If Feliz Starts, Who Closes?

To attempt and offset the loss of Cliff Lee, the Rangers are stretching out Neftali Feliz in spring training, and are keeping an open mind about converting him back into being a starting pitcher. Ron Washington has made it clear that he prefers Feliz in the ninth inning role, but the Rangers are willing to use March to see whether Feliz can impress them enough to crack the rotation.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Feliz can successfully make this transition. Evan Grant did a great piece today on his repertoire and how his secondary pitches may affect the team’s decision on his ultimate role. However, there has been less talk about the guys in line to replace Feliz, and the reality that the Rangers simply don’t have any natural replacements for the closer’s role if Feliz does end up in the rotation.

There are essentially four relievers in the organization who would likely get some consideration for the closing job if Feliz makes the conversion – Alexi Ogando, Darren Oliver, Mark Lowe, and Arthur Rhodes. All of them have value, but none of them are good fits for the closer’s job.

The big difference between being a middle reliever and a closer isn’t the mentality or the preparation, but instead, the distribution of batters faced. Closers, like starting pitchers, don’t get used selectively depending on who is coming to the plate for the opposition. The rigidity of the role calls for the closer to face whoever is coming up to the plate in the ninth inning of close games, and he is charged with getting them out, no matter what side of the plate they hit from.

For all four of the Rangers setup guys, getting out hitters who hit from the opposite side of the plate is a problem. Their one common trait is that they have huge platoon splits. Here are their 2010 numbers (or, in Lowe’s case, 2009) against same-handed and opposite handed hitters:

Vs Same:

Darren Oliver: 0.91 BB/9, 13.04 K/9, 0.61 HR/9, 1.56 FIP, 1.74 xFIP
Arthur Rhodes: 0.38 BB/9, 9.89 K/9, 1.14 HR/9, 2.78 FIP, 2.40 xFIP
Alexi Ogando: 2.20 BB/9, 10.36 K/9, 0.31 HR/9, 2.07 FIP, 2.90 xFIP
Mark Lowe: 2.25 BB/9, 7.16 K/9, 0.00 HR/9, 2.26 FIP, 3.81 xFIP

Vs Opposite:

Darren Oliver: 3.38 BB/9, 6.19 K/9, 0.56 HR/9, 3.64 FIP, 3.90 xFIP
Arthur Rhodes: 4.88 BB/9, 6.89 K/9, 0.29 HR/9, 3.59 FIP, 4.92 xFIP
Alexi Ogando: 6.23 BB/9, 4.50 K/9, 0.67 HR/9, 5.23 FIP, 5.91 xFIP
Mark Lowe: 4.50 BB/9, 8.50 K/9, 1.75 HR/9, 5.24 FIP, 4.41 xFIP

These four guys are death to same-handed hitters, which gives Ron Washington a bullpen built to play the match-ups. Rhodes and Oliver give him the depth to make tough LH sluggers face impossible-to-hit setup men twice in the same game, while Lowe and Ogando can mow through right-handed bats with few problems. When giving the platoon advantage, these four are fantastic.

When facing guys who hit from the other side of the box, however, their effectiveness shrivels. Oliver is still decent enough and would probably be the best option for the job, but he’s not nearly the dominating force against right-handed bats that he is against lefties. Rhodes is shaky at best, while Ogando showed no real abilities to get lefties out last year, issuing more walks than strikeouts against LHBs in his rookie season. Lowe’s extreme fly ball nature comes back to bite him against lefties, who have hit 15 of the 17 home runs he’s allowed in his career.

All of these guys are best utilized in setup roles, where they can be used in situations dictated by the type of batters coming up in the following inning. Thrust into the closer’s role, each would likely struggle, and the ninth inning could turn into something of a debacle for the Rangers.

This is one of the main reasons why I don’t think Feliz will end up sticking in the rotation. It’s tough for me to see Washington being comfortable with any of these four options, especially when his alternative is a guy who had no problems with hitters from either side of the plate last year. However, if the Rangers decide to stick with Feliz as a starting pitcher, they should strongly consider going with a closer-by-committee approach.

Ogando, Lowe, Oliver, and Rhodes are all dominating relievers when given the match-up advantage. If Washington was flexible enough to abandon the single-closer model and decide who pitches the ninth inning based on the opponents line-up, the Rangers would be able to exploit the fact that they have a bullpen full of pitchers with extreme platoon splits. Without Feliz in the mix, they actually have the ideal setup for a by-committee ninth inning approach. My guess is that this will prove to be too radical of an idea for Washington, however, and that at the end of the day, Feliz will end up closing and these four will slide into their natural setup roles.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Mike G.

“The big difference between being a middle reliever and a closer isn’t the mentality or the preparation, but instead, the distribution of batters faced.”

Every mainstream journalist who writes about Major League Baseball should memorize that sentence.