Rising and falling relievers

Rising and falling relievers
There's still been a lot of this // Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune

In order to spare him a tough matchup in an inning that had already been through a rough start, Addison Reed replaced Matt Thornton in the bottom of the 8th Tuesday night, and ended the evening with a quite rare four-out save.

The interplay brought both relievers’ ERA’s to 3.83 on the season, which is reflective of how they’ve been equally functional yet disappointing.

Thornton has become a regular battleground between Chris Rongey and his callers–with the callers venting the frustration of almost two years of watching Thornton’s poorly-timed decline, and Rongey pleading for some recognition of the functional-enough reliever that remains.

Indeed, if you can set aside how sad it is to no longer have the old Thornton, the lengths to which the current version is going to stave off the end of his career is fascinating.

The dip in his fastball velocity isn’t drastic (1 mph), but he’s a guy who threw it nine times out of ten at his peak.  It’s coincided fairly directly with a loss of the ability to just pump it past people with reckless abandon.

So now, Thornton is–as the old patronizing adage goes–learning how to pitch.  Which is to say he can’t strike people out anymore, at least not at an above-average rate.  His slurvy breaking ball looks like a work in progress at times, but it’s definitely a scouting report-ruiner at this point, and he’s getting his highest rate of groundballs ever.

It’d be a fine model for success if it wasn’t for that damned Thornton Luckhis opposing batting average on balls in play has been 40 points above league average for the last two seasons.

If he’s going to make it through to end of his contract through 2013 while still keeping useful, it’ll probably be with his primary focus on retiring lefties.  Against left-handers, he still maintains a gleaming 4.5 K/BB ratio.

That might seem like a limited role for Thornton, but Addison Reed is supposed to be heading up the charge to push him to the background.  And Reed’s ride as a mediocre-looking white-knuckle closer is more of an annoyance than a curiosity.

There’s been nothing inevitable about Reed’s loss of feel for what was touted pre-season as “a slider that unleashes a world of two-plane hurt on opposing hitters”.  Yet over the year, it’s use has bottomed out to a few tentative attempts per outing at most, since he doesn’t trust it and usually is not in a position to tinker.  Which simultaneously makes his path to reclaiming the pitch unclear, and the work he’s done with a big fastball and a once-derided changeup a bit more impressive.

If Tuesday was any indication, the problem persists.  Reed threw fastballs for all but one offering, and while he’s not displaying the platoon splits one might have predicted for him, he’s not performing well enough to pick up extra outs from Thornton on a regular basis.

For whatever reason, the results have improved in spite of the process.  Reed’s six-for-six in saves since Boston, with just two runs allowed in 8.2 IP, with eight strikeouts and just two walks (although not a single 1-2-3 inning to speak of).

For all the absolute maxing out of the talent on hand the White Sox have done this season, Reed’s skill set still lies somewhat fallow heading into the final weeks.  Just one memory of Bobby Jenks’ 2010 season is enough to remind how fluid relievers’ command of their breaking pitches can be.

Since Reed’s treaded water as a successful closer without it, a hot streak for his slider would not just give the pen a boost, but make this whole changing of the guard look smooth and coordinated, which would be quite the trick.



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