Should Gagne be Milwaukee’s closer?

1 04 2008

After Eric Gagne had his well-chronicled meltdown yesterday against the Chicago Cubs, people have begun to question whether or not he should be the closer for the Milwaukee Brewers.  People are certainly overreacting because of one bad outing, but is there something behind this?

Gagne is far removed from his insane streak of successfully closed games and when he nickname was “Game Over.”  In Texas last season, however, he proved that he could still get three outs in the ninth inning to close games.  The Boston Red Sox then acquired him from the Rangers at the trading deadline, and Gagne struggled mightily.  He was not a closer for Boston.  Ned Yost and Doug Melvin have said that his struggles were because of this role change.  Closers are meant to be closers, I guess.

The numbers suggest that Gagne still has the stuff to be a closer.  Even when he came undone in Boston during the second half of the season last year, he still averaged over one strikeout per inning.  His change-up is still one of the best in the game, and his curveball is better than advertised.  Sometimes (like yesterday) his fastball tends to be very straight, and thus, very hittable.  In addition, his walk rate is relatively low.  He walks about .41 batters per inning, while Derrick Turnbow walks an average of .624 batters per inning.  Opponents’ on-base percentage is thus much lower than that of Turnbow’s.

Much of Gagne’s struggles yesterday came from the uncharacteristic loss-of-command, and an over-reliance on his fastball.  Once Kosuke Fukudome hit his three-run shot to tie the game at three-apiece, Gagne threw nothing but change-ups and curveballs to Mark DeRosa.  I think there is no coincidence that DeRosa was Gagne’s first out of the inning.  Even Felix Pie, who managed to get on-base because of a fielding mishap, harmlessly grounded to Prince Fielder.  That should have ended the inning right there.  Gagne needs to use his change-up and curveball much more often if he expects to have success for the Brewers.

What about the other Milwaukee Brewers pitchers in the bullpen?  What about Derrick Turnbow, Guillermo Mota, Salomon Torres, and David Riske?  Would they be a better fit in the closer’s role?

Derrick Turnbow, in my opinion, is an obvious no.  He is a very fine set-up man, but he walks far too many people to be a reliable closer.  I am not questioning his stuff, which is undeniably electric.  Occasionally, however, he cannot get it over the plate.  That and Brewers fans obvious displeasure with Turnbow rule him out, no matter what Ned Yost and Doug Melvin say.

Salomon Torres potentially could take on the closer’s role, but it would be a waste of his talents.  He is much more of a “rubber armed reliever” that can take the ball three times a week and even go more than one inning if needed.  Strapping him to the closer’s role would deplete the bullpen of an innings’ eater that it so desperately needs.  In addition, I would want my reliever to have an opponent batting average to be under .263 and an on-base percentage of .335.  Throughout his career, he has consistently gotten stronger as the season wears on, and the Brewers would be depriving their bullpen of a reliable middle reliever that can go one or two innings several times a week.  I am not denying that Salomon could do the job, but his struggles as the Pirates’ closer and his high opponent batting average suggests that he is much better served as a 7th inning guy.

Ah, David Riske.  He did come in yesterday to close out the game in the tenth inning, and he cruised to a 1-2-3 inning.  That was most impressive, especially after seeing Gagne struggle in the ninth.  Riske made a good impression on a big stage, but I do not think that he is the answer to be Milwaukee’s closer.  Referring back to the article that categorized relievers, as written by The Baseball Analysts, Riske has a below average strikeout rate for his career, and he is a fly-ball pitcher.  Relievers like that have a fine line to walk, and I do not want to have a closer that could give up a bomb at any time.  In only fifteen more innings of work last season, Riske gave up five more home runs than did Gagne.  Even while struggling in Boston last season, Gagne only gave up two home runs.  Milwaukee needs a closer that will keep the ball in the ballpark.  I know Gagne did not show that capability yesterday, but his career numbers show that he can.  Riske, on the other hand, is more susceptible to the long-ball.  Riske is a fantastic pitcher and he will be invaluable this season, but I believe that he should be the set-up man for the Crew.

On to Guillermo Mota.  I saved him for last because I believe he is the most intriguing pitcher in the Brewers bullpen.  Yes he blew up last season for the New York Mets, but it was very uncharacteristic of Mota.  His opponent batting average was almost thirty points higher than his career average, and one would expect his performance to regress to the mean.  He does not have an above-average strikeout rate, but that trend seems to be changing with the mechanical fix he and Mike Maddux worked on this off-season.  Mota is throwing harder, and his pitches are moving much more.  Guillermo has always been a ground-ball pitcher, which is a positive attribute for a closer.  If his strikeout rates continue to be improved this season, Guillermo Mota would be an excellent candidate to close for Milwaukee.

After all of this analysis, I still believe that Eric Gagne can be successful as the closer for the Milwaukee Brewers.  He needs to be more confident in his off-speed pitches, and I think that he realized this after the Fukudome home run yesterday.  His peripheral stats are the best on the team, and he was very successful last season for the Texas Rangers.  He may take a long time between pitches and may not have a lightning fast fastball, but his change-up and curveball could carry him to a successful season.

If Eric Gagne continues to struggle, however, Ned Yost will most likely ask David Riske to fill the role.  Ned loves the way that Riske throws strikes and is aggressive on the mound, but his fly ball tendencies without a high strikeout count scares me.  If Gagne cannot find the stuff he had last season in Texas, Guillermo Mota could be the unsung hero for the Brewers this season.  Everyone hated the move when Melvin made it, but Doug must have seen something that everyone missed.  Mota has been brilliant this spring and on Opening Day.  Perhaps he will just ride that momentum to the closer’s role.  I hope not though…because that would mean that Eric Gagne’s struggles did not subside.  Milwaukee needs Gagne to succeed.

It may be the optimist in me, but I think he will.  I hope he will.

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5 responses

1 04 2008
Nate

Okay, first of all, it’s one game. NEVER judge a player after one game, it’s the best way to get burned. Second, Gagne didn’t lose the game and pitched a 1-2-3*-4 inning after the 3-run shot. He looked good those last 4* outs unless you count the failed effort to cover first base. However, it could have been a situation in which he thought Prince was closer to first than he really was. Might have been an honest error, may have been Gagne not caring, but he was probably also tired after blowing a save in his first game and covering first probably wouldnt have been the first thing on him mind. The best closers last year blew 7 saves. Give the poor guy a shot before blowing up on him, this is the same reason Turnbow lost his job 2 years ago, is because people stopped letting him pitch and booed every time he walked someone. They have good reason to, but maybe if we encouraged him to get a DP ball instead of booing he could do better.

1 04 2008
gobrewers

I completely agree about Turnbow. His mind is f-ed because of the fans’ responses and such.

Gagne did bring this criticism on himself though. It is only one game, but it was a big game…and Gagne blew it in a big way. I’m sure he’ll be fine, but this talk is justified. Especially since people were talking about this before Gagne threw a pitch Monday.

2 04 2008
Joe

I think that Gagne will have to remain the closer. All the money that is thrown his way is ridiculous. He will settle down and get the job done.

2 04 2008
ned yost

good read

5 05 2008
Round ‘em Up: Monday « BrewersNation

[…] save, I did note that Mota had the best stuff to succeed Gagne as closer if he were to falter. My prognostication looks to be right on there. Not to toot my own horn or […]

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