September 9, 2014 by NowhereButPop
I wonder what went through Mark Wohlers’ head on October 23, 1996 after he gave up the game tying home run to Jim Leyritz in game four of the World Series. Was it “How the fuck did he do that, I’m Mark fucking Wohlers, the new stud closer in baseball”? Was it “I may very well have cost us the World Series and accidently murdered any chance this team had of becoming a dynasty”? Or was he thinking “Shit that’s it for me, I better find a new job”?
After giving up that series changing home run to Leyritz, Wohlers was never the same pitcher ever again; in fact, he bombed from then on. Here was a guy, a mean mulleted motherfucker, who could sleep with any woman from the state of Georgia, who could throw 207 miles per hour, who was the next super closer in baseball, and yet it was all taken away by one bad pitch in 1996. He never regained his confidence and a few years later, he was out of baseball. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Wohlers, he had the fastball of Goose Gossage, and the slider of Ron Guidry, and yet his abrupt decline reveals an odd truth about most elite closers.
Elite closers have the shortest shelf life of any elite caliber player in all of baseball despite their crucial importance in winning games. There’re two reason for this trend in baseball, one is physical and the other is mental. Physically, closers are encouraged (sic: commanded) to throw 96+ mph…because that’s the only way to get hitters out. Now on top of that, closers are limited in their roles to only roughly one inning per outing…because God forbid Craig Kimbrel has to throw more than 11 pitches three games a week. It’s such a heavy strain on the arm that’s trained to only throw for brief periods of time that any deviation is bound to cause an injury. Physically, closers are primed to burn themselves out within six years because their arms can no longer carry the burden of throwing with such force. Fireball closers have become cheetahs that are being forced to run marathons. It’s very difficult to get longevity out of an arm that’s designed for immediate and concentrated speed and power.
With baseball’s current hard on for power pitching, there’s an idea that physical breakdown can be avoided by careful pitch count monitoring and heavy bouts of hypochondria. The thought is that by limiting how often or how much a fireball closer pitches you can minimize appearances and stretch out their peak. But again, there’re be times (playoffs) when a manager needs his best pitcher on the mound for an extended period of time, and when that happens, a pitcher who’s only accustomed to throwing six pitches at 101 miles an hour, isn’t going to be able to perform at a high level, and may even injure himself. The physical aspect of Closer Breakdown (CB) is that too much is being asked of a human arm that isn’t primed for the work load.
The other aspect of CB, the mental portion, is that most closers are out of their fucking minds. Grant Balfour only speaks in curses, Randy Myers kept live grenades in his locker, John Rocker hates anyone who’s not a straight, white boy, and Brian Wilson is socially obsessed with S&M. Most formerly elite closers who’ve had meltdowns and breakdowns usually had their fall come after a season, or seasons of brilliance of dominance. For some, like Mike Marshall or Brad Lidge, it was a matter of exhaustion that ruined their careers. For others, like Mitch Williams or Mark Wohlers, there was one defining blown save that always stayed with them until it ruined their career.
Because closers pitch in the most stressful conditions that the game offers, it takes a certain kind of person to be able to thrive in that role. Guys like Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Goose Gossage had ice water in their veins and were able to move on from every game be it win or lose. Being more laid back than someone like Mitch Williams or Jose Valverde, is what allowed them to stay in the game mentally for 15+ years as opposed to these hot blooded, explosive closers, with fastballs reflective of their fiery personalities, or offbeat pitches to match their quirky habits. Type A closers burn themselves out after a short period of time because of the physical and mental aspect. Physically, these guys hurl the ball as hard as they can until their arms fall off. Mentally, one single game can shatter their confidence and kill their career dead in its tracks. They burn the candle at both ends until they have nothing else to give. Or maybe it’s just Steve Blass disease?
Below are a few examples of closers who either burnt themselves out or experienced a sudden and inexplicable decline in skill after blowing a save.
From 1986-1993, Williams accumulated 186 saves and 620 strikes, with a 3.40 ERA. Not great numbers for a closer, but he was apparently the only left hander capable of throwing more than 95 mph out of the bullpen…so there was no way he wasn’t gonna have a job. In 1993 he totaled 43 saves, while playing for the Phillies (his first mistake), and was with the team when they lost to the Blue Jays in the World Series. In only two innings of work, Williams earned the loss in two games, and gave up six runs for an ERA over 20. Most strikingly, he gave up the series winning home run to Joe Carter. 25 minutes later Wild Thing Williams was out of Philadelphia, and two years later he was out of baseball.
