Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Closers By Creation, Twins Making It Work

Rewind back a few years and the Minnesota Twins knew who would be getting the ball in the 9th inning. For a long time, the answer was Eddie Guardado. The man nicknamed "Every Day" passed the torch to Joe Nathan, and it was then turned over to Minnesota native Glen Perkins. In recent years though, Minnesota has needed to get more creative. As they have done so though, it seems they've consistently created closers out of thin air.

In 2015, Kevin Jepsen was Minnesota's answer to Perkins breaking down. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays, he racked up 15 saves despite having just five across 315 appearances to that point. Then again, a year later, Brandon Kintzler emerged. The long time Brewers veteran picked up his first save since minor league ball, and he would go on to run off 44 more up until July 2017. Over the course of three years, Minnesota had consistently created closers out of thin air.

Should this tell us anything, it's likely that the narrative be closers are overvalued, and underutilized. The save is a statistic that places more importance on the 9th inning of a ball game, despite their being no evidence that it actually is. Sure, the game comes to a close when a team is winning after the 9th, but the game likely was decided long before that. In having a pitcher designated to get the final three outs, one of your best relievers may have missed the opportunity to get a much more important trio of outs earlier in the contest.

It really doesn't matter whether or not a big league team has a "Proven Closer," and holds even less importance for a team not destined for the Postseason. That being said, the Twins appear on a path to again create an asset and this time it's in the form of Matt Belisle. The question is, are the pieces there to make it work?

Unlike Kintzler before him, Belisle is not a groundball machine, and he tends to miss some bats. The former throws harder than the latter however, and they both leave something to be desired in a high leverage situation. For Belisle though, there's a few things working in his favor.

During 2017, Matt Belisle has racked up strikeouts at a 7.5 K/9 clip. That mark is his best total since 2013, and the third highest total of his career. While he does induce groundballs 43% of the time, Belisle uses a low 90's fastball to generate swings and misses over 10% of the time (for just the second season of his career). He's giving up contact at a career low 78% of the time, and balls are being hit hard a respectable 27% of the time.

The beginning of the season didn't go well for the 37 year-old veteran. Through his first 17.2 IP, he owned an ugly 8.66 ERA and was allowing opposing hitters to post an .833 OPS. His last 27.0 IP however have been a different story. He's posted a 1.67 ERA and opposing batters have posted just a .598 OPS. Suggesting it's been a tale of two seasons is more than fair.

Down the stretch, the Twins will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Having been sellers at the deadline, they realize the uphill battle doesn't seem in their favor. With such an ugly run differential, regression should be expected to hit hard. However, with 52 games remaining as of August 8, the club has exactly half of those contests against teams with sub .500 records.

As the summer turns into fall, Matt Belisle should be expected to get most of the Twins save opportunities. He's absolutely the veteran candidate that manager Paul Molitor falls in love with. In closing out games, Belisle is hardly a worse option than either of the previous two created closers. Whether or not anything more than a handful of saves comes out of his work in the 9th remains to be seen, but for now the Twins have again created from within.

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