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Amir Garrett is an imperfect closer for an imperfect Reds bullpen

The left-hander has the stuff to handle high-leverage, but his results haven’t always backed that up.

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds Jim Owens-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe there never was going to be a battle for the job of closer in the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen. After Raisel Iglesias, the team’s closer since the second half of 2016, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in December, it created an opening for which the team had a few possible in-house replacements, along with myriad options on the free agent market. It seemed poised to be a roster competition worth following throughout spring training, but on Sunday, one contender claimed victory before ever throwing a pitch in live action.

Garrett’s declaration shouldn’t be a huge surprise, as he always looked like the frontrunner for the job. Lucas Sims has back-of-the-bullpen stuff but has thrown in just 67 big league games, and Michael Lorenzen is looking to once again make the transition to late-inning reliever to starter. Meanwhile, Sean Doolittle, the former Nationals and Athletics closer who was signed by the Reds in February, has had a brutal start to spring training, having allowed eight runs on seven hits, five walks and four homers in three innings. Garrett has late inning experience and the desire to be the closer, but the timing of his declaration was a bit unexpected, as he’s still on the mend from soreness in his left forearm. That’s kept him off the mound so far in spring training games, but he has been throwing in bullpen sessions and is optimistic he’ll pitch for the first time later this week. From a report by Bobby Nightengale in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“It’s a relief because you always have, as a baseball player, these little nagging pains or injuries or whatever aches,” Garrett said. “Mine isn’t anything serious like that, but it is a relief as player. It’s like, ‘oh, OK, well, I’m just a little dinged up just a little bit. I’m good to go.’ But you always got to take precaution, so you don’t make it into something bigger than what it is.”

The Reds, as far as I can tell, haven’t officially named a closer yet. And judging from the way manager David Bell has spoken about the role in the past, it’s doubtful they will. Since joining the organization, he’s been open about his belief that your best reliever should be pitching in the most important situation of the game, without being limited to the ninth inning or being expected to record the 27th out. But while Cincinnati may no longer be letting save situations affect their in-game decisions — and for good reason — the fact remains that every team has somebody as the go-to arm in big situations. When Bell closes his eyes and imagines a win hinging upon a single opponent’s at-bat, is Garrett the pitcher he wants to see on the mound?

On sheer arm talent, it’s hard to make case against him. Garrett runs his fastball up in the mid-90s with more horizontal movement than anyone on the team except Tyler Mahle. His slider doesn’t move nearly as well compared to those of his peers, but it works well enough for Garrett to lean on it significantly. Over the past two years, he’s thrown his slider on more than 55% of his pitches, gotten whiffs on more than half of swings against it, and allowed a an xwOBA in the low .200s.

Best Sliders By Whiff%, 2020

Name Sliders thrown wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
Name Sliders thrown wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
Shane Bieber 144 0.295 0.256 61.2%
Corbin Burnes 128 0.168 0.153 60.3%
Amir Garrett 166 0.222 0.236 57.1%
Edwin Diaz 182 0.226 0.214 57.0%
Victor Gonzalez 104 0.121 0.181 56.6%
Source: Baseball Savant

No one else on the pitching staff has a pitch this dominant — not even Luis Castillo’s changeup. Being able to call upon a weapon like that in big moments gives Garrett a major boost in setting himself apart as his team’s primary lockdown reliever, and he’s gotten better at deploying those weapons with confidence as he’s moved forward in his career. In each of his four seasons in the majors, Garrett has improved his strikeout percentage by at least 4.8 points — a total bump from 19.6% in 2017 to 37.7% in 2020. The gap between his strikeout rate and walk rate has also gotten larger each year, while his xwOBA has gotten consistently lower. Garrett keeps getting better and better; yet, his overall numbers have been mostly pedestrian. His ERA fell below 3.00 for the first time last year, but his FIP remained up at 4.34, a slight increase from the 4.14 mark he posted in 2019. In his three years relieving full-time, he ranks just 83rd among all qualified relievers in WAR.

Despite having the stuff of an elite reliever, Garrett has rarely performed like one over long stretches, thanks partly to his own shortcomings and partly to some bad luck. He’s been known to struggle with his command, particularly when he posted a 14.2% walk rate in 2019. His pitches also travel a long distance when they get hit in the air — a third of the fly balls he allowed in 2020 turned into homers, despite the leaguewide HR/FB rate being just 14.8%. That’s three out of four seasons in which he’s performed well below-average in that category. This is an odd problem to have for someone who, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from allowing terribly hard contact, and it isn’t just a matter of him pitching in a bandbox. In fact, his HR/FB rate is actually higher on the road for his career than it is at Great American Ball Park.

And speaking of splits, it’s worth emphasizing the fact that a team’s premiere shutdown reliever needs to be able to retire batters on both sides of the plate, and that’s something Garrett has struggled with.

Amir Garrett L/R splits

Handedness K% BB% HR/9 AVG WHIP FIP xFIP
Handedness K% BB% HR/9 AVG WHIP FIP xFIP
L 34.6% 11.9% 1.4 0.216 1.29 3.98 3.14
R 21.8% 11.9% 2.1 0.248 1.46 5.90 4.81

The good news here is that one of Garrett’s biggest improvements over the course of his career has been learning how to pitch to right-handed hitters. When he was a rookie, righties achieved a wOBA of .385 against him in 257 plate appearances — essentially turning them all into Paul Goldschmidt. In 2020, their wOBA was down to .335, and even that was masked by the fact that they hit four home runs off of him on just eight fly balls. He struck out a career-best 34.1% of the right-handers who faced him and walked just 4.9%, an even better mark than he had against lefties. If he can maintain that progress over a larger sample in 2021, it would erase much of the doubt that exists surrounding his ability to broaden his role.

That would be awfully exciting, because from a pure aesthetic sense, Garrett really does belong in high-leverage situations. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 230 pounds, he’s as intimidating to look at from the batter’s box as virtually anyone in baseball, and when his competitive side kicks in — which, according to Garrett himself, turns him into a “psychopath” known as AG — his swaggering strikeout strut and high energy make every one of his appearances a must-watch occasion. I’m not sure if there is anything to the idea that a pitcher must possess a certain edge to his personality in order to finish games, but if that is indeed the case, Garrett certainly seems to have it. The Reds’ pitching management might be too modern for the team to name Garrett or anyone else the closer. But that doesn’t mean he can’t claim the title himself — both in word and in action.