Sunday, August 12, 2007

Closer by Committee?

This from the Trib:

DENVER -- When Lou Piniella got Ryan Dempster to warm up in the seventh inning of Friday night's game at Coors Field, Bob Howry was scratching his head.

"In all honesty, I thought maybe he forgot what inning it was," Howry said with a laugh.

Dempster wound up pitching the ninth, but Piniella said Saturday that he'll use both Howry and Carlos Marmol as the Cubs' closer at times, sharing the role with Dempster.

Piniella said Dempster isn't throwing as well as he did before a trip to the disabled list. "And how do you get it back? By getting work. And sitting in the closer's role, how many times can you work? So I talked to him, and he's very agreeable to it. He's a good team guy.

"So you can see him in the seventh, you can see him in the eighth, you can see him in the ninth. He needs more work, and in the closer's role, you don't always get it. We'll use him in the late-inning mix with the other two. Sometimes he'll close. Sometimes we'll get him in there sooner."

Piniella refused to call it a closer-by-committee.

"Look, you can call it anything you want," he said. "But the fact is we can close with any of those three pitchers, and probably with Howry over Marmol because of the experience, and he's throwing the ball exceedingly well."

Lou can call it whatever he wants, but if this is the plan, then it is by all means a closer-by-committee. Not that anyone should be surprised he refuses to call it that. The closer-by-committee is an idea that hasn’t been received very well in the baseball community. In theory, it’s a strategy that should work quite well-- playing percentages and matchups rather than being handcuffed to a designated ninth inning man. Unfortunately, in the rare instances it’s been utilized in recent years, it has yielded middling results at best.

However, I think Lou is on the money with this call.

Ryan Dempster has his merits as a pitcher. For one, he’s been extremely effective against right-handed batters throughout his career-- since 2005 they’ve hit a meager .218/.296/.290 against him. And a relief pitcher who strikes out better than 8 batters per nine innings certainly has his uses. However, his work against lefthanders (.286/.394/.401 since ’05), and shaky command (4.56 BB/9 since ’05) make him a poor candidate to close games. The Cub blogosphere has been aware of this for quite some time now. In fact, it was just a couple months ago I advocated taking advantage of market misconceptions by dealing an overrated Dempster. At the time I realized it was highly unlikely that the Cubs would make such a deal. But my biggest point was that Dempster simply was not a good fit as a closer. In light of his recent struggles (8IP, 13H, 8BB, 5.63 ERA since activation from the DL) the Cubs finally decided to make a change.

For my money, Bob Howry is the Cubs’ best ninth-inning option. As a closer, pitching with a small margin of error is part of the job description. As a result, the most important traits of a closer are a strong strikeout rate, walk rate, and HR rate. The only Cubs reliever who possesses all three of these traits is Howry. Over the course of the past ten years, Howry has accumulated a 7.73 K/9, 3.00 BB/9 (2.17 BB/9 ’04-’06), and a 0.97 HR/9. Howry’s K rate might be a tick lower than you’d like in a closer, but his walk and HR rates are nothing short of elite. Since seeing his BABIP normalize in a big way, Howry has been extremely effective.

The X-factor in the discussion is Carlos Marmol. Since he burst onto the scene earlier this year, many Cub fans have been wondering if Marmol could be the answer at closer. With a staggering 12.38 K/9, and 1.83 ERA, you could hardly blame anyone for at least suggesting he could do it. Unfortunately, after walking only 16 batters in his first 32 2/3 IP, Marmol’s walk rate has predictably regressed much closer to his minor league walk rate of 3.9 BB/9. At 4.47 BB/9, his control is hardly better than Dempster’s, if at all.

Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how Lou plays this one out. I know I’ll be paying close attention to who exactly these guys get matched up against. But of course, this will all be one big moot point if the Cubs keep playing the way they have lately.

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