I know we haven't covered it much here at BYB over the past couple days, but Jose Valverde is struggling as the Tigers closer. Sarcasm aside, many people are worried about whether the bullpen will cost the Tigers a shot at a World Series title. According to both second and third-order win percentages, they are underperforming by a wide margin this season, and a fair amount of that falls on a bullpen that is just 4-12 despite some decent peripherals.
While the cries have become louder and louder to get a new closer -- your preference of "proven" or "hell, just anybody" may depend on your preferred Tigers news source -- the struggles beg the question: does it take a proven closer to win it all?
To answer that, we're going back and looking at each of the last [however many of these I do] World Series champs to see how their closer situation unfolded throughout the year. (Note: all stats in parentheses are regular season numbers.)
2012 San Francisco Giants
The Giants lost Brian Wilson at the beginning of the season, forcing them to search around their bullpen for a viable closing option. Casilla pitched well for a few months, but blew five saves between June 24th and July 18th. Meanwhile, Romo didn't get the full-time gig until late August, but he was lights out after that, picking up 13 saves from August 23rd through the playoffs with a 0.96 ERA.
The Giants originally acquired Casilla on a minor league contract prior to the 2010 season. He made $2.2 million during the 2012 season, the second of his three arbitration seasons. Romo was drafted by the Giants in 2005. He made $1.575 million during the 2012 season, which was his second arbitration season.
2011 St. Louis Cardinals
Like the 2012 Giants, the 2011 Cardinals changed closers late in the season. Salas blew consecutive save opportunities in mid-August, the second of which dropped the Cardinals to nine games out of the divisional race and 9 ½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the wild card race. Motte took over after that, saving 14 of 15 games down the stretch and in the playoffs with a 3.18 ERA.
Salas was signed by the Cardinals as an amateur free agent out of Mexico in 2007. The 2011 season was his first full year in the big leagues and he made the major league minimum. Motte was drafted by the Cardinals in 2003 and he debuted with the big league club in 2009. He made $435,000 in 2011, the last of his pre-arbitration seasons.
2010 San Francisco Giants
Closer: Brian Wilson (48/53 saves, 1.81 ERA)
The first closer on our list to not lose his job during the season, Wilson had signed a $15 million contract with the Giants prior to the 2010 season, buying out his first two arbitration-eligible seasons. He saved 79 games in 2008 and 2009, and did not allow an earned run in the 2010 postseason. Four of his six saves in the playoffs were in one-run games. He was drafted by the Giants in 2003 and made his major league debut in 2006.
2009 New York Yankees
Closer: Mariano Rivera (44/46 saves, 1.76 ERA)
The best closer of all-time was still a homegrown product. The Yankees signed Rivera as an amateur free agent in 1990 and he got the call to the big leagues in 1995. During the 2009 postseason, he saved five games and had a 0.56 ERA in 12 appearances. He made $15 million during the '09 season.
Closer: Brad Lidge (41/41 saves, 1.95 ERA)
You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a team that went out and got a high-profile closer via trade or free agency. The Phillies acquired Lidge prior to the 2008 season from the Houston Astros, trading away a trio of prospects that included Michael Bourn. You won't find many Phillies fans complaining, however, as Lidge's perfect season included seven postseason saves with a 0.96 ERA. Not a bad way to rebound after this monster shot during the 2005 playoffs sent him into a two-year tailspin.
Lidge made $6.35 million in 2008, the last of his arbitration seasons. He signed a three year, $37.5 million extension with the Phillies in July of '08.
2007 Boston Red Sox
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon (37/40 saves, 1.85 ERA)
Another homegrown product, Papelbon debuted during the 2005 season before taking over the closer role in 2006. In 2007, he made $425,500 while racking up 3.1 bWAR, the third-highest total of his career. Interestingly enough, 9.1 of his career 19.0 bWAR came in his first two-plus seasons (2005-07) when he made just over $1 million combined. During the '07 postseason, Pap saved four games, closed out two more, and didn't allow a run in seven appearances.
2006 St. Louis Cardinals
Another high-priced closer, Isringhausen originally signed a four-year, $27 million contract with the Cardinals in 2002. He made $8.75 million in 2006 after restructuring his contract prior to the '05 season, which kept him with the Cardinals through 2008. However, Isringhausen saw his 2006 season end early when he had hip surgery in September. This left the closer role to the rookie Wainwright, who went four of five in save opportunities during the postseason without allowing a run.
Wainwright was originally a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2000, but was traded to the Cardinals in 2003 as part of a package for outfielder J.D. Drew. While he broke into the big leagues as a reliever, he was a starter throughout his time in the minors, and transitioned into the Cardinals' rotation in 2007.
