Friday, November 18, 2011

Hello New Friend: Closer

NOTE: The views expressed in this post are almost entirely my own opinion and are not based on any rumors or reports of the team's actual intent.

"Shipping up to Philly" just does not have the same ring as "shipping up to Boston," does it? As most of you have heard by now, Jonathan Papelbon has taken that sweet Philly money to blow, I mean close out 1-0 gems spun by Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. For $50 million over 4 years, the Phillies are the latest team to gamble that their reliever will be the second exception (Rivera being the other) to the rule that signing relievers to long term deals is a bad idea. I have definitely advocated for the Red Sox to bring him back for 3 or 4 years before, but now that I see that contract in print, I think I may have had a momentary lack of judgement.

With his departure, there are two key questions that need to be answered. The second, which I will get to in a moment, is who closes for Boston next year? The first and most important is what local song does Pap choose as his new entrance music? One obvious choice would be Motown Philly by Boyz II Men, but that doesn’t seem to have the ability to pump someone up. Will Smith has a long and illustrious catalog (Boom Shake the Room would certainly get me going), but I don’t think even Pap would have the hubris to deface this legend. John Coltrane called Philly home, but I would guess Pap understands the intricacies of jazz about as well as he understands the intricacies of the English language. Patti Labelle and her heir apparent Jill Scott are options, but not realistic. Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John would be cool, but last I checked Elton was from somewhere east of Philly so it doesn’t follow the Dropkick rule. Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll could be cool, but Pap doesn’t seem the one to cross gender lines and seek equality. Hall and Oats is also an option, but in the homophobic culture of baseball, I don’t think Maneater would fly. So if he is sticking local, that really only leaves one option, though I really don’t like the song or the band: Bloodhound Gang’s Bad Touch

Now that we got that important decision out of the way, let’s look at who may be taking the mound in the mythical closer’s role this year. Since I am still celebrating Movember (donate here: I am going to break the candidates down into categories based on famous moustachioed men.

Tom Selleck: The Pantheon of Moustache

I only include this category to show off perfection and to explain that there is nobody available that is close to the pantheon of closers. The only closer of the last 20 years who we could comfortably compare to the Selleck Stache is Mariano Rivera (fittingly, his nickname is “Mo”). Even before Pap signed, I would not have put him in this spot. Closers not named “Mo” are extremely volatile, so even when you find one of the top ones of the last couple years, chances are he will have some ups and downs over the length of a long-term contract. Keep this in mind if your team signs a reliever for 3 years or more.

Ron Swanson: The Current Elite
Ryan Madson, Free Agent; Heath Bell, Free Agent; Daniel Bard, Red Sox

This group of pitchers has been consistently excellent over the last couple years and should have a few more years of effectiveness in them. Like Ron Swanson, they are not household names, but they do all the important things you need.

Bell has the most closing experience and is the oldest of this group (34). Since the Mets stupidly traded him to San Diego 4 years ago, he has been absolutely lights out. He has saved over 40 games the last 3 years, if you are into that sorta thing (I am not). There are a few big red flags here, however. In 2009-10 his strike outs per 9 was 10.6, but it dropped to 7.3 per 9 this year. Reports I have read say this is due to a decrease in fastball velocity. The other issue is that he likes to pitch up in the zone, a strategy that works wonders in the expanses of Petco Park, but may not fly in the smaller Fenway. I think he also wants to stay in San Diego so he would probably be expensive to pry away.

Madson became the odd man out when the Phillies signed Pap. This is what Keith Law (Insider Only), ESPN writer and former Blue Jays scout, has to say about Madson: 
I'd give him more money and more years than any other reliever on this market, and I think he has the best chance to defy the high attrition rates that characterize his brethren of the bullpen. He throws hard, misses bats with his changeup, pounds the strike zone (eight unintentional walks in 2011, 10 the year before) and is as good a bet as anyone on this market to avoid arm injury.
I fully agree with Law. People said that Madson "couldn't handle the job" because he had never done it before and then when he was finally given the opportunity he continued to be lights out. Another case of people overstating the value of the "closer" tag. Madson was reportedly close to a 4-year $44 million contract with the Phillies before they signed Pap. If it takes 4 years to get him done, I would avoid him, but 3 should be good.

