One the earliest narratives I can remember being driven by the sabermetrics movement some ten years ago was that managers were wasting the value of their best relievers by limiting them, strictly, to the 9th inning in “save” situations. While that is often a situation when you’d want your best reliever out there, advanced data analysis demonstrated quite correctly that the game is frequently won or lost in other situations. When another reliever gets into trouble in the 7th inning. When the 8th inning features the heart of the opposing lineup. When the game is tied in the 10th inning and you just need to make it to the 11th inning.
But what we’ve learned and accepted in the last few years is that, while the data behind that thinking was all correct, deploying it with human beings was another matter entirely. “Remember the heartbeat,” as Joe Maddon might say. There’s something different about the 9th inning, the baseball saying goes, and increasingly, it does seem like that’s the case. Some relievers can do the 9th inning thing, and some are dramatically better in a setup role. And some relievers need to be protected, physically, but limiting their outings artificially, so why not just go the “traditional” save situation route if you’re going to limit them anyway?
So that’s what the Cubs plan to do with new closer Brandon Morrow, just as they did with former closer Wade Davis in 2017. But here’s the question for the day: what about that other part of being a closer? Davis had long proven that he could handle the 9th inning like a cyborg. Can Morrow?
Although Morrow, now 33, has been a closer in the past, it was right around the time we were learning about the closer role might need to be rethought (and then, of course, rethought again) – as in, a decade ago. For the Mariners in 2008 and 2009, Morrow saved 16 games – he was not the closer for the entire duration – and he was fantastic in relief at that time. Obviously it’s a been a long road of starting, hitting the minors, and spending a lot of time on the disabled list since then. It’s debatable whether that past closing experience really has anything at all to do with how Morrow will perform in 2018.
But whether that past experience prepares him or not to be the closer, he tells NBC that he’s got something else to draw upon to know he can withstand the pressure: the postseason.
Throwing as Kenley Jansens’s primary setup man last year, Morrow carved his way though the postseason in nearly flawless fashion (except one insane World Series game when the Astros got to him (and everyone else)).
“I think all the playoff experience last year helps a lot in pressure situations,” Morrow told NBC. “That was something that I didn’t have before. I pitched in almost every other situation besides a playoff situation and World Series games and coming in with bases loaded, two outs in the World Series and everything like that. I’ve pretty much seen it all. You’ll see somebody that is pretty even-keeled. Ups and downs don’t really get to me.”
That certainly sounds like Wade Davis, and I don’t think anyone would have a problem with the Cubs having another closer with Davis’s demeanor (to say nothing of his effectiveness).
Morrow has the stuff to be an effective closer if he stays healthy, and the Cubs plan to do as much as they can to preserve that health. As for whether he’s got the “other” qualities necessary, it seems like the answer is “probably.” But we’ll have to see when the bell rings.