Rockies Magic Number

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To Close or Not to Close

Going into the 2009 season, I will say something strange:

I think that our bullpen (as it is as of December 17, 2008) is one of the stronger parts of our team.

I know, gasp, right? Something good about Rockies pitching? Get out of town.

We have 3 strong pitchers in the back of our bullpen in Manny Corpas, Huston Street, and Taylor Buchholz, that all have closing material. Buchholz put up a 0.95 WHIP and a 3.11 K/BB ratio. Corpas’ K rates dropped a bit, but he still put up a decent K/BB ratio. It seems the BABIP bug might’ve gotten to him a bit, maybe he was tipping his pitches a bit, whatever. Huston Street, while wilder than both Buchholz and Corpas, brings a much higher K rate than the others, which can give him the edge over the other two.

Behind them, we have part time STUD and part time batting practice instructor Luis Vizcaino, Veteran LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) Alan Embree, and castaway Jason Grilli to fill in the 6th and losing efforts. And in the event that those SIX PITCHERS are unable to get the job done, we can turn to AAA closer Ryan Speier to pitch several for us. We’ll also have Hirsh in AAA trying to figure out how to pitch again, so he might be available for callup as a workhorse.

So let’s rehash real quick.

We have:

1. RHP Manny Corpas
2. RHP Taylor Buchholz
3. RHP Huston Street
4. RHPDUI Luis Vizcaino
5. LHP Alan Embree
6. RHP Jason Grilli
7. RHP Ryan Speier 

At the very least.


This brings us to the million dollar question:

Who’s the closer?

1. The case for Corpas

Corpas was the closer during the magical run to the World Series in 2007, posting a 2.08 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, and a 50:23 K:BB. He was slated to be the closer in 2008, before a series of somethings caused him to fall apart and give the job back up to Brian Fuentes. Corpas has the most Coors Field closing experience, gets solid GB%, and is also being paid the most. He brings a big slider and a well-located fastball that can induce weak contact as well as punch guys out.

2. The case for Street

2005 AL RoY Huston Street has been closing in Oakland the past 4 seasons, all relatively successful. Out of the 3 candidates for closing in Coors Field, Street has the most experience, and has by far the goofiest grin. Similar to Corpas, 2008 was not a great year, showing a career high in ERA, WHIP, and BB/9. However, between Bill James and Marcel the Monkey, we’re anticipating a 1.15 WHIP and a 66:21 K:BB. Street, very similar to Corpas, brings a low 90s fastball and a strong slider that he throws effectively for strikeouts.

3. The case for Buchholz

Taylor Buchholz started with Houston as a starter, and also attempted to be a rotation regular with Colorado in 2007. Post all-star break, the Rockies decided to have Buchholz pitch strictly out of the pen, which he succeeded at. Since he’s been made a bullpen fixture, his game has gotten significantly better. He’s striking more guys out, he’s throwing his curveball more effectively, and he seems to be rediscovering his pitches now that he doesn’t have to pace himself for 6 innings. While Buchholz has no closing experience, he’s seeking a bigger role in the pitching staff, and he’s also demonstrating that he has the stuff to do it. He throws a low-to-mid 90s fastball along with a big 12-6 curveball. He’ll occasionally mix a slider in, but it’s just an extra offspeed pitch. His money is in his curve.

So who should it be? We have a Coors Field style former closer, a strikeout machine that will replace Fuentes’ swingin’ finishes (for better or for worse), or a newcomer to the 9th inning who has been improving with every step he’s taken. Do you go with experience, and give it to Street? Do you try something new, and give it to Buchholz? Or do you go with familiarity, and give it to Corpas?

How about none of the above?

Don’t roll your eyes too hard yet. I am obviously proposing the Rockies close by committee, and here’s why:

1. (hey, it’s another list!) None of the 3 stands out as the obvious choice of closer. Buchholz has never done it, Corpas kind of imploded last year, and Street’s shown himself to be kind of a headcase in Oakland. This isn’t to say they can’t still succeed in the late innings, but there isn’t a Fuentes or Hoffman or KRod ready to jump out and take command.

