At least the Twins had a closer

Watching the Twins lose their 12th straight playoff game, I couldn’t help but notice that their prized midseason acquisition, Matt Capps, never got a chance to pitch in a save situation.
A lot of people — here, in Chicago, in Minnesota — spent a lot of time emphasizing the loss of Joe Nathan in the preseason. Jon Rauch, while having some closer experience, didn’t inspire nearly the same amount of confidence, which led to the Twins using their most expendable trading chit of value (Wilson Ramos) to acquire Capps from Washington.
The funny thing is, it’s hard to find evidence that any of these machinations did anything to change anything.
Since Nathan took complete and total ownership of the closer role during the 2004 season, here are the Twins’ records when leading at the start of the ninth inning:

  • 2004: 74-1
  • 2005: 62-1
  • 2006: 83-0
  • 2007: 68-2
  • 2008: 76-2
  • 2009: 77-3

Those are all good (2006 can’t be any better), and certainly prove Nathan’s worth as one of the game’s best closers. But anybody know what the Twins did this year without Nathan, and without a truly respected and feared replacement?

  • 2010: 84-2

Yup. And I can’t find any way those numbers would misrepresent the state of the Minnesota bullpen. They didn’t have any problems leading after seven (75-5) or eight (85-3), and both of those were improvements over previous years. Also, Ron Gardenhire obeys the one-inning save situation like few other managers, so it’s not like he took particular advantage of Nathan’s special talents. It’s one of the few legitimate gripes a Twins fan could make about him, although any complaints could be nullified by the late-inning success they’ve enjoyed in spite of it all.
I don’t have any complaints about the way their season played out, in this respect. From start to finish, the Twins proved that the heaviest lifting is done in innings one through eight, which is what I want the Sox to focus on as they enter the offseason without a tried-and-true closer for the first time since last century.
Let’s go back to July. The Twins, at one point, were the favorites to acquire Cliff Lee, and probably could have pulled off the deal if they sweetened the pot a little more. Maybe that trade wouldn’t have made sense in the long run, but it would have made a bigger impact in 2010, and a guaranteed impact in the postseason. Lee is definitely an upgrade over Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing, whereas Capps was probably an improvement over Rauch.
Now, that doesn’t guarantee a postseason win, but at least the player for whom valuable talent was exchanged would have had a chance to make a difference. Lee would have definitely started Game 1 or Game 2. Nobody could say with any certainty whether Capps would ever pitch in the spot reserved for him. As it so happened, he never did, because his role was entirely dependent on teammates who didn’t get the job done. He only pitched in Game 2, and only after the Yankees scored their decisive runs.
The Twins’ success without Nathan hopefully explains why I didn’t see the Central turning on its head when his injury was announced. Their lack of late-inning leads in the postseason is why I wasn’t all that impressed with the Capps acquisition. There’s no way to know for sure, but if they stuck with Rauch for the entire year, I’d guess that it wouldn’t have turned out any differently.
Rauch isn’t great, but he’s good. So are Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares. Those are three pitchers who will give you a scoreless inning more often than not, and it seemed to work for them before Capps came to town.
Ozzie Guillen seemed to stumble upon the same recipe for success in the final week and a half, using Matt Thornton and Chris Sale for four outs or more, and I’d like for Kenny Williams to keep that in the back of his mind as he finalizes his strategy.
It’s actually a continuation of a theme he should have learned from last winter, when he pumped a lot of money into players who stood a chance of making the team worse. He avoided the doomsday scenario, because Juan Pierre, J.J. Putz, Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones earned their money.
At the same time, those four players all brought something to the table. The two flops from that group — Mark Teahen and Mark Kotsay — did not. They had zero certifiable skills the Sox could plan around; Williams just liked them. Warm feelings didn’t amount to wins.
Is having a closer nothing more than a warm feeling? I’m starting to think so.
Granted, sometimes the fire burns hot. I wouldn’t say Mariano Rivera has been misused in his role, nor Trevor Hoffman, nor Eric Gagne in his prime, and probably Nathan, too. But in a lot of cases, it’s a vanity title that only inflates salary.
If Williams has a tight budget, that’s a good corner to cut, and the Twins showed why. It’s great to have a guy who can protect a ninth-inning lead, but it’s better — and more cost-effective — to have a few pitchers who can reliably get a lead to the ninth inning in the first place. After that, you’re pretty much in good shape no matter who takes the mound.
It could very well be the case that Williams ends up with three lockdown relievers who naturally establish a working order that results in a typical closer role, and that’s fine. However, it’s frightening how the absence of a savemongerer can throw everybody — fans, relievers, managers, front offices — for a loop.
Guillen has shown an ability to thrive without one, and I think this winless, now-Twinless October furthers the case for an experimental bullpen. Minnesota went out of its way to acquire a security blanket, and all that work was undone when there were no games to be put to bed.

