Farewell, Neat Closer; Hello, Neat Closer
For Tom Wilhelmsen, you could say these have been the nine weeks that changed everything. Today, Wilhelmsen started in Triple-A. He didn’t last long, and he pitched poorly, then effectively. The team’s all but admitted this is an experiment as they try to get Wilhelmsen to recover his confidence, and as they try to figure out of how much he might be capable. A little over nine weeks ago, Wilhelmsen was the Mariners’ closer, with a dozen saves and a sub-1 ERA. Sure, you could say maybe there were statistical indicators of trouble. But at the end of May, Wilhelmsen was the closer, and there wasn’t any question. Now the team doesn’t know what he is. He’s basically a prospect again.
And there’s a new closer, even if the team won’t admit as much. Just as Brandon League followed David Aardsma, and just as Wilhelmsen followed Brandon League, Danny Farquhar seems to be following Wilhelmsen. If the team had its druthers, Stephen Pryor would probably be the guy. Or I guess if the team had its druthers, Wilhelmsen wouldn’t so much as need a replacement. But part out of creativity and part out of desperation, the Mariners rightly overlooked Farquhar’s ERA, and now he’s got some saves. When the save train gets rolling, it can be hard to stop. Maybe it’s actually easy to stop, but saves lead to saves. Every save makes a closer more and more established, until he can’t save anymore.
Naturally, I like Farquhar. Any stathead probably likes Farquhar. Among relievers, he has baseball’s seventh-highest strikeout rate and third-lowest park-adjusted xFIP. That’s a grad school way of saying “his meaningful numbers are really good,” and more, Farquhar has a story. The Mariners identified him as a target because he’d added a cutter. They got him for Ichiro in what was thought to be a dump. At the time of the deal I barely even acknowledged Farquhar’s existence. Now he’s a potentially dominant reliever who could be helping the Mariners long after Ichiro’s retirement. It’s possible the Mariners managed to turn an aging, out-the-door Ichiro into an impact arm with a song and a nickname.
Of course, Wilhelmsen had a story. Still does. The story hasn’t changed. Wilhelmsen gave up baseball completely, for years. He removed himself from the competition. He returned, just to see, and he made it up to the bigs. He had a song and a nickname. It’s neat to think of where Danny Farquhar came from. It’s neat to think of where Tom Wilhelmsen came from. We enjoy telling the stories when the player’s successful. When they’re not, well, everyone has a story. What makes this guy so special?
The lessons with Wilhelmsen aren’t new. So far, 224 pitchers have thrown at least 40 innings in both 2012 and 2013. Wilhelmsen’s xFIP has climbed by 1.07 points. That’s the seventh-highest gain, between R.A. Dickey and Joe Nathan. Nathan’s gone from great to good. Wilhelmsen’s gone from good to project. A certainty then is a question mark now, and that much is hardly uncommon.
Last year, Wilhelmsen was 28, and he saved 29 games. Here are all the 28-year-old closers from the last five seasons to reach 20 saves:
- 2010 Brian Wilson
- 2011 John Axford
- 2009 Jonathan Papelbon
- 2011 Brandon League
- 2011 Carlos Marmol
- 2010 David Aardsma
- 2012 Tom Wilhelmsen
- 2009 Bobby Jenks
- 2012 Jonathan Broxton
- 2010 Francisco Rodriguez
- 2012 Huston Street
One of those guys remains a reliable closer. Rodriguez, granted, is a decent reliever. Axford, League, Marmol, Wilhelmsen, Street — they’ve had problems with ineffectiveness. Wilson, Aardsma, Jenks, Broxton — they’ve had problems with injury. Closers seldom last, because relievers seldom last. When you have trouble as a closer, someone else becomes the closer, and then it’s that much harder to get the job back. A true, long-term, proven closer has himself some job security, but you have to fight like hell to get there, and for a while you’re just a few slip-ups away from watching Danny Farquhar do your work.
It has to be nerve-wracking to be a closer. Not just because of the circumstances under which you make your appearances — because of the prominence of the role. Because of how easy it would be to not be the closer anymore, and because of what that would mean for a career. Some weeks ago, Tom Wilhelmsen would’ve told you he was a closer in the bigs. He can’t think of himself that way anymore, especially not with the Mariners starting him, and how would you respond, knowing your career could go in so many different directions? They say Wilhelmsen’s pitching without confidence. The stuff, obviously, is still there, unchanged. They want him to be able to find himself in Tacoma. I’m not excusing Wilhelmsen for his struggles, but I can see how this might snowball. You pitch with confidence until you mess up. When you mess up, you entertain the thought of messing up again. When you mess up too much, especially as a closer, everything changes, things are taken away from you. In some ways you have to be an idiot to play baseball. An idiot, or exceptionally naturally talented. Thinking’ll get ya.
Pitchers who relieve want to be closers, because closers get glory and closers get money. There’s an argument that closers shouldn’t exist in the first place, but as long as they do, pitchers are going to go for that, and they’re going to succeed until they fail. When they fail, if they fail often enough or early enough, some other pitchers will step in. It’s intensely competitive and it all has to be intensely anxious. Baseball is Tom Wilhelmsen’s life, and right now he’s almost 30 and he doesn’t know what his baseball job is. He’s pitching in Triple-A for the first time ever. He shares a clubhouse with Taijuan Walker and Josh Kinney. Kinney was as good as in the Mariners’ bullpen until he got hurt. He’s probably never felt further away.
It feels trite to say, but baseball careers change in an instant, and especially so for guys in the bullpen. Kinney was an injury from a major-league paycheck. Wilhelmsen was strikes from a proven label. Pryor was an injury from stepping in for Wilhelmsen. Farquhar’s in there now, thanks to some breaks, and because of those breaks, he could one day be a millionaire. He could one day be thought of as a part of the Mariners’ core, which, of course, because he’d be a reliever, he wouldn’t be. He wouldn’t deserve to be, but fans love closers, except for when they’re bad. Closers are the best, or closers are the worst.
The Mariners are going to find out what Wilhelmsen can do. They’ll find out what Farquhar can do, too, and they’ll go from there with new decisions. Ultimately, no matter what happens, they’ll survive. If Farquhar can’t close, they’ll try someone else. If Wilhelmsen can’t throw strikes, they’ll try someone else. For the Mariners, this isn’t all that important. For the pitchers, this is everything. You better believe major leaguers need to be over-confident. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in the majors and think.