Closer Handedness Splits

One of the ways a closer can lose his job is to not get hitters out from both sides of the plate. If a right-handed closer is only able to get RHH out consistently, teams will begin to stack the line-up with as many LHH as possible. Here is an in depth look at closer handedness splits.

I got the list of current closers from MLB Depth Charts a couple of days ago. Currently, several teams have shaky situations at closer, so this list will likely change before the beginning of Spring Training. I will try to give an update on it with the changes later.

To start off, here are the closers, their current team, throwing arm, FIP and TBF for LH and RH hitters. Additionally, I calculated the % of RHH the pitcher faced and the difference in their FIP. Only data from 2002 and later was used because the data at Fangraphs only goes back that far.

vs LHH vs RHH
Name Team Hand FIP TBF FIP TBF % RHH FIP Difference
Jim Johnson Orioles R 3.47 531 3.82 565 51.6% 0.35
Andrew Bailey Red Sox R 3.55 336 1.98 346 50.7% 1.57
Mariano Rivera Yankees R 2.49 1318 2.61 1335 50.3% 0.12
Kyle Farnsworth Rays R 4.27 1134 3.52 1448 56.1% 0.75
Sergio Santos Blue Jays R 3.01 221 2.94 274 55.4% 0.07
Matt Thornton White Sox L 2.71 809 3.86 1137 58.4% 1.15
Chris Perez Indians R 4.30 404 3.91 520 56.3% 0.39
Jose Valverde Tigers R 4.24 1070 2.87 1103 50.8% 1.37
Joakim Soria Royals R 2.77 653 3.03 625 48.9% 0.26
Matt Capps Twins R 4.18 745 3.66 956 56.2% 0.52
Jordan Walden Angels R 2.08 171 3.51 147 46.2% 1.43
Brian Fuentes Athletics L 2.82 730 4.12 1703 70.0% 1.30
Brandon League Mariners R 4.58 682 3.41 759 52.7% 1.17
Joe Nathan Rangers R 3.04 1029 2.40 1126 52.3% 0.64
Craig Kimbrel Braves R 1.53 188 1.52 206 52.3% 0.01
Heath Bell Marlins R 2.85 959 2.98 1012 51.3% 0.13
Frank Francisco Mets R 3.67 684 3.53 738 51.9% 0.14
Jonathan Papelbon Phillies R 2.51 913 2.71 816 47.2% 0.20
Drew Storen Nationals R 2.63 222 3.77 313 58.5% 1.14
Carlos Marmol Cubs R 4.03 841 3.54 1142 57.6% 0.49
Ryan Madson Reds R 4.17 1235 3.28 1428 53.6% 0.89
Juan Abreu Astros R 11.60 13 1.41 21 61.8% 10.19
John Axford Brewers R 2.11 275 2.54 301 52.3% 0.43
Joel Hanrahan Pirates R 4.00 667 3.06 809 54.8% 0.94
Jason Motte Cardinals R 4.24 285 2.86 475 62.5% 1.38
J.J. Putz Diamondbacks R 3.67 933 2.85 976 51.1% 0.82
Rafael Betancourt Rockies R 3.83 974 2.48 1279 56.8% 1.35
Kenley Jansen Dodgers R 2.00 144 1.59 183 56.0% 0.41
Huston Street Padres R 3.64 769 2.69 979 56.0% 0.95
Brian Wilson Giants R 3.17 647 3.00 718 52.6% 0.17


– I would put no stock in Juan Abreu‘s results. Thirty-four hitters is not enough of a sample size. Sergio Santos, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Jordan Walden all have less than 500 TBF in their careers. Generally, it takes around 500 PA to get a good idea of a pitcher’s K% and BB%, which are major components of FIP. The trio’s results should be heavily regressed to the league mean. For the rest of the discussion, I will not be using these 5 in the calculations.

– The two left handed closers, Brian Fuentes and Matt Thornton, struggled against RHH compared to LHH. Teams have noticed this difference with Fuentes. Seventy percent of the hitters he faces are RHH. Because there are many good RHH that a team can use, I would stay away from any LH closers. Like the 5 pitchers with a small sample size, I will not use these 2 when doing futher calculations.

– Of the other 23 closers left, 5 have a split of over 1.00 FIP

Andrew Bailey: 1.57
Jason Motte: 1.38
Jose Valverde: 1.37
Rafael Betancourt: 1.35
Brandon League: 1.17

Historically, these 5 will be faced more RHH (~55%) than LHH. They have some ability to get out of inning if a couple of LHH string together some hits hits because of the number of RHH they will eventually face.

The two pitchers that I see red flags with are Andrew Bailey and Brandon League. Bailey will not have the luxury of working through a string of rough outings without getting pulled as the closer. The Red Sox will not have the patience with him losing games. The Yankees lineup especially could cause him a ton of issues since it is LH heavy. Brandon League‘s issue is that he is not a good reliever to begin with and the split just compounds the problem.

– Seven pitchers have a handedness split of less than 0.4

Jim Johnson: -0.35
Joakim Soria: -0.26
Jonathan Papelbon: -0.2
Heath Bell: -0.13
Mariano Rivera: -0.12
Frank Francisco: 0.14
Brian Wilson:0.17

This group of pitchers contain some of the best relievers in the game. A good reliever with a small split seems to be a good bet for long career as a closer.


Truthfully, I expected to find a little more useful data on handedness splits to help fantasy owners stay way from certain pitchers. I found only a few useful pieces of data (stay away from LH closers and Andrew Bailey), but that was about it. I think handedness splits may be more of a issue with setup men moving into the closers role. The setup men may be facing only a certain handedness of hitter to maximize their effectiveness. As a closer though, they will have to face whoever is due up in the 9th inning and the split will be exposed.

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Jeff writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first season in Tout Wars, he won the H2H league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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When did Kenley Jansen become the Dodgers closer? I know the fantasy community would love it, but the indications are that Javy Guerra will start as closer (and that there isn’t going to be a competition in spring training).

I had seen a suggestion, also, that Vinnie Pestano might not be second in line in Cleveland, as he has a lot of difficulties with lefties. Would you agree with that?