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September 21, 2012

Raising Aces

Four of a Kind: High-K Closers

by Doug Thorburn

The evolution of pitching in the 21st century has trended toward increased specialization, to the point of eight-man bullpens and strict pitch counts for starters. The complete game has all but vanished from the baseball lexicon, and most pitching staffs are now structured with the goal of getting through six innings with a lead before handing the ball to the bullpen. Frequent pitching changes have been unkind to the hardcore fan base, slowing the pace of the game when the drama is at its peak, but the stats reflect the advantages that are gained through the tireless recycling of arms.

Major League Baseball has witnessed a historic trend toward increasing strikeouts, with 2012's league-wide K rate of 19.7 percent (through Wednesday) representing the highest figure of all time. The 1.1-point jump in strikeout percentage from 2011 is the largest season-to-season gain in 25 years. Interestingly, we are not in the middle of some historic home run binge, and the 300-K starter has gone the way of the dodo in the span of about 10 years. Mere memories remain of the exploits of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, while 2011 strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw hit the ceiling at 250 strikeouts, a level that no pitcher is likely to crack this season. The 300-K starter has been replaced by the 100-K reliever.

Craig Kimbrel
At 24 years, four months, Kimbrel is the youngest pitcher of this cohort, yet he boasts the most impressive resume. The reigning Rookie of the Year in the NL, Kimbrel has miraculously found a way to improve on last season's jaw-dropping numbers, and the wunderkind continues to improve as the regular season comes to a close. Since the All-Star break, the Braves fireman has struck out more than two batters per inning, with 49 punch-outs against just four walks in 23.1 frames. He has allowed just two runs to score since the break, each of which came courtesy of a solo homer, and he has already cracked the century mark in strikeouts for the season. Eliot Ness has nothing on Craig Kimbrel.

Year

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

BABIP

2011

77.0

2.10

41.5%

10.5%

15.7%

.317

2012

57.1

1.10

49.8%

6.6%

11.8%

.250

There is precedent for such utter dominance in the form of Eric Gagne, whose 2003 Cy Young season is a near-match for Kimbrel's current campaign, including Gagne's 1.20 ERA, 45-percent K rate, 6.5-percent walk rate, and less than a hit allowed for every two innings pitched. Like most closers, Kimbrel relies on just a pair of pitches to attack hitters. His weapon of choice is a four-seam fastball that has averaged 97.6 mph in 2012, up from 96.9 mph a year ago, and which features ridiculous arm-side run. His secondary pitch is a breaking ball with slider velocity and hammer break, diving for the dirt with extremely late movement. The right-hander has taken something off the breaking pitch this season, which, combined with the uptick in fastball velocity, has given him a devastating velo spread.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

50

Torque

70

Posture

70

Release Distance

60

Repetition

65

Kimbrel's uncanny stuff is supported by elite mechanics, with above-average scores across the board and a couple of individual grades that threaten the top of the scale. He is incredibly efficient, from his monster torque and deep release to the stable posture and excellent pitch-repetition that form the foundation of his pitch command. Kimbrel avoids many of the mechanical pitfalls that typically afflict hard-throwing relievers, thanks to his ability to harness the high levels of kinetic energy produced during his delivery. If there is one nit to pick, I would look for a bit more momentum, but his current capacity to repeat the timing and sequencing of his delivery would make me reticent to change a thing about his motion.

Aroldis Chapman
The Red Dragon with the immense wingspan leads all relievers with 119 strikeouts this season, building on a career that has followed a steep flight-path. Chapman has evolved into a beast in 2012, grasping the closer role left vacated by the $8 million sunk cost of Ryan Madson. His performance improvements across the board underscore a limitless ceiling: fans have been treated to the most intimidating force to appear in a Cincinnati bullpen since the Nasty Boys marked their territory in the 1990s. Chapman's strikeout rate has risen from last season's 12.8 K’s per nine to a Kimbrellian level this year. Meanwhile, his previously unacceptable walk rate has quickly become an above-average asset, a truly remarkable feat considering how far he was toward the other end of the spectrum.

Year

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

BABIP

2011

50.0

3.60

34.3%

19.8%

11.6%

.244

2012

67.2

1.60

45.4%

7.6%

13.0%

.261

The buzz back in spring was that Chapman had lost some of the heat off of his fastball and traded the smoke for improved command, but his average April velocity of 97.9 mph was nothing to scoff at, and he’s added more speed throughout the season, peaking at 99.7 mph in the month of July. With the season coming to a close and the 24-year-old nursing a fatigued shoulder, his velocity stats for this year are likely to finish as a near-match for 2011’s. Chapman brings the heat more than 85 percent of the time, so the wipe-out slider makes an appearance only about twice per outing, yet the mere presence of the pitch gives batters something else to think about as they gear up for the fastball.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

40

Momentum

65

Torque

80

Posture

40

Release Distance

60

Repetition

45

There is nothing average about Aroldis, including mechanical traits that drift away from the mean. His torque is probably the most pronounced in the game, featuring a huge upper-body twist that loads the spring while his aggressive hip-rotation initiates the sequence for bullets to fire. High-speed momentum adds to the intimidation factor, and though he features some inconsistent spine-tilt near release point, he is able to keep his linear momentum on-line to the target such that he steps toward the plate after release point.

