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Dissecting the legitimacy of a closer by committee for the Houston Astros

Sabermetrics vote yes. The relievers themselves, probably, vote no.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, during the winter meetings, the Houston Astros fixed a rather large problem by signing both Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Last year, the Astros bullpen was one of the worst, if not the worst, in all of baseball. As I wrote a while ago, the Astros bullpen already had serious potential for next year. With the additions of Neshek and Gregerson, it's a rather strong bullpen, indeed.

Prior to inking Neshek and Gregerson, the Astros missed out on both Andrew Miller and David Robertson. While Neshek and Gregerson are excellent additions to the bullpen, neither are a legitimate, lights-out, ninth-inning man. Last year, in the last three innings of the game, the Astros had an ERA of 4.45, ranking dead last in the American League. While, almost certainly, the signing of Neshek and Gregerson will improve this, it may not improve something else. Something, arguably, more important.

With 26 blown saves on the year, once more, the Astros ranked dead last. In all of baseball this time, however. Bluntly speaking, that could have been an additional 26 wins on the season. Or, at the very least, an additional 13 wins, give-or-take. If, hypothetically speaking, the Astros were able to halve their blown saves from last season, and held on to win another 13 games, they would've finished the year 83-79. Four games above five hundred. Which is very, very good.

Back to the point: while, yes, the additions of Neshek and Gregerson will vastly improve the bullpen, have the Astros missed out on something more important: an elite closer? For the number-crunchers, paying for saves is rather crazy. A silly counting stat, which has no reflection of an individual's ability should not dictate a reliever's price. Or should it?

For the aforementioned number-crunchers, a closer by committee is the way forward. And it makes sense, too. From inning one, through eight, generally speaking, the manager plays the splits: whoever has had the most success against the hitters due up, will enter the game. If a couple of lefties are due up, bring in your leftie specialist, or vice-versa. Analytically, it's merely common sense that the same approach should be taken for the ninth inning. The lateness of an inning doesn't dictate the difficulty of the inning, after all.

There's something the numbers can't account for, though. Mentality. It's very different pitching the ninth inning, in comparison to the eight that come before. Everything good the team has done on a given day, all comes down to the closer. If he has a bad inning? The game is over.

The numbers often don't favor relievers with lots of saves. For example: Robertson, the highly sought after closer, had an ERA of 3.08, and a FIP of 2.68, but was still very expensive, and a hot commodity on the market. He was an expensive commodity because he recorded 39 saves last season. Maybe, however, 'average' ERAs and lots of saves go hand-in-hand. On the basis of the aforementioned mentality of a closer, there's something else that's very different about his job. He can take the mound, allow a run, or two, and still record the save. Allow a run, or two, and still win the game for his team. Maybe, the ability to allow some runs, and still come through for your team, is something only a closer has. Maybe, it comes in his mentality.

Yet more, as Rob Bradford wrote, "throughout the baseball season, routine is a part of life. Especially for relief pitchers. They like to know when they should be getting ready, and what innings they may be calling their own." Okay, while maybe the splits dictate that Neshek should go in the sixth inning today, and close tomorrow and it should work; relievers are humans. Not spreadsheets of data. It would only be normal if Neshek, in this hypothetical situation, acted a little different. After all, this time, the game is on the line. His team's hard work is on the line. It all comes down to him.

The aforementioned sabermetrics lovers, typically, dislike paying for saves. But, that said, Luhnow himself, a sabermetrics lover, was trying to pay for saves in Robertson. It indicates that there is change in the analytical world. An epiphany, of sorts. There seems to be a willingness to pay for saves. And I couldn't agree more. A silly counting stat, maybe, sometimes. A depiction of a reliever's ability to finish the game, others.

I'm a huge proponent of building the franchise, the lineup, the bullpen and the rotation on sabermetrics, but when it comes to in-game decisions, not so much. I'll say it again: relievers are humans like me and you, as I'm sure you know. Tension, consistency and routine must be taken into consideration. The Astros shouldn't operate a closer by committee. Rather, someone must be assigned as the team's closer. Namely, Chad Qualls. His relatively high ERA stems from his horrible Oakland outings. If he can conquer the A's, he can be a great closer, and shutdown the ninth inning next season.

The additions of Neshek and Gregerson shouldn't tempt the Astros to deploy a closer by committee for next season. Rather, use the two new signings to solidify the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Remember: relievers are humans. And the human relievers the Astros have in their bullpen for next season, can genuinely propel them towards being a legitimate five hundred team. The Houston Astros bullpen is certainly no longer the worst in baseball.