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August 31, 2009
  
Closing Time

With Billy Wagner traded, the end of another closer era has officially come. While the prospects the Mets received in return are still vague; the trade allows me to continue my effort of not writing about the current Mets team by taking a look at the Mets closers of the past.

1972 to 1973: Tug McGraw

From their inception to the early 1970’s, the Mets used closers by committee in save situations, which was common before the advent of strict bullpen roles. However, with Tug McGraw pitching very well with little hope that he would ever be a starter, McGraw became the Mets first full time closer in 1972. Tug racked up 27 saves, which are typical numbers for modern closers; however, his 106 innings in 54 games are definitely not typical numbers. In McGraw’s famous “Ya Gotta Believe” season of 1973, his ERA jumped from 1.70 to 3.87 which ended his tenure as Mets closer. After an ERA of 4.16 in ’74, his tenure with the Mets was over.

Of course, McGraw wasn’t done as he would go on to pitch very well for the Phillies and is the only player to be inducted in the Hall of Fames of the Mets, Phillies and Irish American Baseball Players. However, after one successful season with a full time closer and one bad season, the Mets decided to go back to the closer by committee route for the next ten seasons with saves leaders during the period including Bob Apodaca, Skip Lockwood and Neil Allen.

1984 to 1987: Jesse Orosco

Interestingly enough, bookending the ten seasons of closers by committees were two lefty closers, in fact, the Mets seem to have an infatuation with lefty closers, which is kind of bizarre. Orosco came over to the Mets as a prospect in the Jerry Koosman deal and he really lived up to the demands that come with being traded for an icon. Orosco broke McGraw’s saves record in his first year as the full time closer, saving 31 games with a 2.59 ERA in 87 innings. However, 1984 would prove to be Orosco’s last season as the Mets full time closer because of Mr. Hot Foot himself.

1985 to 1988: Roger McDowell

With the closer role still being less defined then in modern terms, the Mets elected to matchup the successful Orosco with a right handed relief arm, Roger McDowell. From 1985 to 1987, Orosco and McDowell collected 15-plus saves each. They were equally effective in ’85, Orosco was more effective in ’86, and they were both generally ineffective in ’87. Overall, the idea of using both a right-handed and left-handed pitcher in the closing role depending on matchups is a really good idea, but probably a thing of the past due to the escalating salaries of closers.

1988 to 1989: Randy Myers

With Orosco seemingly losing his effectiveness in 1987 and his career undoubtedly being over soon, the Mets moved another home grown LHRP, Randy Myers, into the co-closer role. While both pitchers had good seasons in ’87, the duo was broken up in ’88 with the infamous McDowell/Nails for Samuel trade. Myers would have sole possession of the closer role for the remainder of the season and very good again in ’89; however, the Mets decided to trade Myers for a more proven closer with Brooklyn roots.

1990 to 1999: John Franco

I never really been quite clear as to the reasons behind the Franco for Myers trade as they were very similar pitchers at the time with Franco being a couple of years older. In any case, Franco would end the Mets tradition of home growing their own closers, as the Mets have not developed a full season closer since Myers. However, Franco would continue the Mets’ tradition of having good left-handed closers for two years before an injury in 1992, which resulted in a forgettable half-season from Anthony Young as closer. Franco was mediocre upon his return but pitched well from 1994 to 1998, before age implored the Mets to acquire their future closer.

1999 to 2004: Armando Benitez

I always liked Benitez. Yes, he walked too many batters and gave up too many home runs, but he was a very effective pitcher that got too much flak for not being as automatic as Mariano, which, frankly, no one is. In fact the “unclutch” Benitez’s post season numbers for the Mets are as follows:

Year  Series  Opp   W  L   IP   K  BB  ER
1999  NLDS    ARI   0  0  2.1   2   1   0
1999  NLCS    ATL   0  0  6.2   9   2   1
2000  NLDS    SFG   1  0  3.0   3   1   2
2000  NLCS    STL   0  0  3.0   2   2   0
2000  WS      NYY   0  0  3.0   2   2   1

During the regular season, the knock on Benitez was that he blew the “big” games, but really I think the reason he blew “big” games was two-fold. One, big games are usually against the best teams; therefore, it would make sense that it’s more likely for a closer to blow a lead against a team that has good hitters. The latter is common sense but I feel like it somehow gets lost on fans. Two, “big” games are far more likely to be remembered if the closer blows it rather than when he does his job. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit because I generally feel for players that get too much heat ala Starbury (pre-Larry Brown) and Chad Pennington, but I still think Benitez was an outstanding closer that won’t be remembered as such.