The key ingredients to Chapman's delivery are largely unchanged since last season, but one element that continues to plague him is mechanical timing. Last year, his repetition was atrocious, and his complete inability to command his wayward stuff was dangerous to anyone within range. Chapman continues to battle his timing this season, though he has reined in the delivery to effectively narrow the range of time signatures that he employs. He will frequently miss targets within the strike zone, and though such a strategy is a recipe for disaster for most other pitchers, Aroldis has such wicked stuff that he can afford to miss over the plate and still end up with a K.

Ernesto Frieri
The elder statesman of our group, the 27-year-old Frieri was acquired by the Angels in a trade with the Padres at the beginning of May, and the early returns suggest that the Halos stole an undervalued asset right out of their southern California backyard. The right-hander has discovered a new lease on life after the switch to the American League, helping to stabilize the back-end of a shaky Anaheim bullpen and bringing some solidity to a closer role that had seen considerable turnover since the first week of the season. His numbers have vaulted into elite territory since making the drive north up I-5, particularly a strikeout rate that has jumped more than 11 percentage points over last season’s. As a result, the pitcher they call Big Ern is on pace to eclipse the 100-K mark before season's end.  

Year

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

BABIP

2011

63.0

2.71

27.5%

12.3%

18.5%

.314

2012

58.2

2.30

38.7%

11.9%

13.2%

.231

Frieri has all but abandoned his secondary stuff with the Angels. He threw fastballs on 77 percent of pitches last season and he tossed heaters 71 percent of the time in April with the Pads, but the fastball frequency in Anaheim has leapt to the 90-percent level. His fastball velocity has also benefited greatly from the move; Frieri's average velo on his heater was 92.7 mph in 2011, a figure that he matched in April of this season, but he has continually gained velocity since the trade and is averaging greater than 95 mph on his fastballs in the OC. The evidence suggests that the Angels knew something about how to maximize Frieri’s effectiveness before they dealt for his services, considering the rapid adjustments with respect to both raw velocity and pitch selection. Perhaps the Angels were watching when both of the homers that Frieri surrendered in April were blasted off of the breaking ball, but the more remarkable change is the sudden uptick in fastball velocity.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

45

Momentum

50

Torque

60

Posture

60

Release Distance

55

Repetition

40

For Angels fans, the cyclone leg-kick that Frieri exhibits after release point might invoke memories of a young Francisco Rodriguez, and like K-Rod, Frieri's delivery gives the appearance of violent rotation due to flailing limbs. Despite the comps to a pitcher with a wild reputation, Frieri has a solid grade-point average on his mechanics report card, with the only weak points coming via inconsistent balance and his issues with consistency of timing. His posture and torque are both well above average, and the secret to his finding the ideal timing pattern could very well be rooted in improved momentum. There is a potential mechanical explanation behind Frieri's increase in velocity, and though the difference is very subtle, one might detect the timing discrepancy when comparing the previous GIF of the Ethier strikeout with the following GIF of Adrian Gonzalez.

This above fastball was the final pitch that Gonzalez saw as a member of the Boston Red Sox, as he was traded the next day in the quarter-billion dollar deal heard ’round the world. Frieri invoked a slight delay of trunk rotation on the fastball, using a minor pause as he reached foot strike prior to initiating trunk rotation. The difference is slight when compared to his mechanics in San Diego, but Frieri's hips and shoulders appeared to be firing nearly in unison and right at foot strike while with the Padres, whereas his Halo motion involves the timing hitch that allows hips and shoulders to separate and create additional torque.

Kenley Jansen
Jansen, who hasn't pitched since August 27 due to heart trouble, will fall short of joining the 100-K club in 2012. He missed the century mark by just four strikeouts last season, and a healthy Jansen would be a leading candidate to contend for the honor next season, though it’s tough to bank on triple-digit strikeouts from a pitcher who has yet to crack the 60-inning barrier in a season. The right-hander turns 25 on September 30, and he could have enough gas in the tank to join an elite company. Among other traits, Jansen shares a miniscule WHIP with the other closers on this list, though he is the only one of the four who has seen a decline in his strikeout rate since last season.

Year

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

BABIP

2011

53.2

2.85

44.0%

11.9%

13.8%

.297

2012

56.2

2.54

38.7%

8.6%

14.0%

.231

Jansen differs from the other three relief artists on this list in that some of his performance indicators are heading in the wrong direction, including stats as well as stuff. He has slashed his use of the slider and has thus been reduced to a pitcher with just a single weapon: a 92-mph cut-fastball that he has thrown 94 percent of the time in 2012. Jansen's transition to the Mariano Rivera mentality of closer stuff has paid dividends in the run-prevention category, but a steady decrease in velocity has seen Jansen drop 3.5 mph off the cutter since 2009, a trend that might be viewed as a cautionary flag if not for the trade-off of increased lateral movement on the pitch.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

40

Momentum

40

Torque

55

Posture

30

Release Distance

40

Repetition

50

Mechanically, Jansen is a mess of inefficiency. He lacks balance throughout the delivery, including massive spine-tilt and a head that starts drifting glove-side before he reaches foot strike. That combination of poor posture and slow momentum severely reduce his depth at release point. His release distance is further limited by a closed stride that acts as a barrier to his finding extension at release point, as Jansen takes a page out of the LOOGY book despite his profile as a right-hander. It is remarkable that Jansen has been able to reduce his walk rate this season, considering all of the holes in his delivery, and his mechanics would surely be his undoing if he were exposed as a starting pitcher. However, such inefficiency is relatively common among the league's firemen.

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

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