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The Closer with the Full Repertoire

Just when you think he’s finally going to fade into oblivion, Daisuke Matsuzaka just saunters back into the picture. Once again, he’s with the New York Mets, but this time it’s in the brand new role of closer. Just one day after being mentioned by Mets manager Terry Collins as a potential closer candidate, Matsuzaka saved the first game of his career. Given his mix of pitches, it’s not a role that one would expect him to have.

Matsuzaka has certainly had an odd career to date. He came over with all the promise in the world, and even more hype, back in 2007. As the second-best pitcher on a World Series champion in his Major League Baseball rookie season, he seemed to deliver on that promise and hype. He finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, as teammate Dustin Pedroia took the lion’s share of the votes. By both versions of WAR, Matsuzaka had a slightly better season than Pedroia, and he was certainly better than second- and third-place finishers Delmon Young and Brian Bannister. But him not winning was certainly no great tragedy — obviously Pedroia has gone on to have the better career.

Pedroia and Matsuzaka would find themselves in the awards voting again the next year, as Pedroia took home the AL Most Valuable Player Award, and Matsuzaka finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay were clearly his superior — they both more than doubled Matsuzaka’s WAR total — but it was kind of silly that he finished behind Francisco Rodriguez and his shiny 62 saves.

Things kind of went downhill from there. Shoulder pain doomed his 2009 season, and after a mild rebound season he ended up needing Tommy John surgery in 2011. When he returned in 2012, the Sox tolerated him for four mediocre starts (his Game Scores ranged from 47-57) and one bad one (23) before exiling him back to Triple-A. There he would have stayed for the remainder of the season, but at the end of August Josh Beckett‘s injury created an opening in the rotation, and they let Matsuzaka fill it. In his first outing, he allowed one unearned run across seven frames, and struck out six against just two walks in a win over the Royals. Buoyed by the great outing, he would go into September and…stink. He allowed at least four runs in each of his five September starts. In total, he allowed 25 runs in 15.2 innings, which translated to a ghastly 14.36 ERA. His final game in a Red Sox uniform doubled as Bobby Valentine‘s, as Matsuzaka started the final game of the season in New York, where he allowed five runs in 2.1 innings against the Yankees.

For a time, that looked like it would be it for the then-32-year-old, but the day before Valentine’s Day, he hooked on with the Indians. He never made into a major league game with Cleveland, but after they dumped him, the Mets picked him up. He would strike out 33 in 38.2 innings down the stretch for the Metropolitans, which was enough for them to give him another shot this season. He seemed like a decent bet to make the rotation once again, but Collins chose Jenrry Mejia instead, and here we are.

Now, Matsuzaka is looking to pile up some silly, shiny numbers of his own as, if not the closer, certainly a high-leverage reliever. There’s no guarantee that he’ll hold down the job, as he has held down very little since 2010, but if he does he’ll be among the more unique relievers in the game. Looking at all relievers who tossed at least 20 innings from 2008-2013, here is the breakdown on the number of pitches they threw with any regularity, with the individual seasons broken out. We’ll define “regularity” as at least five percent of the time:

Relief Pitcher # Pitches Thrown, 2008-13
# Pitches # Pitchers % Pitchers
1 0 0.0
2 276 17.8%
3 693 44.8%
4 451 29.1%
5 116 7.5%
6 12 0.8%

Couple of notes here. First, is that it really isn’t true that most relievers have just two pitches. The overwhelming majority sport three or four, and while these numbers may be skewed a bit by starters who became relievers, the point holds. Second, it really is rare for a pitcher to have the expansive repertoire that Matsuzaka has. Matsuzaka technically doesn’t qualify to be in that “six pitches” category quite yet, but he’s pretty close. As of Thursday night, he was at 4.6% for two of his six pitches. And he certainly fits the spirit here, as he isn’t throwing any one pitch more than 30 percent of the time. His career numbers also paint him as a six-pitch guy, and that’s not even counting his infamous (mythical?) gyroball. If he continues on this path though, he very well may end up in this select company:

Six-Pitch Relief Pitchers, 2008-13
Season Name Team Innings Pitched
2013 Sam LeCure Reds 61.0
2012 James Russell Cubs 69.1
2011 Brian Sanches Marlins 56.1
2013 Adam Warren Yankees 69.0
2012 Hector Santiago White Sox 51.0
2011 Jesse Litsch Blue Jays 28.2
2010 Eddie Bonine Tigers 64.2
2011 Nathan Adcock Royals 47.1
2011 Scott Feldman Rangers 21.0
2013 Travis Blackley – – – 36.0
2011 D.J. Carrasco Mets 45.2
2010 Chris Sampson Astros 30.1

Not exactly a murderer’s row, is probably what you’re thinking. And you’d be right. The high water mark for saves is four, from Santiago. The high water mark for shutdowns is 21, by LeCure. He also had the highest pLI and gmLI, with marks right around where Matsuzaka is at in this very early stage. Altogether, the group had 85 shutdowns and 59 meltdowns, which would make for a fairly crappy bullpen over the course of a year. Still though, LeCure is proof that you can be successful as a reliever with an expansive repertoire. Last season, he posted a 78 FIP- and his 1.56 WPA ranked 35th out of 135 qualified relievers.

There are some more successes if you drop down to the five regularly used pitches group. In particular, there are nine pitchers who racked up 10 or more saves in a season:

Five-Pitch Relief Pitchers with 10+ Saves, 2008-13
Season Name Team SV BS Hld SD MD
2009 Ryan Franklin Cardinals 38 5 1 27 6
2013 Kevin Gregg Cubs 33 5   29 11
2011 Joakim Soria Royals 28 7   31 8
2010 Ryan Franklin Cardinals 27 2   29 4
2012 Alfredo Aceves Red Sox 25 8   22 13
2010 Brandon Lyon Astros 20 2 19 35 10
2012 Brett Myers – – – 19 2 8 26 12
2008 Todd Jones Tigers 18 3   16 5
2008 Ryan Franklin Cardinals 17 8 13 31 11

Again, not a murderer’s row, but it’s hard to argue with Soria’s success in 2011, or Franklin’s success in 2009. It may actually be with Franklin that Matsuzaka is most closely matched. Certainly, Franklin didn’t carry with him the hype or the track record of success that Matsuzaka had when he came on the scene, but Franklin was primarly a starting pitcher until his age-33 season, at which point he was converted to relief. It took Franklin a little while to find his groove, and in fact he was a sub-replacement player when he first became a saves earner, but he ultimately found success with an expanded repertoire, if only for a brief period of time.

Daisuke Matsuzaka has had a strange career, and so in a way it makes perfect sense that he would end up closing. But his pitch selection profile is not one of a typical closer. There are pitchers who have done it before, so Matsuzaka is not on an island alone, but it would certainly be notable if he kept this up, and even more notable if he was actually good in the role.