A couple days ago, a baseball neophyte friend of mine asked me, “In baseball, what is a closer?” And as I explained the concept, it occurred to me that I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile.
In baseball, a closing pitcher, more commonly referred to as a closer, is a relief pitcher who typically enters the game in the final inning. Ideally, the closer’s team will be leading on the scoreboard at that point, and so the closer’s job is to “close” the game, getting the final outs of that final inning.
A closer’s effectiveness has traditionally been measured by the number of saves he earns. A save is a statistic credited to a relief pitcher, as set forth in Rule 9.19 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball. The rule states that the official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when that pitcher meets all four of the following conditions:
- He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
- He is not the winning pitcher;
- He is credited with at least ⅓ of an inning pitched; and
- He satisfies one of the following conditions:
- He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning
- He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck
- He pitches for at least three innings.
Over time, closers have become one-inning specialists typically brought in at the beginning of the ninth inning in save situations. They enter the game facing the high pressure that comes with having to seal those last three outs and, thus, a win for their club, which makes their role a rather essential one to a team’s success.
Mariano Rivera is MLB’s all-time leader in regular season saves with 652.
In the Official Baseball Rules, the first sentence of Rule 3.03 states, “A player, or players, may be substituted during a game at any time the ball is dead.” It seems obvious to us today that substitutions cannot be made while the ball is in play, but this sentence was not included in the rule book for no reason.
The rule was created after a play by Michael Joseph “King” Kelly, a popular catcher-outfielder in the late-nineteenth century. As Kelly sat on the bench one day in 1891, an opposing batter hit a high foul ball. Kelly quickly recognized that the pop up would be out of the reach of all of his teammates. As a player-manager, Kelly jumped up and went after it, crying out, “Kelly now catching!”
This clever bit of quick thinking allowed Kelly to make the catch, but the umpire refused to call the batter out. Kelly insisted that the play was not against the rules, which at that time stated that substitutions could be made at any time. The rules were changed the following winter to prevent this type of play from ever happening again.
A balk is an illegal motion made by the pitcher that can take place when there is one or more runners on base. While a number of moves may result in a balk, the typical cause is a desire by the pitcher to catch runners off balance. Most of the time, the pitcher is pretending to pitch when he has no intention of doing so.
A pitcher is restricted to certain motions and pitching positions before and during a pitch. If a pitcher violates any of these motions while runners are on base, the umpire may call a balk.
Examples of a balk include:
– a pretended throw to first or third base or to the batter with one foot on the pitcher’s rubber
– a pitch in which there is either an insufficient or too long a pause after the windup or stretch
– dropping the ball while on the rubber, even if by accident, if the ball does not subsequently cross a foul line
– while on the rubber, making a motion associated with the pitch and not completing the delivery
For a more complete look at what constitutes a balk, you can refer to the Official Rules here.
The penalty for a balk is an advance of the runner(s), with each runner being awarded the next base.
“Obviously I disagreed with the call, so I calmly went out there to question them.” – George Brett
The famous Pine Tar incident, 24 July 1983 at Yankee Stadium. The video does a sufficient job of showcasing and explaining the event itself, so I won’t waste your time by reiterating it here.
But what is pine tar? Of what use is it to a baseball player?
Pine tar is a sticky material derived from the roots and stump of pine trees. When it was first created in Sweden, ropes and wooden ships were coated with it for the sake of waterproofing and preservation. When used on a baseball bat, pine tar creates a texture that makes it easier to grip the bat and prevents it from slipping from the player’s hands in the hot, humid weather. It also allows a hitter to get more “pop” out of the bat without having to utilize a death grip on the handle. But does it really give a batter an advantage when it comes to hitting a baseball? According to former American League President Lee MacPhail: no, it doesn’t.
In 1983, according to Official Playing Rule 6.06(a), “a batter is out for illegal action when he hits an illegally batted ball.” And according to Rule 1.10(b), a bat “treated with any material [including pine tar] … which extends past the 18 inch limitation … shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.” It was by combining these two rules that the umpires decided to rule the play an out.
In the case of George Brett, MacPhail overrode the call because the rule had more to do with economics than with any potential competitive advantage. As he states in the video, “Pine tar didn’t help that ball that Brett hit go out of the ballpark.” However, if pine tar gets on a baseball, it renders the ball unfit for continued use in a Major League game. MacPhail argued that while the ruling was “technically defensible, [it] is not in accord with the intent or spirit of the rules. […] The rules provide instead that the bat be removed from the game. The protest of the Kansas City Club is therefore upheld and the home run by Brett is therefore permitted to stand.” The rule has since been revised in the spirit of this interpretation and clearly states today that since no objection was made to Brett’s use of the bat prior to his hitting the home run, the play stood.
According to the official rule book of 2012:
Rule 1.10(c) Comment: If pine tar extends past the 18-inch limitation, then the umpire, on
his own initiative or if alerted by the opposing team, shall order the batter to use a different bat. The batter may use the bat later in the game only if the excess substance is removed. If no objections are raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 1.10(c) on that play does not nullify any action or play on the field and no protests of such play shall be allowed.
The image of George Brett charging out of the dugout, arms flailing, is one that no doubt will stand the test of time. As New York’s Don Mattingly described it, “The sight of George coming out of the dugout is etched in my mind forever. That roar symbolizes the way he plays the game, the kind of fire he has.” Makes me wish I could have been there to see it in person.
Boxscores for the game can be found here: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1983/B07240NYA1983.htm
“2012 Edition: Official Baseball Rules.” MLB.com. Commissioner of Baseball, 2011. Web. Accessed 13 March 2013. http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/downloads/y2012/Official_Baseball_Rules.pdf
Hoefs, Jeremy. “What Is Baseball Pine Tar?” Livestrong.com. Demand Media, Inc., 23 Mar 2010. Web. Accessed 13 March 2013. http://www.livestrong.com/article/84132-baseball-pine-tar/
“Royals Hall of Fame Photo Galleries: The Pine Tar Game.” MLB.com. MLB Advanced Media LP, 2001-2013. Web. Accessed 13 March 2013. http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/photos/gallery.jsp?content_id=27838192&c_id=kc