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March 29, 2011
Closer By Committee?
The one question I have been repeatedly asked this month is ,“Who is going to be the closer for the Rays?” Honestly, not much has changed since I first covered the situation back in January.
It's a fair assumption that at least half of you reading this article also play fantasy football to pass the time in between baseball seasons as I do, and thus are all too familiar with the dreaded RBBC–running back by committee. Someone gets the touches in between the 20s while one or more guys get the red zone touches. It is maddening as a fantasy player to try to predict which back is going to get the points—not only at the draft, but as you set your lineups each week during the season. Baseball tends to be a bit different, as most managers will name their closer before the season starts—fantasy players then look to see which closers are in danger of losing their job first based on their skills. Then again, most managers are not Joe Maddon.
Maddon has spent the better part of this off-season beating the closer-by-committee drum, just as Theo Epstein did in 2003 in Boston. Here are some of the comments Maddon has made in recent weeks:
I have to prepare myself mentally for that because it's really different. To have the one guy at the end of the game allows you to do certain things to get to the ninth innings whereas when you don't, there's different things you have to consider all the time. So it's quite a mental exercise….We have some really good candidates. Some good arms, some guys I don't really know that well that we've got to check out and see what they're capable of doing.
I'm going into the season pretty much expecting to go committee-wise. I'm not concerned with that, I'm just saying it's a different way, it's another way.
It's just going to be the leverage of the moment, how we get to the ninth inning, who has been used already to make sure that we had a lead going into the ninth inning, I'm liking the way this is looking right now. I think we're going to have several candidates to get the last out. I don't just want to say, 'You're going to get the last out every night,' but on any given night, I think we have the ability to potentially move that last out or last two outs around, based on left-handed or right-handed hitters. Honestly, I'd have no hesitation pitching anybody, Jake (McGee), eventually, I think can morph himself into that particular role, but I don't want to just thrust that upon him right now. Just like David Price got the baseball in the ALCS, I have no problem with Jake McGee.
Jake's got a high-end arm. My biggest concern, is he ready emotionally to handle that, and if it does not go well, how's he going to react? I'm liking the way this is looking right now. I think we're going to have several candidates to get the last out. … Honestly, I'd have no hesitation pitching anybody.
McGee is the only pitcher he has singled out by name in regards to a defined role, as he has repeatedly pointed to improvements he would like to see McGee make rather than tip his hand and admit who he is favoring. To his credit, McGee appears to be taking Maddon’s words in stride, and is determined to take the role at some point this season.
The experts are clearly at a loss at how to properly value each of the three options for the ninth inning. The table below shows what Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and Jake McGee went for in each major AL-only auction:
In each case, the pundits see McGee as the likely saves leader for the club, followed by Farnsworth, with Peralta taking up the rear. On the surface level, the only thing we have to go on is some anecdotal evidence for each. In McGee, we have the one pitcher that Maddon has called out by name as someone who can do the job at some point. In Farnsworth, we have the one pitcher on the team who has a clause in his contract that could earn him as much as $300K extra based on the games he finishes, and in Peralta, we have a pitcher who piled up 20 saves in just 27 outings in Triple-A last year before his promotion to the Nationals.
None of that is going to help make a firm decision on who you should have on your roster right now, and, as I stated earlier, nothing that was covered back in late January has changed. Maddon’s language has remained steadfast, if not evasive. The 2003 Red Sox often come to mind when the committee term is thrown around, as that club had ten different pitchers complete a save—Byung-Hyun Kim lead the way with 16. That is not terribly different than how Maddon has run things, at least until Rafael Soriano fell into his lap. In 2008, Troy Percival picked up 28 saves, but Dan Wheeler grabbed another 13 and four other pitchers picked up a total of 11 saves on the way to the World Series. Percival quickly broke down in 2009, and J.P. Howell grabbed the job and saved a team-leading 17 games. Nine different pitchers picked up saves for that team that won 84 games.
