Fireballing lefty Matt Thornton is the highest ranking non-closer in Baseball Prospectus' opposition-adjusted win-expectation-based relief pitcher statistic WXRL. If that doesn't move you, his traditional stats should: 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 4.2 K/BB. A former first-round draft pick and minor league starter, Thornton's wildness out of the Mariner pen led Seattle to trade him to the south side for Joe Borchard in March 2006, and he's been a Second City mainstay ever since. He had a breakout season at age 31 last year and has been even better this year, shaking the LOOGY role for proper setup work in early June. Since July 1, he's posted a 1.71 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and walked just four men in 21 innings for a staggering 6.5 K/BB.
When Jerome Holtzman, a legendary baseball writer and a good man, died two weeks ago, I hoped some closer would celebrate a save by pumping his fist, falling to his knees, pointing to the sky and shouting, "This one is for you, Jerome!"
The gesture would make me respect closers a little more. Which is to say, still not very much.
Holtzman made closers incalculable millions because he is the writer responsible for the save becoming an official baseball statistic. He invented the save in 1960 as a way to better measure the effectiveness of relievers and it became an official major league stat in 1969 (saves previous to that year were added to record books after the fact). Trevor Hoffman, at least, acknowledged his debt to Holtzman. The all-time saves leader told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune he would light a cigar in the writer's honor (Holtzman loved cigars, which could be a minor annoyance if you had the misfortune of sitting next to him on deadline). "Obviously," said Hoffman, who has earned more than $60 million as a closer for the Padres, "I benefited quite a bit from him thinking that a reliever's value was something that could be quantified through a statistic."
The problem is that Holtzman's well-intentioned attempt to measure a reliever's worth has been cheapened, manipulated and bastardized to the point that the save is the most overrated stat in baseball and the closer is the most overrated and replaceable role in American sports.