Jordan Walden: The End Justifies the Means

Here at FanGraphs, we’re big fans of emphasizing process over results. We’re not the only ones. The Tampa Bay Rays have made a cottage industry of it. The Kansas City Royals have built the best farm system in baseball, though their Process remains a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, plastered on a Jump to Conclusions mat.

When someone benefits from a faulty process, or even makes the right move for the wrong reasons, it’s our duty as responsible analysts to hate it. But lately I’ve been having trouble doing that. First, there was Terry Francona‘s oddly timed but smart decision to drop Carl Crawford in the Red Sox batting order against left-handed pitchers. Now, it’s Mike Scioscia’s move to make Jordan Walden the Angels’ new closer, just four games into the season.

Let’s start with the basics: The 23-year-old Walden has more upside as a high-leverage relief pitcher than ousted closer Fernando Rodney does at this point in their respective careers. Albert Lyu wrote about Walden in a February post covering unsung Los Angeles relievers. He pointed to Walden’s impressive debut last year (23 strikeouts in 15.1 innings), a fastball that has repeatedly topped 100 mph, and Walden’s conversion to the pen after coming up in the low minors as a starter. The money quote:

With better control, both [Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen] and Walden should have future closer role opportunities down the road.

Indeed, Walden’s control remained a going concern, and his strikeout rates were merely good, not great, for much of his minor-league career. Still, Walden had shown enough to earn consideration for high-leverage work, especially when compared to Rodney. Only twice in the 34-year-old right-hander’s nine-year career had he posted a walk rate below 4 BB/9 IP. His strikeout rate had plummeted from elite 2008 levels, despite a fastball that still sat in the mid-90s. Rodney’s 2011 projections ranked among the worst for any Opening Day closer, with Bill James, Marcel, Fans, and ZiPS projecting FIPs ranging from 4.11 to 4.28. At this point in his career, Rodney is a proven mediocrity, and teams with hopes of pennant contention aren’t well-served by giving high-profile bullpen roles to proven mediocrities.

On the other hand, teams are also often better served using their best relievers in tight spots in the 7th and 8th innings, rather than saving them for a relatively cushy closer job that usually starts with the bases empty, often up two or more runs, and needing only three outs to end the game. Fortunately for the Angels, hard-throwing, 26-year-old righty Kevin Jepsen will likely be that guy, armed with the track record and projections to trump both Walden’s and Rodney’s expectations. Like the Brad Lidge-less Phillies, the Angels have made their best reliever into their top set-up man, and their second-best reliever into the closer.

Which leaves us with the timing of the move. Rodney probably should have been replaced as closer last year, when he muddled along to a pedestrian 4.42 xFIP. But Scioscia chose closing experience over talent and upside to start the season. Rodney lost his job thanks largely to Sunday’s debacle, in which he walked the bases loaded and allowed a two-run double to Wilson Betemit to blow the save in a 12-9, 13-inning loss. But we can’t just chalk up the switch to Scioscia overreacting to one game. If it had been Mariano Rivera who blew an early-April game like that to the Royals, there’s no way Scioscia or any other manager would have stripped him of the job. At the risk of making the most obvious statement in the history of the Internet…Fernando Rodney is no Mariano Rivera.

Walden breezed through a 1-2-3 9th inning against the bottom of the Rays order to pick up his first save of the year last night, and far more importantly, has the skills to succeed at his new job. Credit Scioscia for a better-late-than-never move.

Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

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12 years ago