Man on Fire: Oakland A's RP Grant Balfour
Josh Donaldson has been in the spotlight for the past week as this year's biggest victim of baseball's flawed All Star selection process. I won't rehash the lunacy of leaving a guy with a higher WAR than Chris Davis off the American League roster AND the final vote. Suffice to say that idiocy, nepotism (hi, Jim Leyland!) and middle relievers won the day.
But there's another Oakland Athletic who has built a compelling All-Star case who received far less attention, Grant Balfour. To be clear, Balfour isn't really that big of a snub. Sure, he's having a great season, but he's still only the third best closer in the AL behind Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera. (Some might argue for Jim Johnson based on his sky high number of saves, but his other numbers are pretty mediocre, indicating that he's stumbled into a fair number of those 31 saves).
Regardless of whether or not you believe Balfour belongs on the AL All Star squad, there is no doubt that the 35 year old Aussie has been pretty dominant for the better part of a year and a half.
Against the Pirates this week, Balfour converted his 41st consecutive save, breaking Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley's franchise record and moving into sixth in baseball's all time consecutive saves rankings. The record setting pace and adulation from Oakland fans is a seismic shift for a guy who until 2012 was a journeyman middle reliever.
Open a Door, He'll Slam It Shut
Signed by the Twins as an international prospect in 1997, Balfour toiled away in Minnesota and Milwaukee for several years without even a whiff of success. He finally carved out a niche as a solid bullpen arm during a three-plus year stint with Tampa Bay. After signing with the A's, he again filled that role in Oakland, serving as a setup guy for Andrew Bailey in 2011. However, with Bailey out of the fold, Balfour eventually seized the role of closer last year and the results have been amazing.
During 2012, Balfour recorded 24 saves and a 2.54 earned run average. That ERA was actually up a tick from his previous two seasons, so it wasn't all that surprising to see Balfour limit runs. What was amazing was the way he limited base runners with a WHIP of just 0.924. While his walk rate jumped from the previous two seasons to 9.7 percent, Balfour only allowed 4.9 hits per nine innings and a ridiculously low 1.4 percent home run percentage.
This year Balfour's WHIP is up to 1.06, as his home run allowed rate has spiked to 2.7 percent and he's allowing 6.4 H/9. Nonetheless he's dropped his walk rate to 8.8 percent, which has helped mitigate the effects of giving up more hits. The 2013 numbers are all still great, if not quite as lights out as 2012. Somehow, however, Balfour's ERA is down to 1.72, the second lowest mark of his career.
Predicting the Future
Given the increase in hits and homers that Balfour is allowing compared to last year, it's unlikely to expect his ERA to remain as low as it is right now, and with a few more runs could come - gasp - a blown save or two. numberFire's projections bear out that belief with a slightly higher ERA and not quite as many saves in the second half.
This isn't a knock on Balfour. Even with a slightly higher ERA and fewer than 50 saves, he'll still be considered one of the best closers in the AL. The good news is also that, aside from his ERA, most of his numbers are right in line with what his career averages since 2008. When you consider that he has been a very good reliever since that time, the consistency he's showing is a great sign that there's nothing terribly flukey about his performance this season. He's the same strong pitcher, just with fewer runs and a couple more saves than one might expect.
Balfour is one of the most entertaining closers on the planet, particularly on the big stage. He exploded onto the baseball scene in 2012 by consistently slamming the door on the Rangers in the regular season's final series and once against the Tigers in the ALDS. The ferocity with which he did it helped Oakland's love of "Balfour Rage" catch fire among baseball fans around the country for that brief, but glorious stretch of games.
Balfour is still raging on in 2013. If he somehow winds up as a replacement selection for the All Star game and gets a chance to pitch, it should be fun to see him take the mound with the spotlight squarely on him.