Jon Rauch And the Fungibility of Relief Pitchers

MLB: Twins vs Tigers APR 27

When Joe Nathan went down with Tommy John surgery, the bullpen was seemingly thrown into chaos. Nathan has been one of the best closers in baseball since 2004, and some analysts actually predicted either the Tigers or White Sox would win the division instead. It turns out all of this hand-wringing was for naught: 55 games into the season, the Twins are 32-23 with a 3.5 game lead over the Tigers. After briefly flirting with the notion of using a closer-by-committee approach, Ron Gardenhire decided to name Jon Rauch as his permanent closer. So far the move has paid off, Rauch seems to have taken to the ninth-inning role. Let’s look at some numbers, after the jump:

Reliever A: 2.86 ERA 3.00 tERA 6.14 K/9 1.23 BB/9 0.4 fWAR

Reliever B: 1.47 ERA 2.70 tERA 7.36 K/9 2.45 BB/9 0.3 fWAR

Reliever C: 2.10 ERA 2.29 tERA 11.76 K/9 2.88 BB/9 1.9 fWAR

Reliever A is of course, Jon Rauch. Reliever B is Mariano Rivera v. 2010. And Reliever C is Joe Nathan; more specifically, his 2009 season. So while Rauch hasn’t been quite as good as Mo (though it’s pretty close), and certainly isn’t as good as Nathan, he does throw strikes and doesn’t issue many free passes. Rauch does pitch to contact a little more than one would like while protecting a one-run lead, but he does strike out enough hitters that allowing a few baserunners has hardly been disastrous (he’s successfully converted 14 of 16 save opportunities). Also, it helps that he doesn’t typically face the toughest hitters in the lineup, nor does he usually pitch in high-leverage situations. Contrary to popular belief, the ninth inning is not the highest-leverage situation in the game. Most closers come in with the bases empty and they typically face the weakest part of the lineup: the 7-8-9 hitters. The highest leverage situations in the game are usually in the sixth or seventh inning, when the starter gets tired and is lifted with runners in scoring position and fewer than two outs and the 3-4-5 hitters coming up to the plate (this is also why even the greatest closers in the game generally aren’t worth much in terms of wins above replacement; what they do just isn’t that difficult).

Thus, Neck Tat’s emergence as a reliable closer has actually strengthened the bullpen. One of the biggest concerns regarding the loss of Nathan was actually that Gardy would promote one of his best relievers to the job. This means that lesser relievers, such as Jesse Crain, would suddenly be thrust into much higher-leverage situations than they are suited. I don’t think anyone wants to see Crain face, say, Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded and the Twins ahead by only one run. Having Rauch nail down saves means that guys like Matt Guerrier get to handle high-leverage situations, while the likes of Jesse Crain and Ron Mahay are relegated to mop-up duty.

There is no reason to think the Twins can’t win the Central (and even go deep into the playoffs) with the Tall Man as their closer. I mean, they once made it all the way to the ALCS with Everyday Eddie, yet haven’t made it past the ALDS with Joe Nathan, so clearly having a good closer doesn’t play all that important of a role in postseason success. Besides, as I’ve written earlier, the bullpen is actually the least of the Twins’ problems. Their 3.01 ERA is fourth in all of major-league baseball; their 4.13 xFIP fourth in the AL; their 2.59 BB/9 rate is the best in the AL, and their 2.63 K/BB ratio is second only to Tampa Bay as best in the league. In fact, if anything, they have a surplus of good relief arms, with both Kyle Waldrop and Anthony Slama knocking on the door in AAA.

The front office would probably never even consider it, but Rauch might make good trade bait at the deadline. While he’s been good, there really isn’t anything he can do better than, say, Matt Guerrier (and poor Anthony Slama might finally get his chance). A team would only have to pick up about $1.5 million of his contract, and reliable, cheap relievers are always in demand by contenders looking to bolster their bullpens down the stretch. I doubt the Twins would do it, since Rauch has earned the mystical “closer” title (plus he’s pitching himself into Type-A free agent status, so the temptation to snag a draft pick might be too great to pass up), and that’s a shame. The team could really use another right-handed bat, though it would likely take Rauch + a prospect to get any deal done.

Topics: Anthony Slama, Joe Nathan, Jon Rauch, Kyle Waldrop, Mariano Rivera, Matt Guerrier, Minnesota Twins

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