Pitcher Heath Bell of the San Diego Padres prepares to throw the ball against the Colorado Rockies at Petco Park in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)
They say that the key to being a successful Major League closer is to have a closer's mentality. Here we use photographic evidence to explore just what that means.
For as long as I've been alive, there have been saves. For about as long as there have been saves, there have been closers. Relief pitchers entrusted to protect small leads at the end of a game. Closers haven't always existed, but, as with the designated hitter, the closer has grown to become its own distinct position.
Every so often, an inquisitive soul will ask what the difference is between being a closer and being a regular relief pitcher. It stands to reason that a good reliever could be a good closer, right? After all, the only difference between their jobs is the timing.
But it isn't that easy, the inquisitive are told. In order to succeed as a closer, a pitcher must possess a closer's mentality. They say the hardest outs to get in baseball are the last ones, and it's a closer's job to get the last ones. To do that, and to do that well, he must be of a particular mind. Any normal reliever without a closer's mentality will most certainly fail if asked to do more.
Well, all right. So what is a closer's mentality? What does that actually mean? When pressed on the issue, the authorities will cite qualities like toughness and determination. Fire, too. They'll talk about how important it is for a closer to be able to bounce back from defeat.
But this is dissatisfying to me, because it's subjective. I want objectivity. I want objective evidence of just what it takes to be a Major League closer. So I went in pursuit of it.
I watched footage of every closer in the league, and identified the mentality he brought with him to the mound. How did I do this? By observing him at his most natural. I wasn't interested in the way each closer approached the mound from the bullpen. I wasn't interested in any accompanying music. I wasn't interested in the way each closer would stare down the hitter. At these times, and others, the closer might be deliberately playing a part.
There is one time when the closer isn't merely playing a part. One time when the observant eye can see what's really going on underneath. And that's when the closer is looking in for a sign from the catcher. At that moment, the closer is being himself, in all of his personal glory.
I collected images of every closer looking in for a sign, and once my folder was full, I examined them closely. What I found is that there is a small assortment of seemingly acceptable closer mentalities, at least in the game today. Eight of them, to be precise. The eight mentalities:
- Blind and drunk
A reliever who possesses one of the above mentalities might be able to cut it as a closer. A reliever who does not possess one of the above mentalities is probably best suited for the seventh or the eighth. Below, the groupings and corresponding explanations.
These closers pretty clearly don't give a s*** about pitching and would probably prefer to be somewhere else. The reason this works is because pitchers who don't give a s*** about pitching won't give a s*** if they're pitching in the fifth or if they're pitching in the ninth. They are impervious to the leverage associated with their roles, because they don't give a s*** about them.
These closers don't really know what's going on. They don't understand anything about the situation or what they're supposed to do, and that makes things difficult for an opposing hitter, because it's almost impossible to draw up a plan against a pitcher who doesn't have a plan. For closers, natural confusion can work to their benefit.
These closers are all completely stupid. Just looking at them makes it evident how stupid they are. They are the kind of stupid that is visibly stupid. It is impossible for them to understand that pitching in the ninth inning is stressful because it is impossible for them to understand zippers.
These closers are hairy. Hairy is a mentality in their cases because their hair has grown inwards and assumed control of their brains. If you can pitch, and if your hair has assumed control of your brain, you can be a closer.
Closing isn't scary because these pitchers are already scared. These closers live in constant fear that something bad is about to happen to them or their families. When they muster up the courage to throw a pitch, though, they succeed, because the hitters pick up on the fear, and don't know how to handle it. They sense that something is wrong, but assume that the pitcher knows what it is, which gives the pitcher the unwitting advantage. Against these closers, many hitters have developed the habit of looking over their shoulders.
These closers are blind! They lean in really far because they can barely see the catcher! They're capable of handling the ninth inning duties because nobody tells them it's the ninth inning when they come in, and they can't read the scoreboard.
This closer can handle being a closer because he's dependably s***faced to oblivion, adequately numbing the senses. He can't worry about the significance of every single pitch that he throws because it's all he can do to remain standing on the mound. It is a different means to a Disinterested end.
Blind and drunk
The amazing thing about blind and drunk people is that they're paradoxically capable of so much more than the rest of us.