Can Brett Myers shine as Astros closer?
The Houston Astros, one of five -- well, six now, if you include the Cleveland Indians, following news that Chris Perez will miss 4-6 weeks with an oblique injury -- teams with uncertain closer roles, might finally have some clarity in the ninth inning.
On Tuesday, they announced that veteran right-handed starter Brett Myers, who has started 249 of his 307 career big league appearances, agreed on Monday to move into the role, according to the team's official website.
Myers returns to the role he occupied for the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies, when he made 21 saves with a 2.87 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10.80 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in what were 48 of his 58 career relief appearances. He was especially productive for that team in the final two months of that season, after which point he had both adapted to his new role and recovered from a shoulder injury. His 14 saves from Aug. 1 onward were fifth-most in the majors, and he had a 3.23 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 9.10 K/9 ratio to go with them.
That's not to say that such a sample size, especially one accrued five seasons ago, can be immediately translated to the present. Myers might have "experience" as a closer, and with a dearth of alternatives in the Astros' bullpen the decision makes sense, but he's hardly a sure thing returned to the ninth inning.
Is Myers even the same pitcher today that he was then? ESPN's TruMedia tool reveals that his fastball has averaged beneath 90 mph in each of the past three seasons, including a career-low 88.6 mph in 2011. Pitch F/X, meanwhile, shows a 92.6 mph average during his 2007 season and 90.0 mph in 2008, meaning it's fair to question whether he'll be able to dial it quite back into the low-to-mid-90s, where he might need it to be to repeat his successes of 2007. Myers might do just as he did back then: lean on the fastball (47.8 percent of all his pitches in 2007) and curveball (38.6 percent) and dial back the slider. The problem, however, is that the slider has been his most effective pitch the past two seasons, so the arsenal he chooses is highly likely to be different this time around. Myers is also now 31 years old, meaning today's is clearly not the model we saw in 2007.
That's not to say Myers cannot succeed as closer. He's in a low-pressure environment with little competition for saves, "job security" an advantage that many of his brethren lack. One of the reasons the Astros might have moved Myers was concern that Brandon Lyon, fresh off biceps surgery, either won't be ready for the start of the season or won't quite be at his 2009-10 levels of effectiveness. Lyon, on experience alone, would presumably be next in line should Myers falter, with David Carpenter, Wilton Lopez and Juan Abreu, probably in that order, following. Abreu, after all, is raw as a prospect and might require more seasoning.
NL-only owners should find a place for Myers, who on projected value would be a No. 2 closer for the majority of those teams. In a mixed league, meanwhile, he'd probably become his team's No. 3 or 4 option.
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But there's a final concern as to why Myers shouldn't be counted on for more, and it's quoted verbatim from my Dec. 14, 2011, spin on Mark Melancon's, the Astros' former closer, trade to the Boston Red Sox:
"Everyone points to Bryan Harvey's 45 saves for the 1993 Florida Marlins as rationale as to why closers on bad teams matter, but what those same people tend to forget is that Harvey's Marlins team wasn't bad on an epic scale; it did, after all, only lose 98 games. It's when a team breezes past 100 losses that the closer becomes a bit more irrelevant, and even in the high-90s, Harvey is more exception than the rule.
"Since the save became an official statistic in 1969, 37 teams have suffered 100-loss seasons. Only one closer for one of those 37 teams saved 30 games or more: David Aardsma of the 2010 Seattle Mariners (31). And only 14 of those teams had a closer manage 20 or more saves, with those teams' leaders averaging 17.7."
If Myers' Astros lose more than 100 games, as many are going to predict, can Myers reasonably break Aardsma's 31 saves? I'm not so sure.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.