Despite being a big tech geek, one analog indulgence I still cling to is my print magazines. You can't leave 5 Kindles laying on your coffee table to signal your interests to visitors. I like throwing them in my messenger bag and being able to pull them out on the bus or at lunch or in line to get my morning coffee. The longest running subscription I have is Sports Illustrated, to which I have subscribed on and off since I was getting Sports Illustrated for Kids in the early 90s.
The latest issue (April 19, 2010) includes an article on our giant closer, Jon Rauch. (It doesn't appear to be online) The author Joe Sheehan makes a case that the rational thing for Gardenhire to do with the Twins closer situation is to do what the organization flirted with for a couple days in spring training: Closer by committee. Sheehan makes the observation that Gardenhire has a very deep and diverse bullpen. Rauch, Pat Neshek, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and others, when healthy, all have great strengths that could be leveraged based on match-ups in the late innings. Sheehan claims that the position of closer is an anomaly existing due to the save statistic. His point is that it's inefficient for managers to base their bullpen decisions on anything but the best match-up.This is a persuasive argument, and one that many managers should take to heart. Rigidly holding to designated roles is a recipe for disaster. Gardenhire's aversion to using Nathan in the 8th inning is one example that comes to mind. However, I will defend the closer position on a basis that may seem as "old school" in this sabermetrics era as my continued subscriptions to magazines in the mail.
My position is that there is a little bit of team psychology to the closer position. The role of closer is looked upon as a bullpen, if not team, leadership position. He's the ace of the bullpen, and provides the same stability to a bullpen that a Roy Halladay provides to a starting rotation. When the closer is performing well, it gives confidence to the entire team that any lead they earn will be safe. It allows guys to play loose and confident, instead of gripping the bat too tightly or rushing that throw to first. Does Sheehan really think that when Tony La Russa redefined the modern closer role with Dennis Eckersley, that he was doing it to help his fantasy team?
A successful closer does not just strike out a lot of batters, but he also instills confidence in his team that they will win. A closer-by-committee arrangement cannot give this same confidence to the team. Pitchers are not sure of their role, so they get nervous and anxious about each appearance, instead of being calm and breathing through their eyelids like the Mayans. (Or the Aztecs, I can't remember which) Of course, the committee approach could work wonders if the right confidence was instilled individually to each player and the match-ups were used to their fullest advantage. However, this would require the coaching psychology and team management on a Herb Brooks-ian level.
Obviously there is nothing rational about this, match-ups should be used exclusively in a quantifiable world. Baseball players, like the rest of us, are hardly rational beings, and occasionally acknowledging that truth is essential. Right now, the Twins are playing with the confidence that they are one of the best teams in baseball. Does Jon Rauch being successful in the closer role have anything to do with that? Jesse pointed out earlier that his stats are not dominant, despite his record so far. The point is that the Twins have confidence in him right now, and that's enough to matter.
If you believe you're playing well because you're getting laid, or because you're not getting laid, or because you wear women's underwear, then you ARE! And you should know that!
-Crash Davis, "Bull Durham"