If we are to take Maddon at his word and expect a committee this season, let’s take a look at how it may play out. The table below shows each pitcher and their particular skills over the past three seasons. All of McGee’s numbers are from his minor league career while Peralta has two lines–all major league work from 2008 through 2010, and a second line which shows his efforts from just last year in the Nationals organization.
Farnsworth gave up 22 home runs in those 162 innings, but 15 of those came in 2008. He has since added a cut fastball to his repertoire, and it's made a difference in his outcomes. McGee has both the highest strikeout rate of the three pitchers as well as the highest walk rate, but made excellent strides last year—nearly one-third of the batters he faced struck out. Both Farnsworth and McGee are rather neutral pitchers for flyballs, so it is easy to see how those two can be worked into a committee situation given how tough each can be on the same-handed batters. Peralta is the big wildcard.
Peralta is a risky mix of an extreme flyball pitcher who has historically been unable to retire left-handed batters, pushing him into a ROOGY role. For his career, Peralta has a .271/.345/.525 slash line against lefties, but something strange happened last season. Here are his slash lines by season against lefties at the major league level:
In 2008, he hinted a bit of success against lefties, but the slugging percentage was the true sign of trouble. Yet, last season, he nearly halved that slugging percentage as lefties suddenly could not hit him. Some speculate it is the addition of his split-fingered fastball but his Pitch f/x shows that pitch has been in his bag of tricks for a few seasons. What is not talked about is the process Peralta takes to the mound. The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore covered this last season:
His [Peralta's] success owes to his newfound approach. He used to use his fastball to get ahead of batters, then tried to make batters chase his splitter and slider out of the strike zone for outs. This season, Peralta has been throwing more breaking balls early in the count and mixing more fastballs when ahead in the count. The result has been more favorable counts and more defensive swings from batters.
"I've been throwing it for a strike in any count," Peralta said. "I think that's been the difference. Before, I didn't have the confidence I needed to pitch backwards - to pitch breaking stuff first and then finish strong. Right now, it feels like I've been throwing it very good."
So how did a 34-year-old journeyman uncover a new approach? Peralta played winter ball in the Dominican this offseason. "Over there, it's a fastball hitters league," Peralta said. "I knew I had to do something." Desperate to throw something other than a fastball to salivating hitters, he resolved to throw any pitch in any count. Peralta discovered he could have success starting sequences with sliders and splitters. Syracuse pitching coach Greg Booker harped on the same lesson.
"I took it with me all the way," Peralta said.
That kind of approach is very reminiscent to what J.P. Howell did when he found success in 2009: he was not afraid to pitch backwards and could throw all of his pitches for strikes at any point in the count. That approach only works if you have the command of your pitches to throw them for strikes and can get ahead on batters, forcing them to expand their strike zone.
We all should keep in mind that in 2008 and 2009 when Maddon lost his primary closer, he went against the grain in choosing the replacement. Both years, people assumed that the hard-throwing Grant Balfour would step in, but Maddon went with Dan Wheeler in 2008—his skills are eerily similar to Peralta’s. Maddon bypassed Balfour again in 2009 for the diminutive Howell, who threw strikes and constantly stayed ahead of batters. If Maddon is going to go with a committee, it seems logical that Peralta will be used more in situations where bases are empty and his flyball tendencies cannot be exploited by power hitters. Farnsworth and McGee are better fits with men on base, as they can both miss bats with regularity and keep the ball on the ground more frequently.
With all of that said, if Maddon does choose someone to take the job full-time in the season’s first two months before Howell comes back and further muddies the ninth inning waters, my money is on Peralta. Those were my $5 spent in AL Tout Wars on him, and I have rostered him in my two other competitive AL leagues in recent days. Long-term, I firmly believe McGee will own that role, but given that it is financially prudent not to let young talents pile up saves, it would be just like the Rays to skip delaying McGee’s service clock and instead delay his arbitration earnings by limiting his saves.