Towards 2014: Choosing a closer

Justin K. Aller

The closer's spot was problematic for the Diamondbacks this season. There are no shortage of candidates for the role in 2014, but who should it be?

Heath Bell

2013: 4.11 ERA, 15 saves, 65.2 IP, 9.9 K/9
Career: 3.39 ERA, 168 saves, 611.1 IP, 9.2 K/9

The Heath Bell experience was an interesting one. You'd have got long odds against him leading the team in saves, after a Diamondbacks debut where he retired only one of six batters faced, allowing a pair of home-runs, but that's where Bell ended the year. There were times when Heath would come in out of the bullpen and be so utterly dominant, you'd know why he had most saves in the majors from 2009-2011. I'm not just talking games, but almost months. Take the spell from July 12-August 6, for example. Over that time, Heath threw 11.1 scoreless innings, holding the opposition to six hits and no walks, with 15 strikeouts.

But then, there were days when he couldn't get anyone out. Bell had nine outings this year where he allowed a crooked number. Only three major-league relievers had more, and two of those played in Colorado. A 4.11 ERA isn't necessarily disastrous for a closer: Seattle's Tom Wilhelmsen picked up 24 saves this year, on a team well below .500, and with an ERA fractionally higher. However, given the game situations in which you're pitching, consistency is vital, and Bell didn't demonstrate it. If we knew in advance which Heath Bell experience we would get, he'd be ideal, but he's not so accommodating, and Bell as closer would mean a bumpy year for our digestive tracts.

David Hernandez

2013: 4.48 ERA, 2 saves, 62.1 IP, 9.5 K/9
Career: 4.14 ERA, 19 saves, 380.2 IP, 9.0 K/9

The last time Hernandez closed regularly was July 2011. Why he has been consistently passed over since is a puzzle, though his mid-season struggles explain why he wasn't used this year, after Putz and Bell were found wanting. Prior to his dispatch to Reno on August 10, David had perhaps the worst two-month spell by a reliever in D-backs history - 21 innings, 22 earned runs. Given the length and depth of the slump, it was legitimate to ask if Hernandez was irreparable. But whatever ailed him - and there's some indication it was off-field issues - Reno was the cure, as he came back to allow one earned run over 14 September innings, with 16 strikeouts.

Worth bearing in mind: Hernandez is the only one of these four under team control for 2015 (unless Kevin Towers suffers some kind of attack, and picks up Bell's $9 million option). As perhaps the most likely man to be our closer that season - though Matt Stites may have something to say there - it might make sense to get him accustomed to the role now. While he did well in 2011, there's perhaps some difference between pinch-closing and the grind of holding the position regularly. On the other hand, when it comes to arbitration for relievers, saves are like those coins in Super Mario: the more you collect, the better.

J.J. Putz

2013: 2.36 ERA, 6 saves, 34.1 IP, 10.0 K/9
Career: 2.99 ERA, 189 saves, 553 IP, 9.5 K/9

Putz's 142 ERA+ is now ninth-best among active players with 500+ innings, but 2013 has to be considered disappointing. That's more for the quantity of innings, with his lowest tally since 2008, than their quality, though he had a shaky April. Putz then missed virtually all of May and June, and came back to find his closer's role being performed competently by Ziegler. A 1.25 ERA over the final three months of the season for Putz wasn't enough for the Ziegling to desist (Brad's ERA for the same time being a thoroughly competent 2.45), but that does suggest JJ has a good shot of returning to his anointed role for the upcoming season.

As well as health concerns, perhaps a bigger question is, whether he will end the season here. He'll be a free-agent after 2014: considering he turns 37 before next Opening Day, and will earn $7 million this season, I'm inclined not to make much effort to extend him any further [I was kinda surprised we still have him for this year, the team extending him an additional year when they exercised his 2013 option]. If the D-backs fall out of the race early, we may well see Putz moved at the deadline to a contender. The team does seem to have enough alternatives that replacing him shouldn't be a major issue.

Brad Ziegler

It's perhaps worth listing the stats for all four of these guys over the last three seasons in total.

Player ERA IP SV H R ER BB SO ERA+ HR OPS
Heath Bell 3.89 192.0 77
195 88
83 66 182 99 21
..729
David Hernandez 3.42 200.0 17 147 81 76 76 241 116 18 .600
J.J. Putz 2.45 146.2 83 112 42 40 40 164 162 12 .602
Brad Ziegler 2.30 200.0 14 168 62 51 62
130 173 5 .590

Ziegler has been the best - in the sense of "most consistently good" - of the four relievers we're looking at, a significant part of that being because he's almost impossible to hit home-runs off. Only two MLB pitchers with 100+ innings over that time, have a better HR/rate than Ziegler's one every forty innings.

But that doesn't necessarily make him best suited to be a closer. His ability to generate ground-balls, almost at will, means he may be more useful coming in with runners on base, to extinguish a rally - most save situations start in the ninth, with the decks clear. There's also a question about his effectiveness against left-handed hitters, who have a career line of .299/.396/.426 against Ziegler. In the ninth, opposing managers can empty the bench, so he could end up seeing a lot more of them. That said, Brad did a good job keeping them quiet this season, holding lefties to .246/.333/.314, so perhaps he has learned how to use his repertoire?

So, there you have it. It seems likely to me that Putz will probably be the closer at the start of 2014. But as we saw this year, that doesn't mean he'll get most saves or that he'll finish the year in the role. Hence the poll question below....

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