By Tommy Rancel //
The season’s barely started, yet by last count we’ve had seven teams make a switch from their projected closer. Some are injury related, and some are simple managerial decisions. The decision by the Toronto Blue Jays to remove Jason Frasor from the closer’s role in favor of Kevin Gregg falls under the latter.
Normally, making a switch this early would scream knee-jerk reaction. On the other hand, Gregg and Frasor were locked in a tight battle this spring, and the Jays didn’t give Gregg nearly $3 million this winter without considering the possibility that he might close some games.
Frasor has struggled in his five games so far. Meanwhile, there is concern about his velocity, which is down more than two miles per hour from 2009. That could just be a product of building up arm strength early in the year, but also good reason to lower his usage in high-leverage situations for now.
Gregg came to Toronto after one disappointing season with the Chicago Cubs. Despite the ugly 4.72 ERA in Chicago, his peripheral stats were pretty good. His 9.31 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) were just off his career best and among the highest such rates in the game. His walk per nine innings (BB/9) of 3.92 was his lowest total since 2006.
Gregg struggled with the long ball while in Chicago. After allowing 10 home runs in two seasons with the Marlins, he yielded 13 homers in 2009 with the Cubs. Some of that was bad luck, though: Gregg posted an aberrant 15.3% home run-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB), much higher than his career rate of 8.5%. He is likely due for some regression.
If we normalize his HR/FB from 2009 using expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), a metric that looks at things pitchers can control like strikeouts and walks with a normalized home run rate, we see Gregg’s xFIP of 4.18 last year was a lot better than the near 5.00 ERA.
In addition to regression, Gregg has made some changes in pitch selection that could go a long way in lowering his home runs allowed. Since 2003, nearly 85% of Gregg’s pitches have been a fastball (65%) or slider (18%). But in early 2010, he’s thrown the pair of pitches less than 60% of the time.
In their place, he’s throwing more split-fingered fastballs (8.4% career, 23.1% in 2010), and has reintroduced a cutter to his arsenal. Gregg has dabbled with a cutter before – throwing it 2% of the time in his career – but is throwing the pitch nearly 20% of the time so far this season. Please note that all these percentages are extremely small sample sizes, but don’t ignore the fact that Gregg has made some adjustments.
It also seems the pitch selection changes have changed the type of pitcher Gregg is. He’s getting nearly 70% groundballs this year after getting less than 40% for his career. Of course a 70% groundball rate is unlikely over the course of a full season (unless you’re Chad Bradford). Nonetheless, if Gregg and his newfound weapons can keep that ground ball rate above 45% (or even better, 50%), that would be a nifty shift for the 31-year-old.
If he’s available in your league, immediately grab Gregg regardless of size and format. Frasor and Scott Downs are still in the mix, but all things considered, Gregg is looking like a strong play, especially in a season that has seen a 23% turnover rate at the closer position in just 10 days. Also remember that Toronto has seen a different saves leader in each of the last five seasons including Frasor in 2009. This trend looks likely to continue in 2010.
For more on Kevin Gregg and the Toronto Blue Jays check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.