Closing Time in Pittsburgh

by Eno Sarris // 

When Octavio Dotel took his bag
of strikeouts west to Los Angeles, he left an open question in his
wake: Who will close in Pittsburgh? For once, there are two almost
equally qualified options in the bullpen.

The Bucs have made their initial choice Tuesday night, tapping big right-hander Joel Hanrahan to close out a 7-6 win over the Reds. Hanharan looked good in securing his first save of the season, allowing one hit, no runs, and striking out two.

HanrahanGrab.jpgStill, there’s enough mix-and-match potential here for two Pirates pitchers to be worth a look in standard mixed leagues. Do a side-by-side comparison using the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools, and you’ll see that both Hanrahan
and Evan Meek look like perfectly fine options – despite being very different
pitchers. Manager Jim Russell’s initial refusal to name a new closer suggests that he might just ride the hot hand. On the other hand, Buster Olney did say the team would install Hanrahan once Dotel was moved.

Meek’s strikeout rate (7.61 K/9 this year, 7.48 career) places him only slightly above league average. However, Meek has showed a solid walk rate (2.83
BB/9 this year), a development in his game that is a tribute to the
Pirates’ minor league coaches, who immediately helped him harness his
arsenal after years of struggling with his control. Not new to Meek’s
game is his elite groundball percentage. His current 54.7% groundball
rate is well above the average 44% groundball rate across
baseball, and near his already high career level too (53.7%).

is no vomit-taste jelly bean either (as an aside, these beans exist,
and apparently they started with pepperoni pizza and added a citrus
taste, says the Discovery Channel). The man with an Irish name and an
Iowa birth certificate is striking out batters at a career-high rate this
year (12.65 K/9), but given his very strong career rate (10.02), this isn’t a
huge surprise. What is a nice surprise is that he’s also stopped
walking people in Pittsburgh (2.64 BB/9 this year, 4.66 career). The
combination has been working well.

The only flaw in his game
might actually make him a better fit at the closer position,
ironically. Hanrahan is more of a strikeout/flyout pitcher, with a
below-average groundball rate (35.8% this year, 37% career). Because
groundballs can lead to double-plays, it might behoove the Pirates to
use Meek in situations where there are runners on as a way to
leverage his talents best. Because flyballs can lead to home runs, it
makes sense to at least start Hanrahan off without any runners on.
Coincidentally, this is usually how closers work.

The last piece
of evidence we can use is the two pitchers’ past usage patterns. Hanrahan has owned
the eighth inning for a couple weeks now, while Meek has had the
seventh, with some stints that spanned multiple innings. Most signs
seem to point to Hanrahan, so if you only have one spot to dedicate to
speculating on Pirates’ saves, he’s the man to pick up.

For more on other bullpen situations, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

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