After Benitez was shipped out of town in ’03, David Weathers and Mike Stanton formed the righty/lefty co-closers not seen since ’99 with Franco mentoring the young Benitez.

2004 to 2005: Braden Looper

In 2004, even though the Mets were far from being competitive, every big market team feels that they need a closer. To the Mets’ credit, they didn’t overspend for a closer, picking up Looper as a non-tendered FA from the Marlins. However, he may have been ill-suited for the role as he proved more than capable in previous seasons of being able to pitch multiple innings. After a very good ’04, Looper had a mediocre ’05, which caused fans to chase him out of town rather than simply change roles. It also led to the acquisition of the highest priced closer on the market.

2006 to 2008: Billy Wagner

There isn’t much I can write that you guys aren’t aware of. Billy was electric when healthy and spoke his mind. In fact, his dominance while healthy may have raised Mets fans’ expectations of what a closer should be and, combined with Luis Ayala’s pitching at the end of ’08, led to the gross overpayment of the Mets’ next closer.

2009: Francisco Rodriguez

Franks has a 4.07 FIP, his WAR is .3 making his value worth $1.4 million. He will be paid $12.5 million this year as well as in 2010 and 2011. His 2012 option will vest as long as he remains healthy and will give him $17.5 million.

As I mentioned, the Mets have not developed a closer since Myers. There is simply no excuse for this. Being a big market team that has the ability to spend money is not an excuse as those resources can be used more efficiently on talent that is closer to their actual worth such as position players. In addition, big market teams such as the Red Sox, Yanks, Dodgers, Cubs and White Sox all have homegrown closers. The excuse that the Mets just haven’t had the talent is also not an excuse as in the time period starting with John Franco, the Mets have let Jason Isringhausen as well as current closers, My Boy, Heath Bell and Matt Lindstrom exit the organization. There are many reasons that a team with a payroll over $140 million has so many holes and paying a closer more than Adam Dunn is one of them. I didn’t mean to end in a slight rant so instead here are the WAR values for our closers. Note: WAR isn’t a perfect way to measure closers due to leverage issues.

Pitcher     Year     WAR
McGraw      1972     3.9
            1973     0.8
Orosco      1984     2.1
            1985     1.9
            1986     2.5
            1987    -0.4
McDowell    1985     2.2
            1986     1.5
            1987     0.5
            1988     1.3
Myers       1988     2.6
            1989     2.0
Franco      1990     1.9
            1991     0.2
            1992     1.7
            1993    -0.8
            1994     1.1
            1995     1.7
            1996     1.7
            1997     1.8
            1998     1.0
            1999     1.0
Benitez     1999     3.5
            2000     2.5
            2001     1.1
            2002     2.2
Looper      2004     2.2
            2005    -0.5
Wagner      2006     2.1
            2007     1.7
            2008     1.0
Rodriguez   2009     0.3

17 Responses to “Closing Time”

  1. Comment posted by sheadenizen on August 31, 2009 at 8:46 am (#1071657)

    Very interesting, Joe. imo, the closer situation is indicative of a larger problem. The Mets seem to have no general game plan whatsoever regarding development of players. And not being willing to go over slot hasn’t helped. Yes, they seem to have some talent at the lower levels which may pay dividends in 2011 and beyond.
    More distressing than the overpaying a closer will be the starting rotation for 2010. I’m worried that Frankie will be making a ton of money to do little.

  2. Comment posted by Danny on August 31, 2009 at 9:49 am (#1071692)

    With Orosco seemingly losing his effectiveness in 1987 and his career undoubtedly being over soon

    LOL @ this. Well played.

  3. Comment posted by TomSeaver on August 31, 2009 at 5:44 pm (#1072169)

    Some of my favorite closers I can remember from the distant Mets’ past include Ron Taylor (1969), Skip Lockwood, he threw really hard (late seventies), and of course Neil Allen (early eighties). A coupla other Mets that went onto become awesome closers elsewhere, were Rick Aguilera and Jeff Reardon. If my memory is correct though, McDowell never closed for the Mets, it was always Orosco until he was traded.

