BRIAN FUENTES: The Angels New Closer

When the Angels signed three-time all-star pitcher Brian Fuentes to a 2-year contract to be the team's closer in 2009, it marked a major step away from the organization's use of home-grown closers.  In the proceeding 21 seasons -- with the exception of 1995 when the Halo's had Lee Smith -- the club has used pitchers who have either been drafted or signed by the Angels organization as their closer.  While other organizations spend heavily on free agent closers or trade for relievers, year after year, the Angels have proven they're able to develop elite-level bullpen options within their own organization.  Over the last 20 years, 4 players have filled the closer's role for the Angels while having pitched exclusively within the Angels' minor / major league systems.

Bryan Harvey 1988 - 1991
Joe Grahe 1992 - 1994
Troy Percival 1996 - 2004
Francisco Rodriquez 2005 - 2008

Entering the 2009 season, the Angels had another internal option to replace Rodriquez.  Jose Arredondo had very solid numbers in 2008, a season which compared favorably to Francisco Rodriquez's season in which he spent as setting-up Troy Percival ('04). 

  Year ERA IP H ER BB SO SO/IP
Rodriquez 2004 1.82 84 51 17 33 123 1.46
Arredondo 2008 1.62 61 42 11 22 55 0.90

However, the difference between 2005 K-Rod and 2009 Arredondo is Rodriquez had 170 dominating innings pitched in the majors, where Arredondo has pitched just 61 innings.  The Angels' front office must not have felt completely confident that Arredondo could assume the closer role after just one major league season.  Scot Shields was also an option to work the ninth innings in 2009, but he has been one of the major league's best set-up men and the Angels apparently didn't want to mess with success.  One of the Angels' biggest strengths has been their bullpen, and with the addition of Fuentes as closer, it leaves both Shields and Arredondo in roles in which they flourished allowing the Angels to shutdown the other team's offense after the 6th inning.

In signing Fuentes, the Angels get a pitcher whose effectiveness compares to previous Angels' closers.  Fuentes has spent the previous 4 seasons as the Rockies' closer where he has accumulated 111 saves and posted an ERA of 3.04.  Below are the stats for each pitcher that were produced while filling the closer role and how Fuentes compares with successful Angels' closers of recent history:

  S IP H ER BB SO ERA WHIP K/IP BB/IP
Fuentes 111 263.1 202 89 105 302 3.04 1.17 1.15 0.40
Rodriquez 194 276 201 72 128 356 2.34 1.19 1.29 0.46
Percival 313 512.2 356 179 227 586 3.14 1.14 1.14 0.44
Harvey 113 274 191 76 113 328 2.50 1.11 1.20 0.41

Another big change for the Angels closer situation is Fuentes is a southpaw.  The Angels haven't used a lefty closer since Andy Hassler saved 10 games for the Halos in 1980.  Fuentes has been just as difficult on right-handed hitters (.225 batting average against) as he is on lefties (.215) over his career.  According to some great, in-depth analysis by Josh Kalk at Harball Times:

Fuentes greatly reduced the number of change-ups he threw to right-handed batters and replaced them with more sinkers and some sliders. Normally I would say that this is a bad thing because the slider is moving toward a right-handed batter and the pitcher is much more likely to make a mistake with that pitch. Here, though, I think this absolutely was the right move for Fuentes, because his change-up isn't as good as some other lefties' and his slider is rather slurvy so it will stay low in the zone even if it gets too much of the plate. This also gives right-handed batters something else to think about instead of assuming they're facing a two-pitch pitcher.

Against left-handed batters, Fuentes reduced the number of sinkers he threw in favor of more sliders. Again, this is likely a good move because his sinker has such inward movement to left-handed batters. Throwing more sliders, especially in fastball counts, is going to force the hitter to protect the outer part of the plate instead of just looking inside for the sinker. In 2007, Fuentes overwhelmingly threw a sinker to start the at-bat against left-handed batters, but last year he mixed in enough sliders to keep the hitter off balance. Even though Fuentes throws only two pitches to left-handed batters, both are plus pitches, so there is no reason to mess around with a change-up here.
 

And he adds:

This signing looks like a steal to me. While Fuentes will probably not benefit as much as other pitchers would from moving from Coors to Angels Stadium because of his sinker and his large strikeout rates, Fuentes looks like a good bet to be one of the top relievers again. Keep an eye on how many sliders he throws to right-handed batters; if he continues to throw that pitch, he should continue to be solid against righties.

While it would be foolish to think that Fuentes will rack up as many saves as K-Rod did last year, I would expect him to be among the league leaders and a very solid investment for the Angels. Age will catch up with him eventually, but I don't see it happening in the next few years for which the Angels are on the hook.

Not to take anything away from the record breaking season he had in 2008, or Francisco Rodriquez' fantastic career as an Angel, nor to downgrade the future of Jose Arredondo, the move away from home-grown closers for at least the two years Fuentes is signed for is the right move for the Angels.

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