Who Should Be Closing In Chicago?

The Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics engaged in a marathon 14-inning contest on Wednesday afternoon that featured two blown saves, a game-tying home run from each team’s cleanup hitter, and perhaps even a budding closer controversy in the Windy City.

Left-hander Hector Santiago surprised many when he seized the closer role for the White Sox out of spring training. The 24-year-old had only pitched 5.1 innings about Double-A prior to this season — those innings came in a very brief stint with the big league club last July before getting sent back down to Double-A — but he impressed enough to be named closer this spring after surrendering only one earned run in eleven innings.

Selected by the White Sox in the 30th round of the 2006 Draft, Santiago started his professional career as a reliever, but was transitioned into the starting rotation last season. He has always been able to miss bats. His career strikeout rate in the minors was 9.6 K/9. He throws 93-94 MPH with the fastball from the left side, which is certainly a skill that does not grow on trees, but his newly-developed signature pitch – the screwball – is what has suddenly catapulted him to the big leagues. It’s the pitch that makes him different. It’s the pitch that could help him find success at the highest level.

On Wednesday evening, though, Santiago showed that his development as a big league reliever remains a work in progress. He allowed five hits — including a game-tying home run to Yoenis Cespedes — and three runs in route to his second blown save of the year. In his first seven games of the season, Santiago owns an 8.43 FIP and has given up four home runs in just 6.1 innings.

Despite those unsightly numbers, the southpaw has found some peripheral success. He has a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 6.1 innings as a big league closer and has an 11.9% swinging strike rate. The ability to miss bats remains. He simply has given up far too many home runs, an issue that never presented itself in the minor leagues. His career home run rate in the minors was just 0.6 HR/9. Santiago has never possessed strong ground ball tendencies, however, and his ground ball rate thus far in 2012 is only 15%.

The specific ground ball rates and home run rates should not be taken as gospel, as 6.1 innings is hardly a large enough sample size to draw conclusions, but the data does point toward an issue that cannot be ignored by the White Sox. For most teams, it would be wise to weather the storm and allow Santiago to work through his struggles and develop as a big league pitcher. For the White Sox, however, it was doubtful that they selected the correct reliever to close in the first place. Right-hander Addison Reed is the most dominating reliever on the roster and has continued to prove that throughout the first three weeks of the season.

Reed was drafted by the White Sox in the third round of the 2010 Draft out of San Diego State University. In 2011, the 23-year-old shot through the minor league system, striking out 111 batters in just 78.1 combined innings between four different minor league levels. His fastball/slider combination is devastating, and some scouts have already slapped a 70-80 grade on the slider in its present form. He is largely considered to be the closer of the future for the organization.

In 7.1 innings to begin the 2012 season, he has continued to lay waste to opposing batters. He has yet to surrender an earned run and possesses a 10-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In addition, opponents are only hitting .154 against him this year and only hit .157 against him in his 78.1 innings in the minors last year.

It’s time to move Addison Reed to the role that he should have owned coming out of spring training. The White Sox obviously have no qualms about relying on a rookie to serve such an important role for the club — as Hector Santiago is also a rookie — so if the organization is not about to rework the roles of the bullpen and employ a flexible “bullpen ace,” it would be wise for them to place the best reliever on the team in the most prominent role in the bullpen.

This discussion is not designed to argue that Hector Santiago cannot be a successful major league reliever. He is only 24-years-old and already missing bats at an above-average rate. The organization has confidence in his abilities, and his screwball gives him an unusual wrinkle that few opposing batters will have seen prior to facing him in a game situation.

Instead, this discussion is much more about Addison Reed and correctly utilizing his abilities on the mound. The White Sox need to maximize the effectiveness of the bullpen, especially since they view themselves as legitimate contenders in the AL Central. Hector Santiago is a nice story and a should prove to be an effective bullpen arm who can face both lefties and righties, but Addison Reed is the prize of the White Sox bullpen. He was their #1 prospect coming into the season and should be featured as such.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

30 Responses to “Who Should Be Closing In Chicago?”

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  1. deadpool says:

    I’ve always just kind of assumed there was a reason we don’t see guys throwing the screwball at the MLB level anymore. Can’t think of what that reason might be, but I just thought there probably was one.

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    • Choo says:

      Being a classic screwball pitcher is generally regarded as hazardous due to the stress it places on the wrist, forearm and elbow. Any pitcher who masters the screwball probably does so on his own time while fending off the instructors who encourage him to transform the pitch into some a change or sinker.

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    • jerbear1985 says:

      It’s a difficult pitch to master. Whereas a slider is thrown by twisting the arm counter-clockwise (for a lefty anyways), a screwball is thrown by twisting the elbow clockwise, which is a more unnatural and uncomfortable movement. It is stressful on the arm, but so is a slider. It’s the nature of throwing it that makes it rare.