Williams (the inspiration for Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League) was always a guy who lacked control; after the 93 World Series, he lacked confidence as well, and once that’s gone, it’s time for a closer to move on. Except Williams never did. 20+ years later that home run still haunts him. He hates former teammate, Curt Shilling more than 50 Cent hates Floyd Mayweather, and almost fought Lenny Dykstra after Dykstra had publicly blamed him for blowing the series. Although as far as I know, he’s cool with Joe Carter.
After working his way up the ranks to becoming the Braves full time closer in 1995, Wohlers was in prime positon to keep that job for the next decade it seemed. He was young, had the arm of Jay Buhner, and had the second most intimidating mullet in the league, next to Randy Johnson. In 1996, on the way to the Braves second, second consecutive trip to the World Series of the decade, Wohlers racked up 39 saves, and 100 K’s in 77 innings. It was also the only time in his career that he was named an All-Star.
However, in 10 2/3 innings of work during the 1996 playoffs, Wohlers only gave up three runs, all of which came on the same play, off the bat of Jim Leyritz. It cost the Braves the crucial game four, and eventually the series. The interesting thing about Wohlers is that CB didn’t take effect the next year, but the year after in 1998. 1997 was another great year, despite the fact that he never got over the Leyritz home run, but in 1998, he gave up 23 runs in 20 innings before losing the closer job. It would be four more years, in his final season, that he would save another game again.
After trading Billy Wagner before the 2004 season, the Astros looked to Brad Lidge to carry the torch and protect late game leads. And for a time, he didn’t disappoint. Lidge was a strike throwing machine who always seemed right on the cusp of being elite. Once he was traded to Philadelphia prior to the 2008 season, it seemed like Lidge would finally reach his potential. In his first season in Philadelphia, he went a perfect 41-for-41 in save opportunities, had a sub-2.00 ERA, and was named an All-Star. He also earned two saves in the 2008 World Series, and recorded the final out to give the Phillies their second world title.
And then came 2009. From literally out of nowhere, it was like someone had replaced Lidge with Daniel Bard. The strikeouts were still there, he wasn’t walking too many hitters, but from some reason the rest of the league was tearing him apart. Lidge went 0-8 with an ERA over 7.00, and led the league with 11 blown saves. After 2009, Lidge would only pitch 75 more innings before retiring in 2012.
Now, when you have to celebrate every save you notch with an exuberant and incredibly unsportsmanlike 15 minute dance that involved skipping, spastic arm twirls, yelling, and dry humping the pitcher’s mound, you’re kinda asking for something bad to happen to you.
For someone who has the proportionate body dimensions of a toad, Jose Valverde had five year period of dominance against both the AL and the NL. He led both leagues in saves with three different teams during this span of five years and in 2011, like Lidge, Valverde had a perfect season when he went 49-for-49 in save opportunities for the Tigers. But then he blew game four of the 2011 ALCS…and then the very first game of the 2012 season, a portent of things to come.
After staggering through his worst season since 2006, Valverde blew two consecutive leads in playoff games before losing the closer role. He was then DFA’d halfway through the 2013 season. In 2014 he signed with the Mets, but after a disastrous game against the Pirates in May, he was fired before the game was over. With all the celebration he does when he wins, I wonder what Valverde does when he loses.
Obviously, there are a so many more closers I can bring up who had CB, whether from a mental breakdown (Heath Bell, John Rocker, Byung-Hyun Kim) or physical exertion (Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle, any relief pitcher under Sparky Anderson). Even now closers are being replaced for ineffectiveness after a brief period of stellar dominance (Rafael Soriano). It’s just a thing that happens, and it just so happens to be that for whatever reason, closers have the shortest shelf life of any position in baseball.
 Understand that I have no actual credentials or accreditation in sports medicine, physical therapy, physics, or anatomy. All of these opinions, and theories are merely observations of current pitching trends contrasted with the history of past closers. Namely how before 1995, the only pitchers who ever got hurt were Sandy Koufax, Ron Guidry, and Catfish Hunter. Now it seems that every pitcher needs at least two Tommy John surgeries before they even get to the major leagues.