When You’re Hot, You’re Hot and When You’re Motte, You’re Motte
Conjure in your mind a picture of the ideal closer. I don’t mean try to think of what Mariano Rivera looked like, but rather the Platonic ideal of what a closer should be. Maybe he’s long and lanky, a la Aroldis Chapman or perhaps he’s a burly veteran who takes his sweet time getting out to the mound, like Big Lee Smith. For me, it’s a guy who looks like he rode to the park on a Harley, hair and beard windblown and maybe even speckled with the remains of the insects he encountered on his commute.
This guy looks like he could throw a baseball through a brick wall, and he may well be able to. Intimidation? Yeah, that’s his game. Control? Eh, I guess so. My closer is just wild enough to let a pitch slip every now and again, just enough to have hitters second-guessing about lording over that plate. He’s fiery and fearless and imposes his will upon the game for 3 outs every other night or so. Basically, he’s Jason Motte.
But while the Cubs closer du jour looks the part of my ideal closer, he hasn’t really been playing the role to perfection here of late. Had Kris Bryant not swooped in to save the day, Motte would have been the subject of an inordinate amount of vitriol today, having nearly cost the Cubs the game in the 9th. Sure, Rafael Soriano aided and abetted in the commission of the crime, but it’s Motte to whom Joe Maddon first turned to end the game.
I know I’ve been a little leery of a guy who has become primarily a one-pitch pitcher and whose performance has been spotty in his first season with the Cubs. Then again, maybe I was letting recent history overwrite the real story here. To that end, I want to take a quick look at Motte’s season to determine whether I’ve been too hard on the guy when calling for his use in high-leverage situations to be reduced or eliminated.
Motte was pretty rough in April, but it’s hard to draw any conclusions from only 10 innings. His 4.50 ERA and 5.40 K/9 were both worse than his April splits from the past few seasons, though his 4.37 FIP, 1.10 WHIP, 2.70 BB/9, and .211 batting average against were all better. Ah, but here’s the rub: Motte had a BABIP against of only .226, which means that he was likely the recipient of a great deal of luck.
Moving on to May, things stayed pretty consistent; the ERA (3.60) was down, WHIP (1.30) was up a little, FIP (4.67) was similar. But the walks (4.5 BB/9) jumped way up while the strikeouts stayed the same. And the BABIP remained at a frighteningly low .219, which tells me that the other shoe was about to drop for the bearded baseballer. A funny thing happened in June though: Motte suddenly flipped on the flux capacitor and jumped back in time to 2012.
For the month, the former Cardinal closer posted an ERA of 0.93 and a BB/9 number to match. Walks are killers to late-inning stoppers, so the latter of those two figures was a huge key to Motte’s success. Even so, there were some underlying figures that may have told us this lights-out performance was perhaps a bit too good to be true, namely the 3.27 FIP and 4.25 xFIP. Those aren’t bad in a vacuum, but it looks as though perhaps Motte’s defense was helping him out quite a bit. And a .250 BABIP against indicated that a bit of good luck was still in play too.
And now we come to July, a month Motte and Cubs fans might like to forget; thus far, he’s posted a 5.00 ERA with a 1.56 WHIP as hitters have batted .325 against him. Rather than a regression to the mean, however, these inflated numbers appear to be the result of a big swing from good luck to bad. Motte’s still walking guys at a very low rate (1.00 BB/9) and his 3.51 FIP isn’t too far off of that June number. So what gives? An unsightly .364 BABIP against, that’s what.
BABIP tends to go up with harder-hit balls and line drives, so let’s take a quick look at the type of contact Motte has allowed this season. April started out okay, as only 9.4% of the contact Motte allowed was hit hard, well below his career average of 27%. And he was only allowing line drives at a 6.5% clip, again far better than his history has shown. In May, however, those numbers spiked to 30.3% and 25.8%, worse than in the past. June saw hard-hit balls allowed at a 37.9% rate and July is at 41.2% so far, while line drives have stayed around 24%.
