Closer-By-Committee Brings More Questions Than Answers
Bob Toth | On 11, May 2014
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona has been extremely patient with the slew of slumping players filling his roster this season.
Quiet bats have remained at or near their spots in the lineup. Nick Swisher has stayed at the top of the batting order in the two and three spots, despite hitting .203 on the season. Carlos Santana is marred in another lengthy hitting slump after briefly breaking out of a 3-for-59 skid, all while remaining firmly planted in the cleanup spot. Few on the offensive side of the ball have been exempt from slumps in the early season.
The pitching staff has not been granted quite the same luxury and, on Saturday, Francona made his second significant pitching change of the season when he announced that reliever John Axford had been taken out of his closer’s role.
The position will be filled in the immediate by the dreaded “closer by committee”.
Axford becomes the second pitcher to lose his job on the team, following Carlos Carrasco’s demotion from the starting rotation. Carrasco is now relegated to mop up duty, appearing in just three games in relief since moving into the bullpen. He has worked just four and one-third innings as a reliever, including five outs in Saturday night’s blowout.
Axford threw a season-high 31 pitches on Friday night, entering the game with a four-run lead in a non-save situation. He struck out each of the first two hitters of the ninth, but then allowed two walks and two doubles and exited with the bases loaded. He threw a total of 14 strikes in the appearance.
In his previous three outings, he worked a total of two and one-third innings, walking four while striking out three. He surrendered four runs on four hits, including a pair of home runs. He had thrown a total of 102 pitches in the span of five days. He was charged with losses on May 4th and May 5th, blowing a save on Sunday against the Chicago White Sox before giving up the deciding home run to lead off the tenth inning Monday against the Minnesota Twins. He earned the win on Wednesday night with a scoreless ninth in a tie game, ultimately decided on Mike Aviles’ walk-off single in the bottom of the inning.
In the last seven days, he has worked four innings, given up five runs on six hits, walked six, and struck out six. He has an ERA in that span of 11.25 and a WHIP of 3.00.
Prior to this week, Axford had gotten the job done in eight of his nine save opportunities. The experiences, however, were not always smooth sailing. On the season, he has a 1-3 record with a 4.91 ERA. Opposing hitters are batting .236 against him, including a .303 mark by lefties. He is averaging 1.77 walks and hits per nine innings. His control has been suspect at best, as he has issued 13 free passes in 14 2/3 innings pitched. Right-handed hitters have walked against him more than they have struck out, improving their .136 batting average against him with a .345 on-base percentage.
A change was due.
“We talked to Ax and we told him that, ‘hey, man, for now, we’re going to kind of get you out of that role and try to get you in some situations where we can get you on a roll again,” said Francona Saturday.
The committee approach seems to be Francona’s way of trying to find the ideal man for the job in a trial-by-fire approach. He may also be reluctant to mess with things in the back end of the bullpen, just as the team had to do last season when Chris Perez was hurt and ineffective, Vinnie Pestano was unable to fulfill the role, and Joe Smith became a jack-of-all-trades reliever in any of the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings.
He realistically is hoping that Axford can find the stuff he rediscovered in the latter portions of last season after his trade from the Milwaukee Brewers to the St. Louis Cardinals, and quickly, before having to make any longer-term and permanent changes to the relief roles on the club.
Rather than to create chaos for multiple members of the bullpen, why not just appoint one man for the job, even temporarily, when there are candidates deserving?
For the last several years, Cody Allen has been talked about as a potential closer-of-the-future, especially following the demise of Perez and the decline of Pestano.
It was presumed the job was Allen’s to lose in the early offseason, that is, until Axford was inked to a two-year deal. Even then, there was a level of comfort for those fans of the team knowing that Allen was in tow in the event that Axford returned to poor form, rather than the form that led the National League with 46 saves in 2011.
Here we are.
Allen has been more than reliable for the Tribe out of the bullpen, primarily as the man Francona has looked to in the eighth inning. Of the three different innings he has worked, it has easily been his most successful, as he has limited the opposition to a .195 batting average with 18 strikeouts and three walks in eleven innings.