People seem to be down on Bard because of the 9 losses he took on the season. His ERA also jumped from 1.93 to 3.33 from ’10 to ’11. This has led to questions about whether or not he can “close” and if he has the mentality for it. I think this is all a bunch of crap and don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be able to. If you look beyond losses and his ERA, his WHIP, HR/9, SO/9, BB/9 and SO/BB were all equal or better last year than the year before. I will admit that in pressure situations he was not as good as he was the year before, but the fact remains that he was excellent in these situations the year before. What this really shows is not that Bard can’t handle the job, but that relievers fluctuate greatly year to year with their situational pitching. The fact that Bard was able to maintain his talent level even though he didn’t maintain the performance in pressure situations is encouraging. If I were running the team, I would be handing Bard the ball in the 9th (well, if I were running the team, I would hand the ball to Bard in whatever was the most difficult situation in the game, like a tie game in the 7th with the bases loaded).

Carl Weathers: Underrated Group
Joel Hanrahan, Pirates; Huston Street, Rockies; Fransisco Rodriguez, Free Agent

I’m gonna get real with you for a second. Black men do not get their due for excellent moustaches. Look at Carl Weathers up there. What doesn’t he have that white moustache greats like Selleck, Swanson and Mercury do have? I admit that I am inherently biased towards white moustaches, but I don’t know why. Black men can sport a luscious mound of lip cover just as well as white men can and it is a damn shame they don’t get credit for this. We have a black president now, guys, we have to get with the times.

Hanrahan and Street are the most intriguing trade candidates. Hanrahan is a former high strikeout/high walk fireballer who changed his approach this year and became a much better pitcher. His strikeouts were down, but so were his walks and he learned how to keep the ball on the ground this year. He only allowed 1 HR last year, which isn’t sustainable, but I think he would be a great fit on this team and in this ballpark. The Pirates may be unwilling to trade him, though, because they have some (delusional) designs on contending this year.

If hitters who put up huge numbers in Colorado get instantly discounted for their work, why is it that pitchers don’t automatically get bonus points for surviving the mile high air? Street was traded to Colorado 3 years ago and has maintained the same excellent strike out to walk ratio he had in Oakland (he set a personal best last year with a 6.11 ratio). Where he has suffered is in giving up extra base hits. He went from one of the most pitcher friendly ball parks in Oakland to one of the most hitter friendly in Colorado and his ERA predictably went up. To me, he still seems like the above average closer from his Oakland days and would be a worthy gamble. Colorado appears to be shopping him as well so they could dangle a groundball specialist from the minors if they have one.

Rodriguez (formerly known as K-Rod) was one of the more recent closer busts. He suffered from injuries, bad behavior and a drop in velocity during his contract with the Mets, but bounced back to have a solid season last year. He no longer blows people away with his fastball, but he has found a good mix with his fastball and changeup to keep hitters off balance. Teams will probably be looking at him in a set-up role, but a 9th inning guarantee would probably put him in Boston. For a high value 1-year deal (maybe $7-8 million) I would give him a shot to re-establish his value.

Charlie Chaplin: Damaged Goods
Jonathan Broxton, Free Agent; Joe Nathan, Free Agent; Brad Lidge, Free Agent

Two controversial categories in a row! Chaplin represents the damaged goods group because of his style of moustache. Though he rocked this style first, it is forever condemned for obvious reasons. Michael Jordan (what the H?) has made a valiant effort to take the style back, but it is unclear whether or not the glory can ever be recaptured. Just like these former great closers who have suffered a string of injuries recently.

Broxton was fighting with Papelbon to be the heir apparent to Rivera just 2 seasons ago before injuries took their toll (volatility!). He only pitched in 14 games last year and walked over 6 guys per 9 before he was shut down for the season. He had surgery for bone spurs in his elbow, which is easier to recover from than Tommy John surgery, so he could bounce back a bit. He’s another guy who should have to accept a 1-year deal with some incentives built in. He may be open to working as a set-up guy behind Bard first to prove his health.

