Ranking the top 10 setup men
Nobody gets the job done in the eighth inning better than Chicago's Matt Thornton
Earlier this season, Phil Hughes twirled off a streak of 25 scoreless innings
Free agent-to-be Mike Gonzalez should being closing somewhere in 2010
Eighth-inning setup work, like most bullpen roles, is a transient occupation. Those who excel at it will likely become closers, as has happened already over the course of this season to Andrew Bailey, J.P. Howell, Rafael Soriano, David Aardsma, Jason Frasor, Leo Nuņez, Jim Johnson, and earlier this week, Carlos Marmol, not to mention the former setup men who entered the season as closers for the first time, including Heath Bell, Chad Qualls, Fernando Rodney and Frank Francisco. Those who struggle in the eighth inning are quickly demoted to the earlier innings in favor of someone else who can get the job done in the eighth. This is thus a list of the eighth-inning setup men fans should least want to see enter a game against their favorite team right now. It could look very different by the end of the season, and several of these pitchers could be in different roles come 2010.
Fireballing lefty Matt Thornton is the highest ranking non-closer in Baseball Prospectus' opposition-adjusted win-expectation-based relief pitcher statistic WXRL. If that doesn't move you, his traditional stats should: 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 4.2 K/BB. A former first-round draft pick and minor league starter, Thornton's wildness out of the Mariner pen led Seattle to trade him to the south side for Joe Borchard in March 2006, and he's been a Second City mainstay ever since. He had a breakout season at age 31 last year and has been even better this year, shaking the LOOGY role for proper setup work in early June. Since July 1, he's posted a 1.71 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and walked just four men in 21 innings for a staggering 6.5 K/BB.
2) Phil Hughes, Yankees
The Yankees' top pitching prospect prior to the arrival of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes made his major league debut in early 2007, but spent most of that season and the next fighting injuries (though none to his pitching arm) and resultant poor performance. Having pitched well in spring training this year, Hughes got the call when Chien-Ming Wang imploded in the seasons' early weeks and pitched well enough in the rotation to stay on the major league roster upon Wang's (ultimately aborted) return. Pitching regularly in relief for the first time, Hughes quickly rose to the eighth inning and twirled off a streak of 25 scoreless innings. Dating to the beginning of that streak, he has posted a 0.91 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 11.52 K/9, and 4.75 K/BB in just shy of 30 innings. In the process he's proven that Joba Chamberlain's success in the same role was not so preciously unique that it was worth sacrificing his potential as a starter, though you can expect the same sturm und drang over Hughes' return to the rotation next spring.
3) Matt Guerrier, Twins
The Warrior has been a key part of the Twins' bullpen since 2005, but this year he has simply stopped walking people, issuing just nine free passes all season. Guerrier's 1.4 BB/9 has led to a 4.33 K/BB and 0.85 WHIP that helps support his 2.30 ERA. Since May 1, he's been even better, posting a 1.66 ERA and earning 21 holds. And since June 1, that ERA has been just 1.34, making Guerrier and Joe Nathan a devastating late-game combination.
4) Mike Gonzalez, Braves
Gonzalez opened the season as the Braves' closer, but Rafael Soriano lurked, ready to pounce on his smallest mistake. A pair of blown saves in mid-May was all Soriano needed to overtake his 'pen-mate, but Gonzalez has excelled as Soriano's setup man since. Since June 1, the former Pirates closer has posted a 2.12 ERA with 10.85 strikeouts per nine innings and just two home runs allowed. A free agent after the season, he's sure to land a high-paying closer job for 2010.
History shows that Japanese pitchers tend to offer diminishing returns as the league becomes familiar with their stuff and their often-funky deliveries. Indeed, Hideki Okajima's ERA has shot up over his three seasons in Boston's 'pen from 2.22 in 2007 to 2.82 this year. That is to say that the lefty changeup artist is one of the most reliable eighth-inning setup men in the game. His rate stats over his first three seasons have shown very little variation and he ranks third among non-closers in WXRL this year. Since May 1, he's posted a 2.18 ERA with 19 holds.
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