For years, baseball statistical experts from Bill James on down have been debating the role of the closer. Is it best to save your best relief pitcher for the ninth inning and the last three outs? Or should he be deployed in the middle innings, when it might be the actual critical moment of the game, say, with runners on in the sixth or seventh inning and the opponents' heart of the order coming up? Most of the statistical analysis has concluded there's nothing special about those last three outs and that your best reliever should be brought in at the critical moment, the way Napoleon used his reserves. At the same time, the conventional baseball book insists there is something to the "closer mentality," closing out a victory.
The Boston Red Sox tried it without a closer early after Bill James joined their front office, but they sure had set closers in Keith Foulke and Jonathan Paplebon when they won it all in 2004 and last season.
Look at Lou Piniella's bullpen usage -- especially this spring -- and he might be having it both ways. Last season, Carlos Marmol was clearly the Cubs' best reliever by any statistical analysis. Yet Piniella used him at critical junctures in the middle innings, leaving the ninth, usually, to Ryan Dempster. This spring, he appears to be leaning to keeping Marmol in the same role, with the veteran Kerry Wood as closer, provided his arm and now his back hold up. Coincidence, or has Lou intuited -- or even read -- what the statheads have been espousing?
"I think that's just coincidence," Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus said last week after the BP book signing at the DePaul Barnes & Noble downtown. "I think the fact was he wasn't comfortable putting a rookie in the closer's job. He was the best reliever, obviously, but he didn't want to let him close."
Fine, but it sure seems as if Lou's going to go with Wood as closer this season and Marmol again in the cavalry role. There is, indeed, something to Wood fitting the traditional closer's mentality as a tough Texas fireballer. Yet Marmol has been, statistically, the Cubs' best reliever in spring training. Coincidence? I think Lou really has intuited something new about the game -- that the biggest outs might come in the middle innings -- while at the same time staying true to the baseball book. And who can argue with that? Not me; I've got Wood at a $1 salary in my keeper fantasy league.