As proof that I have too much time on my hands (if FanGraphs wasn’t proof enough), I was trying to think of which two pitchers currently made up the best setup-man/closer combination in baseball. The Angel’s tandem of Francisco Rodriguez and Scott Shields came to mind immediately along with the early season success of Mets’ Duaner Sanchez and Billy Wagner. As I went through the list of setup-men and closers, I came across the Mariners’ unlikely duo of Rafael Soriano and J.J. Putz; neither of which are “officially” a setup-man or a closer at the moment. Abandoning my original mission of finding the best pair, I thought these two would be perfect for my first Daily Graphing in over a month.
Back in 2004, Soriano looked like he might be headed to the starting rotation after posting a 1.53 ERA in 53 innings of relief in 2003, but Tommy John surgery limited him to just 10 innings the past two seasons. Putz on the other hand has thrown 123 innings the past two season with a 4.17 ERA and even served as closer for a brief period of time in 2004. This season, the two have combined for a 2.45 ERA in over 36 innings of work.
Neither of the two have any problems striking out batters as Soriano strikes out over 11 batters per 9 innings (K/9) and Putz currently has a K/9 over 12! As you can see, Soriano has always had immense strikeout potential, but this season, Putz has almost doubled his 2005 strikeout rate. Most of the rise is due to less reliance on his fastball (which Putz used to throw almost exclusively) and increased use of both his slider and splitter.
In terms of batted balls, the two couldn’t be more different. Putz has taken his groundball tendencies to new heights (or should that be lows?), by inducing groundballs 64% of the time. And Soriano manages to have 52% of his balls lifted into the air. Both of them are near the league leads in the respective specialties.
Typically, a 52% flyball rate might cause concern in the home run department, but I honestly don’t think it’s much of an issue with Soriano, considering his extremely high strikeout rate, not to mention his home-runs-per-fly-ball percentage has historically been low. Even though Putz does an excellent job of keeping the ball on the ground, he’s has had trouble with home runs in the past, but most of them were off his fastball which, like I mentioned before, he’s become less reliant on.
While Soriano and Putz aren’t exactly household names, through the first six weeks of the season, they have been two of the very best relievers in baseball. There’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be able to continue their success. Next time you’re discussing the best setup-man/closer combinations (assuming these two eventually get slotted in permanently), you’d be wise to include them in the discussion.