Should Injured Closers Get Their Job Back?

With Jake McGee currently on a rehab assignment and Sean Doolittle reportedly set to begin one soon, Brad Boxberger and Tyler Clippard may not be seeing much of the ninth inning soon. Ignoring the whims of managers and whether McGee and Doolittle will resume their role as closer, should they?

The easier of the two cases is in Oakland. Clippard earned a five-out save on Tuesday night, his third save of the season. It was a strong outing with no baserunners allowed and two strikeouts, but it certainly wasn’t enough to make up for Clippard’s rough start to the season.

Clippard has just nine strikeouts in 12 innings compared to six walks. After his fastball velocity dipped below 92 mph last year, it’s down almost another mile per hour this year and below 91 mph. That’s likely the reason his swinging strike rate is down to 11.1 percent after being slightly above 14 percent the last two seasons. He’s also missing the zone a bit more than he has in the past, and that also includes first pitch strikes.

For his career, Clippard has had an excellent BABIP and strand rate. He manages the BABIP by being an extreme fly ball pitcher and limiting line drives. All the fly balls lead to a home run rate that is quite a bit higher than average for releivers, but he still posts a good strand rate with his ability to get out of jams with the strikeout. He’s still got his fly ball/BABIP mojo going this year, but with a .176 BABIP he has been fortunate, not just his usual self. And with fewer strikeouts, you have to wonder if he’ll be able to manage the strand rate.

I could have easily just pointed out Clippard’s 5.83 xFIP and said Doolittle should obviously resume his role as closer. But with this small of a sample size, I wanted to point out that there may be real concerns. Of course, things like swinging strike rate and first pitch strike rate are far from stable after just 50 batters faced, but the presumption was that the job was Doolittle’s whenever he returns, and Clippard has done little to dissuade that presumption.

Brad Boxberger, on the other hand, has done plenty to dissuade the idea that McGee should close when he returns. I won’t pretend to know how the Rays envision(ed) that scenario playing out, but it’s likely a much tougher decision than the one being faced in Oakland.

From the start of the 2014 season to now, Boxberger ranks fourth in K-BB% behind only Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Doolittle. In terms of inducing weak contact, only one reliever who has had a regular role as closer, Zach Britton, has induced soft contact at a rate higher than Boxberger. As for his repertoire, his fastball was the seventh most valuable heater in the league last year among relievers, and it has been just as good so far this year. His changeup also generates whiffs at a good clip, and he’s now throwing a curve 8.2 percent of the time that has been effective so far, which Eno discussed recently.

If there’s a hole in his game it’s that his first pitch strike percentage is way down and his walk rate has spiked as a result, but guys who can generate whiffs like Boxberger can get away with some walks. Chapman is the ultimate example of this, and Trevor Rosenthal does the poor man’s version of it.

As for McGee, there’s no denying that he was excellent last year. He had a 27.1 percent K-BB%, and his SIERA was sub-2.00. But McGee doesn’t quite have all the tools Boxberger has. For one thing, he doesn’t generate as many whiffs with a 32.9 percent strikeout rate and a 13 percent swinging strike rate last year compared to 42.1 percent and 14.4 percent for Boxberger. Moreover, McGee is doing it all with fastball velocity. He chucks it a fair bit harder than Boxberger, but that’s really all McGee has. He threw a four-seamer or two-seamer over 90 percent of the time last year and sparingly used a cutter, which wasn’t effective. Given that he’s coming off an elbow injury, it’s fair to wonder if his fastball velocity will be reduced at all. I’m sure Jeff Zimmerman will update us on that when the time comes. And there’s also the issue of him being left-handed, which doesn’t necessarily preclude him from closing, but it’s likely not working in his favor.

But ignoring what his favor is with management, it’s pretty easy to make the case that McGee shouldn’t usurp the closer’s job from Boxberger. Even if he does, Boxberger is good enough  to continue to have value in mixed leagues without recording saves assuming your format allows you to roster a middle reliever.

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They should not.

(Says a Boxberger owner)