Non-save situations no easy task for closers

Non-save situations no easy task for closers

Non-save situations no easy task for closers
Jose Valverde hasn't forgotten about his outing on July 30, 2010.

"Oh yeah, I remember that one," he said, flashing a grin.

Valverde didn't record a save, a win or a loss, but the appearance remains stranded inside the thin walls every closer's memory bank must maintain.

"I missed my spots a few times," Valverde said. "When the pitcher misses his spots, that's big trouble."

Big trouble indeed haunted the Big Potato. Valverde, needing work after four days' rest, entered the game with two outs in the eighth inning and his Tigers ahead of the Red Sox, 6-1. By the time he departed -- following 60 pitches, five walks and a grand slam -- Detroit escaped with a 6-5 victory. The bottom line, however, is all the right-hander cares about, no matter the arduous struggle endured to arrive there.

"If I give up a couple of runs, it doesn't bother me," Valverde said. "I just want to get the save. As long as I get a save so my team wins, it doesn't matter. I want to get a save every single time I go to the mound."

Could that mantra be what flustered the flamboyant finisher?

The ninth inning is typically a closer's domain. At no other juncture does a game hang in the balance with nearly every pitch. Closers are conditioned to embrace the pressure and external distractions that accompany those situations.

For whatever reason, though, that mindset doesn't always translate when a closer toes the rubber while ahead by a comfortable margin or in a tie game.

Perhaps Valverde felt too comfortable with a five-run lead. After all, when he converted all 49 of his save chances last season, he surrendered just three runs in 49 innings (0.55 ERA). But in non-save situations in 2011, Valverde posted a 5.79 ERA in 23 1/3 innings.

In 2010, Valverde compiled a 4.55 ERA in non-save outings compared to a 1.44 ERA while racking up 26 saves. For his career, Valverde's ERA is two runs higher when a save isn't at stake (2.22 vs. 4.22).

"It's the same no matter what," Valverde contends, though the statistics suggest other closers, too, struggle in non-save situations.

Indians stopper Chris Perez posted a 4.18 ERA in non-save scenarios last year, compared to a 2.75 ERA when looking to lock down a save.

Cardinals closer Jason Motte carries a 1.84 ERA in save situations this season, but a 6.00 ERA when a save isn't at hand. He served up a tie-breaking three-run homer to Cleveland's Jason Kipnis in the ninth inning on Sunday.

Philadelphia's Jonathan Papelbon has been flawless when securing a save this year, with 16 scoreless innings. In non-save scenarios, however, his ERA is 6.48.

Do closers just take it easy on the mound when they can't notch a save?

"Obviously, there isn't as much intensity," Perez said. "The game isn't on the line and you don't feel like your back is up against the wall."

As the pitcher's mindset might change depending on the score, so too can that of the opposing hitters. Perez noted how opposing clubs play free and aggressive when attempting to make up a larger deficit.

"Teams play differently," he said. "If it's a one-run game, they aren't stealing. You can get a double play or strike out the next guy. A lot of things go into it."

Perez said that when spotted with a sizable lead, he'll throw pitches to try to induce contact, a stark contrast from his approach in a tight game.

"When one pitch can beat you, every time you throw it, you're making sure you either hit your spot or you're missing away, not plate-side," Perez said. "With a [larger] lead, you're trying to hit your spot, but if you're going to miss, you want to miss toward the plate just to make them hit it. You don't want to walk people."

So shouldn't closers just treat every inning as if the game is on the line?

"That's the trick," Twins closer Matt Capps said. "You have to find a way to make it the same. You have to find a way to get over all of it, because there is a difference. The intensity level, the hitters' focus, there are a lot of differences, but that's the tough part about it."

Capps' numbers don't follow the norm for many closers. Minnesota's ninth-inning man recorded a 6.07 ERA in save situations last season, compared to a 2.75 ERA in non-save situations. For his career, Capps holds a 3.97 ERA when he's attempting a save conversion and a 3.07 ERA when he isn't.

Blue Jays reliever Sergio Santos, who saved 30 games for the White Sox last season, posted similar statistics, with a 4.79 ERA in save situations compared to a 1.95 ERA in non-save scenarios.

"As a reliever, you have the feeling of someone else's game on your shoulders," Capps said. "It can be added pressure if you let it be that way, if you look at it like that. You have to find a way to get all that out of your mind and just go out and execute."

This season, Valverde has compiled a 3.00 ERA in save scenarios and a 5.23 ERA when a save isn't at stake. Still, "Papa Grande" doesn't care what story the numbers tell. He chalks up the situational discrepancies to the overall difficulty of his job.

"Baseball is hard," Valverde said. "There aren't too many people who have done what I did last year. I want to do well every time I go to the mound, whether I'm striking them out or getting ground balls or fly balls.

"It's not easy for anyone."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.