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  5. Comment posted by Chaucer on August 31, 2009 at 5:48 pm (#1072173)

    a more proven closer with Brooklyn routes

    Er, “roots.” Unless there’s a joke here I don’t get.

  6. Comment posted by SoCal Metfan on August 31, 2009 at 6:01 pm (#1072182)

    Nice article, Joe.

    I’m totally agreed on Benitez, btw, he was far better than the common fan gave him credit for.

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  8. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on August 31, 2009 at 6:51 pm (#1072215)

    @TomSeaver, I decided to not include Taylor, Lockwood and Allen because they were all heads of a closer by committee rather than being the designated closer in the modern sense of the word. And McDowell did actually get to close for the Mets as he had 22 and 25 saves with Orosco getting 21 and 16 in each respective season.

    @Chaucer, no, that wasn’t a terrible pun, I enjoy writing after I get home from work, unfortunately I also enjoy having an adult beverage or two, which results in some grammatical errors. My apologies.

    @Everyone else, thanks for the comments guys.

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  10. Comment posted by Alex Nelson on August 31, 2009 at 7:38 pm (#1072218)

    Er, “roots.” Unless there’s a joke here I don’t get.

    Whoops! Can’t get ’em all, I guess. Fixed.

  11. Comment posted by Super T on August 31, 2009 at 7:51 pm (#1072219)

    Put me as another in Benitez’s corner as well. Dude was a decent closer, and took waaaay more flak than he deserved.

  12. Comment posted by WT Economist on August 31, 2009 at 8:43 pm (#1072222)

    I don’t see why more teams don’t use the Orosco/McDowell solution — up to two innings, or even 2 1/3, but 60 or fewer appearances each, and very rarely two days in a row.

    I’ve read it takes a day off for one’s muscles to recover, and this situation means each of two key relievers would have it. And they wouldn’t burn pitches warming up 100 times.

    If you’ve got Mariano Rivera, fine, you have a closer. Get an eighth inning guy and use them every day an inning each. But how many of those are there?

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  14. Comment posted by Joe Sokolowski on August 31, 2009 at 9:06 pm (#1072230)

    I think you answered your own question with this,

    Get an eighth inning guy and use them every day an inning each. But how many of those are there?

    The general belief, right or wrong, now is that RPs shouldn’t go over 80 innings. In addition, the better RPs want to become closers and rack up as many saves as possible because the free agent rewards these pitchers more than a similar pitcher without the saves.

    For example, Darren Oliver entered FA coming off a season where he had a 3.59 tRA in 72 innings, because of his Type A status, he was not given any offers and eventually resigned with the Angels for $3.6 Mil. Oliver’s teammate, Frank Rodriquez, came off a year where he had a 3.67 tRA in 68 innings, he was awarded with a $37 million contract with an easily reachable option that would make the deal worth 54.5 mil over 4 years. This year Oliver has a 3.83 tRA in 57 innings and Franks has a 4.32 tRA in 59 innings.

    Now, obviously, there are other factors to consider such as age and leverage, but it’s pretty apparent that closers get paid. Because of the monetary incentive as well as personal pride, I just can’t see two great 8th inning pitchers being happy sharing the closer role.

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  16. Comment posted by Wally Dykstra on September 1, 2009 at 1:03 am (#1072245)

    The knock on Benitez was accurate. He had big time nerves in pressure games and would melt down on command for the Braves. You could see it in his eyes when it was going to happen. But he was so immature, you could never lift him without crushing his confidence. Bobby V just had to leave him out there when he was in melt-down mode. 99 NLCS Game 6 where he blew leads in the 9th and 10th to twice ruin the Mets’ chance to force a Game 7 after being down 0-3 was absolutely unforgivable. I believe to this day that if the Mets had won that game they would have crushed the Bravos in Game 7. Guess that saved us a good ole’ spanking at the hands of the ’99 Yankees. Got no complaints about Wagner — he was at the top of his game for the Mets and excelled in pressure games. I’m sorry to see him go.

