One of the reasons some people still think the modern closer is a good idea is that almost every manager runs the bullpen the same way, and the thinking is that they must know what they’re doing. They don’t.
Closers are all marketing. It IS in the self-interest of the manager to use the modern closer, but not because it’s effective. Managers use closers for the following reasons:
1. Managers can only be blamed for “decisions”. If everyone does it the same way it becomes conventional wisdom and is no longer a “decision.”
Much of modern managing consists of the avoidance of managing. From overly simplistic use of platoon splits to bullpen management, the more conventional wisdom that exists, the easier it is to shift blame from the manager to the player.
2. The closer goes last, which means you remember him.
Humans are flawed in many ways, and one of our pervasive biases is the recency illusion (and its cousin, the frequency illusion). We pay more attention to what just happened. The last event in a sequence will stick in our heads, and if similar events are repeated, it sticks even more.
Closers go last which means when they succeed you notice. We even assign a name (the save) to this event which just makes it stick more.
3. If you combine 1 and 2, you create a situation where success or blame rests entirely on the player. If the closer struggles it’s not the managers fault because that guy was the closer. If he succeeds then the manager will get credit for winning if not for the decision itself. It insulates him from responsibility while still conferring credit for winning. Who loses?
4. Relief pitchers lose. Some closers make a ton of money, that much is true, but while the closer spot creates 30 highly paid relief positions, it also drives down the cost of the non-closers (most relievers want to close). It’s quite possibly bad for the actual closers, even if they see one big contract they rarely last more than a few years.
In the modern era of assigned bullpen roles relievers are no better (and are quite possibly worse) at run prevention than before Dennis Eckersley turned into a reliever. A team’s best relief pitcher used to come in for high-leverage situations to keep the team in the game. He would often throw multiple innings which, over the course of a season, reduces the number of innings thrown by inferior pitchers.
Modern bullpen usage is efficient only for managers looking to avoid blame. Ultimately this is your fault. Since you buy in, you make it hard for GMs to fire managers who studiously avoid managing. If you were on Twitter today after the Brewer game you saw at least a few people defend RRR buy stating that any manager would have done the same thing. That mindset makes them safe. It makes you think there’s no one better, and it makes that idea true.
Everyone defending Ron Roenicke today is wrong. John Axford was available and there were many opportunities to use him and win the game. Ron did not do so because he was saving him for a save situation. That’s not managing, it’s just following a stupid, useless formula. The fact that he refused to manage, and that all other managers would have done likewise, is no defense.