As a Colorado Rockie, Matt Lindstrom was persona non grata in fantasy circles entering the 2012 season. Stuck behind Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle and Rex Brothers, Lindstrom had about as much chance of racking up saves as the squirrel that presumably inhabits Todd Helton‘s beard. But Lindstrom’s hopes of closing out games perked up on Monday, as he was traded to the Orioles along with Jason Hammel in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie. While he will likely take a back seat to Jim Johnson initially, Lindstrom’s improved control and Baltimore’s lack of ‘pen depth make him worth monitoring.
Lindstrom’s mound approach has shifted over the past few years, making him a much different pitcher than the Marlin who once flung mid-to-upper-90s heat indiscriminately. Lindstrom’s fastball percentage has dipped from 74% in 2009 to 69% in 2010 and 66% in 2011. Over that same time, he has upped his percentage of sliders thrown from 21% in ’09 to 29% in ’10 and 31% this past season. You might think throwing more breaking pitches would lead to more whiffs, but Lindstrom’s K rate has actually fallen. But a big decrease in unintentional walks has more than evened things out for him:
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Lindstrom’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was four percent worse than the league average in 2009, but he improved that to three percent above average in 2010 and 22% better than average in 2011. Strikeouts are sexy, but Lindstrom has turned into a better pitcher by getting ahead in the count with more first-pitch strikes and inducing more swings on pitches off the plate.
With the O’s, Lindstrom will certainly pitch in more high-leverage situations than he would have in Colorado. Kevin Gregg did his best Mike Williams/Joe Borowski impression last year, getting saves despite pitching dreadfully (a 53/40 K/BB and a 4.90 FIP in 59.2 innings). Lindstrom’s addition should push Gregg down to middle relief work (and if Gregg weren’t owed nearly $6 million, maybe off the roster entirely). Alfredo Simon was a swing-man last year and could serve a similar role next year, while Pedro Strop can’t find home plate some weeks. Troy Patton was shifted to relief in 2011 and did a nice job (22/5 K/BB, 2.93 FIP in 30 innings), so he’s someone to watch. But Lindstrom should at least get holds in his new digs.
In a head-to-head matchup with Jim Johnson, Lindstrom probably comes up a little short. Johnson limits walks and strikes out hitters at a similar clip as Lindstrom once you account for the AL/NL difference, and he also gets ground balls like few others in the game (61.5% last year, 56.5% during his career). Johnson (about 1.2 innings per appearance during his MLB career) can pitch multiple innings, too, while Lindstrom (about 0.9 frames per appearance) just about never does. Manager Buck Showalter seems comfortable putting Johnson out there in the eighth and letting him finish things out, as two of Johnson’s nine saves in 2011 came in a two-inning stint.
But the O’s have at least thrown around the idea of converting Johnson, who came up through the minors as a starter, to the rotation. While more recent rumblings label that shift as unlikely, Lindstrom would be the best option for saves if Johnson does get a shot at starting.
Lindstrom is no relief ace, and he has an injury history that includes shoulder, back and elbow ailments over the past few years. However, he’s now in a spot where he’ll get holds and could possibly work his way into ninth-inning duties. That’s a far better fate than pitching the sixth or seventh frame in Colorado.
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