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Mound musings: Comparing fill-in closers


Mound musings: Comparing fill-in closers
In a recent article, I claimed Jon Rauch could soon be one of the best closers in the league if given the chance.

One reader took issue with the opinion, even going so far as to say I should be fired. The comment stuck in my craw, so I was a little disappointed when Rauch didn't pitch well that first week.

Since then, however, he's been - drum roll please - one of the best closers in the league! In a recent 12-appearance stretch, Rauch gave up just five hits and a walk, struck out 10 and had a win and seven saves.

I say this not to toot my own horn (believe me, if you saw the pitching staff I put together in my NL-only league, you'd laugh - or cry) or to embarrass the reader who took the time to give us some constructive criticism. No, I say it because sometimes you can predict who would make a good closer if given the opportunity (Tuesday night's blown save notwithstanding).

As a reliever, Rauch has been getting better and better every year:

Betancourt's first four appearances after taking over as closer went fine, but since then he's been a disaster. In his last seven appearances, covering five innings, he's given up nine runs, 11 hits, two home runs and his K:BB ratio is just 2:2. Now, even though Borowski isn't back yet, Betancourt's lost his hold on the job, and he'll likely be employed as a set-up man.

So, what's the difference between Rauch and Betancourt?

Nothing.

Well, that's not really true, obviously. Rauch's .288 BABIP and Betancourt's .379 BABIP are important missing columns from the tables above, but there's something else. Something intangible that closers either have or don't have. Ron Shandler's TOG theory on the success of closers states that a successful closer needs three things: Talent, Opportunity and Guile. Perhaps the 2008 versions of Rauch and Betancourt are separated only by their guile.

Unfortunately, you don't always know about the guile of a particular pitcher until he gets on the mound with the game on the line. And even then he can lose it at any time. Jason Isringhausen, one of the best closers of the last decade, seems to have completely fallen apart mentally this season and might be done as a closer. He was placed on the disabled list last week with a questionable injury (hand laceration) and no timetable for his return, even though the Cardinals admitted his recent struggles aren't due to anything physical. Ryan Franklin, a pitcher with minimal talent and untested guile, now gets the big opportunity.

The Nine Most Unstable Closing Situations

A pitcher could have all the talent and guile in the world, but if he never gets the opportunity, he'll never get the saves. According to RotoWire's "Closing Situations," the named closers for the nine teams below have a stability of "Medium," "Low" or "Very Low." If those situations turn over, who has the most talent, opportunity and guile to succeed?

BLUE JAYS: Toronto has three players with at least four saves already, and a fourth (Jesse Carlson), who's pitching like he wants to be in the closer mix as well. B.J. Ryan leads the team with nine saves and is the closer, no question. However, at just one year removed from Tommy John surgery, Ryan's deferred to Scott Downs in save situations all month. The Blue Jays are smart not to overwork their closer, especially when there are other options. In the past two seasons, Downs has a 77:32 K:BB ratio and a 2.20 ERA. Add a strong home run rate, and he certainly appears to have the talent to go with his limited opportunities. Ryan owners would be best to use Downs as insurance and not Jeremy Accardo. He pitched well in Ryan's place last season, but a poor start's dropped him in the pecking order.

BRAVES: Manny Acosta's been OK for Atlanta this year, but he's only had two save opportunities since taking over the closer job a month ago. He hasn't saved a game since his ugly five-walk performance April 30, and the last time the Braves needed a save, Blaine Boyer got the call - and converted. A 27:4 K:BB ratio in 25 1/3 innings indicates he could be very successful as a closer. However, with both John Smoltz and Rafael Soriano both expected to return soon, and with Mike Gonzalez not far behind, the window is closing fast on Boyer's opportunity. That's a lot of guile, not to mention talent, ahead of him on the closer depth chart.

BREWERS: Milwaukee's bullpen has been a mess this year. Eric Gagne's already blown five saves and has 16 walks in 19 1/3 innings, yet no one else in the pen's stepped up to take the job away from him. Guillermo Mota got a chance last week. Result: blown save. Salomon Torres has 30 career saves and hasn't been bad this year, but he gave up two runs in back-to-back games over the weekend. David Riske was a sleeper for saves, but he hyperextended his elbow just when he started pitching well. He's on the DL, unable to take advantage of the unsettled situation. That leaves Brian Shouse, who has a 2.57 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, but can't seem to strike anyone out. Someone is going to get the "O" on this team, but right now none appears to have the "G."

