There are only two things that I really can't stand seeing when I watch my team play baseball. Sure, I don't like seeing them lose, but I can still enjoy a game even if Oakland ends up on the short end of the stick. It can still be exciting and suspenseful and fun, and the journey can justify the crappy destination. But I can't stand seeing my team get shut out, as I witnessed on Wednesday at the Coliseum; I need at least one scoring rally or solo homer so I have something to cheer for at least once in three hours. And I can't stand seeing them blow a ninth-inning save en route to a loss, as I witnessed them do the night before on television; that's sad and deflating rather than fun and exciting. The former is just something that happens from time to time when an excellent pitcher is on top of his game. The latter, while also an inevitable fact of life, is something that can be more easily addressed.
The Athletics have been going with a closer-by-committee approach for the last two weeks. I am fully in favor of this approach in theory, and I'm glad that Bob Melvin is trying it. Unfortunately, it's been frustratingly ineffective so far. In the last eight games, the bullpen has been tasked with protecting five close leads or ties (close being within three runs); they converted one of their four save opportunities and yielded the tie-breaking run in the fifth game, adding up to a 20 percent success rate over that span. Luke Gregerson blew two of his three save opps, and Sean Doolittle blew the other while taking the loss in the tie game.
None of this is to say that I've lost any long-term confidence in Gregerson or Doolittle. They're both great relievers and they're going to be fine. They can each probably be effective closers. But considering that Jim Johnson was demoted from his role and tarred and feathered for blowing two saves and losing a third game which had been tied when he entered, I don't think it's fair to ignore the fact that his replacements have now failed on a virtually identical level as he did to start the year. The only difference is this:
Jim Johnson, last five appearances: 6⅔ innings, zero runs, five hits, two walks, six strikeouts
His early-season hiccup could well be behind him. He was brought here to pitch the ninth inning and is paid handsomely in accordance with that expectation, so it's not that much of a stretch to give him another shot in lieu of any other reliable options. This isn't even to say that the team needs to move back to having a designated closer; all I'm saying for now is that Johnson should get the next opportunity. And yes, if he (or anyone) succeeds a few times in a row, then he should be something of a primary option when it comes time to choose the closer for the day. A committee doesn't have to mean an equal number of opportunities for all, just that you're willing to use someone different in the right situation.
However, there is one unique circumstance which could justify going back to the designated closer role. By this logic, the A's could have a designated closer while also using an ace-reliever-by-committee strategy for the rest of the biggest late-inning situations. It's quite simple, really: Johnson still isn't the best pitcher in the bullpen.
The biggest argument against the designated closer is that it's silly to hold your best reliever out of the rest of the game just to keep him available to hold a three-run lead in the ninth. If there is a big bases-loaded jam in the eighth, wouldn't you rather bring in your ace to quell that rally? But if Johnson isn't the best reliever in the pen, and he's the one designated for the ninth inning, then you still have those top guys available in the big set-up situations. One reason to keep Doolittle and Gregerson available to put out the fire in the seventh and eighth innings is that, when they enter with runners on base, they are better at stranding them:
Inherited Runners Scored, Career
Johnson: 35% (29/82)
Gregerson: 21% (29/140)
Doolittle: 9% (5/56)
Lest you worry about small-sample issues, each of Johnson and Gregerson have proven to be fairly consistent from year to year in this department, so there aren't any major outlier seasons confounding the results. When I look at these numbers, it becomes quite clear to me who I want entering during an opponent's rally and who I want getting his own designated inning. Johnson is the least effective of the three when he enters with runners on base, and it's not particularly close.
Of course, my point isn't to paint a picture where Johnson is not a talented reliever or isn't suited for high-leverage innings. He's still quite good, and he's done a fantastic job of preventing runs in the last three seasons. He also converted 89 percent of his 113 save opportunities in 2012-13 with Baltimore, which is still average-or-better even if the prolific quantity caused that part of his game to be overrated. However, I'm starting to wonder if he might actually be better suited to a designated ninth inning than to set-up work that may require him to wiggle out of others' jams, whereas Gregerson and Doolittle were born for those situations and may be similarly wasted in a designated ninth. Let Johnson come in to start the frame, give up his inevitable ground-ball single, and work through his own inning.
Opponents of the designated closer reject the notion of saving your best reliever for the ninth, but the A's can have it both ways. They can have an above-average ninth inning guy while still saving their best relievers for the biggest, toughest spots. And furthermore, Johnson is the hot hand now that his successors have failed to get the job done in the final frame. It's time for Jim Johnson to get another save opportunity, and if he succeeds, he should stay there for the indefinite future.