How Jason Motte Can Excel as a Closer
The Cardinal’s new manager, Mike Matheny, officially named Jason Motte closer a few weeks ago, but pretty much everyone expected him to land the gig even before the announcement. Motte finished last season in the role and had a solid postseason as the ninth inning man under Tony La Russa, with an 8-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and a 2.19 ERA in 12.1 October innings.
More than just being a useful closer, Motte has developed into a top notch pitcher. He has seen his K/BB rate increase in each of the past three seasons, from 2.35 to 3.00 to 3.94. It appears that he is getting more comfortable on the mound each year removed from his transition from catcher to pitcher, which is a logical reason for his continued improvement. He also ditched the curveball that he threw 11% of the time in 2009, which was a rather ineffective pitch.
The above charts use data taken from Brooks Baseball player cards, with the final five categories being Pitch IQ scores – greater than 100 is above average and under 100 is below average. For line drives and fly balls, the lower the rate the better.
Motte succeeds with three versions of a fastball. His four-seamer is his best and most commonly thrown pitch, while his cutter is his second pitch against righties and his sinker is his second pitch against lefties. Motte, like a number of right-handed relievers, has seen excellent success against fellow right-handers but has somewhat struggled in comparison when facing left-handed batters.
To elaborate on that, last year he netted a 5.63 K/BB rate against right-handers and a 2.25 mark against lefties. His FIP of 2.12 against right-handers was over a run lower than his 3.20 mark against lefties. One of the main reasons for his struggles against lefties was the usage of his cutter.
As seen above, Motte generates mostly above average rates against lefties with both his fastball and sinker. His cutter, however, fails to miss bats and is frequently scorched for line drives. He does not allow many fly balls with the pitch, but that high line drive rate helps explain his .324 BABIP against lefties compared to his .216 BABIP against rigthies, to some extent.
My recommendation would be to scrap the cutter entirely when facing left-handed batters, and at worst use it no more than with 5% of his pitches thrown. In addition to scrapping the cutter, using more sinkers looks like it could be beneficial as well due to his whiff and ground ball rates. He has seen great success against right-handers utilizing mostly two pitches, and the superb rates on his fastball and sinker lead me to believe he can do the same against lefties.
Whether he does this or not is yet to be determined, but it is something I will track throughout the season. The Cardinals and Motte were willing to scrap the curveball, so maybe they are willing to use the cutter less against lefties. There is also the opportunity for the pitch to improve, but he can probably get by with more success if he scraps the pitch even with an improvement.
Even if Motte keeps the cutter intact against lefties, he is still a solid closer to add. With steadily increasing performances and a manager who is not La Russa, he should be able to man the ninth inning for the entirety of the season. While we do not yet know how Matheny will handle relievers, it is hard to imagine him being as difficult as La Russa has been over the years. Draft Motte with the intention of him being a solid closer with an ERA below 3.00, but follow him closely to see how he attacks left-handed hitters and you may end up with one of the top back-end relievers in baseball.
Ben has been at RotoGraphs since 2012 and focuses most of his fantasy baseball attention toward dynasty and keeper leagues.