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Painting the Black: Stop the Madness!

Jensen Lewis

Jensen Lewis is a former Major League Baseball relief pitcher, playing parts of four seasons in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians. Drafted 102nd overall in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft, he played 9 professional seasons altogether with the Tribe, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs. Lewis amassed a career of 7-11 in 161 games, good for a 3.68 career ERA in 198 innings. He helped the Indians win the AL Central in 2007, becoming a key cog in their bullpen, on a postseason run that ended with a Game 7 loss to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. Lewis went a perfect 13 for 13 in save opportunities with the Indians in 2008 as their closer and was nominated for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award in 2010. The award recognizes the player who combines a dedication to giving back to the community with outstanding skills on the baseball field as well as representing the game of baseball through sportsmanship, community involvement and positive contributions to their Clubs. A Vanderbilt University graduate with a BS in Communications, Lewis now works as a broadcast personality with Fox Sports and SportsTime Ohio in Cleveland. He continues to be involved in Cleveland Indians Charities providing support to the Cleveland community, making visits to local hospitals and participating in the annual Tyson Food Distribution event held before Thanksgiving. A diehard Cleveland fan his entire life, he still holds out hope that the Tribe & Browns championship droughts will come to an end during his lifetime.


Perhaps I'm sensitive to the notion that closers are "glorified field goal kickers." In many ways they are - most times you either win the game or lose the game depending on their performance. But Baseball is unique in the aspect that 99% of the time, the game doesn't usually come down to what the closer does. Situations during the course of each game that should be capitalized upon, more than likely dictate why the end results come to be.

A running joke in pitching circles is that position players couldn't handle having the "W" or "L" plastered next to their name. A hitter can go 0-4 with 4 K's, leaving a small village of runners in scoring position hung out to dry, then all of a sudden hit a walk-off homer and all those previous at-bats are forgotten. Yet, a reliever coming in for a late inning appearance, gives up one run as the deciding score due to a position player error, and gets blamed for the loss? Not exactly fair is it?

What's the moral of the story? I'm shocked at the number of early season changes in the closer's role. A couple bad outings in a row shouldn't be grounds for removing a guy who's been pretty consistent through the month of April. Star position players who go 25-30 at-bats without a hit don't get yanked. So why all of a sudden do 3-4 subpar appearances justify a change for a closer, especially when they haven't had consistent save opportunities or work in general?

I took a (pardon the pun) "closer" look at how Closer changes (due to injury, ineffectiveness, or both) effected teams in 2014 thus far. The numbers don't lie:

**Stats are as of May 27th, 2014
Teams that changed Closers already in 2014 due to ineffectiveness:

CHC: 19-31, 10.5 GB (last) in NLC = Former - Jose Veras; Current: Hector Rondon
CLE: 24-29, 7.5 GB (last) in ALC = Former - John Axford; Current: Committee
HOU: 21-32, 10.5 GB (last) in ALW = Former - Josh Fields; Current: Chad Qualls
MIL: 31-22, +1.5 G (1st) in NLC = Former - Jim Henderson; Current: Francisco Rodriguez
OAK: 31-21, +1.5 G (1st) in ALW = Former - Jim Johnson; Current: Sean Doolittle
BAL: 26-24, 3.5 GB (3rd) in ALE = Tommy Hunter; Current: Zach Britton

Teams changing Closers due to injury in 2014:

CIN: 22-28, 7.5 GB (4th) in NLC = Former - Jonathan Broxton; Current: Aroldis Chapman (opened season on DL)
NYY: 27-24, 3 GB (2nd) in ALE = Former - Shawn Kelley; Current: David Robertson (DL stint, Opening Day closer)
NYM: 23-28, 5 GB (4th) in NLE = Former - Bobby Parnell (DL), Jose Valverde (released), Kyle Farnsworth (released); Current: Jenrry Mejia
PIT: 23-28, 7 GB (3rd) in NLC = Former - Jason Grilli (just off DL); Current: Mark Melancon
TOR: 31-22, +3 G (1st) in ALE = Former - Sergio Santos; Current: Casey Janssen (DL stint, Opening Day closer)
CHW: 27-27, 5 GB (2nd) in ALC = Former - Matt Lindstrom; Current: Committee

Teams back to original closer after "ineffectiveness" in 2014:

LAA: 29-22, 1.5 GB (2nd) in ALW = Ernesto Frieri

*3 teams leading divisions, 3 teams in last place

Total Win % of teams w/ Closer changes: 334-338 (.497)

By the numbers, only six of 13 teams with closer changes for the above reasons comprise above a .500 record (LAA, MIL, NYY, OAK, TOR, BAL).

