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Closing arguments

COLD TOMMY JOHN HAS GOT ME ON THE RUN
Twins closer Joe Nathan has apparently torn his ulnar collateral ligament and may require Tommy John surgery. Should Nathan go out for the year, this would obviously be a loss to the Twins and to baseball in general -- as far as regular season play goes, Nathan is right up there with Mariano Rivera. Since 2004, Rivera has a 1.90 ERA and 243 saves, Nathan a 1.87 ERA and 246 saves.

Nathan's apparent demise is an important moment for Yankees fans. As the core of the current team ages, the same questions keep arising: How badly will the eventual passing of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera affect the Yankees? The answer is likely to be, respectively, a lot, maybe less than you would think given the team's depth at the position, and possibly not very much at all.

It is counterintuitive to say the least that when talking about the retirement of an inner-circle Hall of Famer that the team would not be affected, but that is the nature of the closer's job. In the regular season, the difference between the best closer and the average closer is only a few saves. Over the last three seasons, Rivera's conversion rate is 94 percent. The average for a pitcher is his profession who is successful enough to keep his job is about 87 percent. Given 50 save opportunities, that's three blown saves for the field that Rivera converts. Remember, that not all blown saves are instant losses -- some may go on to be extra-inning ties that may still be won by the closer's team. The ultimate difference from the elite to the average closer might be as small as one additional loss a season. Some pennant races may turn on one loss, but most of the time this is survivable.

As we've discussed many times in this space, the reason for this is that closers aren't used very well. The save rule says that any lead of less than four runs is a save situation, but this is far too generous. Most pitchers, even a bad one, can on any given day get three outs before they give up three runs. Tighter games require more skill, but these situations are often entrusted to set-up men and middle relievers, not to closers.

Every year, some team trusts the wrong pitcher to close. There are pitchers emotionally unsuited for the job, or too wild, too contact-oriented, or too inclined toward fly balls. However, the record shows that most teams turn over their closer position without suffering too badly. When the day comes that the Yankees have to pick a successor for Rivera, as long as they are able to avoid a pitcher who just can't do the job at all, things shouldn't change too badly.

The postseason may be a different matter; October is the place where Rivera seems to rise to a higher level than his already lofty standard. But hey -- all things being equal, the Yankees will still get there with their "OK" post-Rivera closer. As for the Twins, assuming Nathan fails in rehabbing away his ligament tear, which seems likely, the Twins will move on to Jon Rauch or some other worthy who will be successful enough in the role for them to stay in contention in the congeries of crippled clubs called the central. One game might make a difference in that division, as tight as it will be, but the Twins have enough weaknesses in the starting rotation, among other locations, that should they fail to reach the postseason by some small margin there will be more blame to go around than can be absorbed just by the closer's spot.

NICK THE GREENSTICK HITS TWO
His power stroke is back, perhaps? Nobel Hitting Prize to Kevin Long? The Johnson signing has been subject to much ridicule based on his fragility, but take Johnson's customary .400 OBP and tag on 10 more home runs than he hit last year and you have an extremely valuable hitter, one that will go a long way toward making up for the decision to let Hideki Matsui move on. No one ever won any money by betting on Johnson to stay healthy, and even if he does it this year he may never do it again. This could be wishful thinking on my part, but Johnson is going to stay healthy in the DH role and make this contract pay off for the Yankees.

If he opens the season hitting .211 with no power and then trips on a hotel carpet and goes out with the season, feel free to quote this back to me. I'll deserve it.

YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS ...
The Rangers acquired Edwar Ramirez from the Yankees for cash. Poor Edwar. Arlington is not the place for any pitcher to find easy success, but for one as prone to having his 3-1 changeups launched into the stratosphere, it's hard to image a worse place short of Colorado. Alas, Edwar. We'll always have Scranton.