Blue Jays at Detroit, May 23-26

Thursday, May 23 2024 @ 01:10 PM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

On the road again, with a seven game trip to a couple of Original Six cities. (not that there ever was an Original Six anywhere, one of those myths that has always irritated the hell out of me.)

It's been about ten years since the Tigers were any good, and there's normally a reward for Years of Badness. (And the Tigers were pretty bad. Three straight seasons losing at least 98 games? Try that here.) Those rewards should be starting to appear by now, in the form of high draft picks developing into contributing major leaguers. It hasn't quite happened. Their timing could have been better - Detroit got to make the first pick in both 2018 (they took Casey Mize) and in 2020 (they drafted Spencer Torkelson.) Alas for them, they only had the fifth pick in 2019. You know, the year Adley Rutschman went first overall, with Bobby Witt Jr right behind him. I think Riley Greene is probably going to be a very nice player, but Rutschman and Witt are MVP candidates right now. Them's the breaks.

The draft pick who is working out, and quite splendidly, is the guy they took in the ninth round back in 2018. The Blue Jays shouldn't see Tarik Skubal this weekend, which is good news for the Blue Jays. (In other good news, they probably won't have to deal Garrett Crochet again when they move on to Chicago.)

But Matt Manning is scheduled to work on Friday - you remember him, he no-hit the Jays last year - and Saturday's starter will be the skinny RH Reese Olson, who has pitched just marvellously this season, even better than Skubal. Olson was roughed up by the Pirates in his second start of the year back on April 8. In his seven starts since then, he's gone a truly bizarre 0-4, 1.35 which hardly seems possible. But the Tigers - not exactly an offensive powerhouse - have been shut out in three of those seven starts, and scored just one run on another occasion.


Thu 23 May - Gausman (2-3, 4.89) vs Flaherty (1-3, 3.79)
Fri 24 May - Manoah (1-1, 3.00) vs Manning (1-1 4.88)
Sat 25 May - Berrios (5-3, 2.98) vs Olson (0-5, 2.16)

Sun 26 May - Kikuchi (2-4, 2.64) vs Mize (1-3, 4.57)


We were discussing the odd case of Jordan Romano the other day. On the one hand, Romano doesn't seem to have found his best form yet (bearing in mind that one bad outing for any reliever at this point in the season can make his overall numbers look bad for weeks afterward. If not months.) But on the other hand, Romano has clearly done his job - Closing the Game - about as well as he's ever done it. He's successfully closed out 7 games in 8 opportunities, which is 87.5% - his career totals are 104 out of 117, which is 88.9% (I think I'll call this figure Save Efficiency!) and that's really about as good as it gets. And to persuade you that this is indeed about as good as it gets, let's see how Romano's Save Efficiency compares with those of the pitchers with the most Saves in MLB history
Pitcher  Saves  Opportunities   Efficiency

Rivera 652 723 89.4
Nathan 377 423 89.1
Romano 104 117 88.9
Hoffman 601 677 88.8
Kimbrel 426 482 88.4
Jansen 428 485 88.2
Wagner 422 491 85.9
Rodriguez 417 513 85.2
Eckersley 390 461 84.6
Smith 478 581 82.3
Franco 424 525 80.8

Romano is a thoroughly modern Closer. He's not the Relief Ace, his job isn't to wriggle out of jams - on the 2024 Blue Jays, that job belongs to Yimi Garcia (for the moment, anyway.) Romano's job is to get the game over the finish line. And so he's generally not called upon until the ninth inning. As it happens, Romano has come on in the ninth inning in 92 of his 104 saves (88.5%). That's actually a little less than the frequency of ninth inning summonses for other modern closers, like Hoffman, Nathan, and Rodriguez. Each of those worthies entered the game in the ninth inning in more than 90% of their Saves.

This is how the modern game is played. (Game done changed? Game the same, just got more fierce.) Ninth inning game entries account for barely one third of Dan Quisenberry's career saves, and I'm not the only one here old enough to remember the Quis. Quisenberry was an old fashioned Relief Ace, called on whenever the team was in Trouble.

Anyway - here's what I was wondering. When did this happen? When did the Relief Ace mutate into the Modern Closer?

The first significant reliever to come on in the ninth inning in more than 90% of his career saves was Jose Mesa, whose run as a closer began in Cleveland in 1995, when he saved 46 games for Mike Hargrove. Mesa entered in the ninth inning in every one of those 46 games - in fact, he only made two appearances before the ninth inning all year (both times his team was down by 5 runs or more, but Mesa needed the work.)

Is it really Jose Mesa? It's obviously not Mariano Rivera, who didn't become a Closer until 1997. While it's well known that Joe Torre was certainly willing to call on Rivera whener trouble loomed, he preferred to save that bullet for the post-season. It's certainly true that Rivera was being used exactly like a Modern Closer by the time his long career came to an end. In his last four seasons, he saved 126 games and he entered in the ninth inning in 121 of them. Still, Rivera saved 120 games over the years while coming on in the eighth inning or earlier, with most of those coming in the first part of his career.

Did it really began with Jose Mesa? Seems unlikely. In fact, my first thought was "Eckersley." But, no, not really. Eckersley had a five year run for LaRussa in Oakland (1988-1992) when he was about as effective as a reliever could possibly be - he saved 220 games with a 1.90 ERA and an ERA+ of 198. But in those years, Eckersley made his entrance in the ninth inning just 64.5% of the time. He came on in the eighth inning for for more than a third (78 of 220) of those saves. Eckersley would go on to spend another five years closing games for LaRussa, in Oakland and St. Louis, and in those seasons - beginning in 1993 when he was a) 38 years old, and b) not nearly as unhittable as he'd been before - he was indeed used very much like a Modern Closer.

It's time to look at Tom Henke and Cito Gaston.

When Henke came up, in mid 1985, he was used very much like an old-fashioned relief ace by Bobby Cox, and both Jimy Williams and Cito Gaston used him the same way. But his usage pattern changes midway through the 1990 season. The year before, at the head of what was really a three man bullpen, Henke had come on in the eighth inning or earlier in two-thirds of his saves. He began the 1990 season being used by Gaston in the same way. In 9 of his first 11 saves, he entered the game in the eighth inning. And then, on the first of July, Gaston mostly stopped doing that. Henke became his ninth-inning bullet, and in 15 of his remaining 20 saves he entered the game in the ninth inning.

And that's how Gaston used Henke in his final two Toronto seasons. In 1991-92, Henke saved 66 games in 72 Save Opportunities - that's 91.7% efficiency - and he came on in the ninth inning for 62 of those 66 saves. That's a Modern Closer.

I have a bit of a soft spot for the Modern Closer. It's like being the goalie (and I am an Old Goalie!) You can't win. The only thing you can do is lose. When a goalie fails, red lights flash, and the crowd makes a huge noise, and your teammates can't look you in the eye. That's how it is for Closers. What's the moment of Dennis Eckersley's career everyone remembers? It's that pitch he threw to Kirk Gibson in 1988 (here, of course, we remember the one he threw to Roberto Alomar in 1992. Same thing.) Even the great Mariano Rivera - think of a moment from his career that doesn't involve Luis Gonzalez. They're there, but they're generally not the first ones that come to mind.

For my next trick, I might suggest that Tim Mayza's campaign to date hasn't been a total disaster either. But that's as far as I'm willing to go. Erik Swanson is beyond my help.