Okay, so, let’s talk about the closer role. As you probably know, the M’s are having an open audition for the 9th inning relief spot, and the current leaders in the clubhouse appear to be Miguel Batista, Mark Lowe, and Roy Corcoran. Tyler Walker would be in the mix if he wasn’t battling injury issues, and David Aardsma is a longshot unless he shows significantly improved command this spring.
When you hear teams and the media talk about the closer role, they’ll usually refer to several points of significance that are necessary for being a closer. They are, in some order, velocity, mental toughness, and owning a swing-and-miss pitch. The prototypical closer is someone like Jonathan Papelbon – a mid-90s fastball that he throws a ton of and gets a lot of swinging strikes with along with the desire to take the ball in the 9th inning. Since that is what closers are “supposed to look like”, you’ll see the discussions about who should close center around who looks most like that ideal.
Batista throws hard and wants to close, so he’s in the mix. Lowe throws hard and gets a lot of strikeouts, so he’s in the mix too. Corcoran doesn’t throw hard and doesn’t have a strikeout pitch, but he’s getting endorsed as a guy who has the mental toughness to pitch in the 9th inning, so he’s in the mix too, but with a lot of skepticism due to his lack of velocity and knockout pitch.
However, what actually is the most important aspect to being able to successfully pitch in the 9th inning? Does this fit-everyone-into-a-box method actually yield the best results? What should the team be looking for in a relief ace?
I’d argue that the most important quality a closer needs to have is the ability to get opposite handed hitters out. This is the thing that is hardly ever talked about, but is vital to being able to perform as a closer. Due to the way the modern bullpen is handled, all non-closer relievers can have significant platoon splits minimized through managerial decisions. Sean Green didn’t have anything to throw at LH batters, and they gave him fits throughout his career, but he was an effective reliever because he was put in the game when RH batters were due up and removed when a string of LH came to the plate. His strengths were maximized and his weaknessses minimized by his usage.
That doesn’t apply to closers. Managers just aren’t willing to let the 9th inning be decided by the handedness of the opponents batters, and the closer is expected to be able to come in and get three outs regardless of who is due up. If the opposition sends three LH pinch-hitters to the plate, the closer has to stay in and get those guys out – the manager won’t be summoning a LOOGY from the pen to go after those guys. We can see this effect in the ratio of batters faced by closers and non-closers.
Last year, right-handed batters accumulated 48,549 plate appearances while left-handed batters racked up 38,809 trips to the plate. That is, 56% of all batters faced by pitchers last year were right-handed. The 56/44 split is pretty normal historically. There are more RH hitters than LH hitters in baseball, so right-handed middle relievers can easily be spotted against same-handed hitters and achieve success.
However, the majority of hitters faced by closers are opposite handed. I grabbed the PA splits for eight prominent right-handed closers (Jenks, Rivera, Papelbon, Nathan, K-Rod, Lidge, Cordero, and Valverde), and 51% of the batters they faced as a group were LH. Lidge faced 54% left-handed batters. Because of their inflexible usage patterns and managers knowing they won’t be removed if a pinch-hitter is used, closers will simply face more opposite handed batters than other relievers. This is why you rarely see a closer with significant platoon splits.
So, how does that affect the M’s candidates?
Batista is a fastball-slider guy, neither of which are good pitches against LH batters. For his career, LH batters put up an OPS 100 points higher than RH batters, and last year, he looked just miserably lost against them – 55 walks and against 38 strikeouts in 303 PA versus left-handed batters. He’s vulnerable to LH bats, and his skills are best suited to righty specialist work. In reality, if used correctly, he’s not all that different from Sean Green, just with less sink on his fastball.
Lowe is a fastball-slider-change-up guy, and the change-up is usually the pitch that is best suited to getting opposite handed hitters out. A knockout change-up is what has allowed Trevor Hoffman to succeed as a closer despite losing his fastball and having no real breaking ball, for instance. So, in terms of repertoire, Lowe would seemingly have an advantage with a pitch that should allow him to keep LH hitters at bay. However, in practical results as a major leaguer, that hasn’t been the case – LH batters have posted a .983 OPS against Lowe compared to a .637 OPS for right-handed batters. All eight home runs he’s allowed have been to left-handed bats. Lowe’s change is a good pitch, but his command needs a lot of work, and when he misses his spots, it gets crushed. He’s going to have to show that he can locate his change-up better or he’s going to run into some problems as a 9th inning guy.
Corcoran is a sinkerball guy who throws a slider and a change, but not very frequently. For the most part, he’s just trying to get you to hit the ball on the ground, and that means a lot of fastballs. Sinkerball pitchers often run significant platoon splits, and Corcoran is no exception. LH batters had an OPS 98 points higher than RH batters, and he walked 19 and struck out just 12 left-handed batters in 151 plate appearances. Like Green, his sinker is so good that he can overcome some weakness against LH bats and be used as an effective RH reliever despite mediocre BB/K rates, but he’s miscast as a guy who has to face predominantly LH batters. His stuff is just made for right-handed specialist work, and no amount of moxy can make up for the fact that he just doesn’t have a weapon against left-handed hitters.
So, where does that leave us? Batista and Corcoran are both better suited for setup work, while Lowe has the repertoire of a relief ace but not the command. However, there is reason to believe that Lowe could succeed as a closer – a three pitch guy with a 94 MPH fastball who gets a lot of swinging strikes has some upside potential, which is more than you can say for Batista or Corcoran. In a season where developing talent for the future is in the plan, Mark Lowe as closer looks to be the best choice. There’s still reasons to think he could struggle there, but at least there’s some breakout potential.