Soxer well-armed for closing gamesThe French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had at his disposal an elite fighting unit called the Old Guard, that he would send out to finish off the enemy in crucial situations. The Old Guard was the army’s creme de la creme, executing its deeds with an aura of invincibility and arrogance.
Just as the Old Guard delivered the knock-out punch to an enemy, in today’s baseball world closers are probably as close as it gets to the Old Guard. Coming in when the game is on the line, mostly to hold off the opponent and protect a one- or two-run lead, the closer throws an inning, maybe two if needed.
What he needs beside pitching talent are an iron heart, cold blood and steel nerves. So how do you become a closer?
Some will come up through the farm system while others, like Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Seattle Mariners, are imported from foreign leagues. Then there are pitchers like John Smoltz, former starter for the Atlanta Braves, who opted for the closer role in 2001 to prolong his career.
Kim Byung-hyun, 24, is now a closer for the Boston Red Sox. Early in the season when he was still an Arizona Diamondback he was a starter, a role that the young Korean had yearned for. Then, in a trade that dealt Shea Hillenbrand to the Diamondbacks ― they needed firepower but had some pitching to spare ― Kim shipped off to the Red Sox, who were in the opposite situation.
As of July 15, Kim’s Red Sox resume looks like this: two wins, two losses, a 3.48 earned run average with five saves.
The young Kim made it clear early in the season that he wanted to start. But when he landed on the Sox roster, he said he’d do whatever was asked of him. So when injuries plagued the team’s bullpen, he started, but Boston moved him to the closer spot because they could not shut the doors on opponents when they had to.
At the beginning of the season I said that Kim should remain a closer. True, starters have a bigger paycheck but they also have to work more.
First, his submarine-style delivery with long follow-through burns a good amount of his stamina. He may be able to throw a good amount of games for more than six innings, but for a whole season? With his tendency to go deep into the count I think he’ll end up throwing too many pitches.
Together with a newly added change-up that tends to drop, his slider which moves wickedly at the plate is his bread and butter. But his delivery remains his biggest asset; not many submarine-style pitchers play in the big league. It’s his exotic style and the limited time batters face a closer that make him a good one. Why throw away all this for an uncertain role? I also like his attitude when he faces hitters. Kim has this, “Here it is. What are you going to do about it?” look in his eyes. That’s the right attitude for a closer. Although, I might add, he has to be more careful with certain batters.
If you can become the next Dennis Eckersley why not go for it? There is nothing wrong with being a dominant closer. If I were Kim I would just try to grab that chance now. The situation in Beantown is ripe for him.
by Brian Lee