The rumors began a week and a half ago, and today they came to fruition. The Cubs have signed closer Carlos Marmol to a three-year extension worth $20 million. An agreement of some sort was expected after the two sides found their arbitration submissions $1.5 million apart. That the deal will last three years, buying out Marmol’s first year of free agency, represents the interesting part.
Last season, in his first full season as closer, Marmol established a level of dominance. His 15.99 K/9 led all pitchers by a considerable margin. To put it in perspective, his 138 strikeouts matched the total for Johnny Cueto, even though the latter pitched more than twice as many innings. He also struck out more hitters than starters Jon Garland, Derek Lowe, and Joe Blanton, just to name a few. That freakishly high strikeout rate, something Marmol has approximated, but not quite reached, during the previous three seasons, certainly played a major role in the Cubs’ decision to sign him long-term.
Another aspect of Marmol’s dominance is his ability to keep the ball in the park. Normally we wouldn’t consider a 1.6% HR/FB ratio sustainable, but for Marmol it appears to be within reason. He allowed just one home run on 63 fly balls last season, after allowing two on 77 fly balls in 2009. That he accomplishes this without getting an inordinate percentage of ground balls suggests that there might be something here. Hitters just can’t seem to square him up. There’s always a chance that he’s been outlandishly lucky during his last 667 batters faced, but that’s a risk the Cubs are rightly willing to take.
That brings us to the two biggest concerns about Marmol’s future. The first involves his walk rate, which, at 6.03 per nine, ranked third among relievers last season. That would be a much bigger issue if his strand rate didn’t consistently sit in the high 70s. That is in large part due to his strikeout rate. Even if he walks a guy there’s a good chance that he’ll strike out the next one. After all, he did sit down 41.5 percent of the 332 batters he faced last season. His low home run rate adds further to the solution. Even better, all three of the home runs he has allowed in the last two years have been of the solo variety.
In fact, if we look at relievers from the past four years, minimum 180 IP, and sort by walk rate, we can see that Marmol is in good company. Nearly all of the pitchers on that list with a BB/9 of 4.5 or higher have beaten their FIPs by decent margins. The trend appears to be largely based on strikeout and ground ball rates, which works in Marmol’s favor. As long as he can keep striking out batters at a rate similar to his career numbers, 11.68 per nine, he should be able to survive a BB/9 of around 5 to 6. It might make for a few heart attacks on the North Side, but the results should remain solid.
The other concern involves Marmol’s injury potential. This risk certainly isn’t based on his track record. During his four-plus-year career, Marmol has spent just 16 days on the DL, and that came in 2006. He did miss a few games with a sprained knee in 2009, but it wasn’t severe enough to require a DL trip. Instead, Marmol’s injury risk stems from the insane number of sliders he throws. In the past few seasons he has been around 50 percent sliders, and last year that was 59 percent. If we again look at the list of relievers in the past four years and sort by slider usage, we see only a few whose rates approach Marmol’s. But the two closest, Michael Wuertz and Brad Lidge, have had their injury troubles. Maybe Marmol is just a physical freak who can remain healthy while twisting his wrist for more than half of his pitches. But if other similar pitchers can serve as a guide, he seems to present a greater than normal injury risk.
It appears that the Cubs did well to lock down their closer for the next three seasons. At $20 million he’s averaging under $7 million per season, which places him below a number of comparable closers. The injury specter will loom for as long as Marmol throws that slider, but apparently the Cubs like what they’ve seen in terms of his health. As long as he keeps generating swings and misses, he’ll be a valuable chip for the Cubs, high walk rate be damned.
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