When I say I’m worried about Motte, it’s not that I’m taking only the last couple games into account, but that I don’t feel good about handing the ball to a guy with the game on the line if I don’t know what I’m going to get that day or week or month. After that awful first month, Motte leaned more heavily on the fastball. That was all well and good because it helped him to improve quickly, but it also decreased his margin for error. As we see from the stats above, opposing hitters are clearly squaring him up more often.
Unless you’re Mo Rivera, who threw the best pitch in the history of baseball roughly 90% of the time, you can’t go out there with one arrow in your quiver and hope to make things happen. Well, Aroldis Chapman might be able to, but he throws, like, 1,000 mph, so, you know. Motte’s not a fastball-only guy, but he does go to that pitch at about a 75% rate. Compare that to 58% usage in his big 2012 season in St. Louis; that year, he balanced things out with a cutter (26%) and sinker (13%), with a change (2%) for special occasions.
The ancillary pitches have been whittled to two this season, as the cutter (16%) and sinker (9%) are still in use. So maybe he’s just getting smarter in his old age, realizing what works best and playing to his strengths. Sure, that might be the case. I checked Brooks Baseball to find out what kinds of outcomes Motte was getting on his various pitches prior to this season. The chart below illustrates the batting average against Motte’s various offerings over the four previous seasons.
The first thing that jumps out here is the curveball. Oof! But that’s an aberrant pitch that clearly isn’t in use any longer. The next thing I see is the absolute consistency maintained from season to season; the lines hardly move until Motte’s first season post-Tommy John surgery. And even in that 2014 campaign, his fastball remained pretty well in line with previous years. Now let’s take a look at the 2015 season:
Whoo, that’s kinda scary, huh? I mean, look at that sinker. More like stinker, amirite? Zooming in on stats like these, though, is kind of like looking at common household objects through an electron microscope in that you start seeing things that aren’t visible from a normal distance. Remember that consistency from the first chart? Well, look what happens when we view those seasons in terms of performance by month:
Oh my gosh, it’s kinda spiky and crazy too! So does this mean that we should all stop worrying about Jason Motte and just let him settle back into the 9th-inning role? Well, not really. He’s now allowed hits in 5 consecutive outings and in 6 of the last 7, including multi-hit appearances in 4 of those. It should be noted, however, that the one game in that stretch in which he didn’t allow a hit is the only one in which he issued a walk. So there’s that.
Despite being hit, though, Motte has only had a negative impact on the Cubs’ win probability in his last 2 games and his WPA for the season stands at 1.22, which is identical to that of his aforementioned fireballing division rival. In addition, Motte has had a negative impact on the Cubs’ chances to win in 7 games; Chapman has hurt the Reds 6 times. WPA is kind of a tough stat to use for a closer though, as you really don’t need the guy to accumulate a high total so long as he doesn’t adversely affect your team.
So what’s the answer here? To be honest, I’m not sure. What I see from the numbers tells me that a knee-jerk reaction to demoting Motte to lower-leverage situations may be a bit hasty and unfounded in the grand scheme of things. But my gut and my eyes tell me that this is no longer a guy who can be counted on to hold down the 9th for a team that needs to leverage every possible angle to their advantage. Motte just doesn’t strike me as a guy who has that “it” factor any longer.
Jonathan Papelbon, on the other hand, is looking more and more like an attractive option, provided the price isn’t too high. He’s been toiling away for a pretty awful team this year, but has still only had a negative WPA in 1 game all season. And that, my friends, is what you need in a closer. He doesn’t have to throw 100 mph or strike out the side every time out. He simply needs to come into a game and shut the door without hurting the team.
I’d like to see a bullpen with Pap holding down the 9th and Motte sharing late inning situational duties with Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop, while Rafael Soriano heads to the waiver wire. I think Motte can still be a relatively effective pitcher, he really can; he just leaves too many doors ajar for my taste.
What do you think? Does Motte still have it? Do the Cubs need to trade for Papelbon or is Rondon the guy?