Much is made each year about teams that enter the season without a proven closer. The Pirates now fall into that category, but that category is foolish.
It is true that not all pitchers are cut out to be closers, which includes even some pitchers who have the ability to succeed in the role. Just because a pitcher has the pitches to close out games, doesn’t mean they have the mental capacity to do the job.
But not having done it before is not a prerequisite for failure. Heck, Hanrahan himself had been a failed starter and marginal middle reliever before succeeding as a closer for the Pirates.
Certainly many pitchers have failed to make the transition from set-up man to closer, and the culprit for their struggles is typically the ignorant fall back that we call the “closer’s mentality.” Any pitcher who can handle the 7th or 8th inning but struggles closing out games is said to not have the right mentality to finish games.
And perhaps with the occasional pitcher that’s true. But more often than not, it is because pitching in the 9th inning simply isn’t the same as being a set-up man.
In any other relief role, pitchers are used when the pitcher-batter matchup best suits them. Bullpens are set up so that pitchers are used in the ways that best fit their abilities. Even 8th inning set-up men, who are used primarily in the 8th inning regardless of the opposing batting order much like closers are in the 9th, are sometimes removed when a dynamic opposing hitter comes to the plate. How many right-handed set-up men were removed when Price Fielder came to the plate after facing Miguel Cabrera?
Grilli, on the other hand, was used almost exclusively as an “8th inning closer,” facing almost as many lefties as righties. This experience will help him as a closer, and he has proved to be an equally effective, but different, pitcher against left-handed hitters.
Despite a walk rate against lefties that was twice as high, Grilli actually got hit harder by righties. His numbers against both, however, were exceptional.
His ability to face hitters from both sides of the plate should allow him to succeed as the Pirates closer in 2013, but if he doesn’t it will have nothing to do with his lack of experience.