He has handcuffed left-handed hitters to a .107 batting average while striking out 15 of the 31 lefties he has faced while walking just two. He has struggled more against right-handers, allowing a .346 batting average against them, with nine of the 12 hits he has allowed on the season to come against them.
He has allowed four runs on the year and just three of them were earned. They all came in the ninth inning of his lone loss this season, a 4-1 final in San Francisco that ended on a game-winning walk-off home run by Brandon Hicks.
Allen has the stuff to close out games. His fastball tops out at 97 miles per hour, averages 95, and is responsible for nine of his 22 strikeouts this season. His curveball floats in the mid-80s and has been hit just twice this season for base hits (.105 batting average allowed with the pitch). Ten times it has induced a strikeout. He has moved away from the slider he used frequently in 2012 and now will scatter in a knuckle-curve.
Bryan Shaw got the call on Tuesday to work the ninth inning, earning the first save by an Indians closer this season other than Axford. It was not perfect, as he allowed an unearned run courtesy of an Asdrubal Cabrera error with two outs in a three run game, but after a double, Shaw worked a pop out to end it. Axford was not used after pitching in both Sunday’s and Monday’s losses.
Shaw has an extra year of Major League experience under his belt, but not a substantial amount of additional save opportunities. In save situations this season, he has allowed four hits in 20 at bats and struck out four.
His splits are polar opposite of Allen’s. He has limited right-handed batters to just two hits in 43 plate appearances (a .054 batting average allowed) with ten strikeouts and three walks. Left-handers, however, are hitting .393 against him with eleven hits in 28 at bats.
He is 1-0 on the season with a 1.53 ERA. He has worked in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. He has allowed five runs, three earned, in 17 2/3 innings on the year scattered over 19 games, most in the American League and second-most in all of baseball.
Shaw relies on a cutter as his primary pitch with a slider to offset. He will also use a fastball, curveball, and changeup about evenly over the course of the season. His cutter sits anywhere from the high-80’s to low-90’s and is his go-to strikeout pitch, even though its velocity is down slightly in the early going this season compared to his average for the pitch last season. His slider is almost a dozen miles per hour slower on average than the cutter.
Few of the other relievers in the bullpen are even worthy of consideration for the ninth inning role.
Marc Rzepczynski is best utilized as a LOOGY or shorter effort guy on the mound and his numbers emphasize that this season alone. He has struck out eight of the 24 left-handed batters he has faced, allowing two walks and three singles for a .136 batting average against him. Eleven of the 28 right-handed batters he has faced have reached base successfully (six hits, four walks, one hit by pitch). He has struck out just four of them while the opponents are hitting .261.
For the season, he is 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 18 games. He has worked a total of 13 innings, allowing three runs on nine hits with 12 strikeouts and six walks.
Scott Atchison is one of the few relievers who can provide Francona with multiple innings. At 38 years of age, he is easily the elder statesmen of the Cleveland pitching staff and one of just two arms over 30 (Axford – 31). He has struck out 12 batters in 12 games while working 14 1/3 innings. His three earned runs allowed translate to a 1.88 ERA. His save experience is minimal, as he has earned just one save at the Major League level (while with Boston in 2011) and had 21 in 13 minor league seasons.
While there are those who are vocal about the significance and benefits of the closer in baseball, it appears to be quite important for pitching staffs to have a clear indication of their roles on the team. The closer can be the most temperamental and difficult of the bunch to fill because the negative results show up loudest in the loss column.
Rarely do the closer-by-committee options remain so over the course of an entire season and it will benefit the Indians to resolve the closer role as soon as they can to provide the staff with an idea of just what roles they will need to be in. Whether Allen or Shaw steps in to assume the role, and for just how long, or whether Axford is able to rest up and adjust his mechanics to where they need to be, remain to be seen.
It may be a possibility that Francona uses Allen more frequently when the lineup is favoring left-handers for the ninth and Shaw when those due up are of the right-handed persuasion, playing to each of their statistical strengths.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images