05 December 2013

Closing in Camden: Who Gets the Ninth Inning in 2014?

As the proverbial paint continues to dry on the deal that sent AL saves leader Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for second baseman Jemile Weeks, there were a number of knee jerk reactions to the deal, with most of them revolving how 'empty' the back-to-back 50+ save seasons Johnson had really were. True value of the save statistic notwithstanding, the swap was a curious one for Baltimore, with many questioning whether the return on Johnson was a bit lacking in talent and that Oakland General Manager Billy Beane perhaps got the best of his Baltimore counterpart. While Weeks has not panned out as many had projected when he was drafted in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft, a bigger, more pressing question looms for the Orioles.

Who closes?

The pitcher who comes in for the ninth inning in the post-Johnson era does have some sizable shoes to fill; yet, the need to keep the chain of 50 save seasons alive isn't necessarily the ultimate goal for the new closer. Consistent outings and an ability to get both lefties and righties out while keeping the ball in the park will be crucial mission requirements, with an upgrade from Johnson's paltry 7.17 K/9 rate in 2013 being desirable perk from the new closer.

As we have outlined previously here at Camden Depot, the Orioles bullpen heading into 2014 has some decent talent already in place from both the left and right side -- here's what the 2013 bullpen looked like, sorted by RE24 and a minimum of 10 innings pitched in relief:

Tommy Hunter 86.1 7.09 1.46 1.15 0.249 3.68 3.63 0.7 17.4 22 10
Darren O'Day 62 8.56 2.18 1.02 0.248 3.58 3.59 0.7 9.67 26 10
Brian Matusz 51 8.82 2.82 0.53 0.292 2.91 3.59 1 7.93 15 8
Jim Johnson 70.1 7.17 2.30 0.64 0.327 3.45 3.38 0.9 7.20 40 12
Josh Stinson 11.1 7.15 1.59 0.00 0.179 2.25 3.22 0.2 5.06 3 1
Kevin Gausman 23 11.35 2.74 0.39 0.296 2.00 2.33 0.6 4.99 5 4
Troy Patton 56 6.75 2.57 1.29 0.295 4.42 4.10 0 1.69 8 9
Steve Johnson 11.2 13.11 6.94 1.54 0.227 4.68 3.97 0 1.37 1 0
Francisco Rodriguez 22 11.45 2.05 2.05 0.351 4.28 2.31 0 -0.72 4 1
T.J. McFarland 72 6.75 3.38 0.88 0.304 3.94 3.75 0.3 -0.96 8 8

Already we can see where some of the nay-saying regarding Johnson's place in the pecking order of top flight closers comes from; three pitchers in the O's bullpen had a higher RE24, with each of those three notching fewer meltdown outings (MD) than Johnson's 12 last year. With it, two of the three had better strikeout rates than Johnson, a stat that many feel prevented him from being a truly elite closer.

So what of these three current Orioles? Does one or a combination of Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, or Brian Matusz have the stuff to shutdown the ninth?

In a word, no, at least not in a long term role; the next table explains why:

Matusz 0.502 0.747 -0.245
Hunter 0.857 0.344 0.513
O'Day 0.922 0.443 0.479
Johnson 0.740 0.653 0.087

As we can see each of the three has fairly significant lefty-righty splits -- here we use OPS to display the splits -- which is something that your prototypical closer will not express in such a dramatic fashion. Here, I have included Johnson's splits as a reference; as you can see while Johnson's strikeout rates were less than stellar for a closer, his ability to adeptly mix his sinker/curve combo along with the occasional change up against both sides of the plate did much to make up for the lack of swings and misses and kept him on the mound regardless of hitter handedness. The aforementioned trio of Hunter, Matusz, and O'Day all are above average against same handed hitters, but struggle to get opposite handed hitters out consistently. In the case of O'Day, this situation arises from his submarine pitching style, while for Matusz and Hunter, the lack of a consistent third pitch that moves away from the opposite handed hitter creates much of the disparity in their splits. As such, each would be best fit in setup roles or carefully selected closing roles where the opposing lineup does not have the ability to pinch hit for opposite handed batters or lacks switch hitters; this environment is also ripe for a closer by committee set up for manager Buck Showalter in 2014. While he does have a history of shutting down the ninth, Francisco Rodriguez is firmly planted in the twilight of his career, with his repertoire best suited for middle inning relief roles.

Looking beyond the current roster, the ability to pick up a proven closer on the free agent market has diminished drastically in the last few days, with the likes of Joe Nathan, LaTroy Hawkins, Brian Wilson being signed; Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney appear to be the only legitimate, somewhat reliable options remaining on the free agent market that doesn't carry with them questions regarding their ability to fill the role or their medical history. As such, the Orioles could be bigger players on the trade market for the remainder of the offseason, given the slim pickings of the free agent market.

For now, the role of closer appears to be of the committee persuasion, with a trio of capable arms able to to handle shared duties, but hampered by the reality of their splits keeping them from consistent outings in the ninth inning. That being said, a plethora of talented arms who have adeptly filled the closer role but have found themselves on the outside looking in -- or at least pitching the eighth -- on their current squads, but could be attractive trade targets for the O's to keep an eye on. Pitchers such as Drew Storen, Mark Melancon, and Ryan Cook qualify as pitchers with closer pasts or potential that could be had for the right price or prospect. Whatever transpires for the Orioles as they prepare for 2014, the role of the closer will remain one watermarked by its fluidity and volatility in spite of it being a high profile position.


Joe Reisel said...

One point which may be obvious but which apparently has been overlooked - Jim Johnson wasn't a proven closer until he got the opportunity to become one. When I saw Johnson at Norfolk, there was nothing that led me to believe that he could be an effective closer. The Cardinals, the Rays, the 1990's Braves - all have been successful teams with a closer-of-the-year approach.

Anonymous said...

OPS is a lousy stat for comparison. It double-weights batting average.

Tommy Hunter had a horrid, horrid season versus lefties no matter how you slice it. From Fangraphs:

wOBA v L: 0.362 wOBA v R: 0.162

Darren O'Day was just worse, but had a similar split.

wOBA v L: 0.394 wOBA v R: 0.206

Career, neither player is as extreme, but again, they have similar splits.


wOBA v L: 0.364 wOBA v R: 0.297

Darren O'Day

wOBA v L: 0.314 wOBA v R: 0.252

Jon Shepherd said...

Agree with OPS being problematic, but it is problematic because it doubles slugging.