Who Would Close For The Orioles If Jim Johnson Can't?Posted on May 28, 2013
After Jim Johnson's latest meltdown in Toronto May 26 -- his fourth blown save out of his last five chances, all resulting in Orioles losses -- many fans are calling for the Birds to make a change in the closer's role until Johnson gets his act together.
At this point, manager Buck Showalter has given no indication that he plans to replace Johnson. I guess converting 35 consecutive saves earns a guy a bit of leeway. But if Johnson's struggles continue and a few more ninth-inning leads fall by the wayside, Johnson may force Showalter's hand.
If Johnson can't bounce back, who are the in-house candidates to replace him as closer? Let's rank the possible fill-ins.
1. Darren O'Day: Often when a team needs to replace a closer, it simply bumps its eighth-inning setup man to the ninth. The Orioles likely would be no exception. O'Day has been the Orioles' most reliable late-inning reliever this year, posting a 1.88 ERA during 25 games, which followed a sensational 2012 season. O'Day is more of a strikeout pitcher than Johnson, fanning 9.8 batters per nine innings as opposed to Johnson's 7.1.
If there's one qualm with O'Day, it's that his control has not been sharp this season; in 24 innings this year (as of May 27), he's walked nine batters and racked up a team-worst five hit batsmen. He also has an extreme platoon split this season; left-handed hitters have posted a .958 OPS against him, compared with .468 for righties. But that's a small sample size. O'Day's career splits -- .714 OPS for lefties, .578 for righties -- are more manageable. At this point, O'Day would be the top candidate to close if Johnson loses the job.
2. Brian Matusz: Matusz continues to be a revelation in the bullpen. He's done a nice job in 2013 with a 3.15 ERA during 24 games, emerging as the Orioles' best left-handed reliever. Most significantly, Matusz -- who had an extreme platoon split as a starter -- has been almost equally effective against both righties and lefties since becoming a reliever. He's not simply a lefty specialist, matchup-only pitcher; he can get anyone out.
Matusz has been especially outstanding at stranding inherited runners. During his relief career, Matusz has inherited 34 runners and allowed only two to score. But this fact might actually work against his chances of becoming a closer. Matusz is such a valuable weapon in putting out fires and cleaning up other pitcher's messes that he could be wasted as a closer. Closers almost always begin a clean inning, without having to worry about inheriting baserunners. If it were up to me, I would keep Matusz in the fireman role he's in right now -- coming in during critical situations in the seventh and eighth innings and short-circuiting rallies.
3. Tommy Hunter: Who knew? Quietly, Hunter has become one of the Orioles' most reliable relievers. Like Matusz, Hunter has thrived since moving from the rotation to the bullpen, as he can increase his velocity a few miles per hour without having to save his arm for five or six innings. So far in 2013, Hunter has a 1.86 ERA during 18 games, and his ability to attack hitters -- his walk rate of 1.6 is the lowest of any O's pitcher this year -- would seem to make him a natural choice to work in pressure-packed ninth-inning situations.
But Hunter, like Matusz, may be more valuable staying in his current role. Hunter leads the bullpen with 29 innings pitched this year, thanks to his ability to pitch multiple innings. Of his 18 appearances, 12 of them have been longer than one inning, including six outings of two innings or more. Hunter's ability to chew up innings while pitching effectively is a much-needed weapon, one that would be difficult to replace if he were limited to being a one-inning closer.
4. Any other candidates? No, probably not. The Birds' other current relievers -- Troy Patton, T.J. McFarland, Steve Johnson and the injured Pedro Strop -- wouldn't be in discussion for the closer's role because of ineffectiveness or inexperience. And the Orioles likely wouldn't consider any pitchers who are currently in their minor league system, so you can rule out Jake Arrieta and Triple-A Norfolk's saves leader, Jairo Asencio.
The simplest solution, of course, is for Jim Johnson to get straightened out and re-emerge as the shutdown closer he's been for a year and a half. If not, look for O'Day and possibly Matusz to pitch the ninth inning in his place.
Posted May 28, 2013 by Paul Folkemer
Three former MIAA players are on national champ Duke's roster -- Christian Walsh (Boys' Latin), Justin George (Gilman) and Deemer Class (Loyola).