The vast majority of the people reading that headline are thinking, “Yeah, umm, NO.” Brian Wilson has the most saves of any closer in baseball since the beginning of the 2008 season. After a hiccup in his first playoff appearance against the Atlanta Braves, he was near perfect on his way to saving the last game of the World Series. By the end of the 2012 season he should be the Giants’ all-time saves leader. His beard is a logo. He’s clearly a better closer option than Sergio Romo.
But in a little pocket of the sabersphere, there is a vocal minority of really smart writers and fans who believe Romo is the better pitcher. And not only is he better than Wilson, he should have Wilson’s job. Or at least be accorded more chances than Bruce Bochy currently feels comfortable granting.
Last night, those who are skeptical of Romo’s closing credentials had a night to crow. This afternoon, Wilson gave up a HR to the same guy who beat Romo with a single.
So what’s the truth? Is Wilson obviously the better pitcher? Or are the stats trying to tell us something?
Argument for Wilson: playoff success
One thing the Wilson-loving majority (you know, the group that doesn’t actually like charts and graphs) brings up is how Bochy lost faith in Romo during last year’s NLDS, which fed into the idea that Romo is a nice little pitcher who can’t handle the pressure. Which leads us to…
Argument for Romo: the 9th inning is overrated
The idea that there’s something different about the last three outs of a game drives the stat-leaning arguers crazy, because if there’s anything they’re trying to disprove with their fascination with metrics 99% of humans can’t figure out in their head (which is truly the problem old-schoolers have with new stats in all sports, isn’t it — that they can’t be ascertained by mental arithmetic?), it’s that there’s no such thing as “clutch.” That, if anything, “clutch” is just a random assimilation of numbers. And if you look at the history of closers, a lot of guys who were never considered overpowering — but were thrown into the closer’s role by necessity — ended up doing pretty well.
Argument for Wilson: He’s proven himself numerous times
Wilson has been the most productive closer in baseball for the last four years. He’s been good enough to shrug off nagging injuries, a blown save here or there, and regardless of the so-called “heart attacks” and “coronaries” all those full counts, walks and bloop hits he surrenders cause the fans to suffer, he’s got the longest, most successful track record of any current closer other than Mariano Rivera.
Argument for Romo: He’s being held back
Romo may be the best pitcher alive against right-handed hitters. 12 baserunners in 20 innings, with 34 strikeouts. You don’t even need to bring up FIP and SIERA after hearing those numbers — both the stats-lovers and stats-phobic can grasp how ridiculous that is. Against lefties it’s a different story, albeit in an ESSS (Extremely Small Sample Size): 5 2/3 innings, 10 baserunners, 4 strikeouts. Pitchers who go lower than 3/4 in terms of release are often pigeon-holed as specialists against hitters from the same side (Javier Lopez, for example). Closers are supposed to pitch the 9th against anyone, and they aren’t supposed to care. Like honeybadgers. If Romo got to face more than one lefty per week, wouldn’t he start getting them out more often?
Argument for Wilson: variety and the radar gun
Wilson has more pitches he can throw at different velocities, and he can throw up to 98 mph when he chooses.
Argument for Romo: pinpoint control and a slider that’s one of baseball’s great unsolved mysteries
Romo simply doesn’t walk people (which you think would make him a manager’s favorite). And this doesn’t count for anything, but Romo’s ultimate frisbee is the one pitch in baseball where I’m absolutely certain I could see it 100 times in a row and not touch it once. Every other pitch, from every other pitcher, I’d at least foul a one or two due to blind luck. When Romo’s on, cowhide, yarn and cork turns to whiffle.
Argument for Wilson: his mind
Wilson is often chastised for going to 3-2 counts unnecessarily, walking guys and generally doing whatever he can to avoid a 1-2-3 inning. But until Thursday afternoon he hadn’t given up a home run all season. Partly it’s because he’s a good pitcher who’s transitioning to a guy who throws almost nothing but cutters, but also he just doesn’t give in. He pitches to situations as well as any reliever in baseball, and doesn’t care about his WHIP or a 2-run lead shrinking to 1. Romo seems to have the same gameplan for every hitter; Wilson seems to dance around home run threats (except for on Thursday).
Argument for Romo: Wilson drives everyone insane
While Wilson has gotten out of so many self-imposed jams it almost seems like they were all according to plan, the guy definitely has periods where his control gets away from him (especially after long periods of inactivity). Thursday was a perfect example. Romo was lambasted after giving up a hit on an 0-2 count to Ramirez on Wednesday, since Aramis has never known a pitch he wouldn’t swing at. So how did Wilson get to a 3-0 count against the same hitter 18 hours later, before grooving a pitch over the inside half of the plate?
Conclusion: Wilson undoubtedly deserves to close, but it’ll be fun to see Romo get finally get his chance (in 2016?)
The reasons why Bochy may be the manager of the San Francisco Giants when 2020 rolls around are because he’s incredibly easy to get along with (I’m still struck by the time during Giants Media Day when Bochy wanted to stick around and do a 1-on-1 interview with me — somebody he has no reason to care about whatsoever — but couldn’t because the PR staff had to hustle him downstairs to a press conference announcing the extensions he and Brian Sabean signed. Minutes later Bochy and I found ourselves alone, wandering around the Club Level of AT&T Park looking for the nearest elevator, neither of us knowing where to go. Bochy’s quote as he hobbled back to an elevator we both passed a few minutes earlier: “I know my way around my office, but that’s about it.” If a Major League manager exists who’s nicer, they probably knit sweaters for hairless cats.) and he knows how to handle a bullpen.
Wilson is the obvious choice for closer at this point, not because he’s bigger or because when Romo gives it up his emotional nature makes it look as if he may never recover. It’s because he was already chosen. He earned it. Hell, Romo doesn’t want Wilson’s job. Well he does, but not this year, not this team. Romo and Wilson probably a lot of evenings hanging out with Tim Lincecum, eating Crunch ‘N Munch and fighting over whether to play Rock Band or FIFA.
Plus, even the biggest Romo supporters have to admit — to make the leap from “unbelievable situational set-up guy” to “162-game closer,” Romo has to find a way to limit the damage when he isn’t perfect. Wilson has saved many games when he had nothing in the tank in terms of command (usually) or energy (occasionally). It’s led people complain about Wilson’s “torturous” style (just like more and more women are complaining about his beard, because he’s ruining their makeout fantasies — sorry ladies, you can’t convince me otherwise … my wife complains when I don’t shave, too), but until he starts screwing up consistently, the closer’s job is Wilson’s to lose.