05/27/05 7:30 AM ET
The finishing touch
College closers increasingly have the right stuff
By Kent Malmros / Special to MLB.com
For instance, during a recent outing against Big East rival Villanova, Hansen was asked to pitch four innings during the second game of a doubleheader.
"I forget what it's like to be a starting pitcher," Hansen said with a chuckle. "In between innings, I had no clue what to do in the dugout. I just sat on the bench. And I didn't know what to think. Usually, I throw one inning, and the game is done."
Likewise, the 6-foot-5 righty will find himself in unfamiliar territory on June 7, when he'll likely become a top-10 pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Hansen's selection will represent unfamiliar territory for the baseball world. It will solidify a recent paradigm shift in draft mentality -- the emergence of the college closer as a valued commodity.
There are exceptions, such as the Orioles' 1988 selection of Gregg Olson with the fourth overall pick. But as a rule, college closers have historically been overlooked in the first few rounds of the draft.
That is, until two years ago when Ryan Wagner (Reds), Chad Cordero (Nationals) and David Aardsma (Giants) were first round picks. In 2004, the trend continued when Billy Bray (Nationals) and Huston Street (Athletics) heard their names called in Round 1.
"You really can't look at the draft for immediate need," one Major League scout said. "If you approach it that way, you're bound to be frustrated. It's a high-risk, high-reward proposition with closers. But opportunities have opened up for Cordero and Street, and you give them credit because they've been ready to handle it."
The relative success of Cordero, who's already cemented his role as the Washington Nationals' closer, and Street, who waits patiently for his shot in Oakland after tearing through the Minors in less than a year, has validated that college closer production can translate to immediate professional success.
This year, Hansen sits atop a bumper crop of college closers earmarked for the early round entry. North Carolina State's Joey Devine also projects as a possible first-rounder, while Street's Texas successor J. Brent Cox is on the bubble.
What prompted the shift? Why have college closers, in fact, become draft worthy commodities with immediate impact expectations?
The answer, scouts and coaches tell you, is based primarily on three factors: experience, polish, and make-up.
Pitchers now move to the bullpen earlier in their career than they did in the past. Devine, for example, became a full-time closer duties as a freshman and established himself as one of the premier stoppers in the country. The six-foot righty compiled a 6-3 record, behind a 2.19 ERA that season. He also tallied an Atlantic Coast Conference freshman record with 14 saves. In the process, Devine was named first team All-ACC, and solidified his position on the Wolfpack team.
This season, Devine has 12 saves in 26 appearances. He is the only N.C. State pitcher to record 10 or more saves in a season twice -- he's done it three times -- and his 24 career saves entering the season were a team record. The number currently stands at 36 and counting.
"Seeing closers enough to make a sound assessment of their talent has always been a challenge," one Major League scout said. "They don't pitch as much as starters. And you don't even know if you'll see them in any given game. And the less someone pitches, the less you can assess his talent. It becomes a high-risk choice."
But closers are now pitching enough over the course of a career to change that. Hansen didn't experience Devine's level of immediate success. But he got a taste of the job in 2003, appearing in 21 games en route to two saves. In the process, he also showed coaches enough to warrant him another look as the Red Storm closer last season, when he set a school record with 10 saves. As a junior, Hansen has posted impressive stats -- 2-2, 1.01 ERA, 29 appearances, 14 saves, and 72 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings pitched. Scouts have seen him compete as a closer role for almost three years.
In the past, college pitchers became closers almost by accident. Coaches always kept their best arms in the starting spot. The conversion begins immediately now. Bullpens are as valuable as starting rotations, in the eyes of many coaches, and the end of the game as important as the beginning.
"So many young guys have great stuff, but they can't go more than five innings," University of Texas pitching coach Tom Holliday explains. "They should be turned into relievers right away. And any manager that's out to win appreciates his bullpen as much as his starters, if not more."
Make no mistake, pitchers have to learn how to become relievers, and then closers. A huge part of that is successfully adjusting a routine and conditioning program to pitch every day.
