“The best way to predict the future is to study the past, or prognosticate.” Robert Kiyosaki
When I saw that Jason Motte had signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs, it immediately jogged my memory to all of the closer reclamation projects of Tampa Bay’s past. Is it a coincidence that one of the first things the Dodgers have done under Andrew Friedman regime is clearing house in their bullpen trying to get rid of the salary burden? For years, the Rays built their bullpens with players who were discarded or unwanted by other clubs. As romantic and whimsical as all of this sounds, it also makes trying to predict what Joe Maddon will do with his closer as difficult as any manager in baseball.
In his nine-year tenure as the Rays skipper, only Fernando Rodney led the team in saves for two seasons in a row. Over those years the average age of the team’s leader in saves was 32.5 years old and if you take out J.P. Howell and Jake McGee who were thrust into the role to replace Troy Percival and Grant Balfour respectively, the number jumps to 34.3 years old. Speaking of coincidence (and this is bad news for Jake McGee), but the only two pitchers to lead the Rays in saves during Maddon’s tenure in Tampa Bay required surgery the next season. Reports that McGee’s surgery was just for loose bodies should relieve his fantasy owners in keeper leagues, but it took Jeremy Hellickson until July to return from a similar procedure.
How do we delve into the mind of Maddon and predict what his bullpen will do in 2015? For some clarity and to justify my research on his tendencies in Tampa, here are the leaders in saves over his time with the Rays:
2006: Tyler Walker 10 Saves, 16/7 K/BB, 4.95 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
2007: Al Reyes 26 Saves, 89/31 K/BB, 4.75 ERA, 1.21 WHIP
2008: Troy Percival 28 Saves, 38/27 K/BB, 4.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
2009: J.P. Howell 17 Saves, 79/37 K/BB, 2.84 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
2010: Rafael Soriano 45 Saves, 57/14 K/BB, 1.73 ERA, 0.80 WHIP
2011: Kyle Farnsworth 25 Saves, 51/12 K/BB, 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP
2012: Fernando Rodney 48 Saves, 76/15 K/BB, 0.60 ERA, 0.78 WHIP
2013: Fernando Rodney 37 Saves, 82/36 K/BB, 3.38 ERA, 1.34 WHIP
2014: Jake McGee 19 Saves, 90/16 K/BB, 1.89 ERA, 0.90 WHIP
Off all of the above pitchers, Jason Motte has similarities with Troy Percival and Fernando Rodney in regards to his signing with the Cubs. At a relative low cost of 4.5 million dollars with incentives to close games, Motte is a chance worth taking.
If the Cubs are going to build toward contention they need a veteran presence in the bullpen to not only groom the up and coming pitchers but to set the tone for the other relievers. Only two years ago Jason Motte closed out 42 games for the Cardinals before requiring Tommy John surgery in May of 2013. Looking at his pitches thrown and batting averages against in 2012 versus 2014 show some changes, but being only a year removed from TJS, he still threw with good velocity:
Jason Motte 2012:
Fastball: 97.9 MPH, 59% Usage, .182 BAA
Sinker: 96.3 MPH, 13% Usage, .219 BAA
Change: 84.9 MPH, 2% Usage, .000 BAA
Cutter: 92.4 MPH, 26% Usage, .215 BAA
Jason Motte 2014:
Fastball: 95.1 MPH, 50% Usage, .245 BAA
Sinker: 93.6 MPH, 3% Usage, .000 BAA
Change: 89.7 MPH, 8% Usage, .000 BAA
Cutter: 89.7 MPH, 38% Usage, .400 BAA
In 2014 Motte relied much more on his cutter than in 2012. Further, he threw only 13 sinkers in 2014 as opposed to 156 in 2012. It will be interesting to see what pitches he uses with the Cubs this year and how much of his velocity he can recover moving ahead. It could be addition by subtraction if he can regain his sinker and throw more of them. In 2011, Rodney used his fastball and sinker almost equally. However, when he arrived in Tampa Bay he moved his spot on the pitching rubber and shelved his fastball, resulting in his best season:
Fernando Rodney 2011:
Fastball: 96.3 MPH, 32% Usage, .259 BAA
Sinker: 96 MPH, 31% Usage, .308 BAA
Change: 83.2 MPH, 26% Usage, .191 BAA
Slider: 89.3 MPH, 11% Usage, .217 BAA
Fernando Rodney 2012:
Fastball: 98.2 MPH, 7% Usage, .333 BAA
