Chance Ruffin: Future Seattle Mariners Closer?

Chance Ruffin doesn't need to grow a beard or a false persona like that idiot Brian Wilson, just keep on pitching

There were some opinions amongst baseball experts when the Mariners acquired Chance Ruffin to complete the Doug Fister trade, that the team had acquired their/a future closer. Ruffin had a 11.1 K/9 rate in his 48.1 minor league innings, and was drafted in the sandwich round despite being a certain reliever.

Then scouting reports and the eye test began to change those expectations. Ruffin doesn’t have a dominant fastball. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a good fastball, but he just isn’t threatening triple digits on any radar guns. His slider is good, but not great. His curveball isn’t dominant either, so those envisioning Ruffin as a closer have apparently envisioned a pitcher without a single dominant pitch ending games for the Mariners.

The image of a closer as a high-octane pitcher who gets outs with his fastball isn’t totally inaccurate. Among the top 30 pitchers in saves (not a great stat, but very indicative of who was their team’s “closer”) the average fastball velocity well above the league average for all pitchers, and such pitcher’s use of the heat is also above league averages.

Having a guy who can shut down an inning is a nice thing to have. All teams should strive to have it. Obviously there are price limitations that go into the decision of who to have close for your team, and yesterday I detailed a plan to keep Brandon League in town at a lower cost. That doesn’t, however, mean that teams should completely punt the position, or attempt to fill it for free using free agent, low-cost relievers for every spot in the bullpen. Major League Baseball is turning into a league where teams have deep bullpens, often seven men deep, and work to hold a lead into the seventh inning, and then work their bullpens until their wheels fall off.

So there is really no argument that Ruffin can’t become a valuable member of this team, but the question remains whether or not he can become the team’s closer.

This is a breakdown of how Ruffin compares to the average MLB pitcher and the average closer in terms of fastball velocity and percentage of use based on Fangraphs pitch types*:

MLB Average Closer Average Ruffin
Fastball Velocity 91.5 93.8 93.4
Percentage Used 57.8 63.4 62.5

*The percentages for closers aren’t weighted. So while say Jonathan Papelbon may have thrown more pitches classified as fastballs than Mariano Rivera, for the purposes of this piece it is more valuable to view closers as an individual unit, rather than trying to weight them by percentage of fastball use.

Obviously Ruffin’s sample size is pretty small. He threw only 342 pitches last year. But one of the most important things a closer has to do is to pitch well to opposite-handed batters. Fortunately for Ruffin, having decent movement on his fastball and two breaking balls works in his favor.

Chance Ruffin's Fastball Movement per Texas Leaguers Pitch F/X data

According to Texas Leaguers Ruffin threw 70 sliders and 54 curveballs last year. To maximize his platoon splits, philosophically, he should be throwing as few sliders to lefties as possible, and while the hand-side run on his fastball works in his favor against lefties, his curveball, which is more than 14 mph slower than his fastball, is probably his best secondary weapon against lefties.

Ruffin threw 36 of his 54 curveballs against lefties, and generated a whiff rate of 13.9 percent. He threw his curveball 24.8 percent of his pitches against lefties, compared to 9.1 percent against righties, and threw his slider 28.4 percent of the time against righties, compared to 9.7 percent against lefties, and generated a 12.5 percent whiff rate with the pitch against righties.

So Chance Ruffin may not match the paradigm of a traditional closer. He doesn’t throw 100 mph. He doesn’t have a breaking ball that is universally dominant. He’s been successful in a small sample size though, and while there is potential to change some of the velocity averages for Ruffin, pitch velocity figures to stabilize much more quickly statistically than results.

Ruffin throws hard enough to be an MLB closer. And his pitch selection, whether by his own volition or the choice of his respective catchers has shown that the way he pitches runs parallel to conventional philosophy. Does that mean he has the “closer mentality” or whatever other bullshit clichés get attached to late-inning pitchers? I don’t know. I’m not really interested in dissecting bullshit.

Maybe he’s not Jonathan Papelbon or Mariano Rivera. He’s probably closer to (and probably better than) former fellow Texas Longhorn Huston Street, who doesn’t throw as hard as Ruffin, but who made a quick ascent to the closer role in Oakland. In terms of what is quantifiable, Chance Ruffin has a chance to be a good closer in the big leagues.

Can Chance Ruffin be the Mariners closer of the future?

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  • Anonymous

    He could close at some point I guess, I prefer Wilhelmsen as a better possibility myself.  First they have to show they have the Right Stuff and know how to use it.  I like what Vargas has shown so far, I think he will be Fisterish this season.