Thursday, March 24, 2011

White Sox Tab Matt Thornton As Closer

One of the more pleasing things for me this spring has been the general lack of concern I've seen, both from the media and from the fans, about the closers situation in Chicago. Typically when a team expecting to contend has a uncertainty at the closers position, the media is up in arms. People debate whether or not someone has good enough stuff for it - whether a pitcher who's had success in a 8th inning role can really handle the pressure of having the game on the line. You know, because the inning guys never have the game on the line.

While there has been much discussion of the ability of the Twins to survive their bullpen departures, you might be surprised to learn that while the Twins departures account for a total of 2.5 WAR lost from their bullpen - the White Sox, even after bringing in Jesse Crain, have lost a total of 2.0 WAR. Almost as much as the Twins. Thankfully, both teams will have aces in the hole to replace most of what was lost. Joe Nathan for the Twins, and of course, Chris Sale for the White Sox.

So while the media attention has been on the White Sox division rival to the north, both teams will have work to do in order to cover their off season losses. In trying to cover the departure of long time closer Bobby Jenks, the Sox had two very good options to choose from. One being Matt Thornton, who has spent the past two seasons serving as the White Sox primary setup man. Over those two seasons, Thornton has combined to throw 133 innings while racking up 4.7 WAR - second only to Brian Wilson's 5.1 over the same period. He's been the second most valuable relief pitcher in baseball, and the most dominant reliever in the American League over that time span. In short, he's been phenomenal since being acquired by the White Sox.

When a team has someone that dominant, it's hard to imagine that a competition for an open bullpen role could be a legitimate contest. Yet Chris Sale made it one by virtue of his own phenomenal stuff. After being called up late in the season last year, Sale managed to rack up 0.6 WAR in just 23.1 innings, a pretty amazing mark. While I'd imagine some might fret about handing the closers role to a rookie, there are dozens of instances in which rookies have dominated from the position, so any concern should be nullified.

While both pitchers are hard throwing lefties with fastballs in the mid 90's, Sale and Thornton go about their jobs quite differently. Whereas Thornton is one of the most extreme fastball pitchers in baseball, using that offering for over 90% of his pitches, Sale has two plus pitches, and a potential third, from which to choose. Despite the differences in stuff, the results are quite similar. Both pitchers strike out a bit more than 12/9IP, and both have decent to solid command with walk rates under 3.86.

Ultimately, whichever way the White Sox decided to go with this decision, they were likely to be right, and that's a great problem to have. Both pitchers are simply too dominant to not have a great deal of success regardless of the role which they're slotted into.

That being said, I like the decision to go with Thornton for a couple of reasons. First and foremost it gives the team flexibility. The White Sox have a very solid starting rotation, but behind that rotation there is frighteningly little depth in the Minor Leagues. Should there be an injury to a starter, and the Sox have a need to call on Sale to make the transition mid-season, they could do so without needing to change the man at the back end of the action, preserving a degree of continuity.

Perhaps more importantly however, I think it makes it easier on the team from a public relations standpoint when they do ultimately move Sale to the rotation. Reading and hearing the non-sense coming out of Texas regarding Neftali Feliz's transition turns my stomach, and every time I hear one of the folks on MLB Network or from somewhere else try and make an argument that they should leave him in the bullpen, it makes my head feel like it's going to explode. 

Eventually, Sale will need to be given a long-term shot at the rotation. He can rack up three times as many innings (or more) from that spot and leaving him in the bullpen for much longer would be a near criminal waste of talent. Keeping him out of the closers role makes that an easier sell to the folks who overvalue the closers position. IE: Most of any teams fanbase.

Given the choice between two pitchers who will both give essentially identical results, I think the White Sox absolutely made the right decision, and I'm happy to see they did so. Let's just hope they don't wait beyond this season to give Sale his chance to start.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.

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