How Are Soft-Tossing Closers Successful?

Koji Uehara is one of five current closers with an average fastball velocity under 90 MPH. How is he successful?

In a game dominated by eye-popping velocity and jaw-dropping power, I'm enamored with players who are successful despite having little to no semblance of either of these tools.

Many hitters are able to succeed with above average hit tools and/or speed, and many pitchers are starters with great command and off-speed pitches. But a third group, soft-tossing closers, is the most impressive to me.

Conventional wisdom tells us that closers are guys like Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, and Fernando Rodney, who throw hard, have overpowering stuff, and rack up tons of strikeouts. There are certainly many closers who fit this bill, but there are a select few who do not.

To define those who reject the traditional mold the most, my parameters were pitchers with at least 10 saves and an average fastball velocity below 90 MPH. This returned five names: Huston Street, Sergio Romo, Koji Uehara, Joe Smith, and Casey Janssen.

These five pitchers have combined to save 93 games and have an average ERA of 2.23 in 2014. How do these guys succeed in a role defined by velocity without premium velocity?

Key: K/9 = strikeouts per nine innings, BB/9 = walks per nine innings, SL% = percentage of sliders among total pitches thrown (same with SF%, which stands for split fingered fastball), LOB% = percentage of baserunners allowed that are left on base, GB% = percentage of balls in play that are categorized as ground balls, FBv = fastball velocity

Sergio Romo

2014 Statistics: 8.51 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, 4.86 ERA, 50.7% SL Rate, 22 Saves, 88.0 FBv

Romo has been having a poor season ERA-wise, but that is largely due to unsustainably poor numbers on balls in the air. Of this group, Romo has the lowest fly-ball rate at 35.3%, and the highest home-run rate per nine innings at 1.7. Keeping the ball out of the air is a sustainable skill, while allowing an extremely high home run to fly ball rate of 17.1% isn't the result of a lack of a skill, so expect his home run rate to fall along with his ERA.

Once this happens, we'll be more equipped to appreciate his ability to miss bats, limit walks, and rack up the saves. But how does Romo do this? The answer is with his slider. Romo relies on his slider more than any other player in baseball with at least 10 saves, throwing it an astounding 50.7% of the time. The pitch has not been as effective this season, but in every single season of his career to this point the pitch has had a weighted slider runs above average per 100 pitches (wSL/C) of at least two (that’s a high number on this scale).

Key to success: An elite slider

Huston Street

2014 Statistics: 9.27 K/9, 1.91 BB/9, 1.09 ERA, 100% LOB rate, 24 Saves, 89.4 FBv

Despite being the hardest thrower in this group, Street is the closer that I think most consistently bucks the conventional profile of a successful closer. While most closers feature one to two above average pitches that border on unhittable, Street relies on three above average pitches that lack velocity, a profile commonly found in mid rotation or back end starters. Street, however, has shown that his ability to retire hitters will work in any role.

Those three pitches are an 89.4 MPH fastball, an 83.1 MPH slider, and an 81.6 MPH changeup. Very little about Street is overpowering and the difference in velocity between is pitches in minimal, but his ability to generate movement, hit spots, and sequence has made him at the very least, a league average closer. It should also be noted that his 100% LOB rate is scary and screams regression, but even when that inevitably happens, Street will still be a very good pitcher posting good results.

Key to success: Command, movement, and sequencing

Casey Janssen

2014 Stats: 5.73 K/9, 0.41 BB/9, 1.23 ERA, 0 HR Allowed, 14 Saves, 88.9 FBv

An outlier in more than one way, Janssen bucks the trend of closers who strike out a lot of guys, as he only records 5.73 strikeouts per nine innings. To make up for that, Janssen simply does not allow walks or home runs. He has only thrown 22 innings since returning from the disabled list, but in those 22 innings he has allowed one walk and zero home runs. That’s a recipe for success that can overcome the lack of strikeouts.

Similar to Street, Janssen does not rely on one elite pitch but rather multiple good ones. In his case, Janssen throws as many as five different pitches, a fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, and changeup, although he uses the slider and changeup less than five percent of the time. This allows him to get creative to keep hitters off balance and induce weak contact, as hitters cannot simply sit on one pitch. Maybe this is a fluke over a small 22 inning sample size, but Janssen’s ability to prevent walks and home runs has allowed him to succeed despite a poor strikeout rate.

Key to success: Limits walks and home runs

Joe Smith

2014 Stats: 9.7 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 2.32 ERA, 58.1% GB Rate, 15 Saves, 88.8 FBv

Recently appointed Angels’ closer Joe Smith has found success by pounding the zone with fastballs (70.3% FB rate) and inducing ground balls at a 58.1% clip. The relation of these two group-leading numbers is significant, as the movement he generates from his sidearm delivery makes it very difficult for batters to hit that pitch in the air. The biggest benefit of this is the ability to prevent home runs, and Smith has only allowed two long balls this season, good for a 0.63 HR/9.

Unlike most ground-ball pitchers will plus movement on their fastballs, Smith is able to maintain a very good strikeout to walk ratio. His slider deserves much of the credit for this, as he is able to both generate whiffs at a good 13.8% rate and limit hits, as opposing batters have only recorded five hits all season against his slider.

Key to success: Keep the ball on the ground

Koji Uehara

2014 Stats: 11.75 K/9, 1.24 BB/9, 1.65 ERA, 43.5 SF Rate, 18 Saves, 88 FBv

The man who won the hearts and souls of many Bostonians last fall with his electric performance down the stretch and in the postseason is back to his old tricks. Uehara is striking out an elite 11.75 batters per nine innings, keeping his walks per nine well below two, and throwing the devastating splitter as much as ever.

The results of Uehara’s splitter are astounding. Out of 262 splitters thrown this season, he has thrown 74 for balls (28.2%) and induced 77 swings and misses (29.4%). This is a pitch that Uehara can control but this is also a pitch with deception and movement, a rare combination that has allowed him to dominate without velocity.

Key to success: An elite splitter