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Brett Cecil's Hook Makes Him Closer Material

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While Blue Jays fans hold out hope for the team bringing in a relief ace from outside the organization, Brett Cecil is the most likely Opening Day closer at this point. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

If the season started today the Blue Jays would probably be looking to Brett Cecil to hold leads in the ninth inning.

Viscerally speaking that idea might not sit well with fans of the team. Cecil as a closer just doesn't feel right. The 28-year-old is a southpaw who doesn't throw particularly hard by late-inning reliever standards and has massive career platoon splits. None of that fits the closer prototype.

Also, Cecil fits another prototype to the letter. He appears to be the perfect example of a failed left-handed starter who has found a role getting lefties out. Why put him in one box when he fits so well in another?

The most obvious reason is necessity. By trading J.A. Happ away the Blue Jays opened a spot at the back of the rotation for Aaron Sanchez, making it less likely he returns to the pen. Other incumbents like Todd Redmond, Chad Jenkins, and Marco Estrada aren't really cut out for high-leverage work and John Gibbons loves using Aaron Loup for multiple innings. The last man standing is Cecil.

The possibility still exists that the team will bring in outside help, but with limited trade chips in hand finding a better reliever than Cecil at a palatable price seems unlikely. Dioner Navarro is not utterly without value, but he's unlikely to bring the type of player you plug and play in the ninth inning.

It should be noted that an argument could be made that there is no specific player should be played exclusively in the ninth inning and that the current closer role is archaic and overrated. That argument is not without merit. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that Blue Jays will employ a traditional closer next year nonetheless.

Closers are imperfectly used (like when teams are up three in the ninth) but by and large they pitch in situations important enough that it's worth caring about who gets the gig. In this case it's worth evaluating Cecil as a candidate.

The most obvious concern with "Brett Cecil: Closer" is the platoon splits he's displayed over the course of his career. Right-handed hitters have roughed Cecil up in his six seasons in the league:

Split

AVG

OBP

SLG

K%

BB%

FIP

Vs. L

.224

.281

.349

22.4%

6.2%

3.23

Vs. R

.275

.350

.467

18.0%

9.5%

4.81

The southpaw manages to turn right-handed hitters he faces into elite mashers of baseballs. That's not good for a guy who's asked to pitch in situations where opposing managers will use their bench liberally with nothing to lose.

However, over the last two years as he's settled in as a permanent reliever Cecil has done a lot better against right-handed hitters.

AVG

OBP

SLG

K%

BB%

FIP

.209

.327

.319

31.9%

14.1%

3.09

Although the sample size is relatively small (60.2 IP) it's not insignificant, and the change in results is mirrored by a change in approach. As a starter Cecil's primary breaking ball was a slider, which left him vulnerable to big platoon splits. In recent years he's scrapped the slider in favor of a curveball:

Early in the year I hypothesized that Cecil's curveball may be getting better and that proved true over the course of the season.

He threw the pitch with unprecedented velocity...

... and got more whiffs with it than ever before.

Perhaps most importantly, he recognized its effectiveness and increased his usage:

This curveball-heavy approach does not come without it's drawbacks. Last season Cecil's BB/9  spiked to a career-high 4.56, a scary number for a high leverage reliever. Curveballs are rarely thrown in the strike zone and are the pitch that hitters take the most.

However, with a few extra base runners comes a lot of making guys look like complete idiots and sending them to the bench. This combines aesthetic appeal and utility.

Notice how Cecil buried almost every pitch in that at-bat well below the strike zone, but was still able to get the strike out. That's what an elite curveball will do for you.

Last year Cecil's excellent strikeout rate (12.83 K/9) granted him a career-high 20.9 K-BB%, showing that the benefits of his new pitch mix outweigh the costs. Since Cecil has embraced the way of the hook he was also seen his groundball rate rise above 50% each of the last two seasons after never cracking 45% before in his career despite no real change his sinker usage.

It's tempting to see Cecil as the type of pitcher who just found a few ticks on his fastball in the bullpen and turned things around. While it's impossible to deny that Cecil has more impressive juice than he did as a starter, it's really the way that he's adopted and mastered a platoon-neutral out pitch that has made the difference.

The Blue Jays may well bring in outside help to close for them this season, but even if they don't, they have a perfectly good in-house candidate. While Cecil used to be too much of a liability against right-handers to be considered for such a role, now he has a new and devastating weapon.

Now he's ready to take on all comers.