Starter: Jim Henderson
Backup: Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Kintzler
AAA Depth: Johnny Hellweg, Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro
The future: Jimmy Nelson, Damien Magnifico, David Goforth, Wei-Chung Wang, John Axford again?
Closers are a strange breed, or at least that’s the expectation. It’s perhaps the one role in baseball where a player’s outrageous / eccentric personality or appearance isn’t met with immediate suspicion or outright scorn. Think Brian Wilson’s unnaturally black beard and unnatural demeanor. John Rocker’s (erm) intense personality. Rollie Finger’s old timey handlebar mustache. John Axford’s… old timey handlebar mustache. These things are tolerated, perhaps even encouraged. Anything to unnerve an opponent in position to blow a save.
Closers are treated differently than other relievers in part because they are almost always used in relatively high risk situations. Eccentricities may, then, be forgiven as a player’s natural reaction to a role that is nearly always high pressure, high risk, and high reward. It’s a role that always carries the possibility of minor public humiliation, and players often do not have lengthy runs as “closers.” They are generally expected to throw hard and cause a lot of swinging strikes. They are expected to have a good offspeed or breaking pitch set up by their fastball. They are also almost always right handed.
Given the high leverage of closing and saves, it also makes some sense to emphasize certain statistics over others with closing pitchers: strikeouts become more valuable, home runs and walks even less forgivable. Every swing and miss does indeed get a closer that much (sorry) closer to an out — and maybe a save — so SwStr% percentage is perhaps more important too.
That said, all of these peripherals are also important for non-closing relief. Pretty much any pitcher benefits from a low HR/FB%, limiting walks, and striking out batters. It’s not so much that these traits are only important for closers, but rather that they help to limit runs, and thus increase the probability of winning a close game. Arguably, it’s hard to draw a meaningful value distinction between closers and “holders,” even when you’re talking about the win probability impact of late game pitching. Last season, Henderson saved 10.74 runs according to RE24 and Kintzler saved 12.73. Essentially, both are pretty high risk roles, but only one carries significant cultural cache because it happened in the ninth inning rather than the eighth. After all, K-Rod would most likely not be getting $3.25 million this season if all he had on his resume was “set up” experience.
The Brewers have cycled through a couple of hard-throwing, less-than-youthful Canadian closers over the last few seasons. Both John Axford and Jim Henderson came from the depths of the Brewers’ system, unheralded and with few attached expectations. Axford replaced likely future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman in 2010 because the entire bullpen was having a spectacularly bad start and there were few competent hard throwers in the Brewers’ system at the time.
Henderson, in turn, assumed the closer role in 2013 because John Axford’s HR/FB rate ballooned to 19.2% in 2012 — almost twice the assumed league average of 10% — and remained there in 2013. For the record: Henderson doesn’t quite fit the eccentric closer mold, other than the Canadian thing. He is also very tall, though! Canadian and tall.
Mike Podhorzer at Fangraphs argued that the two pitchers have similar approaches, and present similar risks. Last season, less than 50% of Henderson’s first pitches were strikes, which would be pretty terrible for a back of the rotation starter. (For comparison, the oft control-challenged Wily Peralta’s f-strike% was 58.4% last season, which is more-or-less league average.) Henderson still strikes out a ton of batters, though (11.25 per 9), and doesn’t walk very many: his 3.24 K/BB last season is better than Axford’s 2.67 career mark. But not miles better.
Henderson’s fastball is quite good, but his slider really isn’t. It remains to be seen how his newly developed changeup will pan out over the course of a season, but the spring training results have not impressed. His poor f-strike% will be forgivable if he can still get outs and limit walks and home runs, but falling behind in the count is bad news for any pitcher.
On the (statistical) face of things, Brandon Kintzler looks like a better bet to replace Henderson as closer if things go south for the 31-year-old Canadian. Kintzler’s fastball is very good and results in a lot of ground balls (via friend of the blog J.P. Breen at Fangraphs). Kintzler’s fly ball percentage has hovered around 20% between 2010 and 2013. So even if Kintzler’s HR/FB% jumps from 4.9% back to the assumed league average of 10%, the results won’t be disastrous. Although his BABIP was a bit low last season (.281), this might have something to do with his ability to limit extra base hits by inducing ground balls and limiting fly balls.
Kintzler’s been remarkably consistent between 2010 and 2013 too: he strikes out a little under 20% of total batters faced, and walks less than 10%. With an average fastball velocity in the 92-3 mph range, he’s an excellent candidate to close if Henderson’s problems worsen.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Brewers have Kintzler in mind as backup. Francisco Rodriguez, Mr. “Thirty Pitches of Terror” himself, has returned to Milwaukee on a one-year, $3.25 million contract. Rodriguez is almost certainly not as bad as that nickname implies, and most of his peripherals are fine. His 15% HR/FB rate last season was pretty bad, but is also well above his career average of 8.8%. Rodriguez’s first pitch strike percentage was essentially league average (60.1%). He tends to induce more swings and misses than the average pitcher, but it’s not a particular strength (12.3% career average vs. 8.5% league average). Rodriguez’s strikeout rate remains very good (10.41 K/9 last season) and his walk rate last season was a career low (7.3%, with a league average of 8.5%). His velocity has stayed pretty consistent over the last few seasons too.
