When you consider closers, the typical image conjured is that of a hard thrower, pitting his best number one against his foe, with the occasional triple digit heater thrown in for good measure. Extraneous details, things like command and secondary offspeed pitches, are typically not the closer's strong point and are rarely the focus of the stereotypical closer's game plan. Despite this scenario, the bullpens of the MLB are chock full of hurlers who employ just about every way imagined to make life hard for hitters to pick up the ball and put wood on it. Be it submariners, sidearmers, or a trick pitch of some sort, the bullpen is a petri dish for ideas and methods of inducing bad swings and poor contact.
In 2013, two closers took this antithetical approach to heart and to the extreme by using something other than a hard pitch -- two- and four- seam fastballs, cut fastballs, and sinkers for our discussion -- more than fifty percent of the time and with great success.
The pitches used? For Mujica, a split-finger fastball used for 56.6% of his pitches thrown and for Romo, a slider, thrown 52% of the time last season. While they did throw other pitches, mostly two-seam (FT) and four-seam (FA) fastballs, these more traditional secondary pitches were their bread and butter and did most of the work in ensuring the last three outs were made.
The results? Between the two, a combined 75 saves in 2013. More importantly, let's have a look at some other stats to show how successful they were with their unorthodox approach, by comparing their main wipeout pitch to their fastball. For this and following data tables, I used the predominant fastball for each for comparison purposes:
Already, we can see why both Mujica and Romo use their somewhat backwards approach of utilizing their offspeed offering as their primary weapon. Compared to the fastball, each uses their main pitch effectively and doing so in a fashion that neutralizes extra base hits, as their OPS, ISO, and wOBA can attest. Romo in particular has quite a contrast in pitch effectiveness between his slider and fairly pedestrian fastball, with drastic swings in favor of the slider across the board with respect to these production-driven statistics. Mujica's fastball-split contrasts aren't as amplified, but he nonetheless enjoys a great deal of success working backwards off of the split.
How do things look when these pitches of interest come across the plate?
Again, we find more dramatic splits in each closer's primary offering compared to their heater. Not only are they inducing more swings in and out of the strikezone with their split/slider, they are inducing less contact and racking up an impressive number of swings and misses. Each pitcher and his stingy rationing of the fastball is again exposed as a good approach with this table, with the numbers showing that hitters typically were laying off out of the zone fastballs and readily making contact with in the zone fastballs, without many swings and misses in the process.
When contact was made, what kind was it?
Not only do we see Mujica's split and Romo's slider being wipeout, strikeout pitches, even when contact is made, it's staying in the yard, which is always a great commodity to have in a closer. Another subtle quality seen in this table? Each pitcher's impeccable command and control of their main pitch, as well as their fastballs; given their backwards pitching, their ability to throw strikes when they want to, where they want to is a tremendous plus and yet another unorthodox quality for a closer.
Let's have Brooks Baseball help drive home that last point -- each pitcher not only has a great pitch results-wise, they have great mastery of their pitch. Here, I provide raw pitch counts for Mujica's split and Romo's slider against both lefty and righty hitters:
Here we see the artistry they bring to their main pitch -- both pitches that are notoriously difficult to command. For Mujica's split, we see that not only does he appear to have the ability to bury it down in the zone with very few misses up and over the plate, but he also has the additional skill of being able to locate it on the outside corner against both lefties and righties. For Romo, we also see this knack for hitting his spots, but can also see his propensity to backdoor the slider against lefties, with the slightly higher spread up in the zone attesting to that. However, Romo also displays the ability to stay out of the heart of the plate with his devastating slider.
Despite going against the typical ideology of hard, harder, hardest when it comes to closing, we find in Mujica and Romo a pair of examples proving that sometimes going against the grain can reap benefits when trying to get hitters out in the high leverage final frame.