A few weeks ago, Jonathan Papelbon, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, had a dramatic change of heart. Previously a closer – a specialist brought in for the final innings of a game – Papelbon announced at the end of the 2006 season that he would become a starter. Then he reversed course. In late March he told The Boston Globe, "I felt that there was always that feeling deep down in my heart that I wanted to close."
When Papelbon decided to return to the bullpen, analysts cited his return as a key to Boston's playoff hopes. Like so many teams this season, the Sox have devoted much of the off-season to finding reliable closers who can slam the door on the opposition. The key: hurlers with a mental attitude as resilient as their fastball.
"In this era of specialty, you need a guy who can get that ninth inning for you," says Steve Phillips, a former New York Mets general manager and current ESPN baseball analyst. "If a closer is unsettled, everybody else [on the pitching staff] is unsettled. You need a closer more today than ever before."
Just ask the Kansas City Royals. Last year, the team blew 31 saves. Result: Manager Buddy Bell ripped apart the bullpen and signed new pitchers, including free agent Octavio Dotel.
The importance of relief pitchers, particularly closers, started to grow during the 1970s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Oakland A's dominated behind the short-stint appearances of Dennis Eckersley, closers had become essential. Today, most teams carefully monitor their stoppers, whose success often depends as much on mind-set as pitch quality.
For the Sox, Papelbon's decision may have catapulted the Red Sox back into the conversation as a serious playoff contender. Last season, Papelbon, in just his second major league season, posted a 0.92 earned run average – he surrendered just seven earned runs in 68.1 innings – while collecting 35 saves. He isn't alone. Experts say every legitimate playoff contender must have a tried-and-true stopper in its ranks.
"They're groomed to throw 15 pitches," says Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame starting pitcher who now serves as a Washington Nationals broadcaster. "Never [pitch] three days in a row and never in a game when there isn't a chance to pick up a save."
But two relievers with the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals have embarked on the journey Papelbon decided against: moving to the starting rotation. Adam Wainwright, who recorded the final three outs of the Cardinals' World Series clincher, became the St. Louis closer during the postseason after an injury sidelined Jason Isringhausen. With Isringhausen back, Wainwright starts 2007 as the Cards' No. 2 starter. Braden Looper, a veteran reliever, is also slated to become a St. Louis starter this season.
Such moves are tricky. Closers and other relief pitchers tend to have a more limited repertoire of pitches and, in turn, struggle to pitch effectively in longer durations. Beyond those challenges, the psychological aspects of the roles entail marked differences.
"It's as much about the makeup of the pitcher as it is about the talent of the pitcher," Mr. Phillips says. "It's not 'Can he save the game?' It's 'Can he save the next game after he blew a save the night before?' "
During the past decade, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees has established himself as the game's premier closer. But he suffered from an elbow injury late last season and stands as one of the major question marks for 2007. New York manager Joe Torre vowed this spring to limit Rivera's appearances to one inning of work in an effort to conserve his arm. In 2006, Torre employed Rivera for more than three outs in more than a quarter of his relief appearances.
With the addition of Bruce Sutter to the Hall of Fame last year, the fourth bullpen stopper inducted, the acknowledgment from the baseball establishment of a closer's importance continues to gain momentum. Rivera is routinely described as a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and not far behind is San Diego's Trevor Hoffman, who set the career saves record in September.
Sutton, the retired starter, says the job requires skill but no longer carries the uncertainties it did 15 or 20 years ago. "It has become superspecialized," he says. "That's the era we're in."