Kintzler’s a more intriguing candidate for closer if Henderson struggles, but not a traditional one. His fastball isn’t blazing, but it’s decent, and his slider is very good. On the other hand, Rodriguez does have the fun nickname and outsized personality thing going for him, which might be more than enough to tip the balance in his favor. He also strikes out a lot more batters than Kintzler and he’s got that “closing experience” thing.
It’s very hard to say where future Brewers’ closers will come from. Prospects aren’t really groomed for closing, despite the prominence and assumed importance of that role. (Again, Henderson and Axford were hardly hot prospects.) Rodriguez, who was never really the Brewers’ capital “C” Closer anyway, was more-or-less a salary dump from the Mets, and Trevor Hoffman arrived from free agency.
That said, there are a few hard throwers with potential in the upper tiers of the Brewers’ farm system. Exceptional velocity isn’t a prerequisite for the job, of course – later in their careers, Hoffman and Mariano Rivera were hardly speed kings – but velocity sets prospects apart. Johnny Hellweg was a part of the big Zack Greinke trade, and has so far shown a lot of arm strength and some potential, but little control or big league success. Michael Blazek was the player to be named in the John Axford trade. He also throws hard and has control issues, so it was a fair trade. Alfredo Figaro gives up far too many home runs to be considered a great closing candidate, but he’s got big league experience, and has seen an uptick in his fastball velocity recently.
Damien Magnifico is very young (21) and throws very hard (over 100 mph sometimes). Jimmy Nelson is the Brewers’ general consensus top pitching prospect. The Brewers are developing Magnifico and Nelson as starters, though, where they would provide the team much more value. Both certainly have the physical tools to provide short-term relief if they don’t pan out as starters, but that would be far from ideal. David Goforth has a “short, strong arm” and “everything about Goforth screams power reliever,” according to ScoutingBook.com. (Sounds like a closer to me!)
Given that the Brewers’ closers over the last season have been non-prospects, a former All Star, and a future Hall of Famer, any or none of these prospects might fill the role in a couple of seasons. Maybe the Brewers will go wild and let intriguing, hard-throwing lefty Wei-Chung Wang have a few save opportunities, despite the whole left-handed thing. (Does being left handed count as eccentric?) Hell, maybe they’ll pick up Axford off waivers in a couple of seasons, just for fun. Who knows?
Best Case Scenario: Jim Henderson returns to his 2012 form. He throws first pitch strikes around 60% of the time, consistently gets ahead of batters in the count, and keeps his HR/FB% well below 10%. His brand new changeup pairs nicely with his already excellent fastball, and this takes pressure off of Henderson to throw his consistently less-than-stellar slider. Henderson amasses something in the range of 30-40 saves. (There would be many more, but the Brewers’ offense and starting pitching are totally dominant.) Kintzler and Rodriguez set Henderson up nicely when he does close, and a great weight is lifted off of the entire pitching staff’s collective shoulders.
Worst Case Scenario: Henderson’s control problems deepen, his strikeout rate drops, his walk rate rises, his F-Strike% continues to hover around 50%, and he ultimately gives up far too many runs to remain the team’s closer. Rodriguez takes over the closing role and it soon becomes clear that his 15% HR/FB last season was not an exception, but rather a harbinger of things to come. After blowing an unacceptable number of saves, Kintzler finally steps in to save the day, but the Brewers are already in too deep of a hole. The number of blown saves exactly equals the number of games by which the Brewers miss the postseason. Weeping, gnashing of teeth, etc.
Most Likely Scenario: Ultimately, the Brewers’ closer situation does not make or break the Brewers’ postseason chances. Henderson is perfectly adequate, continues to limit home runs and walks, and racks up a fair number of saves (25-30.) Kintzler and Rodriguez do most of the set up work, where they combine for 1.5-2 WAR and a fair number of holds.
Henderson ZiPS projection: 61.7 IP, 3.50 ERA, 3.71 FIP
Henderson PECOTA projection: 57 IP, 3.54 ERA, 3.84 FIP
Kintzler ZiPS projection: 57.7 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.72 FIP
Kintzler PECOTA projection: 66 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.64 FIP
Rodriguez ZiPS projection: 58.7 IP, 3.68 ERA, 3.64 FIP
Rodriguez PECOTA projection: 47 IP, 3.25 ERA, 3.72 FIP
The series so far:
3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position
3/11: Curt previewed first base
3/12: Jonathan previewed second base
3/13: Steve previewed third base
3/14: Vineet previewed short stop
3/17: Adam previewed left field
3/18: Alex previewed center field
3/19: Ryan previewed right field
3/20: Jaymes previewed the top of the rotation
3/21: Nicholas previewed the back of the rotation
3/22: Curt previewed the team’s rotation depth