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  2. odbsol says:

    I read somewhere (Yahoo I think) that he was having problems with the grip on his screwball so he’s been throwing more off-speed pitches to compensate.

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    • Bronnt says:

      I read that as well. And in fact, it said that the baseballs are different at the big league level, enough different that they’re messing up Santiago’s grip. He can throw it with the minor league balls, but he’s not even trying to throw screwballs with the big league baseballs.

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  3. theeiffeltower says:

    Why does your best reliever necessarily have to close? Santiago and Reed’s leverage stats are pretty similar.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      Santiago is maybe the fourth best reliver in the bullpen, and I think Ventura knows it. With the exception of Santiago, the bullpen has been an absolute weapon. By putting Santiago (considered a competent and potentially above average reliever) in the closer role allows Ventura to use his better relievers (Reed, Thornton, maybe Crain) with flexibility in high leverage situations. It’s like tricking the “closer” system that we know sucks.

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      • Blackie says:

        I agree. LAD is using Guerra as a closer, which allows Jansen to be used when necessary. CIN is another example, where Chapman can pitch in key 7th or 8th inning situations and be used for multiple innings (Marshall is excellent, BS today or not, so I hesitate to say Chapman is worlds better). Problem is, as soon as the closer blows a couple of leads, everyone starts noticing that other guy, and calling for a role change.

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      • SKob says:

        The White Sox situation is far different from any other bullpen! They have 3 elite relievers and Santiago, who we don’t know that well yet. Thornton had his chance and sucked last year and who knows what Crain can do as a closer. Point is, if Reed is lights out, let him close. Then you still have 3 nice options to get to him and once you get there, the game is over! A team trying to win would set there bullpen this way. A team thinking about their budget and playing for the future would keep him pitching the 7th!

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  4. Mike says:

    If Reed is their best reliever, and I agree he is, why should the White Sox diminish his value and total innings pitched by pigeon holing him into the closer role?

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    • Big Jgke says:

      Rather than view it as diminishing his value by utilizing him in a less strategic way, perhaps the question is why take the chance of raising his arbitration payouts to the absurd heights that saves, rather than holds dictate? As long as somebody else can close, the white sox should keep a dominant reliever at a fraction of his ‘closing’ cost for as long as possible.

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    • Ira says:

      Agree. Ironic that if this was posted on RotoGraphs people would likely be clamoring for him as a closer.

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  5. Pg says:

    I don’t think Reed moves to the closer role until Crain’s oblique issues are behind him. Otherwise the only righty options for the middle innings are Stewart and Nate Jones. I do agree he’s the best, and likely inevitable, choice.

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  6. J!m Future says:

    I’ve posted this on ther sites as well, but in fairness to Santiago, he’s getting pretty unlucky. Go back and watch the replay of Cespedes’ homer last night – it’s a vintage Vladdy special; the pitch is off-speed, down and away off the plate, catches The Showcase out on his front foot, and he *still* manages to knock it 400+ to center.

    The results haven’t quite been there so far, but conceptually seeing Santigo close is exactly what I wish other teams would do more often. Save the great RPs for high-leverage fireman duty; if I were a GM/manager, the closer role would be home to anyone who could throw a trick pitch.

    I’ve always wondered why following a pitcher like Verlander who pumps gas into the 8th inning with, say, a knuckleballer in the 9th isn’t something we see more often; you’d think that would destroy all sense of timing for the opposing offense.

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    • baty says:

      Tim Wakefield spoiled us. You see maybe a couple of guys out there any given year who have the ability to mix it in. Almost none who make a career of relying on that pitch. It’s simply an impossible pitch to learn to manage well.

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      • J!m Future says:

        Oh, I’m not implying knuckleballers grow on trees, and am aware that the pitch itself eludes the mastery of most. (Though it remains a mystery why more teams don’t make an org philosophy of trying it with every last-chance pitcher; I doubt the expense would outweigh even one success.)

        My point is more that the closer role is generally an inefficient use of a team’s best bullpen arms, and I like the idea of employing pitchers like Santiago with his screwball (or Padilla with his eephus, or insert favorite gimmick pitcher/pitch here) as closers since they are likely to encounter lower-leverage situations. A knuckleballing closer would just be the ultimate expression of that.

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      • Nick says:

        Just usually doesn’t work that long. Shingo Takatsu was essentially a trick pitch guy, was great for a little bit, then cratered. Once a guy establishes success as the trick-pitch closer, they get scouted, the trick is countered, and that’s that.

        Like others have said, probably best to use a capable arm who is the 2nd or 3rd best reliever as the closer. Gimmicks usually don’t last in any role.

