Orioles' Closer Crisis: A Look at the Top Candidates to Take Over Closing Duties

Zachary Ball@MLBDraftCntdwnAnalyst IJune 27, 2013

Jim Johnson has now blown five saves this season.
Jim Johnson has now blown five saves this season.Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Jim Johnson blew his fifth save of the season last night, giving up two runs on one hit and issuing two free passes that came back to bite him in the butt. To put Johnson's performance in perspective, he blew just three saves all last season on his way to a record campaign that saw him lead the majors with 51.

In itself, five blown saves isn't catastrophic, but when you take into account how Johnson has pitched as a whole with the game on the line this season, it might be time for Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter and the rest of the front office to look in another direction.

Only eight of Johnson's 27 saves have come with the team up by one run, the ultimate clutch situation. In the 13 games that he pitched that were decided by a single run, including those seven one-run saves, Johnson has produced a mediocre stat line that looks like this:

12.1 IP, 15 H, 10 ER, 9 K, 6 BB, 7.30 ERA

That's downright terrible!

He was better in those situations last year, right?

28.2 IP, 18 H, 5 ER, 13 K, 8 BB, 1.57 ERA

Indeed he was.

For one reason or another, Johnson is clearly off his game this season, and the 27 saves aren't really indicative of how he's performed. Yet another point for the argument that saves are overrated.

Twelve of Johnson's saves have come in the form of three-run victories for the Orioles, proving him to be quite the master of the "lazy man's save."

Another indicator of how he's off his game this season is the .254 average against him when he's pitching with a one-run lead. Last year, batters hit a meager .158 off of him in the same situation. 

And last but not least, there's Johnson's stats in clutch situations, specifically when runners are in scoring position with two outs. Last year, batters went 6-for-25 (.240) against him with nine strikeouts. This year has been the polar opposite with batters going 6-for-11 (.545) against him.

If you recall, Johnson pitched terribly last July, serving up 21 hits and 13 earned runs in just 10 innings. He finished the month with an ERA close to 12.00. In every other month he posted an ERA of 2.03 or lower.

He hit a similar rough stretch in May of this season, surrendering 16 hits and 13 earned runs in 12.1 innings, for an ERA of 9.75. With the blown save last night, his ERA for June is now up to 2.19, a respectable number in itself, but one that has been accompanied by five walks, two hit batters and just seven strikeouts. 

Johnson could easily right the ship in his next outing, but he's already cost the O's five victories this season, and it's time to make a change. Heck, those five wins would put them atop the American League East.

So who's the best candidate to replace Johnson as the closer?

Let's take a look.

Tommy Hunter

3-1, 2.13 ERA, 30 GP, 42.1 IP, 29 H, 6 HR, 33/8 K/BB, 0.874 WHIP

Hunter seems the obvious candidate to replace Johnson. He's been arguably the team's top reliever all season, and he has appeared to put his homer-happy days behind him. He has the lowest WHIP of any pitcher on the staff, and he's gotten some really huge outs for the O's. His strikeout rate of 7.0 K/9 is the highest of his career, and it doesn't hurt that he's been able to pull back for a little extra out of the bullpen, regularly touching the upper 90s with his fastball.

Furthermore, Hunter appears to fit the closer profile better than Johnson. Yes, he's a big guy with a blazing fastball but so is J.J. What Hunter has over him, though, is his ability to get strikeouts. Johnson has proven time and time again to be more of a ground-ball pitcher, using his sinking fastball to get hitters to pound the ball into the dirt. 

A starter as recently as last year, Hunter also has the ability to go more than one inning if needed. The O's have been hesitant to give Johnson that same leeway, and as a result he has yet to throw more than one inning since June 5 of last year.

In those same clutch stats that Johnson has performed so terribly in, Hunter has excelled. Batters are 2-for-15 (.133) against him with two outs and runners in scoring position and when he enters a one-run game, batters are hitting just .104 against him.

If anyone is going to get a shot to replace Johnson, it will and should be Hunter.

Darren O'Day

3-0, 2.38 ERA, 36 GP, 34.0 IP, 27 H, 4 HR, 37/9 K/BB, 1.059 WHIP

O'Day has the second-lowest WHIP of any Oriole pitcher, and unlike Hunter, he has a proven track record on the mound. Whereas Hunter is relatively new to the bullpen, taking up relieving full-time just last summer, the 30-year-old O'Day is a life-long reliever with a career 2.68 ERA.

Since coming to Baltimore, O'Day has been better than ever. His 9.4 K/9 as an Oriole is far superior to the numbers he put up in Texas and his walk rate of 2.0 BB/9 is also tops. He actually has a WHIP under 1.000 as an O and owns a 2.32 ERA.

As good as the sidearmer was last season, he's been even better in 2013. His strikeout rate is up, and he's pitching in more clutch situations. He split time between the seventh and eighth inning last year, but he's been mostly an eighth-inning guy this season. And he's been incredible effective, holding batters to a .257 average.

In clutch situations he's been nearly as good as Hunter. Batters are 2-for-14 (.143) against him with two outs and RISP and he's held opponents to a .180 average in one-run situations.

The biggest knock on O'Day has been his recent performance, which has been even worse than Johnson's. In his last four outings, he has given up four runs on six hits in 2.2 innings. He's served up home runs in back-to-back appearances, and his ERA has jumped from 1.44 to 2.38 in that span.

Troy Patton

1-0, 3.97 ERA, 29 GP, 34.0 IP, 38 H, 4 HR, 23/13 K/BB, 1.500 WHIP

Banking on Patton means going with the hot hand.

In his last six outings, the lefty has allowed just six hits while striking out six in seven innings of work. He's allowed no runs and issued no walks. A month ago, Patton's ERA stood at 5.16. Now it sits at a respectable 3.97.

The biggest knock on Patton has been walks. He's already issued 13 on the season, setting a new career high for himself. He issued just 12 free passes last season in 54 appearances spanning 55.2 innings. His walk rate of 3.4 BB/9 is nearly double his career total heading into the 2013 season.

Like both Hunter and O'Day, Patton has been at his best with the game on the line, holding hitters to just two hits in 14 at-bats (.143) with two outs and RISP. In one-run situations, opponents are hitting .207 off him.

Jake Arrieta

1-2, 7.23 ERA, 5 GP, 23.2 IP, 25 H, 2 HR, 23/17 K/BB, 1.775 WHIP

Word on the street is that the Orioles are considering a role change for Arrieta. Surprisingly, he has seemed warm to the idea, likely because he realizes his chances to start for the big-league club are running out, if they haven't already. Seeing the success that former starters Brian Matusz, Jim Johnson and Troy Patton have had, it makes sense to see how Arrieta holds up as a reliever, and now could be the perfect time.

When Arrieta was drafted back in 2007, the common belief was that he would be a dominating presence out of the bullpen, assuming he couldn't hack it as a starter. It appears we have finally reached that point. In 63 career starts, the right-hander is 20-25 with a 5.41 ERA and a WHIP approaching 1.500.

So what makes the O's think Arrieta could be successful out of the bullpen?

Well, for starters there's the fact that he has been at his best in his first inning of work, holding hitters to a .248 average in the first, while posting a 54/19 K/BB ratio. From the second inning on he's, well...just not very good.

Like Hunter, Arrieta has the demeanor and the stuff to close games. It's just a question of whether or not Buck Showalter would trust him with the ball after his failings as a starter.


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