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Entries in closer (4)


Lefties Lay Off Rodney's Fastball/Changeup Combo

Excluding a select few bullpen iron men  like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, relievers just aren't built for sustained excellence. Their job -- hurling max-effort pitches, logging what amounts to two months' worth of innings for a starter -- is inherently volatile. Some 'pen arms manage to dominate for a decade-plus, avoiding injury and bad bounces that balloon ERAs, but many more devolve from relief ace to dud quicker than you can say "Derrick Turnbow."

Fernando Rodney hasn't quite fallen to such depths -- he just landed a two-year, $14 million contract from the Mariners, after all. But he's nonetheless a prime example of how transient the "relief ace" label can be. The changeup artist was considered a chronic underachiever entering the 2012 season, posting a career park-and-league-adjusted ERA just one percent above average (101 ERA+) and issuing 4.9 walks per nine innings pitched. Then Rodney, in his mid-thirties, suddenly became an arrow-slinging assassin. He walked a mere 1.8 hitters per nine for Tampa Bay in 2012, with the best single-season ERA+ (638) ever for a reliever working 60-plus frames. After a decade of disappointment, Rodney turned in a year that made Dennis Eckersley's fabled 1990 campaign (603 ERA+) look tame.

Was Rodney a changed man? Apparently not. While no one should have expected a repeat performance of 2012, he was pretty much the same strike zone-challenged pitcher who unnerved fans in Detroit and L.A. for a decade (4.9 BB/9, 113 ERA+ with Tampa in 2013). Left-handed batters proved especially troublesome. While lefties took wild swings against his fastball/changeup combo during his banner 2012, they learned to lay off and trot to first base in 2013.

Rodney enticed lefties to chase his pitches 38.9 percent of the time in 2012, blowing away the 28 percent average for righty relievers against opposite-handed batters and trailing only Red Sox teammates Koji Uehara (48.3 percent) and Junichi Tazawa (39.4 percent) among American League firemen. In 2013, though? Rodney baited lefty hitters 31.3 percent of the time, which matches his overall lefty chase rate during the Pitch F/X era (2008-present).

What changed? Lefties stopped bailing Rodney out by swinging at pitches so far off the outside corner that they'd need a telephone pole to make contact. Check out lefties' swing rate by pitch location versus Rodney's fastball over the past two seasons, and then against his changeup.


Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's fastball, 2012

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's fastball, 2013


Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's changeup, 2012

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's changeup, 2013

Rodney's fastball chase rate against lefties dipped from 33.7 percent in 2012 to 24.7 percent this past season. That's awfully close to his overall 26.8 percent fastball chase rate versus left-handers during the Pitch F/X era. He also got fewer chases on the changeup: 47 percent in 2012, and 39.7 percent in 2013. His changeup chase rate against lefties since '08? 39.1 percent. With lefties showing more typical plate patience against him, Rodney surrendered a free pass to 15.2  percent of batters faced after walking lefties just 6.3 percent the previous season. Lefties reached base at a .363 clip, after being held to a .222 OBP in 2012.

Rodney will always have 2012, but he doesn't appear to be a fundamentally different pitcher than the guy who gave Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia heart palpitations for years. Unless lefties do him a favor by lunging at unhittable, off-the-plate pitches, Seattle's new crooked-capped closer figures to keep walking the yard.


David Robertson Closing for the Yankees

With the injury to Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees will be looking to David Robertson as well as Rafael Soriano to close games.

Robertson has been lights out this season. His strikeout rate leads the league at 46.7%, and his K/9 of 15.75 is third behind Jonny Venters' 17.42 and Jason Grilli's 16.36.

Robertson's chase rate is up from 25.0% in 2011 to 32.0% so far in 2012.  His heat maps indicate that he's been hitting the edge of the strike zone more.

It looks like Robertson has avoided throwing in to righties so far this season, while also peppering that outside edge to lefties. That kind of control near the zone means hitters are forced to protect more.  Borderline pitches are swung at more and this has lead to that big jump in his K-Rate.


Mariano Rivera Versus Lefties

Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera notched his 602nd career save yesterday, making him the all time saves leader.  And he did it much like the 601 that came before.  Rivera has been as close to a constant that the game of baseball has seen in the last two decades.

This year, Mariano Rivera has mostly been his usual dominant self, although he's had a few rough outings scattered throughout.  Looking at his splits, it seems like lefties, against which he is usually deadly, have hit him a bit better.

First, let's compare his pitch location from this season to the previous three:

Mariano Rivera
(Click image to enlarge)

There isn't a tremendous difference, although you can see a bit more pitches out over the middle of the plate this season. 

Mariano Rivera Overall

The one thing that stands out is the jump in batting average on balls in play. It's always difficult to determine whether a BABIP jump is a result of decreased effectiveness or luck. For relievers, the sample size is fairly low for one season making it even more difficult to surmise.

However, we do know that it is mostly left-handed batters that account for the BABIP jump.

Mariano Rivera vs. LHB

Opposing left-handed batters have seen more than a 65 point jump in BABIP against Rivera this season. From 2008-2010, lefties had a 17.5% line drive rate. This season, it is up to 21.5%. This is hardly enough of a bump in such a small period of time to suggest Rivera is getting hit harder. So while it's possible more lefty batters have been squaring him up better, the increase in BABIP is probably more a product of luck than anything else. When coupled with the fact that his strikeout rate against LHB has been 21.7% this season, which is unchanged from his previous three year average, it is even more likely that we're not seeing an actual decline in effectiveness versus lefties.