Carlos the Closer

Due to a combination of a tremendous strikeout mark, a solid ERA and a nice WHIP, Carlos Marmol had a fantasy value of roughly $6 in a 12-team mixed league last year. That figures to go up substantially in 2009 as he takes over the closer’s role for the Cubs with the departure of Kerry Wood.

Some owners will be wary of Marmol, due to the fact that he hasn’t been a closer for a full season previously. Others will point to his high walk rate, while some will be scared off by his FIP, which was nearly a run higher than his actual ERA. There are also questions about his stamina, as a rough patch in June was attributed to fatigue.

Smart fantasy owners will use all of these fears to acquire Marmol cheaper than he should go in an auction or later than he should go in a draft.

While Marmol has not closed previously, he converted seven of eight save chances last year (one of his two blown saves came in the seventh inning). The walk rate is definitely a concern, but as Francisco Rodriguez has shown the last few years, a high strikeout rate can offset a poor walk rate. Most of Marmol’s poor outings came between May 31 and July 2. But whatever was bothering him then was quickly rectified. After the break he had a 1.29 ERA with 16 BB and 44 K in 35 IP.

The Cubs also have former Marlins closer Kevin Gregg and former college football star Jeff Samardzija in the bullpen. They may siphon off some saves during the year, but in 2008 Wood had 34 of the team’s 44 saves. Since the Norm Charlton-Heathcliff Slocumb fiasco in 1997, manager Lou Piniella has displayed a strong preference for one closer in his next 10 seasons at the helm. Not once in those 10 years have two relievers on a Piniella-managed team reached double digits in saves.

Wood had a $19 season in 2008 and was a top-25 pitcher overall as the Cubs closer. I might be a tad more conservative than that for Marmol, but I would expect that to be a ballpark figure of his worth in 2009.




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  1. Marmol’s struggles are not related to mechanics but adjustments by major league hitting (specifically in reference to a drastic reduction in swing rates against his slider).

    If you take a look at Marmol’s three year Pitch FX data, courtesy of Fangraphs.com, there are several things to note:
    1) Marmol’s velocity on each pitch is right in line with his three year averages (or slightly higher) — IN-Vel is irrelevant because it refers to intentional balls.
    2) Marmol’s horizontal slider movement is on a three year decline, but still within 0.3 inches of his 2008 horizontal movement levels.
    3) Marmol’s vertical movement on the slider has been consistent each of the past three seasons.
    4) Marmol’s fastball movement (vertical and horizontal) and velocity has been consistent during his career as a reliever.
    5) Marmol’s curveball has maintained its vertical movement each season, but lost some horizontal movement each of the past three seasons — although his 2009 horizontal movement is within a 0.4 inches of his 2008 movement level.
    6) Marmol’s curveball has gotten faster each of the past three seasons.

    Marmol’s stuff has been as good as its ever been. Especially compared to last year, Marmol’s break on each pitch has been relatively the same and his velocities have also the same (or better) on each of his pitches. So why, if his stuff has been the same, has Marmol’s runs prevention per 100 pitches value on the slider dropped from a peak of 21.4 in 2008 to a career low 3.8 in 2009?

    In my opinion, the answer is not that he’s been overworked each of the past two seasons (he leads all relievers in IP from 2007-2008).

    Each of the last two seasons, hitters have increasingly come to recognize that Marmol’s sick slider usually breaks outside of the zone when thrown low — and thus can be taken for a ball rather than swinging strike. Since his 2007, Marmol has induced about 5% less swings (per season) on pitches thrown outside of the zone. Furthermore, as hitters have been swinging at less and less of his pitches in general, his walk rate has skyrocketed from 4.54 per nine innings in 2007 to a ridiculous 8.48 rate per nine in 2009, while the strikeout per nine rate has declined from 12.46 to 10.56 over that same time frame. What is surely doing most of this damage is an increase reliance by Marmol on his slider. Since 2007, Marmol’s slider usage has increased from 31.5% to 38.2% to a current rate of 40.0%. Thus, while Marmol’s slider has been equally effective in terms of pure stuff each of the past three years, hitters have caught on to the fact that the low slider will break for a ball and thus can be taken for ball four rather than a swinging strike three.

    The only remedy is a counter adjustment in Marmol’s pitch selection and location. Unless he starts mixing up his pitches more effectively — working in more, better controlled fastballs, for instance — and holding off the low slider, Marmol’s effectiveness as a top stop reliever will continue to decline.

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