There are the rational, analytical arguments that the best reliever can and sometimes should be used in the seventh or the eighth inning, and yet those who have stood there in the ninth inning, like Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon and Jim Johnson, say it is different. And while save totals are deceiving, the fact remains that five closers reached 40 this year and the only one who isn't going to the postseason is Fernando Rodney, who was arguably the biggest reason the Rays went to the final series of the season with a chance to be back in the high life, again.
It is often a flighty position. Johnson, Rodney and Rafael Soriano went into the final two days of the season with a total of 139 saves; in 2011, they combined for 14, one fewer than Matt Capps.
Closers can also be strung together on the run. The Cardinals did that last year, trading for Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel at the July deadline and riding them through a historic September-October run, a run they hope they can duplicate after general manager John Mozeliak traded for Edward Mujica (and his 1.03 ERA) and brought Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly into the mix.
That is essentially what the Orioles have done all season with a starting staff with one pitcher who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. That pitcher, Wei-Lin Chen, hasn't won a game since Aug. 19. And the O's will be in the postseason for the first time since Manny Machado was five and Davey Johnson was winning a Manager of the Year Award. If you're around the Orioles, you realize the starter on some days depends on who didn't warm up in the bullpen the night before.
Showalter had to construct his staff from Johnson forward, carefully using his relievers, limiting how many times they got up, and keeping Johnson rested so that with two games to play he'd thrown but 67 2/3 innings in 70 appearances. "They keep pouring power arms out of that pen," says an opposing manager. "It's amazing."
Tommy Hunter registering 100 mph on the radar gun? Andy MacPhail grabbed him in the Koji Uehara deal, right around the time he claimed Pedro Strop on waivers. Now Brian Matusz, who'd struggled as a starter, is holding opposing hitters to a .119 average as a reliever.
"It used to be that when you brought young pitchers with good arms to the big leagues you'd start them off in the bullpen to get their feet wet and acclimate them to big league hitters and situations," says Showalter, well aware of the way Earl Weaver brought Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor to the Majors in the '70s. "Somehow we got away from that and reversed, and a lot of kids with good arms got messed up."
No teams seemingly are better set for the postseason because of their balance of starters and relievers than the Braves and Reds. Atlanta has Kris Medlen under 140 innings, Tim Hudson and Mike Minor under 180, and with Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Cory Gearrin, et al, have a gaggle of power arms.
And for the season, few teams have been better set than the Reds, under the watchful, steady eyes of Dusty Baker and Bryan Price. Baker nightly pushed his starters to get into the seventh inning and beyond, and in so doing kept them healthy enough so that the five-man rotation started 159 of the first 160 games.
"Some people are surprised, but Bronson Arroyo is a big part of this," says Price. "He pitches to where the outs are, not where his stuff is. He will do anything to get into and through the seventh inning. It rubs off."
As it has on Homer Bailey and Mat Latos, who along with Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake form a rotation that in the league has the most innings pitched of any rotation, the second-most quality starts and the most complete games. Four of the five starters have thrown 200 innings. By the way, since Arroyo was acquired from the Red Sox for Wily Mo Pena, he is tied with Dan Haren for the most starts in the Majors (232) and is second behind Matt Cain among NL starters in innings pitched.
That has enabled Baker to ask his bullpen to throw fewer innings than any in the league, to give Aroldis Chapman a breather when he hit the wall in his first full grind. GM Walt Jocketty went out and traded for Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton.
We will see as October plays out. Even without Brian Wilson, the Giants bullpen is very good, and there may not be a better manager handling a bullpen in this generation than Bruce Bochy. The controversial Soriano signing has turned out to be a saving grace for the Yankees. The A's are defying gravity with four rookie starters and a bullpen that ... well, many of us best remember Sean Doolittle -- 58 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings? -- as an all-America first baseman at the University of Virginia.
They come from everywhere, these relievers. It is how they are strung together that gets teams through the October chills, and it seems as if the Reds and Braves are best assembled.
Not that at this time a year ago, more than a few friends and family members thought the Cardinals had the right stringing to win the October Open.