Speaking at the beginning of spring training on Tuesday, Rays manager Joe Maddon reiterated the idea that the team will use a bullpen committee to close out games this season. There’s a lively debate about how this has worked in the past, but let’s focus on why this could work well for this team now.
First, here are the relevant arms, with some key pieces of information for you visual learners. Click to embiggen.
One thing that immediately jumps out from the list is the fact that there’s no obvious closer. What you’d probably like from your closer is great strikeout punch, average-ish groundball work, and no split problems. Kyle Farnsworth approximately fits the description, but he owns a poor split against lefties and leans slightly flyball. Adam Russell has the best mix of recent success, strikeout punch, groundball work and even splits, but he has only pitched 54 total innings in the major leagues. Yes, some pitchers have succeeded with little major league experience in the closer role, but that doesn’t mean every young pitcher with a few good major league innings can close.
So, you’re Joe Maddon and you’re wearing a sweet pair of glasses, but you’ve got a mediocre mix of bullpen arms – each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Like the plan seems to be in Atlanta with Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters, it makes sense to at least use the platoon splits to your advantage. There’s little drawback other than the possible (probable) backbiting of the traditional crowd looking for their Closer with a capital C. Maybe that’s why Albert Lyu was so excited about Atlanta’s proclamation last week.
Viewing the bullpen through this lens, we see that J.P. Howell‘s health will be tantamount to the success of this venture. Among the veterans, he owns the best career FIP versus lefties. He says he’s on track to be back in the early season, and they’ll need him to be healthy. Lefty Jake McGee, who may not own enough pitches to be the dominant starter we thought he might be, should also be able to own lefties at the least. Work against lefties also might explain what Cory Wade is doing in town – that and his good control.
But platoon splits are not the only way to take advantage of different pitchers in order to close out games. Once healthy, Howell can induce grounders, perhaps to eliminate men on base. Juan Cruz has a cutter, and likes to hit the outside half of the plate against batters of both handedness. Joel Peralta likes to pitch down in the zone. Kyle Farnsworth has that high fastball. Cory Wade can avoid walking the dude if that’s the most important thing. Some of these may be approximations, but the point is these pitchers have strengths, things that they can do at elite levels.
Some made fun of Joe Girardi and his binder, and we know that small sample size issues probably pervade any analysis that focuses on how X batter does against pitch Y on the inside corner, and yet there’s probably a way to leverage this knowledge anyway. By combining the work of his advance scouts, video analysts, and the Rays’ catchers with his own version of the binder, Maddon should be able to pick the best pitcher to exploit the profile of the hitter at the plate, which seems it could be a stronger plan than sticking your Closer in there just because that’s his ‘role.’
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