It’s been a bad year for closers across baseball, with roughly half of teams reshuffling their bullpens because of injury or failure. The Reds have been no exception. First, before the season, they lost presumptive closer Ryan Madson to an elbow injury. Dusty Baker named Sean Marshall his replacement. But the manager has never showed much confidence in his new closer, and Marshall has struggled. He has five saves in six chances, but he also has surrendered six runs over 11 innings of work (a 4.91 ERA) and has taken a pair of losses.
Yesterday in Milwaukee, after Zack Greinke shut the Reds down for eight innings, they took a 2-0 lead in the top of the ninth against Brewers closer John Axford. (See what I mean? Tough year to be a closer.) Baker brought in Marshall, who promptly gave up a leadoff home run to Ryan Braun, cutting the lead to one. Marshall recovered to strike out Aramis Ramirez and then retire Corey Hart, albeit on a deep fly ball that Drew Stubbs caught on the warning track. The drama wasn’t over. The unimposing tandem of Jonathan Lucroy and Norichika Aoki hit back-to-back two-out singles. At that point, Marshall had thrown 35 pitches and Baker had seen enough. He pulled the closer in favor of Logan Ondrusek, who walked George Kottaras to load the bases before sealing with win with a fly out by Travis Ishikawa. It was Baker’s 1,500th career victory.
After the game, Twitter was abuzz with speculation that Marshall’s days as closer are numbered. Baker certainly has some attractive alternatives. Ondrusek hasn’t given up a run this season, pitching 13 2/3 scoreless innings. Aroldis Chapman has been even better, pitching 15 2/3 shutout frames with an eye-popping 27 strikeouts. But only Baker (and maybe Walt Jocketty) knows how the Reds plan to handle the ninth inning going forward. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Marshall will get the ball the next time a save situation presents itself. It will probably take a few more outings like Wednesday’s before the team makes a change.
Rather than calling for Marshall’s head, I’d like to commend Baker for pulling him. Dusty doesn’t receive a lot of praise on this blog, so when he does something wise, it’s only fair to show him love.
It’s relatively rare to see a manager take the ball from his closer in the middle of a save opportunity. The prevailing notion seems to be that closers own the ninth; the lead is theirs to either preserve or cough up. But does this make any sense? Shouldn’t a skipper manage his bullpen to maximize the number of games his team wins, rather than the number of saves his anointed closer records? Things weren’t always this way. The save is a relatively new stat: It’s only been around since the 1960s. Before its invention, managers were free to use whichever reliever they thought had the best chance to succeed in a given situation, without worrying about hurting the feelings of his designated closer. That just makes sense. You play to win the game.
Usually, we see Baker’s old-school philosophy as a hindrance. But in this case, maybe it’s a blessing. Good on Dusty for making the winning move.