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February 9, 2011

Painting the Black

Choosing a Blue Jays Closer

by R.J. Anderson

Alex Anthopoulos’ first offseason in charge of the Blue Jays brought a gargantuan challenge to the table. Trading the franchise’s best pitcher after a tumultuous summer of trade rumors is a daunting task for any general manager, but even more difficult for a newcomer. But Anthopoulos did move Roy Halladay, and he followed it up by building up a unique offensive brand of bopper-based offense. Now, his second offseason is nearly over, and it has to be considered an initial success—Anthopoulos moved a nightmare contract, acquired draft picks, and rebuilt a bullpen suffering from a rash of free agents.

Keep in mind, there were defections to deal with. Reliable end-game reliever Scott Downs crossed the border and headed to the Angels, while the Orioles scooped up closer Kevin Gregg. Jason Frasor accepted the Jays’ offer of arbitration, but he could still be on the move via a trade before Opening Day. Not even remotely distracted by the bullpen turnover, Anthopoulos did not sit on his hands and wait for the market to come to him, instead he struck quickly by acquiring Brewers swingman Carlos Villanueva. From there, he subsequently signed two members of the Proven Closers Club—getting Jon Rauch from the Twins with a one-plus-one deal after already landing the well-traveled Octavio Dotel—before capping his bullpen makeover by trading for Frank Francisco, whom he acquired with a piece of what he'd gotten from the Vernon Wells trade (Mike Napoli).

The comings and goings leave manager John Farrell with four options who have at least 30 saves in their career, although that number could drop if Frasor is dealt. Assuming Farrell employs a traditional closer, then one of Rauch, Dotel, or Francisco seem like the logical fits. Rauchspent some of last season closing for the playoff-bound Twins before the acquisition of Matt Capps bumped him to set-up man. Dotel closed for the Pirates before heading westbound, going back into a bridge role for the Dodgers. Francisco blazed the late-game trail for Neftali Feliz last season, but he closed for the Rangers in 2009.

One wrinkle to remember is that the Jays honored a playing time agreement with John Buck last offseason, and while there is no indication that either Dotel or Rauch received such a promise during negotiations, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. However, if Farrell is free to approach the gig as a meritocracy, then PECOTA suggests he should turn to Francisco:

 

Pitcher

ERA

FRA

Francisco

3.44

3.74

Frasor

3.65

3.97

Rauch

3.72

4.05

Dotel

4.05

4.40

Dotel projects as the worst option despite being the most experienced of the bunch (with more than 100 saves).That’s for good reason too, asDotel’s weakness versus left-handed batters is an easily-exploited flaw: over the last three seasons, Dotel has held righties in check (.196/.278/.352) while lefties cashed out (.272/.393/.531). As a reference point, consider that Jayson Werth hit .296/.388/.532 last season, so alllefties have hit better against Dotel than the Nationals’ richest outfielder did against the league.

Conceivably, Dotel can still be used in late-and-close situations against lineups with a dearth of left-handed hitters, but those situations are going to be rare to find when the Jays play a divisional game. The table below was created using MLB Depth Charts’ projected lineups and some basic mathematical skills. The columns show the percentage of left- and switch-hitting batters in the average starting lineups, along with a combined column for each division.


Division

LHB%

SHB%

LHB+SHB%

AL Cental

35.6

15.6

51.2

AL East

37.8

15.6

53.4

AL West

27.8

19.4

47.2

NL Cental

25.9

3.7

29.6

NL East

35.6

17.8

53.4

NL West

31.1

11.1

42.2

With the exception of the Jays, each AL East team figures to have at least four left-handed and switch-hitting batters in their lineup most days. Even with the righty-heavy Jays included, the AL East is tied for the highest rate of switch- and left-handed hitters with the NL East. On the other end of the spectrum is the NL Central—coincidentally Dotel’s home for most of the 2010 season—with more than 70 percent of the expected starters batting right-handed.

There is a difference between quality and quantity, but the AL East has both. PECOTA suggests 12 of the top 50 hitters reside within the division, including two of the top five. The key for Farrell is to limit Dotel’s exposure to lefties depending on the situation. Allowing Dotel to face a below average left-handed hitter in a bases-outs state unlikely to produce runs is fine, but giving him the green light against Adrian Gonzalez or Robinson Cano in a tied game seems unwise. As such, Dotel is not too different from a left-handed specialist, which in effect makes him a right-handed specialist. Those can succeed in the AL East (and elsewhere) as long as they're used properly used—just check Dan Wheeler’s 2010 as proof.

Comparatively speaking, Francisco has held batters of both hands to a 650 OPS or lower in each of the past three seasons, with the exception of an unusually poor season against righties in 2010 (when they managed a 765 OPS). Francisco possesses a power pitcher’s repertoire (a mid-90s heater, slider, and splitter) and strikeout rate (more than one per inning) without the ugly walk rate in recent years. The allure of good pitching without a platoon split or discernable weakness makes Francisco the best pick for the Jays, which suggests he ought to be the guy getting saves.

But what if Farrell does use Dotel as his closer? If they do, it might be time to call the stadium the Sky Dome again, because the Jays' late-game airspace will definitely experience turbulence.

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

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