If Feliz Starts, Who Closes?

To attempt and offset the loss of Cliff Lee, the Rangers are stretching out Neftali Feliz in spring training, and are keeping an open mind about converting him back into being a starting pitcher. Ron Washington has made it clear that he prefers Feliz in the ninth inning role, but the Rangers are willing to use March to see whether Feliz can impress them enough to crack the rotation.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Feliz can successfully make this transition. Evan Grant did a great piece today on his repertoire and how his secondary pitches may affect the team’s decision on his ultimate role. However, there has been less talk about the guys in line to replace Feliz, and the reality that the Rangers simply don’t have any natural replacements for the closer’s role if Feliz does end up in the rotation.

There are essentially four relievers in the organization who would likely get some consideration for the closing job if Feliz makes the conversion – Alexi Ogando, Darren Oliver, Mark Lowe, and Arthur Rhodes. All of them have value, but none of them are good fits for the closer’s job.

The big difference between being a middle reliever and a closer isn’t the mentality or the preparation, but instead, the distribution of batters faced. Closers, like starting pitchers, don’t get used selectively depending on who is coming to the plate for the opposition. The rigidity of the role calls for the closer to face whoever is coming up to the plate in the ninth inning of close games, and he is charged with getting them out, no matter what side of the plate they hit from.

For all four of the Rangers setup guys, getting out hitters who hit from the opposite side of the plate is a problem. Their one common trait is that they have huge platoon splits. Here are their 2010 numbers (or, in Lowe’s case, 2009) against same-handed and opposite handed hitters:

Vs Same:

Darren Oliver: 0.91 BB/9, 13.04 K/9, 0.61 HR/9, 1.56 FIP, 1.74 xFIP
Arthur Rhodes: 0.38 BB/9, 9.89 K/9, 1.14 HR/9, 2.78 FIP, 2.40 xFIP
Alexi Ogando: 2.20 BB/9, 10.36 K/9, 0.31 HR/9, 2.07 FIP, 2.90 xFIP
Mark Lowe: 2.25 BB/9, 7.16 K/9, 0.00 HR/9, 2.26 FIP, 3.81 xFIP

Vs Opposite:

Darren Oliver: 3.38 BB/9, 6.19 K/9, 0.56 HR/9, 3.64 FIP, 3.90 xFIP
Arthur Rhodes: 4.88 BB/9, 6.89 K/9, 0.29 HR/9, 3.59 FIP, 4.92 xFIP
Alexi Ogando: 6.23 BB/9, 4.50 K/9, 0.67 HR/9, 5.23 FIP, 5.91 xFIP
Mark Lowe: 4.50 BB/9, 8.50 K/9, 1.75 HR/9, 5.24 FIP, 4.41 xFIP

These four guys are death to same-handed hitters, which gives Ron Washington a bullpen built to play the match-ups. Rhodes and Oliver give him the depth to make tough LH sluggers face impossible-to-hit setup men twice in the same game, while Lowe and Ogando can mow through right-handed bats with few problems. When giving the platoon advantage, these four are fantastic.

When facing guys who hit from the other side of the box, however, their effectiveness shrivels. Oliver is still decent enough and would probably be the best option for the job, but he’s not nearly the dominating force against right-handed bats that he is against lefties. Rhodes is shaky at best, while Ogando showed no real abilities to get lefties out last year, issuing more walks than strikeouts against LHBs in his rookie season. Lowe’s extreme fly ball nature comes back to bite him against lefties, who have hit 15 of the 17 home runs he’s allowed in his career.

All of these guys are best utilized in setup roles, where they can be used in situations dictated by the type of batters coming up in the following inning. Thrust into the closer’s role, each would likely struggle, and the ninth inning could turn into something of a debacle for the Rangers.

This is one of the main reasons why I don’t think Feliz will end up sticking in the rotation. It’s tough for me to see Washington being comfortable with any of these four options, especially when his alternative is a guy who had no problems with hitters from either side of the plate last year. However, if the Rangers decide to stick with Feliz as a starting pitcher, they should strongly consider going with a closer-by-committee approach.

