Tyler Kepner of the New York Times has written a very compelling piece on the mythology of the closer. In part because of the modern usage patterns, which are often dicated by the strictures of the save rule, we've come to imbue the closer with quasi-heroic qualities -- e.g., he's hardwired to handle pressure or rise to the moment or deliver steely glares to the claim-jumpers at the plate or whatever.
This notion, of course, is at odds with anecdotal evidence. After all, it's every season that some veteran middle man is forced into the role and thrives (Jason Grilli, to cite one of many) or a youngster assumes the mantle and fares quite well (Aroldis Chapman last year, to cite one of many).
To put a general point on it, just think of the dueling prototypes. It's the "measured, cool assassin" like Mariano Rivera who makes a great closer. Expect on other occasions, when it's the amped-up jitterbug like Jason Motte whose temperament is ideally suited to the role. When someone new to the role does flop, it could be because, a, he's not very good in any situation, or, b, a verdict on his closer-ness was passed after a relevant sample of 11 innings or so.
You see, we have a set of traits we insist are immutable, but then we tailor them to the effective closers who come our way. And so the story persists. But don't take it from me. Rather, let Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley tell you. Here's what he says to Kepner on the subject of the "closer as very-special hero" folk tale:
"I don't want to take away anything from what I did, but it's not as tough as you think.
"You can find somebody to do it. You could groom somebody to do it who's on the staff, if you manage it the right way. I mean, think about it: the tougher job is to come in with guys on base, because he's got to be quicker to the plate and he has to hold runners on."
Sure, there may be a spare few major-league pitchers who, despite dealing with the glare of invested onlookers and the pressures to perform since childhood, are somehow ill-equipped to handle the last three outs of the game. However, history suggests they're harder to find than are, say, effective closers.
High-leverage pressure situations can occur in any inning, and in a real sense tough outs are tough outs no matter when they occur.
Just ask Dennis Eckersley.