As Nats fans, the postseason heartache is all too painful with wins turned into losses from BS (Blown Saves) from the Closer spot. Mike Rizzo has tried and tried to upgrade the closer spot and this off-season will prove to be a “wait and see” as to who the presumptive 2016 closer is. Rumors say it could be Aroldis Chapman or it could be Papelbon.
As we did our Bud Black interviews in October, and listened to the Luke Gregerson tape we had, it became clearer that Closers aren’t a finished product until well into their career. Gregerson talked about early failures and learning from it. He talked about evolving and that relievers “must have short memories” as he talked about failures. Besides Eric Gagné who holds the record for consecutive saves, try to find a closer with 25 straight saves without a BS, and there aren’t many.
Can Mike Maddux be the mentor that Storen, Martin, Treinen, Barrett, Grace and Rivero need to reach their full potential as well as youngsters like Koda Glover who looks good in the system. One of the positives if Bud Black took the Manager’s job was his handling of relievers, and Bud had Trevor Hoffman for his last year as a Padre and saw one of the best ever save 42. Then Black transformed Heath Bell into a full-time closer as he became one of the best in baseball and his 3 All-Star seasons were all while Black was his Manager. Then Bud got Huston Street as his closer for 2 1/2 seasons. Now the job of mentor and leader will be with Mike Maddux who Mike Rizzo made the highest paid pitching coach in the Majors.
Most closers begin their careers as starters that are converted to relievers and then converted to closers. Drew Storen comes to mind as a closer at Stanford who was drafted as a closer, and that is rare. Mike Maddux was one of those starters who became a reliever and then a closer then a reliever again. Maddux was drafted and was a starter for the Phillies until he wasn’t anymore as he transitioned to the bullpen and had several roles which included being a closer at times. Being a reliever kept Maddux employed for 14 seasons in the bigs with 9 teams, and he learned how to be resilient and learned along the way.
Maddux has been said to be a better coach than he was as a player, and being the older brother to Greg Maddux has helped him learn from his younger brother. Maddux is big on the science of pitching in proper balance and that’s where it starts. Controlling the body straight through to the release of the ball with command of location as the most important aspect, and that is what Greg Maddux was known for. Maddux said, “if you can’t command your pitches, you probably won’t be successful” and he went on to say that even with top line velocity pitchers who can’t command location (see: Henry Rodriguez and Blake Treinen). Maddux believes in the mental side of pitching also with confidence in believing in your stuff to stay aggressive and not waste pitches that have no chance of looking like a strike. Maddux talks about how command allows you to “command the at-bat”.
Maddux upon being hired by Nats said, “We’ll be prepared. That’s the big thing. We’ll pitch with confidence. Definitely take it to them. That’s the whole mentality, ‘let’s go get ’em’. That’s my philosophy, and that’s why some of [the Nats pitchers] are going to be pretty easy to deal with in that regard. Just be aggressive.”
There is the greatest closer Mariano Rivera who wasn’t always great until he discovered the cutter and a little known fact is that Rivera inspired his teammate Mark Melancon in Spring Training 201o at the Yankees facility in Tampa when the relievers were on the back-fields at the Yankees complex and Melancon happened to take a seat behind homplate. Mark couldn’t believe the movement on Rivera’s cutter.
Melancon said, “I watched Rivera in a front and center spot and watched the sideways movement like nothing I had ever seen before. I asked Mo to show me that cutter grip. What I was doing wasn’t working.” Melancon was a 4-seam, sinker, curve and splitter guy. Melancon continued, “I got traded to Houston from the Yankees in 2010. I worked on the side on the cutter.”
Melcancon didn’t throw his first cutter until his 3rd appearance of 2011. In late 2012, Melancon had all but stopped throwing his splitter and his cutter became his main pitch. In early 2014, Melancon stopped throwing his sinker which wasn’t sinking much and wasn’t throwing the 4-seamer much going to a cutter-curve as his 2 pitches. In 2013 and 2015, he was an All-Star closer and one of the best in the game and his evolution was his perfecting his arsenal.
Back to Gregerson, he worked on all aspects of his game and making his pitches crisper, and it was the mental preperation that was so key.
Gregerson talked about his evolution, “They threw me right into the fire and before I knew it I was a 7th and 8th inning set-up man with some chances to pitch the 9th. I was able to do it all. If I gave up 3 runs one day, I was out there the next day because Bud believed in you. You need to have a short memory as a reliever.” Gregerson continued, “It’s how you react and bounce back that separates you, and he prepared me along with the staff for where I am now. Very influential in getting you ready mentally.”
Chad Cordero, the “Chief”, has been the Nats only All-Star closer in team history before Matt Capps, and Cordero set the MLB record for most saves in a month. He didn’t have mid-90’s velo and in fact averaged 89mph on his 4-seamer in his MLB career, and he threw that with his slider, and change-up. His key was locating his pitches with movement. The Chief was quickly converted in his Rookie season as an Expo to a closer by his manager—Frank Robinson. Cordero now coaches college pitchers at his alma mater of Cal State-Fullerton. Cordero is further proof of what Mike Maddux talks about in his successes with pitchers starting with command and confidence and while he appreciates velo, it’s not the #1 reason for success for most pitchers unless you’re Aroldis Chapman.
The Nats bullpen was great in 2015 in Low Leverage situations and ranked 8th to 10th in many bullpen stats, but they were poor after the trade deadline in Hi Lev and Save conversions.
The Nats were 23rd in the Majors with Saves converted in 2015 with a 64.06% success rate. St. Louis, NYY, and Pittsburgh were all at 79% or above on Save conversions. Rizzo knows that if the Nats were at 80%, there could have been an opportunity for the Nats to be in the postseason in 2015 as the Nats could have won 92 games. It’s the reason why Rizzo is considering trading prospects for Aroldis Chapman.
Blowing saves has a psychological affect on the entire team as it affects that confidence that Mike Maddux talked about with all of his pitchers, and it also affects the position players. The Nats 2016 bullpen is a priority, and we will see how it’s transformed, and the impact Mike Maddux has on it.