Edward Mujica: The Other One Pitch Closer

Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher of all time, and his 20 year run of greatness has mostly been fueled by throwing one pitch. The dominance of Rivera’s cut fastball has been well documented, and you likely know that when the Yankees have the lead in the 9th inning, opponents are going to see cutter after cutter after cutter.

But, now, over in St. Louis, Rivera has an odd imitator of sorts. No, the Cardinals closer is not a cutter specialist; he doesn’t even throw one. Instead, Edward Mujica — the team’s emergency fill-in closer with Jason Motte on the shelf — is closing out games using an endless supply of change-ups.

Technically, Mujica’s off-speed pitch is categorized as a split-finger fastball, but there’s really not much of a practical difference between a hard change-up and a splitter. They aren’t all gripped the same way in the pitcher’s hand, but in terms of describing pitch movement, splitters and power change-ups are basically interchangeable. And Mujica is thriving by leaning very heavily on his split/change.

Here’s Mujica’s pitch selection by year since 2007, per PITCHf/x:

Season Fastball Slider Curve Split/Change
2007 68% 3% 18% 11%
2008 65% 2% 10% 21%
2009 63% 13% 4% 19%
2010 51% 8% 0% 41%
2011 49% 8% 0% 41%
2012 44% 10% 0% 45%
2013 34% 0% 0% 66%

Mujica used to be a guy who pounded the strike zone with fastballs, kind of a reliever version of Bartolo Colon. He didn’t miss many bats and was an extreme flyball pitcher, which is not a good combination if you’re trying to keep runs off the board. So, in 2010, Mujica basically ditched his breaking ball and started leaning much more heavily on his split/change, throwing it 40% of the time, and it led to a spike in both K% and GB%. With the new approach, he went on a nice little run as a quality reliever.

When Motte got hurt, though, Mujica was thrust into the ninth inning for the Cardinals, and his solution was to just throw his best pitch as often as possible. For the season, he’s up to 65% off-speed pitches, and of late, he’s been even more extreme, throwing it 71% of the time in May, including a couple of outings where it was the only pitch he threw. Here’s his PITCHF/x plot from his outing on May 17th against the Brewers:

Mujica517

Mujica threw 13 pitches, all of them split/changes, all of them middle away. He used one pitch in one half of the strike zone, and he retired the side in order. And this is basically what Mujica does every game now. Here’s a couple of heat maps of the locations of Mujica’s 2013 split-changes, both to lefties and righties.

MujicaRHB

MujicaLHB

He doesn’t have Rivera’s ridiculous pinpoint command, so there are a few pitches spread around the zone, but you can see where he prefers to throw his off-speed stuff: down and away, and preferably more down than away. Mujica just pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a pitch that tumbles towards a hitter’s ankle, making it a pitch that is almost impossible to hit with any authority when it is well located, but he throws it for strikes often enough that hitter’s still have to chase it.

In May alone, opposing hitters have chased 54 of the 81 (67%) split/change’s Mujica has thrown, and they aren’t exactly hitting it well when they do chase; he’s gotten 20 foul balls, 15 swinging strikes and 10 ground balls on those 54 swings. Despite there being no real surprise as to what is coming or where it’s going, opposing hitters have been completely unable to do anything against Mujica’s off-speed offering. For the year, opponents are now hitting .136/.149/.242 against him, good for a .170 wOBA, and it’s not like he’s just feasting on right-handers hitters, as his wOBA platoon split is just .162/.180.

With a low-90s fastball and a track record as a journeyman middle reliever, he might not profile as a typical closer, and it might be natural to expect that fireballing youngster Trevor Rosenthal will eventually usurp the role from Mujica in the second half. However, Mujica’s ability to just pound off-speed pitches at the bottom of the strike zone — knowing that Yadier Molina can corral anything that bounces — has made him a surprisingly dominant reliever so far, and there’s no real reason to expect him to stop pitching well.

Ever since Mujica adopted the split-change as his out-pitch, he’s been a quality relief arm. Now that he’s featuring it on nearly every pitch, he’s looking basically unhittable. Game theory suggests that a pitcher needs to mix up his offerings to keep hitters guessing, but there’s not much evidence that opposing batters can hit Mujica’s split/change even if they go up looking for it. He might not be a conventional relief ace, but Mujica’s command of one really terrific pitch has turned him into one of the better relievers in the National League.




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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


26 Responses to “Edward Mujica: The Other One Pitch Closer”

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  1. Dan Rozenson says:

    I was going to bring up game theory. Yeah, if Mujica can throw it for a strike and guys aren’t hitting it, there’s no strategic reason not to throw it. Whether it’s good for his arm or not, I don’t know.

