Every position in baseball is important. Every pitch. Every catch. Every play. Once the starting pitcher has exhausted, he counts on his relievers to carry some weight for the rest of the game, and then the final touch must be executed with extreme precision by the closer.
The closers role is glamourous yes, but the amount of pressure that lays upon them is intense. They are there for that final inning. They are responsible for finishing a game that the rest of the team has worked long and hard for. They face the final three batters. Well, hopefully just three. The opposing team’s batters have an extra exuberance for one last chance at taking the lead in a game. They have more adrenaline for the last shot at being the hero. Even though every out in every inning matters, the closers seem to have a heavier job to do.
Not every reliever can handle the pressure and stress of this responsibility. A lot of closers get demoted to the set-up guy if they struggle too often. Some even get sent down to the minors to work on their pitches, or even get released.
Detroit Tigers, Jose Valverde, was mercifully given another opportunity with the team this year. After initially releasing him to free agency, no other team wanted the veteran on the back-end of their bullpen. He then agreed to sign a minor league contract with the Tigers organization, and was eventually called back up and given another chance to prove he deserves his former closing role.
Last season, Tiger’s fans would cringe when Valverde was given the ball in the 9th. They never knew what would happen. But one thing for sure was that he would make it interesting. At times he would pitch a flawless inning. Three up. Three down. But more often, the 9th inning would seem just as long as the first 8 innings combined. As Tiger’s fans would shake their heads in disgust, Valverde would still be trusted by his skipper and continue to pitch the painful, what should have been, final inning.
But he was not always unreliable. In 2011, he amazed baseball fans everywhere for completing 49 saves out of 49 tries, being one of the best closers in the majors. So, how can someone with such a solid record do so much damage in 2012, and lose the faith of most of the fans?
Closing a game is not easy.
The Tigers see something in Valverde that the fans right now, are not. And they decided to give him another chance at becoming the phenomenal pitcher that he has been before. Tiger’s fans, and maybe some of the players themselves, are now on the edge of their seats, waiting to see which type of pitcher Valverde will be this season. He has 4 saves, and has blown one so far in 2013.
There is a weakened bond between the fans and Valverde, but then there are other closers such as Phillies, Jonathan Papelbon, who has the trust of most of the entire crowd to be able to finish games. His career numbers prove his worth with a career ERA of 2.30 and WHIP of 1.01. He has 8 saves so far this season and none blown, but last season he had 4 blown saves which was only one less than Valverde in 2012. But for the fans to have faith in their closer, they want that 1-2-3 final inning. Valverde is not that type of closer. But the difference between a much loved Papelbon and a oh-no-here-he-comes Valverde, is consistency.
Another loved closer is Rangers, Joe Nathan. He has 13 saves already this season and not one blown save yet. He has pitched 17 innings and has 16 strikeouts. Nathan has been highly reliable, finishing last season with 37 saves, an ERA of 2.80 and 78 strikeouts. Much like Papelbon, Nathan is dependable. When he is handed the ball in the 9th, the fans are a little more relaxed. And if he fails, they are more likely to be forgiving. But if a closer gets that reputation for being unpredictable like Valverde, he is likely going to have everyone clenching their jaws until the final out.
Valverde has a chance at gaining back the confidence of the fans. His charismatic off-the-wall personality will help soften hearts, but ultimately it is what he does on the mound that will determine the patience and belief of the crowd.
The fans want their closer to succeed. Not only because they want their team to win, but they want that connection between pitcher and fan. That feeling where they know the team is in good hands, so they can sit back and enjoy the rest of the game. But fans do expect pitchers to mess up sometimes. Every now and again, closers are going to give up hits, runs, or blow a save. That is understandable.
Fans are forgiving as long as they do not have to forgive every single game.