Number crunching: Rauch named Twins closer
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Just a few days after announcing his "closer by committee" approach, Ron Gardenhire told reporters before Friday's exhibition game at Target Field that Jon Rauch would begin the season as the Twins' anchorman.
For those who put stock into spring training numbers (and I certainly do not), Rauch has pitched 6 2/3 innings this spring, allowing two earned runs and zero walks while striking out four.
Ultimately, the decision likely came down to Rauch, Matt Guerrier, and maybe Jesse Crain. Pat Neshek is still technically working his way back from arm surgery (pitched back-to-back days this week for the first time all spring), Jose Mijares is the only late-inning lefty available (and did not pitch well this spring), and Clay Condrey and Brian Duensing (also a lefty) are more suited for the middle innings.
Leaving Anthony Slama -- the Twins' most MLB-ready relief pitching prospect -- out of the mix, did Gardenhire make the correct decision by choosing Rauch?
To be honest, each of Gardy's options have flaws.
Historically, from a numbers standpoint, the top closers in baseball possess a combination of four specific traits:
The ability to limit home runs. Historically, if a relief pitcher is allowing more than .8 home runs per 9 innings, it signifies a red flag for blow saves. End of story. There are almost no exceptions to this rule.
A wide Strikeout-to-walk ratio. Mariano Rivera is K/BB ratio (8:1 over the last two years, which is ridiculous). Anything over 2.5:1 is pretty solid, generally speaking. Joe Nathan was almost always over 4:1.
High strikeout totals. Most of the top closers in baseball also strike out at least 8 or 9 batters per nine innings. Of course, there are some exceptions, although some would argue Ryan Franklin's 2009 season was somewhat "fluky." When pitching in "high leverage" situations, where even one extra base runner can drastically alter the result of a one or two-run game in the 9th inning, having a closer that avoids contact is essential.
The ability to induce a significant amount of ground balls. This one isn't necessarily a prerequisite. But if a closer isn't missing bats with overpowering stuff, he probably should be inducing a significant amount of ground balls (40% or more, preferably). Low strikeout totals + high quantities of fly balls = disaster waiting to happen.
None of the Twins' relief pitchers, outside of Joe Nathan, fulfill all four of the above categories.
- Guerrier limits walks for the most part, and he induces just as many if not more ground balls than any Twins reliever not named Clay Condrey, but he generally only strikes out six batters per nine innings, and he allows a lot of home runs (22 in 152.2 IP since 2007).
- Jon Rauch, aside from his mediocre ground ball rates (usually between 30-36%), puts up acceptable peripherals -- a strikeout rate that has fluctuated anywhere between 6.5 and 8.5 K/9 with low walk totals. Rauch allowed only six home runs last year and seven in 2007, but he was rocked for 13 and 11 in 2006 and 2008.
- Crain actually does a great job limiting home runs (only 9 allowed in 114.1 IP the last two years) and inducing ground balls (43% last year and 55% at his peak in 2006). But his control has been sporadic, at best, the last two seasons (3.45 and 4.70 BB/9 in '08 and '09), even though he was fortunate enough that his eight walks in 16 innings last September didn't come back to bite him.
Not to mention, Crain still consistently throws his fastball in the mid-90's and his slider in the upper 80's, which blows away the "stuff" of Guerrier and Rauch.
So with all three sporting flaws of some kind, which one stands the best chance of being the most consistent?
Probably Rauch, provided he doesn't allow fly balls to get sucked into the Target Field jet stream in left field,
In reality, the difference between any of the three is fairly minimal, and it will likely turn into a closer by committee approach by default at some point this season. Unless Rauch goes lights out.
At the very least, Gardenhire causes the least amount of disruption to his bullpen order by allowing Guerrier to resume his 8th inning duties.
Paging Heath Bell...