Pittsburgh Pirates: Is Joel Hanrahan the Best Closer in the National League?

Bleacher ReportContributor IIIJune 29, 2011

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 22:  Joel Hanrahan #52 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during the game on June 22, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Joel Hanrahan earned his 23rd save of the season for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, and lowered his ERA to 1.21 in the process. Hanrahan's impressive performance last season—he had a 12.92 K/9—was overshadowed in the media by Evan Meek's low lucky season, but the Pirates organization made correct decision in appointing Hanrahan as the closer.  

This season Hanrahan has posted a xFIP of 2.68 (11th best among qualified relievers), which is almost identical to his 2.64 mark last season. His strikeout rate has dropped from last season to 7.71 K/9, but this drop has nothing to do with diminished stuff as he his averaging 97.3 mph on his fastball (the highest of his career). He has changed his approach by throwing less sliders (38.7 to 15.6 percent), the lowest of is career. The change in approach has allowed Hanrahan to cut down on his walk rate from 3.36 BB/9 in 2010 (4.35 for career) to 1.93.

The increased use of his fastball (61 to 84.4 percent) has transformed Hanrahan to a ground-ball dominant pitcher. He has posted a career high ground-ball rate at 54.6 percent (42 percent last season), and a career low fly ball rate of 26.8 percent (40.1 percent last season). Furthermore, his slider and fastball have gained some more downward movement in 2011.

Hanrahan's slider is one of the best in baseball, check out my top 10 sliders of 2010 piece , and it is encouraging to see Hanrahan becoming a more complete pitcher by using the pitch less frequently. He can rely on the pitch in high leverage situations if needed, and the decreased usage will benefit his arm in the long term. I would like to see him pitch in playoff-like high leverage situations before anointing him the best closer in the National League, but his statistics over the last two seasons put him in the discussion.