Now the flip side - teams maintaining their Opening Day closer and how they've faired thus far in 2014:


ATL: Craig Kimbrel - 28-23 (1st in NLE)
MIA: Steve Cishek - 27-25 (2nd in NLE)
WAS: Rafael Soriano - 25-26 (3rd in NLE)
PHI: Jonathan Papelbon - 22-27 (last in NLE)

STL: Trevor Rosenthal - 29-23 (2nd in NLC)

SF: Sergio Romo - 33-19 (1st in NLW)
LAD: Kenley Jansen - 29-24 (2nd in NLW)
COL: LaTroy Hawkins - 28-24 (3rd in NLW)
SD: Huston Street - 24-29 (4th in NLW)
AZ: Addison Reed - 21-33 (last in NLW)

TB: Grant Balfour - 23-30 (4th in ALE)
BOS: Koji Uehara - 22-29 (last in ALE)

DET: Joe Nathan - 29-19 (1st in ALC)
MIN: Glen Perkins - 24-25 (3rd in ALC)
KC: Greg Holland - 24-27 (4th in ALC)

SEA: Fernando Rodney - 25-26 (4th in ALW)
TEX: Joakim Soria - 26-26 (3rd in ALW)

*3 teams leading divisions, 3 teams in last place

Total Win % w/ teams WITHOUT Closer changes: 439-435 (.502)

I know the arguments coming: how can you justify a team's record based solely on if their closer is the same from Opening Day or not? I'm not saying it's SOLELY based on that, but a large part is without a doubt. Continuity in a bullpen provides the best possible chance to make the postseason. Roles are defined, guys understand when they're going into a game, and managers definitely sleep better at night. If you don't think that's an immense difference-maker in ballclubs, you're sadly mistaken.

Some more ideas to chew on:

** Teams with closers in the Top 10 of MLB in Saves qualifying for postseason play in the past 5 years (including 2nd wild card teams from 2012, '13):

2009: (5 of 8) = LAA (Fuentes - 48, 1st), BOS (Papelbon - 38, T-6th), NYY (Rivera - 44, 3rd), MIN (Nathan - 47, 2nd), STL (Franklin - 38, T-6th)
2010: (5 of 8) = TEX (Feliz - 40, T-6th), MIN (Capps - 42, 5th), CIN (Cordero - 40, T-6th), SF (Wilson, 48 - 1st), ATL (Wagner - 37, T-9th)
2011: (4 of 8) = DET (Valverde - 49, 1st), NYY (Rivera - 44, 5th), MIL (Axford - 46, 2nd), AZ (Putz - 45, 4th)
2012: (6 of 10) = BAL (Johnson - 51, 1st), TEX (Nathan - 37, 9th), ATL (Kimbrel - 42, T-3rd), STL (Motte - 42, T-3rd), NYY (Soriano - 42, T-3rd), CIN (Chapman - 38, T-7th)
2013: (3 of 10) = CIN (Chapman - 38, T-8th), OAK (Balfour - 38, T-8th), ATL (Kimbrel - 50, T-1st)

5 year total: 23 of 44 (52%)

Of the 23 teams with closers in the Top 10, ALL 23 maintained their jobs as closer for the entire regular season.

** In the past 10 World Series, 7 of 20 (35%) teams had closers in the Top 10 of MLB in Saves (1st team had better regular season record; team in bold won WS):

2003 (1): NYY (Rivera - 40, 6th) vs. FLA
2004 (1): STL (Isringhausen - 47, T-3rd) vs. BOS
2005 (1): CWS vs. HOU (Lidge - 42, 7th)
2006 (1): DET (Jones - 37, T-6th) vs. STL
2007 (1): BOS (Papelbon - 37, T-10th) vs. COL
2008 (1): TB vs. PHI (Lidge - 41, T-4th)
2009 (1): NYY (Rivera - 44, 3rd) vs. PHI
2010 (1): SF (Wilson - 48, 1st) vs. TEX (Feliz - 40, T-6th)
2011 (0): STL vs. TEX
2012 (0): SF vs. DET
2013 (0): BOS vs. STL

How do we interpret these additional statistics? The moral of the story is your stopper is perhaps one of the most important pieces of the puzzle to your team's postseason aspirations. The continuity from building a bullpen "backwards to forwards" can't be overstated with the help of these numbers. It continually boggles my mind when teams don't allow their closers to go through rough patches. It's the nature of the game and if position players are allowed to endure long slumps, relievers should be given a similar leash. I'm not talking about weeks of bad pitching. But getting the hook from arguably the most important position in the bullpen after a handful of poor outings is ludicrous. You're going to face adversity all through the season, even more elevated in postseason play. How do you expect your bullpen to react when you make these kinds of changes in May? Front offices create a crisis of confidence in their bullpens with these moves and it's a direct correlation to poor performance going forward. You signed a guy to a role at the beginning of spring training. You've got to weather some of the bad times without creating chaos within your pitching staff's most important unit. It's an unfair double standard when comparing pitchers and hitters. But what need to be fair are the chances for relievers, specifically closers, to work through tough times and be rewarded for their faith. If you want to win a World Series, your closer deserves to be given ample opportunities through the ENTIRE year.