When Brian Fuentes was signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to replace their record-breaking closer of old, they brought in an unconventional (read: non-fireballing) closer. Fuentes doesn’t do it with speed on his fastball (90 MPH), but rather with a funky delivery that produces three average- to above-average pitches.
But Fuentes is certainly having issues this year. His career high 11.78 K/9 was not sustainable last year, but his current 7.82 K/9 is down almost a quarter from his career 9.99 K/9.
There are little differences here and there in his repertoire beyond the curveball (which he’s pretty much given up on – he doesn’t use it and it’s lost over five inches of movement). His slider velocity is a little down (75.7 MPH) from its regular spot (77.4 MPH), but he’s been effective at that velocity before. Perhaps his changeup gaining velocity (74 MPH, up from 72.6 MPH) could be seen as a negative, but it’s only a slight bump.
Way down in the pitch f/x data, there’s a change that may be significant, however. Fuentes has lost almost three and a half inches of vertical movement on his slider. As his second-most used pitch, that seems important. It’s probably the reason he’s lost five runs worth of effectiveness on that pitch and almost 25% of his strikeout rate.
Queue Mike Scioscia creating a controversy by talking about Kevin Jepsen and the closer role. “If there are some matches that could be advantageous [with Jepsen], we will try to take advantage of [them],” Scioscia said to MLB.com. So far Scioscia has replaced Fuentes with Jepsen four times in a save opportunity, and brought out Jepsen to start the ninth twice. Who is this newcomer? Does he have staying power? Is this a full-blown closer controversy?
Jepsen does own the blazing fastball of a traditional closer (96.4 MPH this year), and with his two primary pitches coming down the pipe over 90 MPH (he owns a 90 MPH cutter that’s been worth 2.5 runs this year) he is a decent change of pace from Fuentes.
In fact, Jepsen profiles very differently from Fuentes in other ways. Fuentes is more of a fly-baller (46.9% fly balls), while Jepsen is inducing ground balls in bunches this year (58.6% ground balls). Jepsen is doing a great job supressing line drives (13.6%), and batters are centering Fuentes better (17.5%).
So Jepsen has more velocity, strikes out as many batters, induces more ground balls and is walking three-quarters of a batter fewer than Fuentes? Sounds like he should be closing.
The note of caution with Jepsen comes from his walk rate. While it’s currently nice (2.74) it was consistently over four per nine in the minors. If the control goes again, Scioscia will be glad he kept Fuentes in the role at least nominally. He can always use Jepsen to come in and induce a ground ball if Fuentes doesn’t have it any given night.
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