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2011 Marlins Season Preview: Hensley waiting in the wings

The Marlins started last season with Leo Nunez as their closer despite a horrible previous season that was a product of bad luck and Nunez’s own porblematic game. This season, the team will once again begin the year with Nunez as their closer despite a less than favorable finish to the 2010 season.

This year, however, the Marlins will have a sure-fire backup plan. Clay Hensley, a former fifth starter toiling away in the minors for many a season, had a monstrous 2010 season and will enter the 2011 year as the setup man and potential closer option should Nunez falter. In fact, Hensley finished the 2010 season as the closer for the Marlins, converting all seven of his save opportunities.

Hensley, like Nunez, saw some radical changes in his game in 2010, and there is question as to whether he can continue that potential success. I examined this to some degree before as well, but it is worth mentioning here again as we go over Hensley’s chances for 2011 success.

Like Nunez, Hensley has benefitted from throwing fewer sliders and more changeups and curves. According to Pitch f/x, Hensley threw changeups 26.8 percent of the time and curveballs 21.3 percent of the time. As you can see from these charts, previously from the above linked post, those changes are real:

The distinct lack of pitches in the middle of that chart, pitchers that are typically classified as sliders, is telling. Between 2008 and 2010, Hensley certainly went away from throwing the slider. Also, unlike in the case of Nunez between his Kansas City and Florida days, this difference in usage almost certainly had nothing to do with the change in distribution of batters faced; Hensley faced lefties in 46.8 percent of plate appearances in 2008 and 50.2 percent in 2010, a difference of less than 4.0 percent.

How did this help Hensley? I noticed in the linked article that Hensley had better control of his changeup than he did his slider, so this factor may have contributed to his decrease in walks. What about his massive increase in strikeouts? Without digging into the details of his pitches, I feel the curveball may have been the answer here. Changeups are more likely to induce grounders and balls in play, while curveballs are more likely to be strikeout pitches. However, the curveball has a benefit over the slider in that it can be thrown to either same- or opposite-handed hitters, as it has a neutral value against most hitters from either side. As long as the curve was as effective as the slider in terms of movement and control, it would be a naturally better choice, and by looking at the Pitch f/x measures of Hensley’s old slider, it was not a pitch he should have been throwing often.

Still, I do not know how much of that improvement is real and how much of it due for regression. We do know that Hensley went with a changeup akin to Tim Lincecum‘s, and “Timmah’s” changeup is one of the best in the game, so there is reason to believe that it is a significantly better pitch than the changeup he once threw when he was a starter. If so, Hensley could be the sort of pitcher deserving of a closer or setup role regardless of platoon factors. Thanks to his changeup, Hensley has always posted strong ground ball rates against lefties (career 54.8 percent GB percentage); the only problem against them was always control. While the control was not strong in 2010, he made up for it by striking out more batters as well. If he can maintain any semblance of that form, he will be effective enough against lefties to be able to pitch without worrying about platoon factors, as his arsenal against righties includes a sinking fastball against which right-handers traditionally struggle. His calling card, the sinking fastball, can keep him afloat with the platoon advantage without the assistance of a slider, a pitch which most pitchers use to dominate same-handed hitters.

Without knowing the full details on Hensley’s changes, I would lean towards a lower ERA estimate for his 2011 season, giving the scouting edge based on the known changes in his pitch selection. Still, some of his numbers will definitely regress, starting with his sky-high strikeout rate and his home run totals. No matter how good he is at keeping the ball on the ground, there is simply no way he will allow another 5.4 percent HR/FB rate in 2011, so we should immediately expect some increase in his home runs allowed. Luckily, Hensley’s ground ball game has been maintained even as he has changed his usage, so some semblance of home run prevention will remain. As for the strikeout rate, I think ZiPS nailed the rate as well as the overall projection of a 3.66 ERA; do not expect Hensley and his mediocre stuff to continue to whiff more than a batter per inning, but do expect significant increases in strikeouts compared to the time when he was a starter.

Projection: 70 IP, 0.9 WAR

At such an ERA and an expected Leverage Index (LI) of 1.4 (meaning Hensley would be facing on average a plate appearance worth 1.4 times the normal plate appearance in terms of determining the outcome of games), we would expect Hensley to put up about a win alongside Nunez. Essentially, if these projections are correct, then there is simply very little difference between them, and as noted here, both pitchers acquired 2010 success in similar fashions. Yes, Nunez has the more electric stuff, but he has greater flaws as well. Hensley has the unimpressive fastball but also has a combination of pitches that could lend themselves to success against hitters from either side of the plate. Unfortunately, we’ll have to see more of him in 2011 to know whether his stuff is the real deal or whether regression bites him harder than expected.

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