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You have one guess to name the National League team that lead the league in saves last year.
Yes, it was the Florida Marlins. (Thanks for paying attention to the title/summary.)
After shipping Matt Lindstrom (15 saves, 5.89 ERA) to Houston, the Marlins enter the spring with Leo Nunez holding the closer title, but it’s a tenuous hold at best. After assuming the ninth inning duties full-time at the end of June in ’09, Nunez logged 24 saves and notched 29 whiffs in 35 innings. He also coughed up eight home runs which contributed to boosting his ERA to a gaudy 4.11. The home runs were no accident. Throughout his career, Nunez has been a pretty extreme fly ball pitcher. The results have been all over the map.
Accepting the fact that a pitcher’s “normal” HR/FB rate is roughly 10%, it looks like 2009 was slightly worse than we would expect. That makes Nunez’s 2008 season where he allowed only two home runs as an outlier. For his career, Nunez’s HR/FB rate is 9.2%, which translates to raw numbers as 1.3 HR/9 - an awfully high rate for a closer. Last year, Nunez’s HR/9 rate of 1.7 was the second highest among relievers with at least 65 innings. (Cleveland’s Jensen Lewis had the worst rate among relievers at 1.76 HR/9.)
If (or more likely, when) Nunez falters, the Marlins could bump lefty Dan Meyer into the closer role. Meyer landed in South Florida prior to the 2009 season as a waiver claim from the Oakland A’s with a 7.98 ERA covering two seasons where he made a total of 17 appearances with seven starts. Used exclusively out of the bullpen last year, he was a vastly different pitcher. He nudged his strikeouts up by about two per game (6.5 K/9 in 2008 vs 8.6 K/9 in 2009) and sliced his walks (4.6 BB/9 in ’08 and 3.2 BB/9 in ’09). Unfortunately, like Nunez, Meyer has a home run issue as well. Last year, Meyer had a 0.55 GB/FB ratio which made him even more of a fly ball pitcher than Nunez. The difference in the ERAs of Meyer (3.09) and Nunez (4.06) came from their difference in HR/FB rate - Meyer owned an 8% HR/FB rate. He also seemed to hit a wall in the second half with a 5.09 ERA after the All-Star break. His strikeout rate remained high, but he struggled with his command.
Looking at their off season bullpen moves, it seems the Marlins realize Nunez isn’t a long term answer. Via minor league deals, they invited Mike MacDougal, Jose Veras, and Seth McClung to camp. Of the three, only MacDougal owns track record as a closer. Released by the White Sox last April, MacDougal caught on with the Nationals at the end of May and was their full time closer by mid-June. He finished with a 3.60 ERA and 20 saves for the last place Nats, despite the fact he allowed base runners at a horrendous clip with a 5.6 BB/9 and an overall 1.52 WHIP. The walks have always been an issue for MacDougal, but what’s even more alarming is the fact his strikeout rates have tumbled over the last three seasons. Veras and McClung likewise suffer from elevated walk rates and declining strikeout rates making them less than ideal to close out games in the ninth.
It doesn’t hurt to hand out minor league invites, but the Marlins have a pair of better closer candidates in Reynel Pinto and Brian Sanches. The real dark horse in this race could be Sanches. He has better control (4.2 BB/9 in 2009) than any of the Marlins closer candidates and possesses the ability to miss bats (8.1 K/9 in 2009). His issue is a high fly ball rate and the fact that from time to time he becomes hittable. Last year he allowed 5 home runs in 50 innings (a 5.6% HR/FB rate) despite posting a 0.51 GB/FB ratio. His home run totals are almost certain to go up in 2010.
None of the Marlins closer candidates are ideal, but if you’re looking to fill out your saves category, go ahead and grab Nunez. However, don’t count on him to be your primary guy because there’s a good chance he’ll be out of the role by May. And be sure to stock up on Advil to combat the inevitable headaches he’ll cause while on your roster. Meyer and Sanches are options in NL only leagues where you’re proactive about potential saves. And MacDougal, Veras and McClung aren’t options at all.
Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Click here to see Craig's other articles.
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