The MLB pitching staff pecking order goes something like this: starters, closers, other relievers. There is strong reason for the desire within young hurlers breaking into the big leagues to want to be a starter rather than a reliever.
After all the perfunctory talk about “just wanting to do whatever it takes to help the team win” is over, there is the reality that even mediocre starters will likely make more money than the very best relievers. For example, how else can you explain the ordinary starter Scott Feldman getting $30 million for three years, whereas top-drawer closers like Joe Nathan pull in $20 million for two years and Jim Johnson $10 million for one year? And Koji Uehara is making $9.5 million for two years. Maybe there are better examples, but you get the point.
However, there is more room to descend further down the pecking order. Ordinary relievers – be they in long relief, sixth or seventh-inning specialists, or set-up men – get even less than the closers.
So it is no wonder that pitchers like Brian Matusz and Zach Britton significantly desire to be starters. In the majority of situations, relief pitching is where those who could not land rotation spots end up for one reason or another. So, if your career is going to be in a relief role, why not then hope to become a closer?
On the ESPN sports site today is an ARTICLE by Jim Bowden that talks about five players in baseball who are going to benefit from non-moves made by their club. One of those featured is Tommy Hunter. The article says of him, “The chief beneficiary of all this confusion is hard-throwing Tommy Hunter, who is next in line to be the closer. The 27-year-old was 6-5 last year with a 2.81 ERA and a career-best WHIP of 0.895. The Orioles are hoping he can be a surprise story for them this year, just as Koji Uehara was last year for the world champion Red Sox.”
As I’ve written before, I don’t think there is any surprise in Koji doing what he did in Boston. I wish the Orioles would have paid the price to bring him back from Texas after the 2011 season, where one of the benefits would have been that this entire article would not be happening!
Along the way as well, whenever I get to writing about closers, I have to say that I am about a 90% “closer” skeptic, having written in detail about the myth of the designated closer HERE.
However, since the Orioles seem hell-bent upon having a designated closer, what are the chances of Tommy Hunter having success in this role? I will render the opinion that I believe the chances are reasonably good that he can be better than average. Like Koji, he does not walk many people, hence the outstanding WHIP statistic (which I highly commend and believe in … since people who don’t get on base cannot score!).
Among other assets for Hunter in this role is his power pitching. He can flat-out bring it to the plate in the high 90s. Following finesse-styled set-up men, 98 MPH can look about 105. As well, of all the guys in the bullpen, Hunter has the best disposition for the role by personality and determinative in-your-face bulldog spirit.
The negatives are his propensity to give up a higher-than-average number of home runs – so he may blow a few games in dramatic fashion. But in the past, even though he has given up the long ball, they have not always been in game-critical situations. And the same may be said for his less-than-stellar splits against lefties. Bending without breaking is a skill needed by a closer, even if it does not pad the statistics.
What I would like to see is the additional use of a couple of others in occasional closer situations, though maybe short of the concept of a “bullpen by committee.” It seems to me that it would make great baseball sense to have several other choices (along with a primary choice), including a lefty specialist to perhaps be the closer against, say, Ortiz and Boston where Big Papi is scheduled to bat in the 9th inning. After all, if the Orioles are going to win 95-100 games, they are going to need more than one arm as a closer – let’s be positive here!
Maybe the Orioles still get Fernando Rodney? I would have thought that if this was going to happen that it would have happened by now. More likely may be another bullpen arm added to the team, and even more likely than that to see some reallocated resources go to a starter. (Like, soon!)
In any event, I agree with the major premise of the article that Tommy Hunter’s train is pulling into the station this year. I like that … mostly because he is the most quotable of Orioles players, and quotes from him in 60-65 games in a year can sure help a writer!