This time last season, the fan base and the club had the luxury of knowing who was going to get the ball in the ninth inning when the Rays had the lead. The emotions surrounding the closer role range anywhere from a comfort level to the casual fan to inconsequential for the statistically-grounded fans who understand that leverage exists in more than just the ninth inning.
Maddon has made one thing quite clear this off-season, the Rays are going to start the season with the controversial closer-by-committee situation. When people hear that phrase, they immediately jump back to the 2003 Red Sox who, despite having ten different pitchers complete a save that season and making it all of the way to the 7th game of the ALCS that year, were considered failures for implementing the policy. "If you have 3 closers, you have no closers," so the old saying goes.
Maddon's words have been very consistent over the past two months and he has not shown any kind of favoritism to any one pitcher in the bullpen, but Joel Peralta could quickly earn some favoritism if he can build upon last season's success.
Maddon's words on February 6th:
I have to prepare myself mentally for that because it's really different. To have the one guy at the end of the game allows you to do certain things to get to the ninth innings whereas when you don't, there's different things you have to consider all the time. So it's quite a mental exercise….We have some really good candidates. Some good arms, some guys I don't really know that well that we've got to check out and see what they're capable of doing
His words on February 16th:
I'm going into the season pretty much expecting to go committee-wise. I'm not concerned with that, I'm just saying it's a different way, it's another way
His words on March 17th:
It's just going to be the leverage of the moment, how we get to the ninth inning, who has been used already to make sure that we had a lead going into the ninth inning, I'm liking the way this is looking right now. I think we're going to have several candidates to get the last out. I don't just want to say, 'You're going to get the last out every night,' but on any given night, I think we have the ability to potentially move that last out or last two outs around, based on left-handed or right-handed hitters. Honestly, I'd have no hesitation pitching anybody...
His words on March 24th:
I'm liking the way this is looking right now. I think we're going to have several candidates to get the last out. … Honestly, I'd have no hesitation pitching anybody
If not anybody, why not Joel Peralta? Earlier this month, our friends at TheProcessReport gave us a few reasons why Peralta should not close:
- .271/.345/.525 career splits against lefties
- 2010 as a fluke year with .212/.278/.318
- Extreme flyball pitcher
- More effective as a weapon against tough right-handed batters
Until last season, his lowest opponents' slugging percentage was .564 - a figure that has been topped by only one BATTER in the entire history of the Tampa Bay franchise and that was the .627 number Carlos Pena put up in 2007. Even Jose Canseco's big year in 1999 only equated to a .563 slugging percentage.
The pitch f/x data at Fangraphs shows that Peralta is primarily a three-pitch pitcher: fastball, curve, and a split-fingered fastball. That splitter has been a pitch he has used with more frequency in past seasons; he threw is 17% of the time in 2006 but threw it 23% of the time this past season. He has gone with the pitch with more frequency as he has found better results with it. Due to the limitations of that type of data harvesting, we only have the data breakdown for the past three seasons to look at for pitch results (data courtesy of texasleaguers.com):
Note in the other table that the only other season that Peralta had decent overall success against lefties was in 2008 when he held them to a .247 average with a .330 OBP. When he missed, he missed badly as they still had a .600 SLG% against him - a 353 ISO! Yet, his whiff rate that season on his splitter was 20% which is where he generated most of his swings and misses yet a 1.5 K/BB rate against lefties in 2008 held him back. The process changed in 2010 as he got even more whiffs on his splitter and that was due to pitching mostly ahead in the count as opposed to behind it. Peralta's K/BB rate against lefties in 2010 was double what it was in 2008 as he posted a 3.5 K/BB against them this past season. That is something he picked up in winter ball of all places and spoke about this with Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post last season.
His success owes to his newfound approach. He used to use his fastball to get ahead of batters, then tried to make batters chase his splitter and slider out of the strike zone for outs. This season, Peralta has been throwing more breaking balls early in the count and mixing more fastballs when ahead in the count. The result has been more favorable counts and more defensive swings from batters.
"I've been throwing it for a strike in any count," Peralta said. "I think that's been the difference. Before, I didn't have the confidence I needed to pitch backwards - to pitch breaking stuff first and then finish strong. Right now, it feels like I've been throwing it very good."
So how did a 34-year-old journeyman uncover a new approach? Peralta played winter ball in the Dominican this offseason. "Over there, it's a fastball hitters league," Peralta said. "I knew I had to do something." Desperate to throw something other than a fastball to salivating hitters, he resolved to throw any pitch in any count. Peralta discovered he could have success starting sequences with sliders and splitters. Syracuse pitching coach Greg Booker harped on the same lesson.
That change in process led to improved results in both his pitch results and his overall statistical performance last season. Compare the heat maps for his aforementioned splitter from 2008, 2009, and 2010 to see where improved location of it helped lead to improved results. You will quickly notice that pitch was getting too much of the heart of the plate in 2009 and he wasn't throwing many chase pitches with it because he was not ahead in the count often enough to make batters chase. That situation was resolved last season and, as a result, his results improved dramatically.
He did not talk about how he worked to improve his command last season but the fact he had the confidence to throw any of his pitches at any point in the count speaks to his ability to command his pitches and his career-best 5.4 K/BB show just how much improved he was as that effort bested his previous career high of 2.4. The fact that he was able to work ahead in the count is crucial to his success because he, like many relief pitchers, is not good when he's working from behind. The table below shows Peralta's results when pitching from behind in the count.
Peralta's success in 2010 was a melting pot of factors. He vastly improved the command of his pitches, he changed the process of how he approached batters, and with a pinch or two of luck mixed it all together into a breakout season as a reliever. For his efforts, he was surprisingly non-tendered by the Nationals who must have feared he was a one-year fluke rather than a changed man. Certainly, some regression is to be expected for Peralta, but the switching of leagues should help him a bit as old faces see a new process. The Nationals' loss would appear to be a gain for the Rays who sorely needed the relief help who appears to have a lot of the same qualities these days that endeared J.P Howell to Joe Maddon the last time the closer role needed to be filled.