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June 4, 2012

Painting the Black

Is Throwing Strikes Enough?

by R.J. Anderson

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Every closer needs a signature something. Dale Thayer is instantly recognizable thanks to his Wyatt Earp-inspired mustache, and so when he takes the mound people know that the Padres are calling upon their closer. It’s a temporary gig, just until Huston Street returns, but it did lead to a more permanent role as a guinea pig. So long as Thayer is in the major leagues, he can help test the fungibility of relievers. One case won’t make much of a difference in a battle fought with constant fervor, but Thayer remains perfect for the role. After all, teams have viewed him as fungible dating back to his days as an undrafted collegiate. Thayer has survived exposure to the Rule 5 drafts, trades, outright assignments, and multiple minor-league free agencies. This closing thing? This closing thing is nothing.

The first thing you notice about Thayer is his velocity. Despite being listed at six feet, he can hit 95 mph on the gun. He goes to work with a three-pitch arsenal: the fastball, a slider, and a changeup. Here’s how a typical Thayer at-bat goes. He starts with a fastball away for a strike. Then he goes to the slider or the changeup, either as a bait pitch or in the zone. Once he gets to two strikes, he will try to get the batter to chase one of those pitches again. If the temptation proves fruitless, Thayer might elevate a fastball in attempt to coax a late swing.

Thayer is consistent in mixing pitches and throwing strikes. In fact, the ability to fill the zone with pitches is his finest asset. It isn’t a stretch to imagine him having outings where he throws all strikes. Consider Thayer’s walk rate. Over 37-2/3 major-league innings, he has two walks. (One came against Grady Sizemore and another against Ronny Cedeno—good luck trying to find a common bond between those two.) Thayer probably won’t be that stingy with the free passes heading forward—he did walk three per nine in the minors—but it’s clear that he is a strikethrower through and through.

Therein are the problems for Thayer. He throws a lot of strikes and mixes his pitches well because of necessity. It sounds funny since those are good attributes for any pitcher, but Thayer’s stuff isn’t good enough to make up for falling into deep counts or patterns. Take a recent appearance against the Mets, Thayer’s worst of the season. He allowed two hits and a walk on two-strike counts and two extra-base hits (one double, one home run) on 0-1 counts. Thayer’s approach to two-strike pitching is to cycle through his pitch Rolodex and hope that he guessed right. There isn’t a true out pitch in his arsenal and it can show when batters spit at his changeup and eyeroll at his slider.

Put together Thayer’s good and bad and you have a strikethrower without enough stuff to bedazzle. Is that enough to be a useful big-league reliever; and is that enough to be a worthwhile late-innings option? First, let’s put some context on Thayer’s strikethrowing ways.  Over his career, admittedly a small sample, his strike rate is 67 percent: not quite Mariano Rivera (68 percent), but better than Greg Maddux (66 percent).  For further perspective, here are the active career leaders in strike rate, according to Baseball-Reference:

Pitcher

Strike%

Koji Uehara

71%

Rafael Betancourt

69%

Matt Capps

69%

Edward Mujica

68%

Jonathan Papelbon

68%

Mariano Rivera

68%

Scott Baker

68%

Kevin Slowey

68%

Robbie Weinhardt

68%

Josh Collmenter

67%

If you ignore the starting pitchers, it’s hard to find a real comparison for Thayer that works. The good relievers on the list seemingly have much better stuff than Thayer does, and Weinhardt hasn’t been good enough in the minors to merit the comparison. The name that makes the most sense is just off the leaderboard at 66 percent: Matt Belisle. Granted, Belisle was at one point a legitimate pitching prospect, so his upbringing differs from Thayer, but look at what Prospectus wrote about him in recent annuals:

In 2006:

 

Now he`s yet another spear-carrier in the Reds phalanx of hard-working, blue-collar former high school pitchers with middling stuff (fastball, slider, change). His 2006 role is unsettled, as he could end up in middle relief or be inserted into the rotation, but he`ll end up in Louisville quickly if he doesn`t learn how to mix up his pitches to left-handed hitters.

 

In 2007:

 

With pedestrian stuff, he`s in danger of falling into the dreaded Quadruple-A class of pitching talent, perpetually hoping for a fifth starter`s job or garbage time out of the pen.

 

In 2008:

 

Major league teams keep guys like Belisle around with a big sign over their heads that says "break glass in case of emergency."

 

In 2009:

 

The Reds non-tendered the always-fringy Matt Belisle after a brutal campaign during which he was demoted in May, then required knee surgery in August to repair a torn ligament.

 

In 2010:

 

You could say Belisle is nothing special, a Quad-A pitcher with mediocre stuff, but of course he’s one of only several hundred people on earth talented enough to pitch intermittently in the major leagues. 

 

In 2011:

 

The key to Belisle’s success seems to have been abandoning his changeup in favor of more sliders and curves and establishing a simple pattern of getting ahead with his low-90s fastball, then using his breaking stuff to put hitters away when ahead in the count.

 

And in 2012:

 

He possesses a resilient arm that has allowed him to soak up innings out of the Rockies bullpen each of the past two seasons. There is nothing fancy about Belisle's game, but he throws strikes and keeps the ball in the park, an excellent combination for a pitcher who calls Coors Field home

 

Substitute Thayer’s name into those comments and nobody knows any better. With pedestrian stuff, Thayer is in danger of falling into the dreaded Quadruple-A class of pitching talent. See, just like that the Belisle comment applies to Thayer. That can be a good sign since it shows that someone made it with the same superlatives being tossed about, but it can be dangerous, too. If pitchers like Thayer succeeded everyday then we wouldn’t notice the Belisle success stories. Belisle is the best-case scenario, being a transient is the most likely, and washing out of the majors before reaching 50 innings the worst-case.

What does all of this tell us about the fungibility of relievers? That pitching in the majors, even in an intermediate role, is difficult; and so is deciphering who may succeed in those spots. The other takeaway is that it only takes one team to believe in a pitcher in order to change his career arc. This could be Thayer’s shot. He already had Earp’s mustache, so let’s hope he has his aim, too. 

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Doug Thayer,  Matt Belisle

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