Will modern bullpen strategies lead to the demise of the closer?

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With the number of 30-plus save pitchers on a sharp decline, the role of closer may become a thing of the past.

The demise of the closer role as we know it may be upon us. Over the last four seasons, the number of closers with 30 or more saves has dropped by 50 percent. Are we on our way back to old-school bullpen usage?

After examining the number of 30-plus save pitchers since 2015, I counted back every fifth season to 1975. That year, there were no pitchers with 30 or more saves, and just five with more than 20. The two World Series champions that year—the Cincinnati Reds—had a total of 50 saves spread among five pitchers. Leading the way were Rawly Eastwick with 22 and Will McEnany with 15 saves, a far cry from our 2018 champions in Boston, who had Craig Kimbrel locking down most ninth innings on his way to 42 saves.

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Looking at the above chart, we can see a steady increase in full-time closers, jumping to 11 30-plus save pitchers by 1990. Of the years included here, we can see the peak comes in 2015, with 20 closers notching 30 or more saves. Since then, though, we have been on a steady decline, culminating with just 10 closers notching 30 or more saves in 2018.

As teams opt to use their best bullpen arms when high leverage situations arise, we could be nearing a turning point in baseball strategy that sees the end of the dominant closer.

One example of a reliever used as needed, rather than only in the ninth inning, is Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers. In 2018, he pitched 81 ⅓ innings in 55 games, with only 11⅔ of those coming in the ninth inning. Hader totaled 50 frames between the seventh and eighth innings of games, with another 14 ⅓ coming in the sixth inning. Hader totaled just 12 saves in 2018, though he posted an ERA+ of 168.

The Brewers had another dominant reliever, Jeremy Jeffress, used in a similar manner. Comparing Jeffress to Hader using ERA+, Jeffress was even more dominant, posting an astounding 317. Jeffress notched 15 saves in 76 ⅔ innings, with only 23 of those coming in the ninth inning.

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The Brewers’ two best relievers, then, threw a total of 34 ⅔ ninth innings. Milwaukee’s strategy resembled that of the 1975 Reds, as the Brewers had three pitchers (including Corey Knebel) combine for 43 of 49 total saves.

As more teams continue to use their best relievers when high leverage situations arise—whether it be the sixth inning or the ninth—we could see a dramatic shift further away from the “every day” closer. Comparing 1980 to 1990, we saw a huge leap forward with a 267 percent increase in 30-plus save closers over a span of 11 seasons.

Will we see a similar decline from 2015 to 2025? The decrease in 30-save closers of 50 percent in four seasons works out to an average drop of 12.5 percent per season. At that rate, the end of the 30-save closer could be looming large.

If that is the case, be prepared for a leader board that mirrors that of 1975, a year which saw Rich Gossage lead the majors with 26 saves, with only four other pitchers managing 20 or more saves. In an era of forward-thinking strategies, it will certainly be an interesting trend to monitor in the coming decade.

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