Mariano Rivera is not walking through that door. Neither is Joe Nathan, for that matter. Or Rick Aguilera, or Eddie Guardado.
Yes, closers are still overrated. But they’re an overrated necessity. Or something like that.
Indeed, the role has been oversold and, somewhat embarrassingly, worshiped for several decades. It’s overrated for all the reasons that you’ve surely heard by this point, chief among them being that in many games, the most high-leverage situation is not the one with no outs and nobody on base in the ninth inning. Just because the particular inning happens to be the last inning doesn’t mean it’s the most valuable, or so the thinking goes.
Yours truly subscribes to this theory and wholeheartedly believes that the Proven Closer thing is mostly a needless sham.
But here’s the thing: baseball teams still seem to need this crutch to lean on. After all, there’s certainly something to be said for knowing one’s role. While it’s hard to quantify the effect of knowing when to expect to enter the game versus having no clue until your number is called, there are plenty of examples of players wanting and needing routine to be successful.
So, why haven’t the Minnesota Twins addressed their closer situation?
The Spring Training opener is in the books, and there are still a handful of Proven Closers out there on the market, from a perennial All-Star in Craig Kimbrel to bargain bin options like Bud Norris and A.J. Ramos to aging veterans such as Ryan Madson and Jim Johnson. (Sean Paul D laid these options out nicely in a FanPost earlier this week.)
Yes, count me in on the Twins throwing some money at Kimbrel, although the Twins are surely scared off by the age (31) combined with a late-season dip in velocity and the workload that Kimbrel has carried throughout his career. Those concerns fade if Kimbrel signs a one-year deal, of course, but there’s no doubt he’s holding out for something much larger. Perhaps the Twins are waiting for Kimbrel to blink and accept a massive one-year deal, but they aren’t the only team hoping for such a scenario, either.
So if Kimbrel’s unlikely to join the fold, where should the Twins turn?
Well, he’s already on the roster: Trevor May.
Trevor May should be the Twins’ closer
The idea of May slotting in as the closer in 2019 is hardly original. In fact, he may even be considered the front-runner at this point as he finished the 2018 season with the final three saves of the campaign for the Twins and was dominant in doing so.
Which is, of course, part of the basis for this argument. While it’s a painfully small sample size, May thrived in high-leverage situations last year in his post-injury return to the bullpen.
Taking out the disastrous September 4 stint as an opener against Cleveland in which he gave up four earned runs in a single inning, May’s ERA clocked in at 1.85 last season. He finished the season with six consecutive scoreless appearances, including a line of 3.0 innings, zero hits, six strikeouts, and one walk over his three successful save attempts.
May is now a full year removed from his lost season due to surgery and rehab, which typically means good things for players recovering from significant injury. And he’s still just 29 years old.
All of the usual reasons why starters moving the bullpen can revive their careers apply here: May is able to throw harder when pitching in shorter stints and can limit the number of pitches he throws, mastering a two or three-pitch mix instead of needing a full arsenal like starters often have.
Indeed, May’s sinker, which was a huge part of his game back in 2015, has entirely vanished from his repertoire as he’s focused more on his four-seam fastball with a steady diet of breaking balls on the side.
As a former starter, he should have more than enough stamina to pitch full innings instead of being used in shorter stints earlier in the game, and could even be a candidate to frequently enter the game in the eighth inning and notch some multiple-inning saves. Plus, May’s career splits show that he’s been more effective facing left-handed batters than righties, which bodes well for a closer role as opposed to the alternative of entering the game situationally, depending entirely on righty-lefty matchups in the seventh or eighth inning.
May’s velocity and stuff are right in line with the arsenal of traditional closers, and his ability to miss bats as a reliever is elite, to the tune of 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings as a reliever for his career and 12.7 K/9 over his past two seasons pitched, which have come primarily as a reliever. For some perspective, the top three closers in the saves category last year were Seattle’s Edwin Diaz (career 14.2 K/9), Colorado’s Wade Davis (11.5 K/9 since becoming a reliever full-time in 2014), and Boston’s Kimbrel (career 14.7 K/9 and 13.9 last year).
As a starter, May’s strikeouts-per-nine-innings is just 8.1 for his career, and he only accrues 3.03 strikeouts for every walk, compared to 4.22 as a reliever.
Other internal options
There are few other internal options if the Twins don’t sign a Proven Closer or hand the job to May.
Blake Parker had 22 saves over the last two seasons for the Los Angeles Angels and therefore loosely fits the requirements to be a Proven Closer. He doesn’t throw quite as hard as May and probably profiles better as a setup man, but he could land the job out of camp before the role eventually shifts to May.
Trevor Hildenberger held the job for much of the time in between the Fernando Rodney trade and when May took over in the final couple weeks of the season last year, and given his struggles will need to get off to a better start in what will likely be a lower-leverage role in 2019.
Addison Reed is an option, too, although he underwhelmed in his first year in a Twins uniform last season. Taylor Rogers might be the dark-horse candidate, although the Twins don’t have many other left-handed options in their bullpen at this point and it could force manager Rocco Baldelli to use him in high-leverage situations prior to the ninth inning.
For as tired a trope as the Proven Closer is, there is value to having someone in the bullpen who is designated as the guy to enter the game and shut things down in close and late situations. And, generally speaking, it’s nice if that guy can miss some bats.
Barring a shocking, Kimbrel-sized splash, Trevor May should be that guy.