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The Pirates Need a New Closer

Joel Hanrahan is headed out of town, and since it’s Boston as the destination, he’s likely to remain the closer. Andrew Bailey‘s loss must be someone’s gain, however — there’s a vacuum behind The Hammer in Pittsburgh. Who will fill it?

The obvious solution is Jason Grilli. He just signed for two years and just short of seven million, and he had the best numbers in the Pirate pen last year, overall. He accrued the most WAR, had the best strikeout rate, and paired it with a league average walk rate. Sure, he didn’t have a nice ground-ball rate (30.7%), but even with a worse-than-average home-run-per-fly-ball rate, he only gave up just a little more than a homer a game. Given the fact that he boasts fastball velocity over 93 mph, maybe these stats are unassailable and there’s no doubt that Grilli’s serving saves hot off the grill in 2013.

There’s an asterisk, though. Grilli is a right-hander that throws only fastballs and sliders. Sliders have a conventional platoon split, and voila, Grilli’s work against left-handed betters (4.02 FIP, 6.07 BB/9 career) does not match his work against same-handed batters (3.93 FIP, 2.66 BB/9 career). The difference in those FIPs may not upset you much, but let’s focus on recent work. Here are some relevant splits for Grilli over the past four years:

2009 22.4 17.5 4.44 8.3 20.6 7.2 2.41 4.2
2010 25.2 17.5 4.39 3.6 21.1 8.3 3.51 6.3
2011 25 15.4 4.57 20 27.3 8 2.66 29.4
2012 42.7 12 1.54 10 31.5 6.3 4.04 18.2

The good news is that Grilli can strike out batters of both hands. But, even with the volatility inherent in small-sample reliever years, you can see that his walk rate against lefties is worse.

If Grilli’s work against lefties becomes an issue, there’s a chance Tony Watson vultures some saves. The lefty has a 3.23 FIP against lefties using (hah) mostly a fastball and slider, just from the left side. It’s a possibility, anyway.

Long term, the Pirates may consider Bryan Morris. The soon-to-be 26-year-old came to the Pirates via the great Manny Ramirez / Jason Bay trade of 2008 and has made good on his promise as a reliever by whittling his walk rate down and pushing his strikeout rate forward. He’s also got 94 mph fastball, and his slider is a legit outpitch, but it’s not his only secondary pitch. The nice thing about Morris is also that he’s featured plus ground-ball rates since moving to the bullpen, so he may avoid home run issues. Remember his name.

in the end, though, it’s probably Grilli, if only because he’s following a fastball/slider right-hander that had all the same problems but persevered. After all, The Hammer’s 3.94 FIP against lefties (5.29 BB/9) might sound familiar.