Ogando, Lowe, Oliver, and Rhodes are all dominating relievers when given the match-up advantage. If Washington was flexible enough to abandon the single-closer model and decide who pitches the ninth inning based on the opponents line-up, the Rangers would be able to exploit the fact that they have a bullpen full of pitchers with extreme platoon splits. Without Feliz in the mix, they actually have the ideal setup for a by-committee ninth inning approach. My guess is that this will prove to be too radical of an idea for Washington, however, and that at the end of the day, Feliz will end up closing and these four will slide into their natural setup roles.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

31 Responses to “If Feliz Starts, Who Closes?”

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  1. Mike G. says:

    “The big difference between being a middle reliever and a closer isn’t the mentality or the preparation, but instead, the distribution of batters faced.”

    Every mainstream journalist who writes about Major League Baseball should memorize that sentence.

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  2. Matt says:

    No Tanner Scheppers mention? Given that the Rangers aren’t opposed to handing late-inning reliever roles to guys with very few innings under their belt, I see Scheppers as a very realistic possibility.

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    • suicide squeeze says:

      As a Scheppers owner in a keeper league, I hope you are right.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      From my understanding of the situation (and as reported by guys like Evan Grant here), Scheppers would only be in the mix for a setup role if Ogando or Lowe ended up getting the closer’s job. Otherwise, he’s being groomed as a starter. I haven’t seen any mention of him as a serious candidate for the closer’s role.

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  3. d_i says:

    doesn’t Tanner Scheppers at least deserve a mention as a possibility?

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    • t ball says:

      In the long run, sure. But right now? No. I don’t see the Rangers installing Scheppers as a closer right away. Scheppers may reach Arlington this year, but likely in the same role that Feliz had in 2009, pitching 1-2 innings in the 6th-7th and occasionally the 8th.

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  4. Oakland Dan says:

    Of course Washington prefers Feliz in the 9th inning role. From a job security standpoint, there is no downside to keeping Feliz where he is, as no one is going to think to blame the Rangers’ lack of open-mindedness if their 5th starter craps the bed.

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    • Jason B says:

      Precisely. Lots of downside if you try something new and fail (he ruined his arm! Our bullpen is a mess!) but you can (and most managers do, for job security purposes) always play it safe, risk-averse and do what everyone else does (keep the ‘established’ closer and try a mishmash of stuff in the 5th starter slot to see what works).

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  5. Scout Finch says:

    FWIW, Ogando looked pretty nasty in the postseason last year.

    58 PA is a pretty small sample size, no?

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    • this guy says:

      yes, but then dave’s argument doesn’t work, so we’re pretending the sample is sufficient.

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  6. t ball says:

    I would love Washington to do as you suggest, and choose that day’s closer based on the situation, but I’d be shocked as hell to actually see him do it.

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  7. mister_rob says:

    That idea sounds better in theory than it would play out in reality

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  8. Bravesfan says:

    Sir, you did not mention Darren O’ Day, one of the best relief pitchers in baseball!

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  9. GiantHusker says:

    Who cares who “closes”? A starter is far more valuable.

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  10. Oscar says:

    A Dave Cameron article using single-season splits as definitive evidence of a platoon split? Haven’t you written the exact same article saying that single-season splits for relievers are literally meaningless? The biggest sample among those stats has got to be, what, 35 IP?

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    • Matt says:

      Not when you’re comparing these 4 relievers in a vacuum, like he is here.

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      • hunterfan says:

        I have no idea how “comparing them in a vacuum” justifies anything at all. Judging things on small sample sizes still results in (nearly) meaningless conclusions.

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      • joe says:

        so sample size doesn’t mater so long as you compare sets of data that have similarly small sample sizes?

        Pretty sure that’s not how statistics works.

        Or to take it to an extreme… if you compared platoon splits of 4 relievers based on their work in September, it’d be OK so long as each of them had pitched similar innings?

        Dave should have regressed this… kind of painful and a chore, but the conclusion may have been different. He could have at least looked at career #’s or a 3 year sample size for the pitchers who had them, unless he felt they had changed their pitching style in the last year.