Take a second to support Sox Machine on Patreon
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

this was very, very good.


Not only do I get to savor another hilarious Twins collapse, but I also learned something. Well done, sir!


Love it, Jim. I wish more people saw things this way.


Wow, great stat. Proving once again closers are a pretty fungible lot.


And just like that, the Atlanta Braves bullpen helps keep the closer rallying cry relevant.


that’s what happens when you start managing a game like tony larussa.


The stats about the Twins’ winning record when leading in the 9th inning are incredible. As much as I hate the Twins (my second least favorite team in MLB after the Chicago Cubs), I can’t help but be impressed. Holding onto a lead was definitely not a strong suit for the White Sox this season. Also, I agree that Mark Kotsay and Mark Teahen were not the best assets for the team. Kenny Williams should have put more effort into the Sox bullpen and less on those “warm feelings” he had towards the players. If the Sox had a stable bullpen that could hold a lead, this 2010 season could have gone in a much more positive direction for us. Hopefully Kenny will look at what the Twins did during the regular season (because we all know we can’t really look to their post-season performance for advice) and use some of that strategy during the off-season.
I also loved the fact that you mentioned that the Twins have lost 12 straight playoff games. I love being able to use the line “Well, the Sox and Twins won the same amount of playoff games this season.” I’ve learned that it really makes Twins fans angry, which can be very fun at times.


So maybe, the message here is that its better to have a solid consistent corps of relievers than a mediocre group that efatures a lights out closer? I will buy that up to a point. The ability to close out games seems to get much tougher as the season goes on, and there are not many that have the ability or stomach to do it when it really matters.


I agree with the general point, but the 76-3 stat understates the problems the SOX experienced at the back on the bullpen. Every blown save that eventually ended in a win wasted arms in the bullpen, and this may have contributed to the 63-10 and 69-7 stats. Also, when “closers” come into tie games late and lose the game, these poor performances do not show up in the 76-3.
Further, Bobby’s tendency to be unavailable but not on the DL may well have contributed to the problems that Thornton and Putz went through in August.
The SOX may not need Rivera, but they do need someone who will be in good enough shape to take the ball when asked instead of having two weeks every season with a pulled or strained this or that.
Finally, do the same calculations for the Indians — who chose to go cheap on closers for most of the 2004 forward period. I bet you will find that you can go too far in thinking it just does not matter who closes the games


My rough rules of thumb on this are that great closers convert about 90% of their save opportunities. Average closers (like Capps) convert a little less than 80%. Guys that are losing their jobs as closers convert around 70% or less. If you figure 40 opportunities per year and assume that your team manages to win half the blown games anyway, the difference between Joe Nathan and an average guy is 2 wins per year. The difference between Nathan and the bum they feared Rausch might be in 4 wins per year, maybe 5 max.
Clearly, you are right. A great starting pitcher is more valuable. Still, pennant races have been lost by less than 2 games and the Twins may have over-estimated our SOX as competitors.


So using your own rough rules of thumb, Jenks who converted 87% of his save attempts was closer to great than he was to mediocre.


No, Nick Punto! Don’t go to the chili cookoff!
*would make more sense if the goshdarn photoshop were in the article proper


The yanks had better scouting reports on guys like thome and mauer then the freaking sox do!
Good for the twins completely getting bent over yet again in the playoffs, man that was fun to watch,
2010 SEASON IS OVAH!!!!!


If the Sox don’t win the World Series, the next best thing in October is the Twins getting swept again! 1 more loss and they will tie the record for longest postseason losing streak in history. Let’s make them wait a few years though to tie that record


Jim, I agree with your overall point here, but do you think the Twins were ever really the “favorites” to get Lee? Even the link you provided links to another article saying Ramos + Hicks was “pure speculation.”
The Twins probably could have picked up Oswalt or Haren, who would have been much more helpful than Capps. I just don’t think Lee was really an option when other teams were willing to offer Smoak and Montero.


The Ramos for Capps deal had to be the worst trade of the season, even worse than Hudson for Jackson. They get Fuentes for a PTBNL, and half a season of Capps costs them the 58th best prospect in baseball?


The risk/reward valuation is definitely debatable, but I would say the Dodgers trading Andrew Lambo and James McDonald for a month and a half of Octavio Dotel was worse.


Would it be OK if the Sox wore their pinstripes with a funky CH on the hats and jerseys whenever they play the Twinks??


Trade for Swisher to really enhance the illusion.


Maybe a bit off topic here, but with as much as our fans loved to make fun of Bobby Jenks because of his “waistline”…Matt Capps sure doesn’t look like he’s missing many meals…dude is fat too.
And to think, he turned down the Cubs for the Nats…and ended up on the Twins…what’s next for him? Throw that lotto ball back in the old hopper I guess!


As if on cue, Texas and their No. 1 illustrates your point and thus advances to the ALCS.