Nathan actually was the second best closer in baseball from 2004-09. He struck out a lot of guys, did not walk many, kept home runs down and was excellent in pressure situations. But he missed all of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery and missed time in the middle of last year. He was mostly ineffective last year and could be done as an effective reliever period. He did still strike out almost a batter per inning and kept his walks down, but he suffered from some serious gopheritis like never before. I would probably stay away from the 37 year old.

To me, Lidge will always be the guy who served up the 3,000 foot home run to Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS. I don't know how he ever recovered from that. He also missed time last year with an elbow injury suffered in 2010. When he returned, he took his repertoire as a high strikeout/high walk pitcher to a new level. He struck out 10.7 per nine, a little below what he did in his prime, but he also walked 6.1 per nine in his 25 appearances. Yikes. He did have a strong September in 12 appearances so he may have gotten his control back under…control. I think he is the riskiest of all the Chaplin group and I would stay away.

Bobby Valentine: Closer Posers (rhyming!)
Fransisco Cordero, Free Agent; Octavio Dotel, Free Agent; Matt Capps, Free Agent

That's your potential new manager, Sox fans! Dale Svuem is looking pretty good right about now, no? This incident came back in 1999 when Bobby V was managing the Mets. He was ejected late in a game, but apparently was not ready to hit the showers. So he went to the clubhouse, grabbed a fake moustache (they have these just lying around the Mets’ clubhouse?) and sun glasses and returned to the bench. Unsurprisingly, he was caught and suspended. This group of “closers” are like Bobby V’s fake ‘stache: they have qualities of a moustache/closer (hair on the face/saves), but ultimately are not acceptable.

Cordero just finished a 4-year deal with the Reds when they declined his 5th year option for $12 million. Though $12 million is a lot, if you have a strong closer and you are trying to contend, you can accept a few extra million on a 1-year deal. Red flag number 1. Cordero is basically riding off the shine of his high save totals. Over the last 4 years, he saved 150 games, 3rd most in baseball. So does that mean he is the 3rd best closer? Absolutely not. If you look at some of his other stats that relate to his actual talent level you see a middle of the pack reliever: Strikeouts 29th; Walks allowed 8th worst; ERA 42nd; ERA+ 41st; OPS allowed 59th; Strike out to walk ratio 280th (YIKES); WPA 33rd (a stat that measures performance in pressure situations). In addition, his fastball velocity has dropped the last 2 years and it’s movement has increased meaning it is harder to control (more walks). Also, he started throwing his slider more than ever last year, but it had the least movement on it in his career so it is becoming more hittable. He’s also 36 and will probably look for at least a 2-year deal and closing duties. No. Thank. You.

Dotel was excellent for the Cardinals down the stretch (despite not being deployed properly by Tony LaRussa in the World Series). He is a phenomenal reliever and I would love to have him on the Red Sox. But not as a closer. A closer needs to be able to dominate righties and lefties equally and Dotel has pretty extreme splits. Last season, versus lefties he allowed a .845 OPS; against righties it was .410. Definitely try to bring him to Boston but keep him away from lefties.

Finally, Matt Capps. I have heard rumors of the Sox being interested in Capps, though not as a closer. It’s not surprising that the Sox aren’t blinded by his save numbers from a year ago when he was hilariously an All Star. What I don’t get is why they would want to bring him in at all? The positives are that he is young (still only 28), gets a lot of ground outs and does not walk many. The negatives are that despite inducing ground balls he also gives up a lot of home runs, he doesn’t strike many people out, he may come expensively because of the “proven closer” label, and he doesn’t exactly dominate righties (though he is effective against them). So if they bring him in as a set-up guy he will probably be too expensive and as a situational guy he lacks any particular situation to be deployed in. Let some team like the Royals get starry eyed at his save totals, thank you very much.

What to do, what to do?
Give the job to Bard. That is how the team has been grooming him the past 3 years. He has youth, a blazing fastball, a strong slider and changeup and good numbers. The “closer mentality” is largely a myth and I don’t think he will have problems stepping into the role. Instead of spending big on Madson or Bell, I would take that money and spread it out over some guys on this list like K-Rod and Dotel to deepen the bullpen, because that was the biggest issue last season, a shallow bullpen. As long as the new manager is open to deploying his best relievers in the toughest situations and Ben Cherington supplies him with enough talent to mix and match, Bard should be a great option as the leader of the new bullpen. 

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