Draft : : Story
Wednesday, January 07, 2009

PART II / Closers Scouting Closers Can Be Tricky

Anup Sinha        
How do you decide whether a pitcher should be a starter or a reliever?

There is little or no such dilemma when it comes to position players. Scouts decide their future positions based on tools and makeup; the positions they play in high school or college is often irrelevant. For example, it’s not all that unusual for an amateur shortstop (ie., Michael Barrett, Bengie Molina) to become a big-league catcher. There have even been high-school catchers who have become Gold-Glove center fielders (ie., Willie Wilson, Dale Murphy).

As discussed in Part I of this column, pitchers are often asked to change roles as well. But how different is relieving from starting?

Though the objective of getting hitters out is the same, starters are asked to work every five days for 6-plus innings a stint. Relievers don’t have the luxury of planning around every fifth day; they must be available on short notice to pitch only to a few hitters at a time.

But even to the trained scouting eye, starters and relievers don‘t differ as noticeably as a third baseman does when compared to a center fielder. Every scout and coach on earth would concur that Scott Rolen and Joe Crede are third basemen. They don’t resemble center fielders like Aaron Rowand or Torii Hunter in any way—in build or in actions. Yet, deciding a reliever from a starter is much more complex and often times the wrong decision is made even by the experts in the industry.

For example, former Cy Young Award winner and closer extraordinaire Eric Gagne was strictly a starter in the minors and struggled in that role in his early big league call-ups by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gagne did not earn a single save during his six-year minor-league career and made only two spot relief appearances compared to 92 starts.

After the 2001 season, the Dodgers offered Gagne to the Toronto Blue Jays in a trade to acquire Cesar Izturis and Paul Quantrill. The Blue Jays asked for righthander Luke Prokopec instead. Gagne was moved to the bullpen by the Dodgers in 2002 and would save 55, 52 and 47 games over the next three seasons.

Not only did the Dodgers fail to identify the struggling starter as an impact closer, but so did the Blue Jays and the other 28 big-league teams who could have acquired him for little in exchange. That Gagne was a Canadian only magnified Toronto’s mistake in not acquiring Gagne.

Though it is very much of an inexact science, there are still various guidelines that I and other scouts have developed over the years to determine which pitchers project best in the bullpen. Here is what I look for when I watch an amateur pitcher:

1. Does he have the raw stuff to get major-league hitters out for an inning? If not, does he have the pitchability to get them out for six?

Simple enough, but I emphasize “stuff”. A starting pitcher needs good stuff, too, but a starting pitcher will go through the order at least twice and be able to “pitch” more. He has the ability to set up hitters and work counts—and even get into a hitter’s head for his next at-bat. A short reliever generally gets by more on stuff than smarts. A Jamie Moyer/Andy Sonnanstine/Greg Maddux-type pitcher can win 15 games a year and be a strong, effective member of a rotation. Despite their fine work as starters, I don’t believe any of that trio would be particularly effective in short relief.

The stuff threshold for a short reliever is higher. But this also does not necessarily mean the pitcher has to be a flame thrower.

While there are more relievers than starters nowadays who come out throwing 95 mph or more, there are also good short relievers with average or less velocity; in those instances, they must have plus movement or a plus off-speed pitch. Ex-San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has pitched the last 5-6 years of his career with a fastball that hardly ever touches 90 mph, but he gets good movement on his fastball and his changeup is one of the best all-time.

Whether it’s hard stuff or soft, it has to be good enough to shock a lineup that has just finished up with a worn-down starter. As a rule of thumb, I look for a short reliever to have at least one average and one plus pitch that works for an inning.

2. Is his stuff better in the bullpen than as a starter?

If you have the luxury of seeing a pitcher work in both roles, pay attention. Most pitchers can throw harder with even better stuff out of the bullpen because they don’t have to pace themselves; they can let it all out for three batters and go home.

But there are some pitchers who don’t throw harder or flash better stuff. Some pitchers work better with four days preparation and some lack the resilience to pitch two days in a row and be effective on both.

My best case study is Francisco Rodriguez, aka. K-Rod, the exceptional former Los Angeles Angels closer who just signed as a free agent with the New York Mets. Though the Angels used him strictly as a starter in his first three professional campaigns, Rodriguez showed much better stuff coming out of the pen in the Arizona Fall League following the 2001 season.

