The Marlins should feel lucky that they have two players whom the team trusts to close out games this season. With Leo Nunez and Clay Hensley, the Marlins have two pitchers who performed well in 2010 and are deserving of a look at the closer position. They are also likely the two best relievers the team has at the moment.
At the same time, such a statement about Nunez and Hensley being the two best releivers on thet eam doesn’t necessarily instill confidence in the club’s choice at closer. Last season, he struggled in high leverage situations and cost the team his fair share of leads. Given the Marlins’ desire to compete in the NL East and potentially for the Wild Card in 2011, can a team with Nunez at closer be effective and win?
The question of the day: Is Nunez the answer at closer?
Not an impressive closer
Since 2008, Nunez has 56 saves, which ranks 24th in the majors since that time period. Among the 23 other pitchers who have racked up more saves than Nunez since 2008, his 3.56 ERA ranks 18th. His 3.97 FIP looks worse, ranking 21st out of 24 pitchers. Finally, his Expected FIP (xFIP), normalizing his HR/FB rate to the league average each season, ranks 17th among those pitchers. When looking at the three stats combined, Nunez ranked better than only two pitchers in those three ERA-scaled retrodictors of runs allowed, and those two pitchers were the ignominious pair of Kevin Gregg and Fernando Rodney, clearly the two worst pitchers in the game who have received regular innings as a closer.
In other words, Nunez isn’t the greatest of closers, both by traditional stats like ERA and ERA retrodictors like FIP and xFIP. And it shouldn’t be difficult to see why those numbers don’t appear to be strong; Nunez was fourth to last in strikeouts per nine innings during that time period and third to last in home runs allowed per nine innings. The only saving grace for Nunez is that he was able to walk a below average number of hitters in his time as a closer compared to the other closers, but when guys like Francisco Rodriguez and Kerry Wood are striking out three more guys every nine frames, it is going to be difficult to make up that difference by walking one guy fewer in that same time frame.
I’ve mentioned this before, but Nunez has been a stickler for getting in trouble in high leverage (more important or impactful to winning or losing games) situations. In his two seasons in Florida, his pitching in high leverage situations has run into major issues on different fronts in different seasons. In his 2009 campaign, the problem was very solidly based in home runs; as part of his systemic 2009 home run problem, he allowed five home runs in 100 batters faced in high leverage situations, more than twice the number that would be expected given a league average home run rate. And this wasn’t a problem with allowing too many fly balls either; Nunez had a 48.5 percent ground ball rate in high leverage situations in 2009, yet allowed a home run in 20.8 percent of his fly balls. That means more than a fifth of Nunez’s fly balls left the yard when the game was on the line the most.
In 2010, Nunez upped the ground balls and added fewer home runs, but his problem then came from his poor batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It seems absurd that Nunez allowed so many hits in the most important situations during a game, but he allowed a .389 BABIP that was well above the very typical .300 average mark. What makes it even more intriguing is that, given his newfound strikeout stroke, he should have actually allowed a lower BABIP (pitchers with the highest strikeout rates tend to have slightly depressed BABIP), but Nunez was not assisted in that regard either.
Not paying for the past
Fortunately for the Marlins, the team isn’t paying for past production, but for future production. That means that, even though a three-year sample like the one we saw between 2008 and 2010 can be indicative of Nunez’s true talent, any changes made recently to his game are going to be more significant to his projected 2011 performance. We already highlighted a few changes with his pitch selection and distribution of batters faced, and those improvements may help Nunez to bring his numbers down from those three-year marks. Also, even though Nunez struggled in high leverage situations in 2009 and 2010 as the Marlins’ closer, it doesn’t mean that he will continue to struggle in 2011. There is simply no evidence that pitchers fare significantly worse in higher leverage situations than in others, and even if they did, the differences would be so small as to be completely unidentifiable for individual pitchers (The Book has an entire chapter devoted to the notion of clutch hitting and pitching, and these conclusions are based on the research provided by those authors).
The only thing we can figure is whether the Marlins are putting the best pitcher available to the team in the most important situations. We know that, because of Nunez’s strong changeup, he fairs well enough against opposite handed pitching that he should not have significant platoon problems. The projection based on his last three seasons has him at an ERA of around 3.66, which would likely be among the middle third of relievers in the majors. However, since that mark is also the best ERA projected for the team (if you regress Brian Sanches‘s two-season run of luck on home runs as much as I think is necessary), and there are simply no other names worth the innings or the money available on the market, the answer comes down to the fact that Nunez is the best answer available. There were no options for the Marlins to go after this offseason; relievers were making a good deal of money in the free agent market this offseason, and the Marlins have proved that the they can value relievers properly in the open market. Among the remaining options, Nunez is the best choice, so clearly he is the default answer at closer.