Quite often we hear that a relief pitcher does or does not have what it takes to get the high pressure outs. Certain pitchers have “it” while others melt under the spot light. Ryan Madson could not be a successful closer because he lacked the vaunted “closer’s mentality.” I’m sure on a case by case basis you will find players who simply cannot handle the pressure; however, studies have shown that a reliever should perform to his talent level regardless of the leverage. After all, they are just roles not skill-sets.
As a fan of the Rays, I have watched Kyle Farnsworth transform from a guy who also lacks the closer’s mentality in to a true relief ace pitching in high leverage situations. Farnsworth is not the only middle reliever to graduate to the high life with success. Including Farnsworth, I found five relief pitchers who moved from the mid-to-low level situations up to a higher level. All five pitched at least 50 innings last season with a pLI less than 1.0. In 2011, they have tossed 30 or more innings with a leverage index of 1.3 or higher (basically set-up man or more). Here is the list…
The former starter turned reliever; Wright has bounced around the league since 1996. After making 246 starts, he became a full-time member of the bullpen in 2008. Last season, he pitched mostly middle relief (0.87 pLI) for the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners. In 58.1 innings, he was largely below average with a 4.23 FIP/4.54 xFIP. Back with the Mariners for 2011, Wright has a pLI of 1.30 this season. He has responded with a 3.94 FIP/3.69 xFIP. According to the pitch f/x data on Wright’s player page, he has picked up the use of his cutter this season. The pitch has been effective with a 1.64 wCT/C. Given his groundballs ways and the ballpark he calls home, Wright’s new role may add a few years to his major league career.
Ondrusek had a decent rookie season in middle relief for the Reds. Pitching in mostly average situations (.87 pLI), the right-hander racked up a 3.68 ERA in 58.2 innings; however, his defensive independent metrics were near or below the league average (4.32 FIP/4.19 xFIP). Dusty Baker has trusted Ondrusek in some high leverage situations this year bumping his pLI to 1.35. As a set-up man to Francisco Cordero, he has dropped his ERA down to 1.79. Once again, that is outperforming his FIP (3.86) and xFIP (3.75), but he has increased his strikeouts while allowing fewer home runs and roughly the same amount of walks. Although his BABIP and LOB% are begging for regression, Ondrusek has turned into a nice, cheap, option in the later innings.
The same Lopez that appeared in 61 games for the 2007 World Champion Boston Red Sox team found himself out of a job before 2010 and resurfaced as a low-leverage pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was traded to the San Francisco Giants where he collected a second World Series ring. Lopez was fantastic with the Giants, earning him an invite back this season with an increased role. After an 0.79 pLI last year, Lopez’s pLI has jumped to 1.85 this season. His results remain largely the same (3.36 FIP in 2010, 3.39 FIP in 2011) although his xFIP is a bit higher since he has yet to allow a home run. Lopez is a true loogy, but Bruce Bochy has nearly split his usage in half a.k.a. playing with fire. That said, if Lopez is used correctly, he should be shutdown late-inning weapon from the left side.
A piece of the Cameron Maybin trade, Webb has seen his leverage index rise as a member of the Marlins. He was a true middle reliever with the Padres (0.94 pLI) last season. In 2011, more than half of his 35 appearances have come in the eighth inning earning him a pLI of 1.30. Webb’s numbers have regressed across the board, but his 3.82 FIP and 3.94 xFIP are slightly above the league average. For a pitcher who throws in the mid-90s, one would expect more strikeouts than 5.77 per nine innings. That said a 60% groundball rate is pretty useful with runners on base late in the game.
Yes, the same Kyle Farnsworth who bombed as a member of the New York Yankees has returned to the American League East as a shutdown closer for the Tampa Bay Rays. Farnsworth pitched in middle relief as a member of the Royals and Braves (.87 pLI) last season. This year, he has been Joe Maddon’s go to guy in high leverage situations (1.37 pLI). Despite not actually holding the closer’s role, the right-hander has racked up a career-high 17 saves with a 2.80 FIP and a fantastic 2.92 xFIP. The old dog has learned a new trick and that is the ability to induce groundballs. With more cutters and two-seam fastballs, his GB% is 55.8% this year which is well above his 40.2% career rate. He is also getting a high number of popups when the ball is lifted in the air. Farnsworth’s strikeouts are down quite a bit, but he can still get a swing and a miss. All in all, the guy who didn’t have it in New York or Chicago may be planning a trip to Arizona next week as a relief ace.