Cee Angi over at Bless You Boys has a great article up today discussing the decision the Detroit Tigers are apparently in the process of making, handing their closer's role to untested rookie Bruce Rondon for the 2013 season.
Angi recaps the ongoing battle among just how we anoint our closers, and I'm with her opinion 100 percent when she says that in the nature vs. nurture battle among closers, "nurture is the logical answer and don't let anyone tell you otherwise -- pitchers aren't bred to be closers."
I have only one minor quibble with Angi's argument. At the end of that paragraph, she says:
Phil Coke will have to scrub his body clean of loose skin and purchase Jonathan Papelbon's fingerprints in order to prove he possesses the mental toughness and makeup to take over the ninth.
Phil Coke did an admirable job filling in as the Tigers closer last fall when Jose Valverde imploded down the stretch, but his ability to pull off the job he did was actually more about mental toughness and makeup rather than actual ability. Coke is a fine pitcher, but he's a limited one. The reason the Tigers aren't going with Coke as their closer isn't because he doesn't have the mystical "closer's mentality" or that he wasn't bred to pitch in the 9th inning. It's because he doesn't get right-handed hitters out consistently enough.
There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with pitching in the 9th inning, and having played the game up to a relatively high level, I can assure you that there will always be certain players simply don't perform well under pressure. This is where the myth of the closer's mentality comes from, and while it's not nearly as true as it's made out to be, there are a handful of players whose struggles in the 9th inning stem only from the mess going on between their ears.
But for the majority of relievers who have success in the earlier innings only to struggle in the final one, it's less about their breeding and makeup and more about matchups.
What seperates the closer even from the now almost-as-exclusively-designated 8th inning man is in fact the exclusivity of his role. No matter the matchup, the closer comes in in the 9th inning with a close lead. Even the best 8th inning set-up men are still pulled for a LOOGY if a big-hitting left-hander comes up to the plate. Using the Tigers as an example, how many of their opponent's right-handed set-up men faced Miguel Cabrera only to then be pulled for a lefty when Price Fielder strode to the plate? How many closers were allotted the same luxury when that same situation presented itself in the 9th inning? My guess is less.
Coke has all the mentality in the world to be a closer. He presents himself as fearless and tough on the mound and appears to have the short memory required to finish ball games. But his numbers against right-handers are so drastically different (.623 career OPS vs. LHH compared to .802 vs. RHH) that it's inevitable that he will eventually face a right-handed hitter in a key spot in the 9th inning and lose that battle. But in the 8th inning, Jim Leyland can prevent him from having to face that hitter.
Closers have no such luxury.
Which brings us back to Rondon. I have no problem with the premise that the Tigers are going to give Rondon every shot to win and keep the Tigers closer's role this season. Rookies have proved that their lack of experience is not a barometer for future success. If anything, younger arms tend to still throw harder and their lack of experience may just make them naive enough to not fully appreciate the pressures that come with pitching in the 9th inning, in this case, for a playoff team.
The issue for Rondon will be his control, but also the way he handles left-handed hitters. Over the past two seasons, Rondon has posted strong numbers, with a 2.02 ERA and 13.7 K/9 in Low-A in 2011 and a combined 1.53 ERA and 11.2 K/9 between three levels last season. His walk numbers went from outrageous in 2011 (7.6 BB/9) to a still-too-high-but-better-and-acceptable-when-you-throw-100-mph 4.4 BB/9 last season.
But a deeper look raises a red flag. Over that same time, Rendon has a 1.59 FIP against right-handed hitters but a 4.69 FIP against left-handed hitters. Why? It appears he has been working around them, whether deliberately or accidentally. Against LHH's, Rendon's BB/9 is 9.32 but against RHH's it's just 3.42. Does he lack confidence against lefties or has he just been setting himself up to attack the right-handed hitters he knows he can dominate?
Either way, it's an issue that he'll have to figure out before he can be a major league closer.
In the majors, he won't be able to get away with the free base runners nearly as easily as he was in the minors, and he won't be able to pitch around the best lefties because the next guy up can do just as much damage. His arsenal consists of a blazing fastball and a power slider that has been inconsistent, and that pitch will be needed as much against lefties as it is against the right-handed hitters.
These are the issues for Rondon as he attempts to grab a stranglehold on the Tigers closer's role this spring. Just like any other potential closer, it's going to be about how he handles hitters from both sides of the plate, because when you're pitching in the 9th inning, there's no hiding from anyone and there is no manager coming out to get you when the matchup isn't favorable.
Throwing 100-mph helps overcome come of that, but it won't be enough. I expect Rondon to be just fine as a closer and I agree with Angi that it's worth a shot as opposed to paying a free agent, but whether Rondon becomes Craig Kimbrel or Hector Santiago will be determined not by his makeup, but by how he gets out left-handed hitters.