MLB

Fernando Rodney, Craig Kimbrel and the Fickle Nature of Baseball Closers

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays

You never tend to associate Fernando Rodney with the word historical, but his 2012 season pitching out of the pen for the Rays was just that. His 0.60 ERA was the lowest in baseball history for a relief pitcher.

Yes, that Fernando Rodney.

And, yes, with that crooked cap.

Rodney’s 2012 season came seemingly out of nowhere, as he allowed only five earned runs, 43 hits and 15 walks in 74 2/3 innings. With numbers like that, he earned the right to do his bow-and-arrow celebration after saves, baseball’s rules of decorum be damned.

Almost as good as Rodney in 2012 was Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. Although not historic numbers, Kimbrel allowed only 27 hits over 62 2/3 innings pitching out of the Atlanta pen, saving 43 games pitching to a 1.01 ERA.

[RELATED: David Ortiz Called Out Dan Shaughnessy After 27-Game Hitting Streak Ends]

Fast forward to early May in 2013 and both closers have struggled, though struggled is a relative term when it comes to pitching in the ninth inning.

Monday Rodney coughed up a two-out homer in the ninth to Toronton’s J.P. Arencibia, costing the Rays a victory. It also meant Rodney had allowed six earned runs — more than he did all of the previous season, along with blowing his second save. (Rodney blew two saves in 2012 and has 43 during his 11-year career.)

On Tuesday it was Kimbrel’s turn, as he gave up a pair of homers in the ninth to the Reds, blowing his third save of the season — matching his 2012 total. Three of the 11 hits Kimbrel’s allowed so far this season have been homers, the same number he allowed all last season. (Notice a trend?) The first homer Kimbrel served up Tuesday was a fly ball hit by Devin Mesoraco that barely clearly the wall at the Great American Ball Park, however the second off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo was a blast to deep left-center.

For one, these “struggles” from both Rodney and Kimbrel — let’s call them hiccups — probably do more to paint just how strong their 2012 seasons were, especially from Rodney who’d been a serviceable journeyman prior to that point.

More-and-more, pitching out of the bullpen seems to be a year-to-year endeavor. The Red Sox can’t keep their string of closers healthy and transferred Joel Hanrahan to the 60-day DL late Thursday afternoon, the Phillies aren’t winning enough to hand the ball to Jonathan Papelbon and the Tigers had to bring back Jose Valverde when their idea to close by committee failed after a few weeks. The Giants won the 2012 World Series handing the ball to Sergio Romo, who’d never had experience as a closer after Brian Wilson’s season-ending arm injury.

Your 2013 leaders in saves as of Thursday morning? Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli with 13.

If anything the constant turmoil in the back end of bullpens certainly helps paint a convincing argument as to why Mariano Rivera has been the most impressive player in baseball these last two decades due to his consistent excellence in the hardest role in the game — getting the final three outs in the ninth. Coming off knee surgery, which cost him most of the 2012, Rivera  is 12-for-12 in save opportunities.

At age 43, no less.

Rivera is the extreme exception to the rule.

[Photo via Getty]

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