Closers face challenges unique to position in spring
It can be difficult to gear up to pitch late in a game when outcome isn't important
"The trouble with closers," said a National League general manager, "is that they can't practice."
Ain't that the truth?
You can stage a month's worth of sun-splashed ballgames in Florida and Arizona, draw the white lines, rake the dirt and cut the grass, use real bats and real balls, and pack the stands with real fans. Starters can work on their secondary pitches, batters can search for their rhythm and everybody can come out of camp feeling some semblance of being ready for the regular season.
Closers, though? There's really no simulating what they do for a living. Because no matter how earnestly you approach an exhibition, it is simply no substitute for those situations in which the game -- and, often, your job -- are actually on the line.
"The adrenaline you feel there, I don't know how to describe it," the Angels' Ernesto Frieri said. "It's amazing. But in the spring time, I don't feel anything. Maybe when we get close, then I'll feel it."
We're getting closer, and, as starters gradually work deeper into these spring games, closers will gradually shift toward their ninth-inning home.
But the shift won't necessarily be seamless when the season proper starts.
"How many years do you see the first month, closers consistently blowing games?" Giants setup man Jeremy Affeldt said. "It is hard to turn that back over when you don't try to do it in camp."
Affeldt might have a point. Over the past five seasons, the Major League save percentage has been 68.7 percent. In that same five-season span, however, the April save percentage has been three points lower, at 65.5 percent.
Whether that's a small bit of statistical minutiae or a sign of the inherent difficulty of the transition from exhibitions to actual action is anybody's guess. But for the men who make their home in the ninth, these spring Cactus and Grapefruit League games can certainly become a trick of the brain.
"There's really no prep you can do to get yourself ready for a game environment," A's closer Jim Johnson said. "But if you practice on the mental part -- maybe tell yourself, 'Hey, this is a situation with a runner at second, one out and we're up by one' -- if you approach it that way, it has a little bit of value."
Closers are like all pitchers in that they spend their spring "getting their work in," and that often involves experimentation with the lesser parts of their repertoire.
"You've got to know that this is Spring Training, and it's a time for you to get your stuff ready," Frieri said. "I don't think about closing the game. I throw a lot of breaking balls and changeups here."
But closers didn't find their way to the ninth because of uniquely expansive arsenals or ability to count on their curve in unorthodox counts.
If they had those assets, they'd be in the first inning, not the last.
No, closers are counted on to throw effective strikes in high-leverage spots. They are trusted to retain their composure no matter the circumstance, and that includes getting over the blown save as quickly as forgetting about the successful ones.
And if they can do all of that with, say, a 105-mph fastball at their disposal, a la Aroldis Chapman, well, all the better.
So it is incumbent upon every closer to find what works for him, personally.
"You try to get into a routine, just as you would in the season," said Royals closer Greg Holland. "For me, that starts with getting your body loose and going in with a game plan, whether it's fastball command or throwing offspeed pitches for strikes. You have to understand that you're competing for your job every day, no matter what you've done in the past. That fuels you."
It's possible that some closers are fueled by the adrenaline of the situation in which they find themselves. Last season, the Pirates' Jason Grilli, the Giants' Sergio Romo, the Red Sox's Koji Uehara, the Cardinals' Ed Mujica and the Blue Jays' Casey Janssen were among those with significant differentials between their performance in save situations versus their performance in lopsided games.
Of course, it's hard to know how much to read into any of those small samples, what with year-to-year relief numbers subject to vast fluctuations. But it should be no surprise that guys who take so much pride in their ability to thrive in the game's tensest moments would, by and large, put so much emphasis on the mental aspect.
"I prepare for any inning as if it's the last one," Grilli said. "You just pretend, 'This is the end of the game.' That's what I stress now to guys in the middle, 'We're all closers here.' If you got the fifth inning, close that stinking inning now."
To some, that's a mindset that can be applied even in the confines of the exhibition setting.
"I encourage guys to be nervous," the veteran Affeldt said. "Make it matter. Figure out a way to tell yourself it matters. Compete, man. Figure out a way to get competitive anger. Because regardless of whether it counts or not, you've got to have that emotion, and I'd rather already have that emotion than have to develop it."
To others, the nonbinding nature of these spring games offers an opportunity.
"In one of my outings, I threw a lot more offspeed [pitches] in situations I wouldn't normally," said Johnson. "But I did that by design, because I was trying to work on throwing my secondary pitches if I was behind in the count."
So maybe, on some small level, closers can practice the particular points of what they do for a living. But it isn't easy. And as we've seen, the early season results aren't always pretty.
"To me, it's just about coming out of camp healthy and prepared," Holland said. "That's all you can ask for."