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  2. marlins12 says:

    Your title makes no sense.

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  3. Blofkin says:

    “Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher of all time”
    Me: Seriously Cameron?!?
    *spends next ten minutes on Fangraphs rigorously checking stats of other relievers, realizes idiocy in doubting that statement*

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    • Perry says:

      Some things are really just that easy. Mo is the best. Bacon tastes good. That’s all I got.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Did you honestly not know that he’s the best of all time? I thought it went without saying that he’s the best.

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      • Blofkin says:

        Well, I certainly thought he was in the top 3, but I didn’t realize he was unequivocally THE best. I mean I assumed Gossage, Eckersley, maybe Hoffman would come close but he’s miles ahead of them.

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    • He is indubitably the “Best Closer of All Time”, but I’ve always thought that’s kind of like saying “Best Tight End” in NFL history, “Best 6th Man” in NBA history, or “Best Third Line Wing” in NHL history. I rarely say such things, though, because why be churlish to a guy who is by all accounts a wonderful human being?

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  4. last of the mujicans says:

    STL Post Dispatch writer Derrick Goold for a spring training series took a bunch of pics of pitchers grips and posted to instagram. At the time capturing just a reliable pitch for the 7th inning portion of the Cardinals mystical 3 headed relief monster MuBogMot. Now just 2.5 months later the very same grip/pitch is earning him front page coverage on FanGraphs being compared to Mo. This is why baseball is the best.

    https://twitter.com/dgoold/status/308578071177490433

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    • Choo says:

      Look at how Mujica runs his middle finger parallel along the top of the lace. That’s cool and unusual.

      I am fascinated by pitch grips – the individuality, endless tinkering, how they are passed down from one player to another spanning several generations, how an almost imperceptible change can result in something far more wicked than ever before. With all apologies to Hogwarts, the art of pitching might be the closest thing to witchcraft and wizardry man has ever achieved.

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    • Mr. Jones says:

      Is “MuBogMot” something people say? I sincerely hope not.

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      • Kelly L. says:

        on Viva El Birdos, absolutely yes! Somebody even made a pic of a three-headed monster with Mujica, Boggs, and Motte as the heads. And a five-headed one once when they ended up needing Salas and Rzepczynski in those innings too.

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  5. marlins12 says:

    How is a pitcher a one pitch pitcher when he’s throwing his secondary pitch 34% of the time?

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    • chuckb says:

      Do you have nothing better to complain about…multiple times?

      Good article, Dave. I’ve been curious about Mujica’s emergence from decent middle reliever to excellent short reliever. Your post provides many answers. The Cards’ brass deserves a lot of credit for finding a hidden gem and getting him from Florida’s minor league franchise in exchange for the detritus known as Zach Cox.

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    • Jon L. says:

      Marlins12: The other one-comment commenter.

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    • steex says:

      How can the Marlins be a one-player team when at least 96% of the active roster isn’t Stanton at a given time? I don’t really know, but that’s just how it works.

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  6. CabreraDeath says:

    Good stuff, Dave. I think you could make a very good case for a similar article on Mark Melancon and his use of the cutter. Batters know its coming, they just can’t hit it.

    CD

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  7. deacondrake says:

    This worked for Tyler Clippard for about a year, but once teams figure out that you are pitching them in reverse, it becomes BP.

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    • marlins12 says:

      Your comment is worse than the title.

      a) Tyler Clippard has never “pitched in reverse.”
      b) Tyler Clippard is still a good reliever.
      c) Mujica seems to control his stuff better than Clippard. Look at their respective walk rates.

      All in all, what you said is absolutely false on many levels.

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  8. All Balls No Brains says:

    Great article. Thanks for pointing out that Cardinals pitchers rely on Molina to allow them to really pound the bottom strike zone. Add this on to Molina’s WAR because he is a catching god.

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  9. Clem says:

    I prefer referring to Mariano as the best 1-inning pitcher ever.

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  10. KJOK says:

    Good analysis, but I think a better comparison, since Mujica doesn’t throw a cutter, would be Bruce Sutter, who relied heavily on the split fingered fastball.

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  11. Benzedrine says:

    While Kenley Jansen is not a closer at the moment, he is a one-pitch pitcher with his cutter.

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  12. fei says:

    what is everyone’s prediction on Mujica’s save total this season? I say 35

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  13. Toasty says:

    Somewhere, Mark DiFelice is smiling.

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