  17. Comment posted by SoCal Metfan on September 1, 2009 at 11:52 am (#1072490)

    The knock on Benitez was accurate. He had big time nerves in pressure games and would melt down on command for the Braves. You could see it in his eyes when it was going to happen. But he was so immature, you could never lift him without crushing his confidence. Bobby V just had to leave him out there when he was in melt-down mode. 99 NLCS Game 6 where he blew leads in the 9th and 10th to twice ruin the Mets’ chance to force a Game 7 after being down 0-3 was absolutely unforgivable. I believe to this day that if the Mets had won that game they would have crushed the Bravos in Game 7. Guess that saved us a good ole’ spanking at the hands of the ‘99 Yankees. Got no complaints about Wagner — he was at the top of his game for the Mets and excelled in pressure games. I’m sorry to see him go.

    Wait, Game 6 of 99 NLCS? The series where he pitched 6-2/3 innings, and gave up 1(!) run? It came in at a lousy time, sure, but he struck out 9 guys against only 2 walks. That’s not unforgivable. Unforgivable is walking home the winning run. But I digress, even if he *was* a headcase (he almost certainly was), he was *still* a very good pitcher who most fans didn’t appreciate.

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  19. Comment posted by Wally Dykstra on September 1, 2009 at 4:43 pm (#1072990)

    My bad – I misremembered Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS. I was remembering Franco blowing a lead in the 8th followed by Benitez blowing a lead in the 10th. Benitez pitched 2 frames, the 9th and the 10th. He pitched a clean 9th when the game was tied, but crashed and burned in the bottom of the 10th when the Mets had a lead and the pressure was really on, giving up 2 hits, a walk and 1 run. So, as was typical for Benitez he was awesome right up until the most pressure-packed situation and then was concentrated awfulness.

  20. Comment posted by WT Economist on September 1, 2009 at 7:04 pm (#1073076)

    “It’s pretty apparent that closers get paid.”

    That’s because there are so few of them. Perhaps two good relief pitchers would do as well.

    “Because of the monetary incentive as well as personal pride, I just can’t see two great 8th inning pitchers being happy sharing the closer role.”

    Perhaps that depends on how their role is presented. How about if they were paid as well as third starters? That’s what I envision — four good starters, and two good relievers each working one of every three games up to two innings, with other guys filling in.

    The one issue I see is pinch hitting. If every pitcher works an inning in 80 games, as opposed to up to two innings in 54 games, the relief pitchers never have to bat in the NL.

    Here is what bothers me. When “the closer” is due to come in with a lead, its game over everyone else can pretty much stop playing, right? Because almost all the time “the closer” will pitch a perfect inning, so there is no need to score more. Except for that rare implosion, in which case “the closer” has lost the game — unless someone pulls a Castillo.

    I’d rather have two guys alternating, each with an ERA of 3.00.

  21. Comment posted by dogcatcher on September 1, 2009 at 10:22 pm (#1073298)

    Very interesting to read…except re wagner, best check his lieftime playoff stats before annointing him a pressure player…disturbingly bad numbers..and Im a fan…

  22. Comment posted by vicBK17 on September 2, 2009 at 2:49 pm (#1074021)

    Got no complaints about Wagner — he was at the top of his game for the Mets and excelled in pressure games. I’m sorry to see him go

    well, take it from someone who was at Game 2 of the NLCS in ’06: you are incorrect!
    Also, i believe elite pitchers should act as “stoppers” and be able to win (or in this case, save) a game following a losing streak. Wags did not act as a stopper, especially against the rival Phillies. Check out his numbers when the Mets were facing a sweep and he pitched in the final game of the series:
    He has appeared in 11 games in which the Mets were at risk of being swept in a series. His numbers in those games are as follows: W-L 0-2; Sv-SvOpp 1-4; ERA 9.00; WHIP 2.27; 11 IP; 19 H; 6 BB; 12 R; 5 HR.

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  24. Comment posted by Wally Dykstra on September 3, 2009 at 1:57 am (#1074780)

    Vic, I’m not sure how to explain Wagner’s performance in the 11 “games in which the Mets were at risk of being swept in a series” other than randomness. 11 games is a pretty small sample size and there’s no reason why he should perform any different in those games. Certainly Wagner would have felt no special pressure in those games just because the Mets were at risk of being swept. If you eliminate the latter portion of 2008 when Wagner was pitching hurt, I think it’s pretty hard to complain about Wagner’s overall performance with the Mets. The guy was consistently good and for significant stretches dominant, without any particular tendency to falter in big spots, as was the case with Benitez. I’d rather have the 2006 and 2007 Wagner than K-Rod.

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