By:  Holly Horning

It didn’t take Dave Dombrowski long to make his first splash with the signing of Craig Kimbrel. But as much as fans may “ooh” and “aah”, those within baseball and possessing financial backgrounds will tell you it was a move that smacks more of desperation than genius. This “splash” could easily turn into a “crash.”

You see, baseball is changing in how it views, acquires, uses and pays closers. There is a reason why the teams with top, expensive closers – Robertson, Kimbrel, Chapman, Miller, Gregerson, Storen, etc. – have put them all on the market this off-season.

But before we reveal why the market has changed, we need to look back over the past year and the trends that are impacting baseball.

Do you know who baseball’s most expensive closer was last year? You should be seated for this one.

Joe Nathan. The guy who pitched to 1 batter before injuring his arm and leaving to have TJ surgery. The guy also signed by Dave and earned $10 million for that one pitch along with an additional $1 million for a buyout.

And that is one reason why the salary for closers is going down dramatically. Five out of 30 teams last year lost their closers to significant injury.

Seventeen out of 30 organizations changed their closers last year. Of the remaining 13 teams, not every team was happy with theirs, but did not have other available options. Those within baseball will tell you the bullpen is an ever-changing pool of talent with inconsistent performances, especially from year to year.

Add to that the strengthening belief that closers are now being seen as overrated. A study by the Society for American Baseball Research found that teams holding a ninth-inning lead won approximately 95 percent of the time no matter who pitched the ninth inning.

The trend now is for managers to use their best reliever in the most high-leverage situations – which may not be the 9th inning. It also helps that more and more pitchers are throwing harder and faster which makes them increasingly flexible to throw that short, final inning.

This is why teams are increasingly dumping their high-end closers and going to a closing-by-committee format. They see closers as being more interchangeable, disposable and replaceable.

Back in March, I wrote a blog about the changing trends in baseball’s Front Offices. Guys who grew up playing the game were being replaced by ones who came from prestigious colleges with degrees in statistics and economics – with a smattering from Wall Street, too.

With the increasing focus on metrics, these new visionaries were brought on board to help make better financial decisions. And they all found that acquiring an expensive closer was one of the worst allocations of a team’s payroll.

Let’s take Craig Kimbrel as an example. He’ll be paid $11 million this year and $13 million in 2017. He pitches approximately 59 innings per year which averages out to $203,000 per inning pitched.

In comparison, Justin Verlander makes $91,000 every inning. Jeurys Familia, excluding post-season, made $6,700 per inning pitched.

Gone are the days when Mariano Rivera was making $15 million/year. Closer salaries are trending down, not up. Last year, Nathan and one other closer made $10 million. Three made $9 million, 2 with $8 million, and 2 at $7. If they are not currently injured, all their teams have put a “For Sale” sign on them this season.

Eleven closers were earning league minimum. An additional 3 were earning below that while one earned $800,000. Nine of those earning $1 million or below were considered to be top relievers in 2015 with stats to match.

So should the Tigers go for an expensive closer with a track record or should they adopt the strategies now being used? It will be interesting to see how Al Avila and his new Analytics Department decide to proceed.

Unfortunately, while Dave is now gone, his decisions continue to impact the Tigers. A baren farm system may not allow the Tigers to develop that young, flame-throwing bullpen this year. They will probably need to pay more to acquire the necessary pieces – at least for the next couple of years.

9 thoughts on “CLOSING TIME

  1. Great observations. I like how you point out analytics role in this trend. I believe we will need a year or two to shore up the late innings arms but perhaps we have a few in the making. It is fun to wonder how different we might be if we had kept Rodney, Smiley and Fister on our roster.


  2. Holly, good article. I dont have a prob with going after a closer & I dont think this was desperation. Dave is just going with what he knows & having a good solid closer is a good thing. These new trends are not solidified yet but may be in 2 years..what will Avila do? We know the are looking for a closer so how much is AL paying attention to the metrics?


  3. We all may find out soon if Albert Einstein’s definition of Insanity applies to what Dave is doing in Boston as far as building a bullpen and trading for bullpen pieces.


    • Dombrowski is what he is – a guy who likes to make splashy deals and spend lots of his bosses money. Boston is a franchise that likes to make a lot of splashy deals and spend a lot of money. Its a perfect fit. A few years down the road Red Sox fans will be asking why the tam has a $300M/yr salary commitment but a bankrupt farm system.


  4. The “Closer” role has been over-rated for many years, but it is a long standing myth, and as such is hard to dispel. As “Closer” salaries have escalated in recent years (a by-product of mythic thinking) and science is replacing religion in the front offices, some managements are finally coming around to seeing they are not getting a real bang for their buck.

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