Sinker: 96.7 MPH, 55% Usage, .227 BAA
Change: 83.2 MPH, 37% Usage, .071 BAA
Slider: 89.8 MPH, 0.5% Usage, .000 BAA
Rodney ditched his slider and primarily used his sinker and changeup to record 48 saves with an ERA and WHIP under 1. What I find interesting are the seasons of not only Motte and Rodney prior to joining Maddon’s team, but Troy Percival’s also. Percival is interesting to take note of as he was returning from a forearm injury at a much more advanced age but still was able to save 28 games with Tampa in 2008:
Troy Percival 2007: 3 W, 34 G, 40 IP, 36/10 K/BB, 1.80 ERA, 0.85 WHIP
Fernando Rodney 2011: 3 W, 39 G, 32 IP, 26/28 K/BB, 4.50 ERA, 1.69 WHIP
Jason Motte 2014: 1 W, 29 G, 25 IP, 17/9 K/BB, 4.68 ERA, 1.52 WHIP
If Jason Motte can regain his velocity or at least his sinker, his three years prior to surgery were pretty impressive:
Jason Motte 2010-2012: 13 W, 53 Sv, 201 G, 192.1 IP, 203/51 K/BB, 2.43 ERA, 0.98 WHIP
Also, over those three years Motte had a K/9 of 9.5 and K/BB of 3.9. However, Joe Maddon has not had a weapon like Hector Rondon who will only be 27 during the 2015 season. While there is speculation that the Cubs need an upgrade at the closer position, it appears that people are missing some out on some of his statistics. Rondon had TJS in 2010 and fractured his elbow in 2011. After being selected in the 2012 Rule V draft by the Cubs he was able to regain his fastball and took over the closer role in 2014 replacing Jose Veras early in the year. His overall stat line passes the eye test, but going deeper into his splits by first and second half, there is a lot to like:
Hector Rondon 2014 totals: 4 W, 4 L, 29 Sv, 64 G, 63.1 IP, 63/15 K/BB, 2.42 ERA, 1.06 WHIP
Hector Rondon 2014 1H: 3.93 ERA, 39/13 K/BB, .259/.324/.311 with .290 wOBA, 10.2 K/9, 3 K/BB
Hector Rondon 2014 2H: 0.62 ERA, 24/2 K/BB, .162/.178/.202 with .170 wOBA, 7.5 K/9, 12 K/BB
In the second half, Rondon traded some strikeouts for contact but the results were something to like as his K/BB quadrupled from 3 to 12. Combine that with a .66 WHIP after the All-Star break and Rondon seemed to be gaining confidence in the role. Oddly enough, he and Jason Motte have similar arsenals:
Hector Rondon 2014:
Fastball: 97.1 MPH, 52% Usage, .222 BAA
Sinker: 96.6 MPH, 22% Usage, .278 BAA
Slider: 84.7 MPH, 17% Usage, .133 BAA
Cutter: 92.4 MPH, 8% Usage, .222 BAA
One area that Rondon does need to improve upon is his ability to enter a game with runners on base and maintain his effectiveness. If he comes in with no one on his slash lines against are .186/.234/.241, but if there are men on those numbers jump to .263/.307/.298. It is difficult to come in and put out a fire in the eighth or ninth inning if the BAA is .263 but that will be up to the Cubs to monitor and consider as he develops in the role. Therein lies the rub, can Rondon start in and maintain the closer role for 2015 in its entirety?
If Rondon starts the year in the role and can avoid early meltdowns, I think Maddon will stick with him as his closer. It has been mused that since the Cubs are spending for pitching like Jon Lester that a big ticket closer will be acquired as well. But a Jonathon Papelbon has never been Joe Maddon’s style and I do not think it will change. In fact, Rondon seems like a player that Maddon would love to take a chance on, so I think Motte is a Cub to fortify the bullpen and to provide insurance in the event that anything happens to Rondon either by injury or effectiveness. Motte will be a popular sleeper heading into the season and that could be justified, but I think this will help keep Rondon’s price below what is should be and make him a value pick entering 2015, as long as we do not tell anyone. Just remind people of the blown saves with runners on for Rondon then steal him late in the draft for auction. Unless Maddon burns us all, Rondon will be the man.
Statistical credits: Baseball-Reference.com, BrooksBaseball.net, Fangraphs.com, MLB.com
Photo cred: http://goo.gl/ZBW4Ln (Rondon), http://goo.gl/WNxj3o (Motte)
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Greg Jewett is The Sports Script’s senior fantasy baseball writer. Follow him on Twitter @gjewett9!