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  7. MikeS says:

    Do they really believe they can contend long term in the AL Central with that audience? Now that the number of playoff teams is approaching the NHL and NBA I know everybody has a shot but does it really matter who closes on a .500 ballclub?

    I think what is more important is to look at the makeup of the club andthe future. They look to have above average starting pitching so do they really need to be carrying 7 relievers? Maybe they should figure out who they should be showcasing to move for some offense come July. This is one of the side effects of the expanded playoffs. The White Sox are not a great ball club. If they are still within sniffing distnce of a WC spot they may pass up a chance to really become betternin the future by moving Peavy, Floyd, Thornton, Ohman or somebody else that a contender may be willing to overpay for.

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    • MikeS says:

      Gah. Contend with that offense. Dang spell checker.

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    • craigws says:

      their pitching will keep them close.
      it is the best in the al central.

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    • Terry says:

      The White Sox could be 8 games over .500 at the all star break and folks will still
      maintain they aren’t a contender. Just because some predicted bad things doesn’t make it fact. They have the best pitching in the division and if Dunn and Rios are reasonable they most certainly can contend.

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      • MikeS says:

        Except they won’t be 8 over at the break. Nobody would be happier than me if that happened but the offense just isn’t good enough. Even if Rios and Dunn don’t suck, they are still running Beckham and Morel out there every day and who knows what they get from DeAza and Viciedoover a whole year. I just don’t see that lineup competing in the AL unless the pitching is historically good. It’s good, it’s the best in the division, it’s just not good enough to cover up for that offense.

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      • Terry says:

        Well I think you overstate things. The offense doesn’t have to be above average just average. If Dunn and Rios are actually contributing then you would likely land in that area. What they are getting from De Aza is an actual functioning lead off man. The Sox have holes but so do Detroit. They have several players ripe for regression. Sept of 2011 clouded more than a few people’s opinion on things.

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  8. Matt!Fast says:

    If you are a smart management team here, with two promising youngsters, don’t you order your manager to close games with your less-talented guy? Benefit #1 is something FanGraphs talks about all the time: your more talented guy can be used in higher-leverage situations. Benefit #2 gets less airtime but seems just as important: the more-talented guy will get smaller $ bumps in arbitration. Management can drop the less-talented guy as soon as he gets pricey, but enjoy a long, cheap run with the more-talented arm.

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  9. Tim says:

    is it not an option to put thornton back in that role hes been throwing well to start the season. i know it was a disaster last year but santiago is giving up way too many HRs.

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  10. novaether says:

    I don’t see how you can’t put Thornton back into the closer role. He’s in his 9th major league season as a relieving pitcher and he’s closed before. He hasn’t posted an xFIP over 3 in 5 years. He has traditional closer “stuff” with a hard fastball and slider.

    In contrast, Reed has 14.2 career major league innings and doesn’t throw any harder than Thornton. He may be the closer of the future, but it sounds crazy not to give the job to Thornton until he blows it.

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  11. daniel heit says:

    santiago right now should be the closer. and if continues to give up homers he shouldn’t be. thornton was in ZERO competition for the job coming into 2011 and couldn’t close. It’s easy to forget that baseball is 50% mental and closing is like, i don’t know, like 65% – 80% mental? What’s wrong with a closer who has a 10/1 K/BB ratio and gets lots of swings and misses when you have a 3 or a 2 run lead? Nothing! If he follows his history of not letting balls leave the yard. 0.6 HR/9 suggests giving him a little more time. If he does continue to serve up the long ball it would appear to me to be at least in part to mentally being afraid of screwing up and then tossing the ball right over plate. I know a guy who does that all the time and his name is Ricky Nolasco.

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  12. Eric says:

    I know the moment I drop Addison Reed, the White Sox will name him the closer. As a result, I will hold on to him all season. Therefore it is guaranteed that Santiago will remain the closer all year. These are the rules of fantasy baseball. They cannot be changed.

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  13. Charles Strnad says:

    Santiago won’t be an effective closer until he can consistently locate his 94 mph heat. Watching him so far this year, he also relies almostr exclusively on his heat in closing situations, so unless he’s able to hit his spots, it gets turned around, for long balls.

    And that sort of command only comes with a lot of years of experience.

    If the Sox keep Santiago as their closer this year, be prepared for a lot of blown saves.

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  14. Jimbo says:

    The problem with the whole “use the less talented guy” approach is the flip side of even having a “closer” to begin with.

    It is demoralizing for a team to get to the 9th and lose a game.

    It is demoralizing for an opponent to be trailing after 8 when you have a truly feared closer.

    I understand having someone like Chapman be your high-leverage guy IF your closer is solid. But for all the consencus around Santiago not even being top 3 in their bullpen? Gots to make a change imo.

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