CARDINALS: Isringhausen's collapse hasn't been pretty, but it's given baseball fans the chance to see Franklin in a whole new light. Toiling as a middle reliever for the Cardinals the last couple of years, he hasn't been bad. He wore down late last year, and he appears to be well on his way to being overused again in 2008. His K:BB ratio is down to 11:10 this year (from a high-water mark of 44:11 last year), and he'll be on a short leash now that closer-of-the-future Chris Perez has been called up. He has a killer fastball, but until he gets his walk rate down, he probably won't get the opportunity.

CUBS: Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood battled for the closing job all March, and although Wood won the job, Marmol's pitching like the competition is still open. In 29 innings (which is a bit high for this point of the season), he has a 1.55 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and a devastating 41:7 K:BB ratio. That, my friends, is a dominating closer waiting to happen. Throw in last year's monster campaign and you might think another rocky patch is all it would take for Wood to get removed. But while Wood's ERA is just 3.57, everything else about his season has also been very good: 22:4 K:BB, 0.79 WHIP, 5.56 H/9, 0.40 HR/9. He's always had talent. Now that he finally has opportunity (and health), he's proving he has guile as well.

INDIANS: With a 13:2 K:BB ratio, Masa Kobayashi should be closing games for the Tribe. He finally got his chance last week and responded with two saves in his first two opportunities. It was the third one that got him, though, as he gave up a three-run homer to seal his fate. Borowski should be back soon, and considering he had 81 saves in 2006-2007 (how, I'll never know), Kobayashi likely will go back to setting him up. One thing's for certain: it's unlikely Cleveland will trust Betancourt in the ninth anytime soon.

MARLINS: Kevin Gregg has all seven Florida saves this year and has also added three wins. The 2.42 ERA and 1.21 WHIP are fine, but until Tuesday he hadn't struck out anyone in his last eight appearances. For the season, he has 15 strikeouts and 11 walks in 22 1/3 innings. The strange thing is that Matt Lindstrom, who's first in line for saves behind Gregg, has had the same problems. With just a 9:7 K:BB in 16 innings this year, Lindstrom doesn't look like the answer, either. Taylor Tankersley looks out of the running completely and might need a trip to the minors to sort things out. The man to watch is Justin Miller, who's the only Marlins reliever striking anyone out. In his last six appearances, he has a 9:0 K:BB ratio. Of course, he's given up six runs in that span and 14 runs on the season. Nobody's perfect.

RANGERS: The Rangers have given the dreaded vote of confidence to closer C.J. Wilson, but he appears to be on the way out in Arlington. With 10 walks and only 10 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings, he's lucky his ERA is only 5.03. He's pitched much better than this, but perhaps he's more comfortable as a set-up man. Veteran closer Eddie Guardado is waiting in the wings and even picked up a save after Wilson's last four-run debacle a week ago. Guardado certainly proved he had guile when he was closing for the Twins and Mariners. He, like Wilson, will probably need to get his strikeout rate up a little to have success, as Joaquin Benoit also figures into the saves mix. A miserable April got Benoit off to a rough start, but he's righted the ship in May to the tune of a 1.74 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, six holds and a save.

ROCKIES: In 2007, Manuel Corpas successfully took over for the struggling - and ultimately injured - Brian Fuentes. Last month, Fuentes returned the favor. He's now converted six of seven save attempts and has a 9:3 K:BB ratio in 8 2/3 innings since taking over. The seven hits and five runs in that span indicate he might not be an elite closer, but he should have the job until the Rockies decide to trade him to a contender. One might think Corpas would re-inherit the closer role if Fuentes is dealt, but he's been so shaky all season he might need some time in the minors to work things out. The one to grab is Taylor Buchholz. Once upon a time, he was a can't-miss starting pitcher in the Houston system. Now in Colorado he's found new life as a reliever. He could stand to get his strikeout rate up, as he's being supported by an obscenely low .189 BABIP, but he's only allowed one of nine inherited runners score.

Article first appeared 5/21/08


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: May 22, 2008

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