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The Iceman Cometh

It is sabermetric orthodoxy that closers are overrated.  How can a guy who only pitches, at most, a third as many innings as a starter, be anywhere near as valuable?  And while the math geeks have taken over in many respects in the way we think about baseball, the Great Closer Debate seems to be the one place the traditionalists are holding firm.

Which is odd when you stop to think about it, since the closer is a rather new baseball invention.  The idea of a guy coming in for a one inning "save" certainly didn't exist before the save statistic existed, and even then, the first closers were "firemen" and they would regularly pitch multiple innings, not just the ninth.   The idea of a ninth inning closer, without getting into the actual research, didn't really take hold until the 1980s.  Yet it is the closer where traditionalists have drawn the line in the sand.

Paul Mainieri probably hasn't read Bill James.  He certainly hasn't read Voros McCracken or Tango Tiger.  However, he is a coach after their hearts, as he has shown a remarkable willingness to buck traditional orthodoxy and do whatever he thinks it takes to win.  It helps that he's usually right.  Mainieri is constantly tinkering with his team, trying to find the right roles for players because he knows that the postseason is more important than the regular season, and he coaches with this idea in mind.  He won't get a raise based on regular season titles.

Mainieri has been most radical in his approach to the pen.  He has tried to use his bullpen ace not as a closer, but as swing man who can come in whenever there is trouble and give the team a solid bridge to the ninth.  He did it with Bradford, he did it with Coleman, and he's tried to do it with Bradshaw.  Mainieri absolutely loves having the hammer of a multiple inning bullpen ace.  Bradshaw was supposed to be that guy this year, but he has not built on his postseason heroics of last season. 

Matty Ott was able to blossom into a stud closer almost by accident.  Mainieri gave Ott the ninth inning job last year because it was not as important and it would be a great chance for a talented freshman to show his stuff.  Well, Matty Ice might have been a little too good.  He was actually more dominant last year, but Ott still has been a shutdown closer with 11 saves and a miniscule ERA.  Mainieri sort of created a monster, Ott became the Iceman based on what he did in the ninth, and now the "closer" tag has been applied.

And who would move a reliable closer in the middle of the season?  This is where the sabermetricians come in.  We know from their research that Ott is more valuable as a starter.  Hell, he'd be more valuable as a bullpen ace with a usage pattern similar to Bradford and Coleman.  However, he doesn't FEEL as valuable.  The ninth inning is the one time that success means a win and failure means a loss.  There is rarely a middle ground for the closer, and it does take a special mental makeup to deal with that sort of pressure.  We know this because we feel the pressure and we aren't even pitching.

Ott came in on Sunday and pitched six brilliant innings to help the Tigers sweep Alabama.  He showed that he can go more than one inning and we certainly know he can deal with pressure.  Ott showed us that he can start.  He can pitch multiple innings.  He can be more than just a closer.

But how do you move the stud closer?  What if it fails?