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Towards a 2024 Diamondbacks roster: Closing time

Paul Sewald will be closer. But should he be?

World Series - Texas Rangers v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

This was partly inspired - one might even say “triggered” - by Justin’s review of Paul Sewald, posted earlier in the week. At the time of the deal with Seattle which brought Sewald here at the trade deadline, the D-backs were in desperate need of stability in the ninth inning. Through the 107 games played up until the end of July. nobody on the 2023 D-backs had reached double-digits in saves. Scott McGough, Andrew Chafin and Miguel Castro had all been tried in the role - either as part of a committee, or as more or less a traditional closer. All had been found wanting, for one reason or another. After blowing his first save on nine pitches in Minnesota, Sewald settled in, going 13-for-14 with a 2.16 ERA thereafter.

Through the first three rounds of the post-season, Sewald was great too. Eight shutout innings on just three hits, with a K:BB of 11:1. Perfect in six save opportunities, plus a win in Game 3 of the Championship Series. But the wheels fell off in spectacular fashion against the Rangers in the World Series. He blew a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning of Game 1 - again needing only nine pitches to do so - and was torched for four more runs in Game 5, effectively nailing the D-backs coffin shut. Now, we all know that closer issues in the World Series are not necessarily indicative of future performance. But with an obvious alternate candidate, the discussion is a legitimate one.

Before getting to that, there is also the question of the closer’s role. A case can be made that you don’t necessarily want your “best” pitcher locked into that position. Saves are an artificial stat, with an arguably too broad remit. A save can basically be earned by protecting a lead of between one and three runs for a single inning. Assuming an equal distribution, that’s an average of a two-run lead, which should be safe in the hands of just about any major-league pitcher required to get just three outs. Put another way, a terrible hypothetical closer, allowing a run every inning, giving him an ERA of 9.00, would still convert 67% of save opportunities.

It’s certainly true that games often need to be saved before the ninth inning, and that’s where having a “fireman” who can come into those situations and hold the lead is a viable tactic. We’ve seen this a couple of times on the Diamondbacks over the past decade. In 2018, Archie Bradley had a better ERA and FIP than Brad Boxberger. But Boxberger recorded 32 saves while Bradley saved only three games. An even more extreme example was in 2014. Brad Ziegler led the team in average leverage index (aLI) - indicating the importance of the situations in which he pitched - while recording just ONE save. His aLI of 1.80 was higher than closer Addison Reed’s 1.67 - along with Ziegler having a better ERA and FIP.

I wonder if we could end up seeing a similar situation this year, with Sewald working in the closer’s role, while Kevin Ginkel has more of a roaming role? We might have seen hints of this approach in the 2023 post-season. Ginkel’s aLI over those seventeen games for Arizona was 1.77, while Sewald’s was 1.48, indicating it was Kevin who pitched in the most crucial situations, even though Paul recorded all six Diamondbacks’ saves. Looking at the overall numbers for all 2023, Ginkel was the better pitcher. Here’s how their numbers this season compared, in various categories (though the post-season is excluded - that would likely tip things further towards Kevin):

Ginkel vs. Sewald

  • ERA: 2.48 vs. 3.12
  • FIP: 2.86 vs. 3.57
  • xFIP: 3.60 vs 3.76

Interestingly though, ZIPS for next year project both men to appear in the same number of games (58) and return exactly the same ERA (3.60), with Ginkel having a fractionally-better FIP (3.87 vs. 3.89). However, it is likely that Kevin’s struggles in 2020 and 2021 factor into his expected numbers. I’d be inclined to take the under for his projected ERA, considering that from the start of 2022 through this year’s playoffs, Ginkel’s ERA has been 2.45 over 106.1 innings of work. I would not be prepared to bet the house on Sewald also beating his projection, though my opinion on that is likely colored by his most recent couple of appearances in Sedona Red.

A fireman’s role for Ginkel could well end up with him then becoming the closer in 2025. We already saw that with the examples from team history discussed above. Ziegler moved into the closer’s role for 2015, and was excellent, saving 30 games on a below-.500 Arizona team. Similarly, Bradley ended up leading the D-backs in saves during 2019, albeit only taking over after Greg Holland imploded. There should be an opening, since Sewald’s contract expires at the end of this year, likely necessitating a replacement. Keeping Kevin’s saves tally low this year, would help reduce the price-tag for his Arb-2 and Arb-3 seasons in 2025 and 2026.

This was originally going to be a more general piece about relief roles for the 2024 D-backs. But I kinda ended up going down a rabbit hole as far as these two players were concerned, so I’ll spin off my thoughts about the other potential members of the bullpen into a separate piece. But there may also be high-leverage options for other relievers, depending on the match-ups. In particular, with both Sewald and Ginkel being right-handers, I would expect lefties Joe Mantiply and Andrew Saalfrank to be called upon to get some important outs - whether in the ninth inning or before. Scott McGough and Miguel Castro also recorded saves, so may see action too.

All told though, I feel rather more comfortable about our bullpen than I did at this point in 2023. But I’ll save further discussion for that general article!