2005 Chicago White Sox
Takatsu got the bulk of save chances in April for the Sox, still getting the job done despite a 7.00 ERA in his first 13 appearances. He wouldn't get another chance for a save after that, however, and was released by the White Sox in August that year. Originally signed by them in 2004, he made $2.5 million in 2005.
Hermanson was the closer for most of the season, but lost his job to Jenks despite saving 32 of 35 chances through August with a 1.68 ERA. He was signed to a 3 year, $9 million contract prior to 2004, but the club declined his $3.5 million option for the 2006 season. He made $3 million in 2005.
The Sox picked up Jenks off waivers prior to the '05 season and paid him the league minimum as he saved 10 of 13 opportunities with a 3.72 ERA after taking the closer job in mid-September.
2004 Boston Red Sox
Closer: Keith Foulke (32/39 saves, 2.17 ERA)
Spurned by their failure in the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees, the Red Sox signed Foulke to a three year, $26.5 million contract prior to the 2004 season. He struggled in September with two blown saves and a 3.95 ERA, but manager Terry Francona still used Foulke quite a bit in the postseason. Despite only saving three games, Foulke made 11 appearances, pitching 14 innings with a 0.64 ERA. Francona bucked traditional thinking by bringing Foulke into the game eight times in the eighth inning or earlier during the '04 postseason. Foulke fizzled out after that, allowing a 5.10 ERA over the next two seasons despite making a combined $15 million.
2003 Florida Marlins
Closers: Braden Looper (28/34 saves, 3.68 ERA), Ugueth Urbina (6/8 saves, 1.41 ERA)
Looper was acquired by the Marlins after their 1997 firesale, coming to South Beach after the '98 season as part of a package of prospect that made Edgar Renteria a St. Louis Cardinal. He signed a three year, $2.6 million contract prior to the '01 season that paid him $1.4 million in 2003. Despite a fairly solid season, he lost his job to Urbina in September after blowing consecutive save opportunities. He was non-tendered after the season.
Urbina was signed to a one year, $4.5 million contract by the Texas Rangers prior to the '03 season. He saved 26 of 30 opportunities for the Rangers with a 4.19 ERA before the Marlins traded a package of prospects for him in July. Ugie was primarily a setup man for the next two months before taking over the closer job in late September. He saved eight of 10 opportunities with a 2.65 ERA in the late regular season and playoffs. He signed a two year, $8 million contract with the Tigers after the '03 season.
2002 Los Angeles Angels
Closer: Troy Pervical (40/44 saves, 1.92 ERA)
Percival came up through the Angels' system after being drafted by the club in 1990. He made his debut in 1995 and took over the closer role the next season, saving 210 games from his debut up until the start of the 2002 season. I can't find the exact details of his contract, but he made $5.25 million during the '02 season after the Angels exercised a team option the offseason prior, then signed a two year, $16 million extension after the club won its first championship.
Percival's ERA got off to an ugly start after a blown save in early April, but he only allowed 11 runs from May 1st on (including the playoffs, saving 44 of 47 chances with a 1.61 ERA.
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks
Closer: Byung-Hyun Kim (19/23 saves, 2.94 ERA)
The Diamondbacks were as curious of a champion as any we have seen on this list, because they didn't seem to have a set closer for most of the season. While Kim was the only reliever with double digit saves, rookie Bret Prinz also saved nine games in 12 chances. However, his chances came sporadically. Meanwhile, Kim struggled in the postseason, blowing two save chances in the World Series. This forced manager Bob Brenly to bring Randy Johnson out of the bullpen in the decisive Game 7 after throwing 104 pitches in Game 6 the night before, a move that likely won't be repeated in the near future.
Kim was signed by the Diamondbacks as an amateur free agent in 1999 and made $762,500 in 2001.
I could continue on from here, but I won't because (a) there's three consecutive years of Mariano Rivera dominance coming up and we all know how that ends, and (b) it becomes increasingly difficult to find salary data prior to the year 2000. Apparently the Y2K phenomenon was more dangerous than we thought.
Anyway, the trend that we're seeing here seems pretty obvious: it definitely takes a good closer (and good bullpen, by extension) to win in the playoffs. This should come as no surprise, given the low-scoring nature of most postseason games.
However, it doesn't take a high-priced "proven" closer to win those tight games. Many of the names we see on this list are guys that simply had the hot hand at the time, and their respective managers rode that hot streak to a championship. It's the same phenomenon we see in the regular season, where a guy like Jose Valverde can be perfect one season and lose his job less than a year later, or Fernando Rodney can post an all-time low ERA, or Jason Grilli can go from flameout to All-Star in a few short seasons.
The lesson to be learned here isn't that the Tigers need a proven closer to win, but that they need to find someone who can help lock down the back of the bullpen down the stretch, or they may once again be on the outside looking in when the World Series trophy is hoisted.