Ryan Helsley, Carlos Estevez Dish on the Mentality of an MLB Closer

Get a look inside the mindset of an MLB closer in our exclusive interviews with the closers for the Los Angeles Angels and St. Louis Cardinals

Ryan Helsley
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 16: Ryan Helsley #56 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum on April 16, 2024 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

There is no question that one of the keys to any successful MLB team is having a back end of the bullpen that can ensure that team’s lead is safe … and having a lockdown closer can often make or break a team’s postseason chances.

But, outside of the physical attributes, what does it take to become a successful closer?

There’s a mental aspect to the position as well, and that’s what I wanted to discuss with two established MLB closers — Carlos Estevez of the Los Angeles Angels and Ryan Helsley of the St. Louis Cardinals.

During a recent trip to Anaheim (that included an interesting exchange with Angels manager Ron Washington), I had the chance to sit down with both of them to talk about the closer’s mentality and what that meant to each of them.

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We also had the chance to discuss the mentality of pitching in the ninth inning versus earlier in the game, as well as the current light shows and entrance music that surrounds a closer’s entrance into the contest.

“I try not to have that,” Helsley said about making the ninth inning being a different focus than entering the game in the middle innings. “Whatever inning I am coming in, I’m trying to throw up a zero and trying to help help the team win. I think that you can make the moment bigger than it needs to be and put too much pressure on yourself. So I think you just go out there and just try to enjoy the moment and have fun.”

“Your way of pitching is your way of pitching, no matter if you pitch in the sixth or the ninth,” Estevez added. “But (in the ninth) you have to be more aware of guys who are going to be a lot more aggressive when you’re getting into the strike zone as a closer.”

Entering Monday’s action, Helsley is one of the game’s most dominant closers, posting a 0.60 ERA and 0.67 WHIP over his last 15 appearances (15.0 innings) with two walks and eight hits surrendered while striking out 18.

One of the keys to Helsley’s recent dominance has been the upped usage of his slider, which, according to Baseball Savant, he is throwing a career-high 46.6 percent of the time in 2024. Of his 23 strikeouts this season, 17 have come via the slider.

“Having a lot more feel for throwing it more,” Helsley said about his slider’s success. “The fastball still feels good and I have a curveball I throw, so I’m just trying to mix it up and keep those guys off balance.”

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Estevez, meanwhile, relies heavily on his four-seam fastball, throwing it 68.1 percent of the time this season. In the second year of a two-year, $13.5 million deal, the 31-year-old right-hander has struggled since last year’s All-Star break, including a 4.91 ERA this year. However, with a FIP at 3.70, there is an indication that bad breaks may be behind some of the numbers.

So far in May, Estevez has allowing five hits and two runs in 6.0 innings, recording a scoreless outing in four of his five appearances.

You can hear my interview with Estevez and Helsley as a part of the Clubhouse Chatter podcast series below. Make sure you’re subscribed to it wherever you get your podcasts.