Matt Capps made a fist and superstitiously tapped the wooden side of his locker in the Twins clubhouse. He’s gotten through the opening weeks of the season unscathed.
Given the way closers are getting hurt these days, that’s something.
“The shelf life is short enough in baseball as it is, but you look at the closer position and it gets even shorter sometimes,” Capps said. “You just have to hope for the best.”
Seven closers haven’t been so fortunate, landing on the disabled list already this season. Some, like Cincinnati’s Ryan Madson and Kansas City’s Joakim Soria, blew out their elbows before the season began.
It’s a painful reminder that getting those last three outs can be dangerous stuff.
Between a third and a half of major league closers typically get hurt during a season, according to STATS LLC. The seven closers on the DL before May 1 are the most since 2008, when seven also got hurt before the end of April.
And when the closer is gone, he can be very difficult to replace.
“There’s something about the last three outs that’s tough to get,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
Since 2000, there have been seven years when 10 or more closers went on the disabled list at least one time, according to STATS. The most were in 2008, when 15 closers were sidelined for some time. Last year, 14 closers went on the DL.
Most often, injuries to closers involve the elbow – roughly 45 per cent, according to STATS. There have been plenty of those already this season at an eye-opening rate: Madson, Soria and San Francisco’s Brian Wilson needed Tommy John surgery; Washington’s Drew Storen had a bone chip removed from his elbow; Tampa Bay’s Kyle Farnsworth has a strained elbow.
Several set-up guys also have blown out their elbows. Like Wilson, Oakland’s Joey Devine has had his second Tommy John procedure of his career.
“It does seem there’s always an injury of the year,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “It once was obliques. It’s really tough with relievers.”
Why are so many getting hurt? Managers and pitchers have varying theories, though there’s agreement that the role’s evolution has contributed to the problem. Teams tend to have hard throwers trying to get those last three outs.
“Most of them have the delivery and the velocity and the power, so that most every pitch is a max-effort approach, not only physically but mentally,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “So I expect that contributes a lot to what we’re talking.”
Or, as Miami manager Ozzie Guillen put it, “Closers, they want to see 98, 99 mph. They think the harder they throw, the better off. People throw harder than they should, and they get hurt.”
Marlins closer Heath Bell learned about the perils of throwing hard from Trevor Hoffman, who relied on precision with his fastball-changeup combination and saved 601 games over 18 seasons, a record topped last year by the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera.
“Trevor Hoffman showed me how to take care of my arm,” Bell said. “His philosophy was that you only have so many bullets in your arm, so why try to rear back and chuck it? If you don’t need to, don’t.
“I think most closers are guys who throw really hard. They’re guys who throw hard for a couple of years, and if the speed isn’t 98, 100 mph – it goes down to 92, 94 – they’re still rearing back. They’re overthrowing and that’s why they’re getting hurt.”
Then there’s the cumulative strain. Wilson set career highs in saves, games and innings pitched in 2010, when the bearded closer helped the Giants win the World Series. His elbow acted up last season, causing him to miss more than a month.
Then, it gave out.
“A lot of times, people don’t understand mentally and physically how you have to overextend when you go to the playoffs and World Series,” Baker said. “You’re still pitching while everybody else is home resting. That’s a lot more. And you have less time to recover for next year. You have a shorter winter.
“Winning takes its toll, big time. There’s nothing better than that, but it takes its toll.”
Whatever the reason, an injury to a closer can be tricky to overcome. Usually, there’s nobody else in the bullpen or in the farm system with substantial experience in the role at the big-league level.
And don’t be fooled – there is a big difference between finishing off the eighth inning and coming out for the ninth with the game on the line, the crowd on its feet and ever pitch magnified.
“There were times I would get a closing opportunity when I wasn’t a closer – just random chances – and it was exciting,” Madson said. “There was definitely more emotion involved because you’re not used to it.”
When a closer goes down, there’s often some trial and error involved in finding out who can get comfortable about getting those last three outs.
“I’ve seen plenty of set-up guys that couldn’t close,” Baker said. “A lot of it’s the mentality. Some guys really enjoy that challenge. Being a reliever, period – especially a closer – you have to be able to forget yesterday. That’s the biggest challenge.
“Some can do it, and some can’t.”