K-Rod: Being a closer ‘different breed of animal’

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Oakland, Calif. — Popular opinion holds that closers are a separate species of pitcher.

They might not own the best arms on a big-league staff. They might not have the best arm in a particular bullpen.

But the combination of their knack for throwing quality pitches, and their brandishing of a supposed psyche to match, has made them in most minds a separate baseball phylum.

Critics such as Keith Law, the ESPN.com senior baseball analyst, have submitted (he does in his recent book “Smart Baseball”) that closer perceptions are largely bunk. That pitchers can and should be looked at more interchangeably.

Francisco Rodriguez disagrees. And so does his manager, Brad Ausmus, which each man made clear Friday night as the Tigers loosened up for an evening game against the Athletics at Oakland Coliseum.

“It’s different,” the man they call K-Rod said as he got ready for some training-room maintenance ahead of Friday’s tussle. “It’s a different mentality.”

That’s the prevailing view, anyway. It’s perhaps no surprise that a pitcher who has worked 16 big-league seasons and rolled up 437 saves subscribes to the “different breed of animal” thought.

“Some guys can’t throw in the ninth,” Rodriguez said. “Why? I don’t know. But not everybody can close games.

“For some reason, it’s just different. You’ve got to be stronger, mentally. You’ve got to have a short memory. Most times you’re in there, the game’s on the line.

“Some people don’t handle it.”

Ausmus has a similar view. He became a believer during his 18 years as a big-league catcher. He hasn’t changed in four seasons as a manager.

“I won’t say it can’t be learned,” Ausmus said of what tends almost exclusively to be a ninth-inning shift. “But the closers I’ve been around have had a successful ability to forget about yesterday. They have to be able to carry that weight (pressure, responsibility) on to the field.”

If this supposed trait can be defined, or is common to most closers, it eludes K-Rod. Ausmus, too.

“Different personalities,” Ausmus said of closers from his two decades-plus in baseball’s high altitudes. “Some are a little wacky. Some are calm. I think it pretty much runs the gamut of personalities.”

Nor does the belief that relievers are a different breed imply that they’re in any way more competitive, Rodriguez and Ausmus insisted.

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“No,” said K-Rod. “Everybody’s competing. Everybody’s busting their tail.”

So, again: Why is it supposedly different? Is it different, except in ways that are largely imaginary?

Rodriguez was adamant. Yes, it is.

“You’ve got to know how to handle the pressure,” said a man, 35 years old, who has not had the prettiest of seasons: 5.06 ERA entering Friday’s game.

Some pitchers, he said, simply do not care to confront — or cannot absorb — that brand of assignment.

“Some people give up,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t always trust their best pitch. You can tell, he has no idea what he’s doing.”

It’s what makes that ninth-inning mission a realm unto itself, K-Rod submitted, with his manager seconding that motion.

Rodriguez simply wants personal results to reflect two necessities for any quality big-league closer: That he can indeed handle the job. And that he can wrap up games, and in K-Rod’s case, with more ease than has been the case through the 2017 season’s first month.