For a rookie All-Star closer, Jordan Walden faced a lot of uncertainty about his role heading into this off-season but he emerged with his closer job intact. What does he have to do in 2012 to make sure that the Angels don't go scrounging for a replacement again after this season?
2011 Stats: 5-5, 60.1 IP, 2.98 ERA, 49 H, 26 BB, 3 HR, 67 K, 32 SV
2012 ZiPS Projections: 4-3, 61.0 IP, 3.54 ERA, 55 H, 26 BB, 5 HR, 66 K
2012 Bill James Projections: 3-3, 56.0 IP, 3.86 ERA, 55 H, 26 BB, 3 HR, 58 K, 31 SV
2012 CAIRO Projections: 2-3, 48.2 IP, 3.41 ERA, 43 H, 20 BB, 3 HR, 52 K, 24 SV
2012 PECOTA Projections: 3-1, 56.0 IP, 4.28 ERA, 56 H, 27 BB, 5 HR, 47 K, 40 SV
2012 MWaH Projections*: 3-4, 62.0 IP, 3.25 ERA, 53 H, 24 BB, 5 HR, 67 K, 38 SV
*The MWaH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research
2011 in Review: Jordan Walden entered the 2011 season with the designation of "Closer of the Future." The future came awfully quick thanks to Fernando Rodney sucking so hard that he lost the closer's job after just one appearance. But Fraudney's loss was Walden's gain (and Angel fans' gain, because, you know, Fraudney being Fraudney). He took hold of the closer gig and never let go.
The concern before the season was that while Walden clearly had the physical tools, but he wasn't mentally prepared for the job. For most of the season, he kept those concerns at bay. In fact, he was so good that he was named to the American League All-Star team (a somewhat dubious selection, but whatever). It wasn't until the latter part of the season that the chinks in his armor (Can I say that? Don't want to offend Jeremy Lin.) started to become apparent.
The big stat that fans pointed to all winter long was Walden's league-leading 10 blown saves. There is plenty of reason for that number to be of concern. While most of Walden's other numbers were quite impressive, those blown saves exposed his lack of consistency. If you click threw his game logs, you can see that his blown saves often came in clusters. His first three blown saves occurred over a six-appearance span. The next three blown saves came over a month later, but in three consecutive appearances. There was also back-to-back blown saves in August. The moral of the story proved to be that when Waldo's mechanics went wonky, he needed a week or two to get back to normal.
But the blown save that really got everyone clamoring for some help in the off-season was the horrific appearance against Oakland in the final week of the post-season that effectively killed off what little remaining post-season hopes the Angels had. He followed that by blowing a tied game against the Rangers in his very next appearance and seemed visibly shaken afterwords. It took a whole season to rear its head, but there it was, visible evidence that he may not have the fabled "closer mentality" that allows him to bounce back from down performances.
On the other hand, reading too much into those blown saves is dangerous since they are partly a result of circumstance. Seven of those blown saves came when Walden entered the game with just a one-run lead. That just isn't much of a margin of error for any closer to work with, much less one that is learning on the job. And that seems to be the big factor everyone conveniently overlooked. Walden had no time to prep for his big promotion. No time to refine his repertoire. No time to pick veteran's brains on the mental adjustments it would take to be the big man in the bullpen.
Three Lingering Questions for 2012:
- What is Walden's mental state after his end of season failings? This is the big question for the Angels as they failed to bring in a closer alternative this off-season. Instead, they signed veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen partly to improve the bullpen depth but partly to help mentor Jordan. Was his mental meltdown overblown? Does he really need that much veteran hand-holding?
- Can Jordan resolve his consistency problems? The mental side of closing is a big factor, but so is Walden's iffy command and unorthodox delivery. Can we ever hope for mechanical consistency from a guy who actually goes airborne for an instant halfway through his delivery?
- Will Walden be able to improve on his secondary pitches? Walden was considered a work in progress before the season for a reason. His slider can be devastating when it is on, which it often isn't. He also has a promising changeup, but has had little time to refine it. Is it really possible for him to develop those pitches at the same time that he tries to close tight games? If he doesn't, are their other adjustments he can make to take push his game up to elite closer status?
What to Expect in 2012: I was pretty shocked to see just how much the projection systems seem to hate Walden. I'm sure some of that has to do with his limited sample of available performance, but it is still odd to see. Jordan does not have the profile of a guy that lucked into a good ERA. His FIP was 2.79 and his xFIP was 3.33 and his SIERA was 3.01. In other words, his 2.98 ERA was pretty much spot on with where it should have been. So what's with all the poor projections?
Honestly, I don't have an answer for you. The only legitimate reason I see Walden being appreciably worse in 2012 is if he still has mental scars from his last two outings of 2011. From the way he has been talking, he seems to be getting over it. The fact that the Angels did not bring in someone to challenge him for the job seems to have done wonders for his confidence. There is no guarantee that he won't meltdown the first time he has a bad week, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. After all, it is kind of a red flag that he is still talking about his confidence, right?
More reason to believe in Walden is that he is fully aware of the weaknesses that held him back last year. For one, Walden acknowledged that his conditioning needed to be better after he clearly labored in the summer heat of Texas. He also came into camp openly talking about how he would be looking to make the changeup a bigger part of his arsenal. One can only assume that he will also be working to make his slider a more consistent weapon as well. It isn't like Walden's slider is bad, it just isn't consistent. The better that pitch becomes, the more effective he will be since he can use that as a wipeout pitch rather than just trying to pump heaters past everyone until one finally gets by. Not only will that make him more effective, but potentially even more efficient.
Jordan averaged 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, which is almost half a pitch higher than the league average. His mediocre command doesn't help with that, but neither does his inability to just put batters away with one pitch after he gets two strikes on them. That struggle to finish batters off also led to more walks for Waldo. In 2011, he walked 26 batters, but three of them were intentional. Of the remaining 23 free passes he issued, 10 came with the batter having two strikes on him. There is real room for improvement there, and all he has to do is tighten up his slider. That's easier said than done, but it is certainly plausible.
Add it all together and I see little reason to believe he can't be just as good if not better than he was last year. The blown saves problem should take care of itself with him improving his own skills and the Angel lineup improving and giving him more margin for error more often.
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