2. This is the perfect opportunity to play matchups. We aren’t doing anything big in 2009, barring more magic, so why not experiment a bit with the bullpen? We have setup men/closers, why not see how many ways we can pitch them against the opposition? Granted, it will take more time from the coaching staff to research the matchups and who does best against what, and there might be a lot of success to be had. Sure, nobody’s gonna rack up all the SAVES, but maybe they’ll be able to rise above a flawed stat and see that they’re doing something pretty cool.

3. There are 9 outs, they should be recorded the most effectively, not just based on who has the most seniority or anything. You could have Corpas knock down 2 contact hitters and then pull him because the next batter has a good history, get Street to pitch a 4-out “hold”, and then have Buchholz seal up the bottom of the lineup. Or maybe Buchholz can bury 4 guys, Street comes in for a big K, and then Corpas pitches another 4 outs. Buchholz has always been tougher on Lefties, so you can bring him or Embree in the later innings to get the big LHB out, and then put it back on the shoulders of Street or Corpas. Either way, it becomes a closing STAFF and not just a Closer and the Setup guys. I like the idea of a 3-headed monster finishing games for the Rockies.

4. If they don’t play matchups, it’ll at least be a good way to play the guy who’s hot and take the load off the guy who’s not, hopefully without any hard feelings.

So this is really just a pipe dream for me, because I don’t think that Hurdle would run a bullpen like this. But here’s my second proposition: Close with Buchholz. He may seem like the least logical choice, but he is good enough to do it, and it’ll more than likely give him a lot of 3-out saves, and leave more workload on the more experienced relievers. And call me crazy, but I want my best pitchers pitching the most innings.

The reason I pick Buchholz over the other two is that the other two are very similar in their pitching styles. They are both low 90s Fastball + a big slider, but one tends to pitch to contact and the other the lack thereof. So depending on the batting styles, ie. if you have Jack Cust, Adam Dunn, and Mark Reynolds coming up in the 7th, put in Street to strike out the side, Corpas in the 8th, and then in the 9th you have to prepare for the curve coming over the top when you’ve been watching sliders coming in from both sides. I’d rather change things up in the 9th anyhow, because if batter shave been watching sliders for the previous 6 outs, if they start to adjust, Corpas can get the GB or Street can get the big K, and then they have to readjust to the big hammer in the 9th.

The reason this is even crossing my mind is because Closers are stupid. They’re never used in the right situations, because they’re all about SAVES, which is a stupid statistic. The 9th inning may have its own mentality to it, but it’s not always the highest leverage situation. You might have the 2-3-4 guys coming up in the 8th, so Scot Shields gets lit up while K-Rod sits back waiting to face the 6-7-8 so he can get a fistpumping 3-out save with a 3 run lead backing him. I’d rather use K-Rod against the big dogs and let Shields mop up what’s left in the 9th.

Financially, any moneyball type GM knows that you shouldn’t pay someone big bucks in free agency to come be a closer, because there’s a chance that at any given point, there’s a guy between your pen and AAA that is just mowing batters down that year, and you could probably squeeze a season out of luck/batter unfamiliarity and have an effective bullpen for next to nothing. That and locking up relief pitchers is just a bad idea to start with.

Basically, O’Dowd is making some subtle smart moves. The team is now comprised of high OBP high Power kinds of batters in Iannetta, Stewart, Hawpe, and the general OBP of the team is looking to be higher, just based on Spills and Helton putting in more time, and Tulo hopefully being a more patient batter. Don Baylor should help here too.

OBP is the new way in thinking about how to build a team, so why not use this season to condition the new lineup, maybe see some Dex, and then trot out a solid bullpen that works as a unit, not just the sums of pieces? I think it would be cool to see a young team bring in new ideas and succeed while doing it.


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