StrategyMay 1, 2013

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Bottom of the 9th: Wait, is that Kevin Gregg?

By R.J. White

Travel back with me to 2010. The top-ten leaderboard in saves is filled with a who’s who of current non-closers: Brian Wilson topped all with 48 saves, and Heath Bell checked in right behind him with 47. Rafael Soriano is third, in what was his virtually out-of-nowhere elite season that drew Cy Young and MVP votes alike. Fourth through eighth includes Joakim Soria, Matt Capps, Francisco Cordero and Neftali Feliz. In a three-way tie for ninth are Jonathan Papelbon — only the second current closer in this top ten — the retired Billy Wagner and Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Blue Jays despite posting an awful 58:30 K:BB ratio.

Kevin Gregg’s 2011 and 2012 weren’t any better than his 2010. He earned 22 saves in 2011 while closing for the Orioles but also threw up a 4.37 ERA, 1.64 WHIP and 53:40 K:BB ratio in 59.2 innings, which is basically like a Carlos Marmol without an elite strikeout rate. Mercifully, he appeared to be done as a closer after becoming even more hittable in 2012 (10.3 H/9 as opposed to 8.7 H/9 in 2011), garnering no saves for the Orioles and seemingly out of any future discussion as a fantasy commodity.

However, no one told the Cubs. Baseball’s favorite hard-luck case signed Gregg to a minor-league deal on April 14, promoted him to the majors on April 16 and gave him his first save opportunity a week later. Over the next week, Gregg recorded three more saves in what was previously labeled a “closer by committee.” Those three saves were perfect: no hits, no walks, four strikeouts in 3.1 innings. So, what gives?

Gregg has seemingly abandoned the cutter he added to his repertoire in 2010. According to Baseball Info Solutions via Fangraphs, Gregg threw the pitch more than a quarter of the time that season and at least 25 percent of the time in each of the following two seasons as well. This year, he’s pumped his fastball usage up to pre-2010 levels while throwing more split-fingered fastballs than ever before to go along with his normal slider. Is the key to his early success ditching the cutter?

When you look at PITCHf/x data, another story emerges. While the cutter is still gone and the splitter is still being thrown more often, more than a third of his fastballs are being classified as sinkers. His 25 percent sinker rate is four times as high as it was in 2012 and even higher than in 2011, the first year he was recorded throwing a sinker. Gregg’s been getting a lot of ground balls this season, and the sinker may be to thank.

However, he isn’t getting a disproportionate amount of ground balls. In fact, his ground ball percentage was higher last season. The big reason for the improvement thus far (which, let’s be honest, is more than a little small-sample-size driven) is his propensity to keep the ball out of the strike zone yet still induce batters to swing. He’s thrown just 30 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, a figure far removed from his 47 percent career rate. Yet he’s still getting swinging strikes almost 10 percent of the time, a rate that equals his 2008 season as his best over the last six years. Batters are swinging at his pitches less than usual, but they’re still swinging enough to let Gregg get ahead in counts — he’s thrown first-pitch strikes 62 percent of the time, his best mark since 2007. Once they’re behind, he can finish them off with more pitches out of the zone.

It’s entirely likely this success will be just a blip on the radar as hitters adjust to the new and improved Kevin Gregg, laying off more pitches out of the strike zone and letting Gregg beat himself. Hopefully for the Cubs, that won’t happen until Kyuji Fujikawa returns to reclaim the closing role. The biggest takeaway from the Gregg-as-closer situation, as I talked about on the weekly Cafe Pod, is that it shows the Cubs have no faith in Carlos Marmol closing right now, despite him not allowing a run in any of the nine games since being removed from the role. It’s a wise move — Marmol has walked six batters in four innings over his last four appearances, and his 1.87 WHIP suggests he’s been more lucky than good over his scoreless streak.

The Cubs may decide to stick with Gregg in the short-term even when Fujikawa returns, at least as long as he’s delivering positive results. However, I remain skeptical Gregg’s new sinker profile will continue to fool hitters all year. We’ll see how effective he is once he’s forced to work more in the strike zone as pitchers study his tape and make the necessary adjustments. His velocity hasn’t gotten any better, so he may have to out-think the hitters once he has to throw strikes. I don’t see it working. I think Fujikawa returns to closing before too long, even if he doesn’t get the job immediately upon activation. I’d be looking to sell high on Gregg wherever possible.

Boston Red Sox

The Boston Globe reported over the weekend that Joel Hanrahan was expected to get his ninth-inning gig back when he returned from the disabled list. That led to incredulous comments from us on the Cafe Pod — hadn’t the Red Sox been watching Andrew Bailey dominate hitters this season? Thankfully, they had. Upon Hanrahan’s activation, Bailey was re-affirmed as the team’s closer for the time being. He’s surrendered just six hits and four walks while striking out 20 in 12.1 innings; he clearly deserves to be the closer. Hanrahan gave up a run on two hits in his first appearance back with the team. If you own him, you’d better have him on the bench. With as well as Bailey is pitching, it might take an injury to get Hanrahan back in the closing role. I wouldn’t necessarily keep him around in standard, 12-team formats.

Arizona Diamondbacks

J.J. Putz has converted just five of nine save opportunities after Tuesday’s loss to the Giants. Should owners be worried? I wouldn’t be, despite his fastball losing a full mile-per-hour in the early-going. Putz has given up three home runs already this season, yet he’s drawing more ground balls than he has in a long time. He hasn’t induced ground balls on more than 50 percent of his batted balls in a season since 2006, yet he’s doing so 53.1 percent of the time thus far. Putz gave up just four home runs in each of the previous three years, throwing more than 50 innings in each season. This year, he’s given up three in 12.2 innings. I might be looking to buy low on Putz from a panicked owner. Just in case, David Hernandez needs to be owned in all leagues — he’s already one of the best setup guys in the game, and he’s likely be a top-10 closer if Putz is revealed to be dealing with an injury and de-activated as a result.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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