Brian Wilson is no longer the only closer in baseball who can rock a killer beard and rip a killer fastball. On baseball's Opening Night in 2012, the defending Champion St. Louis Cardinals took home their first win, backed by offensive nights from third baseman David Freese and shortstop Rafael Furcal, who combined for six hits and three RBIs, and a stellar performance from Kyle Lohse, who took a no-no into the seventh.
One thing that the red birds will need in order to repeat, especially in the wake of losing a baseball icon, is consistency in the bullpen. In 2011, the bullpen was in flux, until a September closer change fueled momentum that would take them all the way to the world series. That rock came in the form of Jason Motte, the new beard in town. Armed with a blistering high nineties fastball and a cutter that topped out at 93 mph and moved roughly two inches away from righties, he managed to convert 8 of 9 save opportunities. This was a guy who hadn't given up a run since the all-star break, and the Cardinals were in desperate need of a closer.
Though Motte was less than impervious in the final month of the season, posting a 4.73 ERA over 13.1 innings, his strikeout pitch remained effective, as 13 of his 14 fans came by way of the heater. When throwing the fastball in 2 strike situations, Motte managed to hold hitters to a .111 average.
As can be seen from the heat map above, Motte has excellent confidence in his ability to blow the fastball by hitters, keeping it almost exclusively up in the zone, away from righties and jamming lefties. When a pitcher's fastball tops out around 99 mph, they can afford to leave a few up in the zone, and tonight he did just that, blowing a 99 mph heater past Hanley Ramierez for the second out of the ninth inning.
In the final at bat versus Giancarlo Stanton, he heavily featured the cutter, a pitch that Motte uses more frequently the higher up in the count he gets on a hitter. Since the cutter tended to produce ten percent fewer groundouts than the fastball that month, it makes sense to use it ahead in the count. In 0-1 counts, Motte turned to the cut fastball an astounding 32.1% of the time, doubling the total percentage of use, which makes it no surprise after settling into his fourth batter by jumping ahead 0-1 on a called strike, that he jumped straight to the cutter for three straight, punching out Stanton swinging on one low and away to seal the deal for the Cards on Opening Night.
As long as Motte keeps the cut fastball out of the middle of the zone, he may continue to have success at striking out hitters and closing out games. If Motte can lead a strong Cardinals bullpen in conjunction with a good lineup and solid starting pitching, the Cardinals will have a chance to contend again come October.