The closer role in baseball generally is a one-man job. In a tight game, when eyes shift to the bullpen in the ninth inning, everybody knows who’s coming out the door: The Terminator, a guy licensed to get out right- and left-handed hitters, usually with a flamethrower of an arm.
The Washington Nationals have been getting by this season without their closer, Drew Storen, who’s still recovering from bone-chip surgery. They relied on the tag team of Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez for a while, then went almost exclusively with Rodriguez after Lidge went down with a sports hernia. When they tired of H-Rod’s volatility, they turned to Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett.
Clippard, the All-Star setup man, has really taken to the task. He’s 4 for 4 in save opportunities and has yet to allow a base runner, striking out six of the 11 batters he’s faced. Which raises the question: When Storen returns, would it make sense for Davey Johnson to ease him back in by adopting a two-closer strategy? It wouldn’t, after all, be the first time he’s done such a thing.
In the 1980s, when he managed the New York Mets, Davey had multiple closers with 15-plus saves five years in a row. In 1984, it was Jesse Orosco and Doug Sisk. From ‘85 through ‘87, it was Orosco and Roger McDowell. And in ‘88, it was McDowell and Randy Myers. Those teams, I’ll just point out, averaged 98 victories — with the ‘86 Mets winning the World Series. Clearly, a two-headed closer isn’t an impediment to success.
Clippard, for one, is certainly open to the idea. “That’s the natural progression,” he said before Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. “If you’re a bullpen guy, you should be wanting to close. That’s where the best relievers in the game are.”
It also pays better, of course. As pitching coach Steve McCatty said, “I’m sure every setup man would rather close. There’s more dough to be made there.”
Right now, with the job being shared, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty in the Nationals’ bullpen, Clippard said. Late in the game, “we’re all kinda just looking at the [opposing team’s] lineup — how it’s going to shape up in the ninth — and kinda just seeing what happens from there.” Maybe the situation will call for a righty (Tyler), or maybe it will call for a lefty (Sean).
But if Johnson decided to go with twin closers on an extended basis, Clippard said, “you’d really have to get everybody in the right mindset for that, because we all have routines down there. I know when Drew was closing he had a routine that he felt comfortable doing because he was getting ready for the ninth inning. But as long as we know around when we’re going to be pitching, we can get ready. It’s not a huge deal.”
It’s been 20 years since a team rotated two top-notch closers. The last to do it was the 1992 Cincinnati Reds, who had Norm Charlton (26 saves) and our old friend Rob Dibble (25). But a Storen-Clippard tandem might have that capability, if Johnson wanted to go in that direction. And again, it’s not like Davey hasn’t done it.
Besides, he’s always been a proponent of having A and B bullpens. If you pitch today, you’re probably not going to pitch tomorrow. Normally, that doesn’t apply to the closer, but there’s no reason it can’t. And the Nationals might not want to pitch Storen three or four days in a row when he first comes back, just as they’ve been careful not to overdo it with Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg after Tommy John surgery.
Could a strategy that worked for the Mets in the ‘80s work for the Nats three decades later? “It’s hard to say,” Johnson said. “Clippard has been my main closer [of late], and it was something he wasn’t comfortable with last year. And as the setup man, I think, he never really wanted [to pitch] a whole bunch of games in a row, which may be taxing for him because [of his] big arm delivery. So how much can you use him without overtaxing him?
“It’s always good to have a backup guy you have confidence in, because if you want to be 30, 40 games over .500, you’re going to have a lot of [save] opportunities. And when you go to multiple closers, you’re generally using setup guys [such as Tyler], because they have that [gutsy] attitude. They’re used to pitching with the game on the line, protecting a small margin, and can get lefties and righties out. But some of them don’t have the arm resiliency. So it comes down to: How resilient is the arm?”
The other issue, Johnson added, is that “when you use your setup guys as closers, then lots of times your long men have to become setup guys. And so you’re not just changing one or two roles, you’re changing multiple roles. So the talent you have available, it dictates what you can do and what you can’t do.”
Best-case scenario: Storen is his old self when he comes off the disabled list and can immediately take on his usual heavy workload. But it hasn’t been a season, so far, of best-case scenarios for this ballclub. It’s been a season of injuries and roster juggling — which forced the Nationals, among other things, to fast-track their 19-year-old phenom. Will it force them to get creative with the closer job, too?