        Career FIP splits (same hand/opposite hand)
        Darren Oliver 3.90 / 4.39
        Arthur Rhodes: 2.62 / 3.61 (still significant but not as dramatic)
        Mark Lowe: 2.90 / 5.52 (though xFIP’s are within a run)
        Ogando… is only that one year sample size

        And these are non-regressed #’s….

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    • this guy says:

      Internet Sabermetrics = Sample bias for the sake of generating hits on a blog.

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  11. Jesse says:

    Kinda makes trading Frankie Francisco look a lot more questionable.

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  12. hunterfan says:

    You neglect to mention one other guy the Rangers have on their staff: Darren O’Day.

    Not sure where to find the splits for FIP, xFIP, and the counting stats per nine, but I wouldn’t be suprised if his were just as good if not better than Oliver’s. Anybody know where to find them?

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    • Kevin says:

      Too lazy to pull it all, but here’s FIP and xFIP

      O’Day vs. Righties 2010: 3.62 FIP, 3.73 xFIP
      O’Day vs. Righties Career: 3.14 FIP, 4.02 xFIP

      O’Day vs. Lefties 2010: 3.19 FIP, 4.86 xFIP
      O’Day vs. Lefties Career: 3.80 FIP 4.12 xFIP

      All this data was found on the splits tab of Darren O’Day’s page on this wonderful secret baseball site called fangraphs.com.

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    • Kevin says:

      Aww hell, here’s his career rate stats:

      Versus lefties: 6.87 K/9 2.72 BB/9 0.80 HR/9
      Versus righties: 7.27 K/9 2.26 BB/9 0.42 HR/9

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  13. huh? says:

    Radical? Or impractical? Do you want to explain the logistics of how this would work? Do you save all 4 for the ninth, or just 2? And if you’re saving these guys for the ninth, you’ll be exposing other relievers to poor matchups in the 7th and 8th.

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  14. johan says:

    Well if Feliz starts, wouldn’t that push Holland out of a rotation spot most likely? He has closer stuff in short stints. Maybe even Kirkman?

    Scheppers has the arm to do it.

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  15. rotofan says:

    Dave makes a key assumption — that middle relievers with platoon splits are used in a way to minimize the number of opposite-handed hitters.

    But at least in the case of Darren Oliver in 2010, that assumption is false.

    Here’s a breakdown in 2010 of the handedness of the batters faced by Feliz and Oliver:

    Feliz (R) 131 TBF v. L 138 TBF v R
    Oliver (L) 113 TBF v L 131 TBF v R

    So Feliz faced opposite-handed batters 49% of the time in 2010 while Oliver faced opposite-handed batters 54% of the time.

    And despite facing a greater percentage of opposite-handed hitters, Oliver was more effective overall, at least if xFIP is the measure, with a 2.86 xFIP compared to Feliz’s 3.68 xFIP.

    To understand why, there is another split at play and one that may be just as important as handedness for a pitcher who earns half his pay in the hitters paradise of Arlington: home/away splits.

    Feliz was strong on the road but was mortal at home, posting an xFIP of 3.03 in away games and a 4.13 xFIP at The Ballpark. By contrast, Oliver posted a nearly identical road record — a 3.09 xFIP — but was even better at home with a 2.62 xFIP. A look at his numbers shows why: A remarkable ability to adjust. Oliver’s k-rate dropped at home from 10.4 to 8.5 but his walk rate shriveled, from 3.09 to 1.21.

    It seems to me the ability to adapt to a tough home park is as critical to a closer as the ability to overcome the natural platoon splits, and if that is true, then Oliver showed a great deal of promise in 2010.

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  16. CS Yankee says:

    Didn’t they trade a decent closer to Toronto to pick up Nap?

    Seems like poor planing on the Rangers part, first in telling Young we need you at 1B/DH…then get another platoon guy that bats from the same side that is 1B/C/DH…then don’t unload the Young (contract), all along while not exactly knowing on what they are doing with the Feliz?

    Too many chiefs, not enough indians?

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