Devine has mastered his routine. He stays in the dugout with his teammates during the first five innings and watches the hitters so that by he sees them go around the lineup once or twice. Devine watches how his teammates dissect and approach them. Then around the fifth, he'll stretch with the team trainer, working his upper body and torso.
"Then, when the time comes, I'm stretched out and loose," Devine said. "I can jump on the mound and it takes me just 10 or 15 pitches to get ready to go into the game."
Lessons learned through college experience save franchises teaching time, and in the "Moneyball" era of draft philosophy, immediate returns are tantamount to scouting success.
Pitching the eighth
Making the initial adjustment of pitching every day allows a closer to take that next step and develop a "polish." Polish generally means two things: developing a strong pitch repertoire and having command of those pitches.
Devine's pitching coach, Chris Roberts, a former Florida State star and first-round pick of the New York Mets in 1992, concedes that the closer stereotype revolves around "power pitches" such as a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider.
Closers have to learn how refine that arsenal. Having a third pitch to throw when a hitter extends an at-bat to 10 or 11 pitches gives a closer the mental edge in a matchup. It also gives them a chance to roll a double-play ball or get a tough out, according to one scout.
"It's critical to your success," Cox said of commanding multiple pitches in late innings. "In high school, everyone wants to throw hard. But everything is location. It doesn't matter if you throw it 87 or 93, if it's in the right location, chances are the hitter isn't going to hit it. Then, you can throw a hard slider in the dirt as an out pitch and win battles."
Because each has had time to acclimate himself to the closer role, settle in, and work on his game, the projection of a power arm is all but gone with a Craig Hansen, Joey Devine, or J. Brent Cox. All three have command of at least two pitches and are working on mastery of a third.
Sure, there are still questions. Can Hansen get out Jim Thome in the bottom of ninth and the game on the line?
"You just don't know until he gets out there," one Major League scout said. "But he's got the stuff to do it, and you can see him being ready to take on the situation pretty quickly if things go right."
Closing the door
The most subjective factor, by far, in evaluating a closer is his "makeup" or the mental aspect of his game. Coaches, scouts, and players invariably say that the best closers share a similar approach -- intense competitive fire and extreme confidence.
The "bulldog" mentality. It's the one element that remains the same for a closer at any level.
"I think I have a pretty good idea," Street told MLB.com Radio about the approach to closing a game. "I closed for three years in college, so as far as knowing the mentality of going out there, I think I've got a pretty good grip on that."
It's part of what made Street a first-round pick, despite losing significant playing time in 2004 and subsequently entering the draft without his best stuff.
Cox, who has posted 7-2 record with 13 saves this season, awaited his turn as the Longhorns' closer, with Street racking up saves in front of him. However, he prepared for that mental role as a setup man. When Street went down with an injury, Cox had the opportunity to step into the closer spot for about six weeks. He was able to experience the same pressure and that's when he demonstrated to his coaches and scouts alike that he had appropriate mental edge to dominate close games in late innings.
Closing a baseball game equates to the most pressurized situations in sports. Kicking a field goal with two seconds left on the clock to win a football game. Standing on the free-throw line trailing by one point with no time left in regulation.
"When you step into the closer's role, the makeup is the most important part of the job," Cox said. "It's just a different makeup, kind of like a bulldog mentality. Someone is going down, and it's not going to be you. You have to know you're going to dominate and that even if things don't go your way, you're coming out on top."
Closing a game is different by nature. Pitching every day, or every other day, is only part of it. Handling failure is a big part of the equation.
And there's also a difference between closing a game under the intense scrutiny of a big college program, and that of rookie ball. When Cox trots to the mound with the winning run on first it may mean the difference between a College World Series berth and a bus ride home.
"I don't doubt at all that with the pressure and emotion of winning at the University of Texas that we are developing a closer for somebody to take off the vine and put into pro ball," Holliday said. "Because he's emotionally going to be able to do that."
In the end, no one truly knows if Hansen, Cox, or Devine will be the next Huston Street. But it's become clear that Major League scouts believe they know what has made Street and others succeed so quickly at the professional ranks. And they believe they see those qualities in this group of college closers.
Kent Malmros is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.