Jim Johnson, Buck Showalter, and the idiocy of the closer position.

Greg Fiume

What's been happening with Jim Johnson is horrible and difficult to watch. Why does it have to be this way?

There is a lot of discussion about the closer these days regarding how important such a position is (or isn't) and how silly it seems to be that a team anoints its best relief pitcher (usually) with a job that often places him in lower leverage innings than earlier, simply because it's the ninth inning.

Yet despite any logical argument against it, every baseball team usually has a closer. Players go into spring training looking to win the closer job. Even managers like Joe Maddon, who are considered to be renegades of baseball tradition, still name a closer and still run him out in the ninth inning regardless of performance.

Orioles fans have had the frustration of watching Jim Johnson struggle this season in a way we haven't seen from him in...well, ever. It's terrible and upsetting and, in my opinion, wholly avoidable.

Suppose Jim Johnson were the same Jim Johnson he's been for the last six years but he'd never been named closer. Same stuff, same domination, but instead he pitched in the sixth, seventh, eighth innings, whatever the situation dictated. If he began to struggle and it became clear he needed some time to work something out, pitch in a few low stress situations, and get himself back on track, then he could do that.

But simply because Johnson is the closer, the manager feels obligated to stick with him even when it's apparent to everyone in the stadium that it's a bad idea. And while I do wish that Buck Showalter would rise about the pressure, he's far from alone in this situation. If he does anything other than run Johnson out there over and over again then he's given him a demotion. I believe that Jim Johnson is a good pitcher who just needs to get straightened out, and that seems to be what Showalter thinks as well. But the position of closer has become like a prison.

Closers make more money both in free agency and arbitration. Closer bring back more in trades. That's the way it is. But why?

I know I'm not bringing anything new to light here, this is mostly just venting. But there is a problem with the system and it puts both Johnson and Showalter in a really tough place. Even if Showalter were willing and able to give Johnson a break, the perception around baseball, in the media, and perhaps even in the Orioles clubhouse would be that he's lost faith, he's demoting Johnson not because nearly every reliever ever goes through bad stretches and needs a change, but because he's not a good pitcher.

Even as I write this I have the MLB Network on in the background and Mitch Wiliams (who I suppose feels the need to defend his former role) is lambasting the Blue Jays for not using their closer in a save situation. As the other people on the show point out that Casey Janssen has pitched in three of the last four days, Williams is saying "I don't care! If you're a closer, you're a closer. You bring in your closer for that situation!" Sigh.

I can't begin to speculate what will happen if the Orioles take a three-run or less lead into the ninth inning on Friday against the Rockies. Will Showalter finally be forced to "demote" Jim Johnson? Or will he stick with his guy because that's what you do? Either way, I wish I lived in a baseball world where it was OK to give any pitcher a night off just because he needs it or to use whatever pitcher best fits the bill for each circumstance. Things would be a lot easier that way.

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