June 4, 2012
Painting the Black
Is Throwing Strikes Enough?
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: