New Closer: J.J. Hoover

One of the more exciting effects of offseason player movement is the opening up of closer roles. When established closers sign somewhere else or get sent packing as part of a trade, us fantasy nerds have all the fun of speculating who steps up to fill the vacated role and how likely it is that the pitcher holds the job all year. After the Yankees stole traded for incumbent Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, there was a gaping hole at the back end of the Reds bullpen. Since the Reds are clearly in rebuilding mode, it’s highly unlikely they go out and trade for or sign another reliever to fill the void. So at the moment, all signs point to J.J. Hoover opening the season as their closer. We’ll expand on the battle and other options when we begin our depth chart discussions in the coming weeks. But today’s post is all about Hoover.

Since this is FanGraphs, we can basically all agree that any good reliever can succeed as a closer, right? If you can pitch effectively in the seventh or eighth innings, you can do so in the ninth as well. I bring this up because Hoover has all of five career saves to his name over four seasons (which includes half of one). Back in the day, fantasy owners questioned whether a former middle reliever would be able to handle all the extra pressure felt when trying to record the final three outs of the game. As such, guys like Hoover would typically come rather cheap in drafts given the perception of heightened risk.

I think that’s a bunch of baloney and so I analyze new closers based solely on their underlying skills. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that Hoover possesses a strong enough set to hold the closer gig all year. On the surface, it might appear that he does. Outside a near 5.00 ERA in 2014, thanks to an inflated HR/FB rate and extreme fly ball rate (which led to a near 2.00 HR/9!), his ERA has been sub-3.00 in the other seasons. A closer that allows fewer than three runs per nine sounds pretty good.

However, a closer look reveals a much less impressive 3.68 career SIERA, which can easily be explained the moment you check his BABIP. It has jumped around a lot, which makes sense given the small sample of innings a reliever pitches. But his career mark sits at just .238. The knee-jerk reaction is that man has he benefited from some darn good fortune…and defensive support. That must be partly true as few (if any) pitchers possess a true talent BABIP that low. But, he has been an extreme fly ball pitcher over his career on average, and has paired that tendency with a sky high IFFB%. Does that combination sound familiar? It should.

There’s another pitcher who has mystified us with his combination of fly balls and pop-ups. He’s our favorite SIERA-defier, Chris Young. The difference between the two is that Young has induced an even higher rate of fly balls over his career, but has posted a higher BABIP, though just marginally. So it’s clear that Hoover’s batted ball distribution is going to lead to a low BABIP. But .238 seems a bit extreme and ripe for some regression.

Furthermore, in 2015 his batted ball distribution flipped and he suddenly induced more grounders than fly balls (okay, so just one more grounder than fly). If this transformation is sustained in 2016, there’s little reason to expect a repeat of such a suppressed BABIP. Either way, he’s going to deal with home run issues, and since his control is below average, he’s always at risk of putting a runner on base and then giving up a two-run bomb, and the lead.

His strikeout rate plummeted last year, mostly due to a decline in his foul strike rate and a dip in his rate of strikes thrown. Though that explanation isn’t as worrisome as if his rate of swinging strikes had fallen. But given the volatility of relievers, we cannot be sure his strikeout rate bounces back.

So what we have here is a pitcher with control issues that will potentially allow far too many fly balls, resulting in the feared affliction known as gopheritis. He’s not the type of cheap closer I want to speculate on.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Reds fan
Reds fan

JJ Hoover has been a disaster the last two seasons, he just managed to hide it better in 2015 with a few fluky weeks to begin the season. Hoover as the closer will make me long for the last days of Francisco Cordero.