His lack of command wasn’t as noticeable in short bursts because his fastball and hard curveball were so dominant that hitters couldn’t lay off them. The year before, at age 19, he had a 5.38 ERA in 20 starts for high Class A Rancho Cucamonga. Once he moved to the pen in 2002, history was made.

If you’re scouting a college or high school pitcher who works strictly in one role or the other, you do not have the luxury of seeing how different his stuff is between them. In that case, you are almost forced to experiment in pro ball and see what role a pitcher is better suited.

3. Does he have the durability to be a starter?

A starter normally works 120-plus innings a year in the minors and is expected to go 180-plus innings in the bigs. A reliever may work 50 innings in the minors and then no more than 90 as a big leaguer. A reliever is never expected to go six or more innings at a time; most stop at two unless they’re a swingman or long-reliever type.

That formula seems easy enough. Just put the durable arms in the rotation and the breakdowns in the pen. The hard part, though, is determining who’s going to get hurt and many a draft-day decision has gone wrong in trying to assess it.

Mechanics are universally accepted as the primary indicator in determining a pitcher’s future durability. But there is much debate in the scouting community over what makes mechanics good or bad. I have spoken to numerous scouts and pitching coaches over the years and the one common objective is to avoid stress on the shoulder and elbow.

The shoulder and elbow are virtually the only arm-injury sites for a pitcher. Rarely, if ever, do you hear of a pitcher with a wrist injury or even a damaged finger. Shoulders and elbows end careers.

While it is beyond the scope of this column to discuss mechanical specifics, I will say that I watch a pitcher with that very mindset. I determine how much of the load his overall delivery carries and how much is left to those two primary joints. Pitchers with powerful legs and strong core muscles tend to absorb the punishment there instead of with their more vulnerable shoulders and elbows.

The other tell-tale red flag is history. Pitchers who have already broken down in high school or college are reasonably considered more vulnerable to injury in the future. Nevertheless, there are numerous exceptions, both ways. Regardless of what they look like on the outside, some pitchers simply have stronger tendons and ligaments on the inside than others. It is a fact of human physiology, but something that we do not know how to measure empirically.

One other aspect of projecting durability is more mercurial to decipher. That is the pitcher’s work ethic.

A pitcher with bad mechanics or a weak-appearing body will often pitch longer because he takes care of himself in the gym and with his diet. Just the same, there are pitchers who are more blessed naturally but do little to maintain themselves to a high standard. As part of their workup on a pitcher’s makeup, scouts are well-advised to consider a pitcher’s work ethic as it pertains to his ability to avoid and recover from injury in the long run.

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, forever the poster boy of pitching longevity, was a product of great genetics but he also had a legendary work ethic. It’s very possible that other big leaguers have had the same ligament and tendon structure as Ryan, but it was his work ethic that allowed him to still be a power pitcher at age 46 while others were in slings at 35.

Pitchers not named Nolan Ryan can still last for many years pitching in short relief. The injury rate in that role is nowhere near as high as for a starter because the workload is so much less.

4. Does he have a closer mentality?

What is a closer mentality? I touched on this topic in another column and it essentially boils down to how a pitcher thrives under pressure. He wants the ball with the game on the line and that environment brings out the best in him.

Beyond that, he has to have a short memory. Even the best closers will blow a save, or a game, once in a while. Brad Lidge (Phillies, 2008) and Gagne (Dodgers, 2003) may not have blown a save in their “perfect seasons”, but they did have subpar outings. Nevertheless, they were able to put the rare rough outing out of their mind and come back the next time with all the aggression and determination they normally bring to the mound.

Think of two of the great post-season home runs in recent baseball history. Dodgers pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson in Game One of the 1988 World Series and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in Game Five of the 2005 National League Championship Series. Let’s also throw in a bloop single by Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez in 2001 to give his team the come-from-behind, walk-off win in Game Seven of the World Series.

Those famous hits came off Dennis Eckersley, Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera, respectively. Three of the greatest closers to ever play the game. All went on to greater seasons after being victimized on baseball’s grandest stage.

Most relievers would crumble under such highly-exposed devastation, but these three proved their mettle and provided a perfect illustration of the mentality needed to succeed in a closer role.

But remember, a reliever who lacks the desired closer mentality can still be successful as a middle or set-up man.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In part III of our series on closers, we’ll take a close-up look on the best closer candidates in the 2009 draft class.
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