I’ve received a few questions recently from readers in the save-speculating business.  There’s been quite a bit of ninth-inning turnover in the early going of 2012, so it’s natural to wonder who’ll find themselves in a closer’s chair next.  While I don’t recommend save speculating in shallower leagues—closers-in-waiting have a low success rate—it can certainly be worthwhile in deep leagues where a reliever’s ratios have some value unto themselves and where the value of a bench spot is minimal.  Even if you play in a shallow mixed league, though, it’s important to keep up with who is next in line should a mad dash to the waiver wire eventually be required.  After all, it does the fastest runner no good if he doesn’t run in the direction of the finish line.

As such, over the next couple of weeks I will be examining some not-so-obvious late-inning situations to try and suss out the player who is next-in-line for saves.  Today, I’m going to delve in the bullpen of the Minnesota Twins.

Twins closer Matt Capps isn’t necessarily on the hot seat, but there is some cause for concern.  Capps is 4-for-4 in save opportunities, but he’s allowed runs in two of those chances and has an ERA of 5.63 with a 5.82 FIP to match.  While possession of the role and his spotless save record should give him some leash, if you’re gambling on a closer to fail, you won’t find many better choices than Capps.

Over the off-season, many experts championed Glen Perkins for the ninth-inning role in Minnesota, but the Twinkies decided to play the experience card by re-signing Capps to close out games.  Most assumed, at the very least, Perkins would be next-in-line should Capps falter, but I’m not convinced that he is at this point.  The Twins never seemed to like the idea of Perkins closing to begin with.  Plus, he’s a lefty who’s had just one good season, is sporting a horrible (if potentially unlucky) ERA, and has just the fifth-highest leverage index in the Minnesota bullpen.  Most importantly, though, I believe there’s a better candidate who the Twins favor more than Perkins.

Enter Jared Burton, who you may remember as the one-time closer-of-the-future in Cincinnati.  Aside from Brian Duensing—who seems an unlikely closer candidate as a result of his left-handedness and ability to throw multiple innings—Burton is currently sporting the highest non-Capps leverage index in Minnesota.  And while Perkins set up Capps in his first save opportunity, Burton has done so in the previous two.

Oh, and he’s good.  After years of struggling, Burton may finally be putting it all together—enough so as to be able to help an AL-only team even without saves.  Burton’s stuff has changed quite a bit since the last time he got an extended look in the majors, in particular what seems to be a revamped off-speed pitch.



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As you can see, Burton’s change-up is moving more both horizontally and vertically and is now getting some pretty ridiculous sink to it.  What’s interesting, though, is that the pitch is thrown 86 mph—much faster than a normal change-up is thrown.  The pitch, in fact, is not a change-up at all, but rather a change-up/splitter hybrid:

I can’t find any video of it, but if you watch a Twins game and see the pitch in action, it’s pretty nasty, inducing whiffs on 21 percent of swings. Burton has made it his go-to secondary offering, increasing the usage of it from 15 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2012.  And because of how the bottom falls out on it, not only is he racking up more strikeouts, but when batters do make contact on it, they’re driving it into the ground.  To date, the pitch has a 67 percent groundball rate, which has naturally caused Burton’s overall groundball rate to spike (59 percent).

Additionally, Burton’s fastball velocity is up a tick from where it was in 2009 and is featuring different movement.  Relatively straight with some occasional cutting action previously, it is now a more traditional fastball, running in a bit on righties and showing more rise than it did previously while maintaining plus velocity.

The sum of this repertoire overhaul is a much more effective pitcher than Burton’s previous incarnation.  He’s striking out more batters, inducing grounders at a high clip, and earning his manager’s trust.  His control is even at an all-time best; he’s walking just 6 percent of batters faced.  While this is merely speculation, it seems plausible that Burton’s walk rate is so low because he’s trusting his new stuff and going after hitters more.  His first-pitch-strike rate is 75 percent this year (league average is 59 percent), which would seem to corroborate this theory.

I picked up Burton in the CBS AL-only experts league yesterday, and I would highly recommend you follow suit if you have an empty roster spot.  Matt Capps is as shaky as closers come, and it’s my belief that Burton would be the guy to replace him should the Twins realize that experience is overrated or should Capps pitch himself out of the ninth inning.

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Should the Twins realize that experience is overrated. And therein lies the rub.
So true. In the forty-two years that I've been a Twins fan, I've never seen them think anything BUT that experience (especially experience being a Twin) counts the most.
Haha, indeed that does seem unlikely. I didn't really mean that seriously. The real possibility is that Capps simply pitches so poorly that they're forced to replace him.
The problem is that the starting rotation is pitching so poorly that you're unlikely to find *any* closer for the Twins in a save situation that often.