Predicting 3 Relievers Who Could Get Opportunity to Be Closers in 2014
As the World Series comes to a close, MLB shifts its focus to the upcoming offseason and the free agency that comes with it.
There are a fair few talented closers who will become available this winter, but there aren't enough to meet the demand in the league right now.
Instead, some relievers will be asked to step into roles as closers, making the transition from a seventh- or eighth-inning pitcher to the go-to guy for the team that signs them.
Let's take a look at the three guys who deserve a chance to move from middle reliever to closer.
*Note: This list is solely made up of relievers who have not been closers before. Any pitcher with 10 or more save opportunities in any given season was not eligible for this list.
3. Javier Lopez
Weight: 220 pounds
2013 Stats: 69 GP, 39.1 IP, 1.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 1 SV, 14 HLD, 0 BLSV, 37 K, 12 BB, 0.8 WAR
Javier Lopez has been one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball since 2010.
After leaving the Boston Red Sox, Lopez developed into a talented reliever for the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants. He then took the next step last season, becoming an elite reliever in his 69 appearances.
Lopez was highly effective in 2013 due to his ability to induce ground balls. According to Fangraphs, Lopez forced batters to ground out 61 percent of the time.
It's tough to hit Lopez hard and in the air because he is so good at getting batters to ground out. He also allowed a microscopic 0.23 home runs per nine innings, surrendering just one dinger all season and just two since the 2010 season.
The problem with having Lopez as a closer is that he doesn't have the power that most closers have. His average fastball velocity was 86.2 mph in 2013, maxing out at 90.1, per Fangraphs.com.
Lopez's success stems from his nasty slider, which held opponents to a mere .166 batting average last season. He has nice break on his pitches, which is what has helped him dominate lefties.
Unfortunately, Lopez has become known as a lefty expert. Of the 144 at-bats that opponents had against Lopez, only 54 (37.5 percent) came against righties.
What's worse, the righties who faced Lopez were very successful.
As you can see, righties batted just under .300 against Lopez, compared to lefties batting just over .150. Lefties also put up better power numbers, and having to face righties will hurt Lopez a bit.
However, Lopez has been improving against righties, and he deserves the chance to take over as closer for an MLB team in 2013.
2. Craig Breslow
Weight: 190 pounds
2013 Stats: 61 GP, 59.2 IP, 1.81 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 0 SV, 14 HLD, 1 BLSV, 33 K, 18 BB, 1.6 WAR
Craig Breslow might be the smartest reliever in baseball, and he knows how to use it to his advantage.
The Yale graduate pitched for the Boston Red Sox this season, and manager John Farrell praised him as one of the smartest people he's ever met.
Fellow bullpen arm Brandon Workman even gives Breslow credit for his routine, via Lindsay Berra of MLB.com:
He's the guy I go to for advice about everything, from how much to tip certain people to what I'm supposed to wear on the plane to how I need to get myself ready to pitch in a game. In the bullpen, he's taught me to find a routine that works for me and do it every single day, so I can stay consistent and know how I'm going to feel out there on the mound every day.
Breslow is certainly going to help whichever team he signs with this offseason, but he could do more than simply be an arm and a mentor.
Thanks to his incredible command with his fastball, Breslow can use his 89.5 mph pitch (per Fangraphs) as a weapon in all situations.
Breslow's routine has contributed to his exceptional fastball command, which has turned a pitch that tops out at 92 mph into a weapon and allows him to be successful against both lefties and righties. For Breslow, that pitch is always the same, be it three hours before game time off flat ground, in the bullpen warming up before the seventh inning, or throwing live against sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, who flew out to lead off the eighth inning against Breslow in Saturday's Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.
His two-seamer is his bread and butter, and Breslow throws it often. Of his 842 pitches this season, 307 have been two-seamers, and opponents are batting just .205 when he throws it. With his precise command, Breslow can paint the corners with his pitches.
Breslow's incredible understanding of the game and his ability to consistently throw his pitches are what make him special.
Whereas many relievers try to overpower their opponents, Breslow consistently outsmarts them and makes even the best hitters in the game look foolish at times.
While he isn't going to dominate hitters, Breslow is a good option at closer because of his unique ability to find and take advantage of weaknesses.
1. Jesse Crain
Weight: 215 pounds
2013 Stats: 38 GP, 36.2 IP, 0.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 0 SV, 19 HLD, 1 BLSV, 46 K, 11 BB, 2.4 WAR
Jesse Crain was arguably the best reliever in baseball before he got injured this season, but he could be in for a bigger role next season.
Crain was a dominant force in the bullpen for the Chicago White Sox for the last three seasons, but now he'll have the opportunity to test the free-agent waters.
He was phenomenal last season, allowing just three earned runs all year and not surrendering a single home run.
While Crain wasn't as good at inducing ground balls as Lopez (34.8 percent ground balls, according to FanGraphs), his stuff was good enough that opponents failed to make solid contact.
The key to Crain's success is the difference in velocity between his pitches.
|Pitch||Min. Velocity||Max. Velocity||Avg. Velocity||BAA|
As you can see, Crain sets opponents up with a blazing fastball. He then counters with a hard-breaking slider and a creeping curveball that is 21.5 mph slower than his fastball.
While Crain's curveball wasn't as effective as normal in 2013, he typically allows opponents to hit just .187 against his big bender, according to Fangraphs. If he can bring back his curve and have it be as effective as normal, while coupling it with his success from 2013, Crain will be deadly in 2014.
Crain is simply the best reliever available this offseason, and it's about time he got his chance to close games for the lucky team that signs him.
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