncertainty of who will ultimately win the closer job. Teams, fans, and the media are all more comfortable with rigid bullpen roles, but that does not mean that designating roles is always the best option. Besides, in the Nationals case, this uncertainty stems from having too many options, not too few. After all, isn’t it better to have three guys capable of closing rather than just one? If Kelley struggles for the first time in his career, Dusty Baker can turn to Treinan. If Treinan struggles, Glover can step in. The Nationals have more contingencies than most teams, which should be perceived as nothing other than a strength.
Some argue that while these players may be capable of closing games during the regular season, having a closer with more experience is crucial come playoff time. The Royals had Wade Davis and won the World Series in 2015. Both the Cubs and Indians featured elite closers of their own and played in the World Series last season. However, those who cite these examples are falling victim to recency bias. The San Francisco Giants won two World Series with Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla closing out games. The notion that you need an elite closer to make a playoff run in October is not grounded in reality.
Lastly, the Nationals reluctance to make a deal for David Robertson preserves their trade chips in the event that their bullpen falters and they need to make a deal at the trade deadline. Mike Rizzo realized that there is no sense in trying to fix something that isn’t yet a problem and the Nationals will be better for it.
Overall, when teams pigeonhole one pitcher into the closer role and evaluate their ability to close out games based on that one relievers success they are confining themselves to antiquated modes of game management. Rather, a team’s closer situation should be viewed by looking at the sum of its parts. With the rapid increase in advanced statistics, it still dumbfounds me that teams are still insistent on viewing bullpen roles so rigidly.