Francisco Rodriguez has 45 saves on August 8th. If injuries and his team don't falter much, he's breaking the all-time saves record in a year when one of the greatest relief pitchers ever, Goose Gossage, went to the Hall Of Fame. The game has changed very much since back then. Closers only go 1 innings most of the time yet at the same time matter more than they ever used to. Because of the lack of dominant starting pitching and better offense, closing the door has become tougher and more rare to find than ever. Which is why K-Rod's rate right now is remarkable and the fact that if he continues this over some more years, he's obliterating the all-time saves record held by the overrated Trevor Hoffman (I'll explain later). And even though he's only pitching for 1 inning most of the time, he still does his job the way the Angels were hoping and then some.
After the season though, chances are it's goodbye K-Rod. After this monster year, he'll bolt to the free agent market and demand the biggest contract ever by a reliever. And he'll AT LEAST get that. The Angels won't re-sign him seeing as K-Rod has already declined their latest offer and the Angels appear to be grooming a replacement in Jose Arredondo (4-0, 1.03 ERA in 35 innings this year). You can take the big 3 payrolls out of it (Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets) seeing as either they already have a closer or wouldn't spend that money on a guy who may be overworked or have problems looming in his body already. His velocity has been a tad down this season and that incredibly violent, hurky-jerky motion he flings toward the batter's box has scared practically everyone since he was on the draft board. But he's also added a wicked change-up to his repertoire this year and is still very young. And if he gets another World Series ring? Forget it.
But what this does is it brings up an interesting subject: Do closers really mean that much and are they overrated? My answer is a simple, straightforward "No, the role of the closer is not overrated". Now, with that said if I was a team that could use a closer I still probably wouldn't get K-Rod. The reasons being that he will cost a ton of money and long term contracts with pitchers very rarely work out. Either they don't live up to expectations (A.J. Burnett) or they completely self-destruct in a array of homeruns and walks (Barry Zito). While none of those mentioned are relief pitchers, the risk is all the same. So I wouldn't do it unless you're a team that can afford him and can contend now (Dodgers, Cardinals- Dave Duncan would probably do an incredible job with K-Rod. Duncan is the biggest genius in baseball by far. That's another topic-, or maybe the Tigers). All 3 teams have had an incredible tough time closing out games.
With that said, closers are one of the most important aspects of any baseball team. It's not fair to compare them to a kicker in the NFL because quite frankly, the kicker has the easier job. It's another universe trying to go out on the mound in the 9th inning and getting 3 hitters out when all the pressure is on you. While closers don't pitch as much as they used to before the complete game starter evaporated and offenses weren't juiced up, the fact still remains that closers are becoming equally important. Look at the WS champs of the last 10 years and the guys they had locking the door in the 9th:
98', 99', and 00'- Yankees with Marino Rivera (117 saves, 2.20 ERA collectively during those 3 seasons)
01'- Diamondbacks with Byung-Hyun Kim (19 saves, 2.94 ERA)
02'- Angels with Troy Percival (40 saves, 1.92 ERA)
03'- Marlins with Brandon Looper (28 saves, 3.68 ERA)
04'- Red Sox with Keith Foulke (32 saves, 2.17 ERA)
05'- White Sox with Dustin Hermanson and in the playoffs Bobby Jenks (40 saves ,2.40 ERA collectively)
06'- Cardinals with Jason Isringhausen and Adam Wainwright in the playoffs (36 saves, 3.34 ERA collectively)
07'- Red Sox with Jonathan Papelbon (37 saves, 1.85 ERA)
There's always some exceptions to every rule and here it's no different (here it would be the Diamondbacks and Marlins, as both teams won more from great starting pitching and clutch hitting). And while both Bobby Jenks and Adam Wainwright were inexperienced and nothing special in the regular season, both were absolutely lights out in the postseason (2.25 ERA with 8 saves total as both won WS. Adam Wainwright didn‘t even have an ERA). The point is, you CAN NOT win in the long term consistently without not a good closer, but a GREAT closer. You just can't. If the Yankees never found Mo Rivera, they would have never won those 4 championships because there's no one like Rivera. Not only has he been able to keep his job forever, you have to remember he delivered in most big spots in his career under the constant pressure-cooker that is NY. Not many people have the arm and stomach to do that. You look at his postseason numbers and they are truly scary (34 saves, 0.77 ERA). He's an example of when you have a great closer, you can always win in big games. Now, once again there are exceptions. The reason why the closer position is still a near impossible shoe to fill is because many guys can close in the regular season but melt under the pressure of October baseball. I'll bring up two names for example: Armando Benitez and Trevor Hoffman. Both are somewhat different situations with the same results. Benitez was the kind of pitcher that always had tons of potential. At times, he was shutdown nasty (see his 1999 and 2000 years). But, while he racked up saves and strikeouts, he would always implode in the big spot. He just didn't have the nerves. He was always a tease and that hurt the Mets deeply when they lost in 5 to the Yankees in 2000. Hoffman is a different story. Trevor Hoffman holds the record for the most saves ever with 548 which is quite an accomplishment. Because of that and the fact he's been able to stay in the league for so long, he deserves to go to the Hall Of Fame. But Hoffman is an extremely overrated closer because in the big spot, he's not good. The 1998 series, the All-Star game a few years back, the one game playoff between his Padres and the Rockies last year, you can name multiple occasions where he's done terrible for a closer of his caliber. It shows that even when you get a closer who can rack up save after save in the off-season, you're still nowhere close to home.
That is why having a great closer means so much. When you have a great closer, the game shortens for you and not only does your team have supreme confidence that the game is over when he jogs toward the mound but also the sense of dread in the other team. The other team realizes that they have little chance so they start trying to hard which causes an easier time for the closer. The dominant closers today (Mo, Papelbon, Nathan, Jenks, and K-Rod) all have that shut-down aura around them. While a legendary closer certainly doesn't need that, it sure does help. If you have great stuff with iron flesh, that will come packed in. If I had to rank today's closers on tiers, I'd go as follows:
Top Tier= Marino Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Bobby Jenks, Francisco Rodriguez
Second Tier= Billy Wagner, Joakim Soria, Troy Percival, Francisco Cordero
Third Tier= Trevor Hoffman, Brad Lidge , B.J. Ryan, J.J. Putz, Kerry Wood, Takashi Saito
Forth Tier= Brian Wilson, Salomon Torres, Matt Capps, Huston Street, Brain Fuentes
Bottom Tier= C.J. Wilson, Kevin Gregg, Eric Gagne, Todd Jones, Brandon Lyon, George Sherrill
I judged everyone on their careers, this season, and their playoff experience if they have any. Take a look at the top tier. The teams that are represented there are the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, and Angels ( just realized they're all in the AL...wow). All those teams are over .500, two division leaders, one wild card leader, and they all share a combined record of 326-245 this year. While that isn't all the closers credit, they play a gigantic part.
The closer has become just as important as the front-line starter and the impact hitter. All 3 are vital parts to a team and need to be had 99.9% of the time to win big year after year. The only way to close the door in a season the right way is to win a championship. And a great closer does that better than anyone.