Game Over, Man!
by Jim Silva
If you don’t have guys who can throw 97 to 100 MPH then you don’t have a shut-down bullpen. While that’s not really true, it sure seems like an apt description of the belief system of most general managers in baseball these days. Look at the Dodgers (aborted) attempt to trade for Aroldis Chapman (average fastball velocity 99.5 MPH) and then the Yankees consummated trade for the hard-throwing closer even though he was likely to start the season on suspension. And it wasn’t just Chapman that teams gave up a lot of resources to acquire. The A’s spent lots of money on Ryan Madsen (average fastball velocity 94.2 MPH), the Astros gave up prospects to get Ken Giles (average fastball velocity 96.5 MPH), and the Rockies sent a young starting outfielder to the Rays to acquire Jake McGee (average fastball velocity 94.5 MPH) just to name a few of the off-season moves that happened since the last World Series.
Hunter Strickland is the Giants requisite bullpen flame thrower humping it up there with an average fastball of 96.9. But Strickland isn’t the closer – yet. Last season, Strickland’s first full season in the majors, saw him mostly used as the setup man and the 7th inning guy (45 of his 55 appearances). The 6’4” righty from Zebulon, Georgia struck out opposing hitters in bunches, showed excellent control (1.8 walks per nine), forced batters to beat the baseball into the ground at a 69% rate, and limited home runs to the tune of 0.7 per nine innings pitched. It was hard to get on base at all against Strickland as he managed a WHIP of 0.78 last season. He is the scariest pitcher the Giants have in relief and is very likely to close games for them someday. Only manager Bruce Bochy knows when that day will come as he is the one who decided that Santiago Casilla will start the season as he ended last season – wearing the closer mantle.
Casilla’s game changed dramatically last season, or so say his peripherals. Castilla has been closing games somewhat regularly since 2012 when he was 31. That’s pretty old to finally be anointed the closer, but it took him a long time to develop. He mostly sported ERAs in the 4’s and 5’s during his last three seasons with the A’s. He put it all together his first year with the Giants (2010) and has kept his ERA in the 1’s and 2’s since then. While that sounds consistent, Casilla is the scary variety of closer who is all over the place with his control and his home run rate. In 2014, Casilla’s strikeout rate was 6.9 per nine, but his career low walk rate of 2.3 per nine gave him a career best strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.0. He also posted an ERA of 1.70 and a FIP of 3.18 while allowing a career low 5.4 hits per nine and an excellent home run rate of 0.5 per nine. He wasn’t the full-time closer but managed to save 19 games with four blown save chances. He threw in ten holds for good measure, clearly proving his value in high-leverage situations.
Last season Casilla finished 55 games, appeared in 67, and recorded 38 saves while blowing six saves. His strikeout rate jumped from 6.9 in 2014 to 9.6 in 2015, an unusual jump without small sample size to explain it. The strikeouts are the good news. Unfortunately, and here is one explanation for the blown saves, his walk rate jumped from 2.3 per nine to 3.6 per nine while his home run rate also increased from 0.5 per nine to 0.9 per nine innings pitched. Walking more batters and then giving up almost twice as many long balls is a recipe for an increase in ERA and Casilla’s jumped from 1.70 to 2.79. While ERA is not the best measure for relievers, his FIP (his ERA based on events he controlled) also jumped – from 3.18 to 3.63. At 35 Casilla still throws hard and mixes in a curve and slider 23% and 15% of the time respectively last year, so it’s not like he was lobbing grapefruits up there or surviving on guile. Still, with Strickland behind him he can’t get off to a bad start and assume that the job will still be his. There was even noise that he might lose his closer’s role in spring training but even with a good spring by Strickland that didn’t happen.
Those lucky Giants – the closer race isn’t a two horse contest. Sergio Romo had a head lock on the closer role for 2013 and parts of the two seasons on either side of that, but lost it to Casilla when he slumped in 2014. Last year Romo put up a monster season in the pen posting his second highest strikeout to walk rate at 7.10 which is quite excellent. He also dropped his home run rate down to 0.5 jacks per nine, showing his normal great control only walking 1.6 batters over nine, and putting up his best strikeout numbers in the last four seasons by fanning 11.1 batters per nine. Romo is 33 and pint-sized for a pitcher at 5’11” and is a soft-tosser averaging 87.5 MPH on his heater last year. He throws his slider 59% of the time and it is a true swing-and-miss pitch.
As everyone knows by now, the Giants have the whole “Win the Series in even years” thing going on, and George Kontos has a “get lit up by home runs in odd years” thing, and alternately a “keeps the ball in the park in even years” thing – weird I know. Last season, being an odd year, Kontos allowed 1.1 home runs per nine innings. Based on his other numbers it seems like there was a method to his madness so predicting the same thing this year might not be crazy. Kontos’ peripherals make it look like he consciously pitched to contact more. His career walk rate is 2.4 after a season where he walked a career low 1.5 batters per nine – his first time under 2.5 per nine. Along with that he fanned a career low 5.4 batters per nine, down from a career rate of 7.2 per nine. Interestingly his hit rate was 7.0, under his career number of 7.6 so whatever he changed seemed to work. Kontos throws hard enough (average fastball sitting at 91.2 MPH last season), but he throws it about as often as his cutter and a bit more than his slider, which he throws about a quarter of the time. Kontos had 28 multiple inning outings in his 73 appearances so he is the workhorse of the pen. He is probably the only one of the four pen mainstays who isn’t in the mix for the closer’s job this season, but he still provides a lot of value in relief.
The other arms in the pen to start the season were Chris Heston and Javier Lopez. Heston, at 27 – the only member of the pen under 30 – spent last season holding down a rotation spot and doing it admirably, including one memorable game for the whole Heston family – an 11 strikeout, no walk, no-hitter where he drilled three batters. Heston doesn’t throw particularly hard but is still “effectively wild” at times as evidenced by his three hit batters in that no-no. Heston is likely to end up in the rotation at some point this season because the back of the rotation is injury-prone, and if he can reprise his first half of 2014 then the Giants won’t miss a beat. It’s hard to say what Heston will give the Giants as a reliever because he has almost never – even in the minors – pitched out of the pen.
Lopez is the requisite LOOGY – he is in the pen to get out the lefties. Lopez faced lefties twice as often as he faced righties. That is as it should be because Lopez allowed a .177 on-base percentage and .130 slugging to lefties he faced while righties went strong against him posting an OPS of .734. Interestingly he spins his weird lefty voodoo mostly with his gentle fastball clocked at an average velocity of 84.5 MPH which he throws 74 % of the time and mixes with the occasional cutter (19% of the time) – not the typical menu for short relievers. At 38 years old, Lopez is still great at what he does with the caveat that his exposure to righties be strictly limited.
When you look at teams like the Royals who survived because their pen was so great in the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and you look at the Giants who have quietly done almost exactly the same things but with a much better (at least this season) starting rotation, you have to have a hard time betting against them in the NL West.