Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/12/12

This off-season, Major League teams forced a quality group of proven closers into a game of musical chairs. There were too many guys with ninth inning experience on the market and not enough jobs to go around, which directly led to Ryan Madson‘s decision to take the last available closer’s job by signing a one year deal with Cincinnati. Madson’s move to the Reds likely closed the door on Francisco Cordero‘s ability to return to his prior team, and now that the music has stopped, he finds himself as the guy without a home.

It’s no coincidence that Cordero is the odd man out, however – his current employment status is simply a reflection of the fact that his performance last year threw up a ton of red flags about how much longer he’ll be an effective high leverage reliever.

While much was made about Heath Bell‘s decline in strikeout rate when he signed with the Miami Marlins, perhaps no one in the sport has had a more stark and consistent regression in their ability to miss bats than Francisco Cordero. Here’s his career strikeout rate, plotted against league average.

For those who prefer numbers, the series of data points since 2007 is 33.0%, 25.4%, 21.0%, 18.7%, and 15.3%. That’s a stark transformation, and one that rightfully should put some fear into any potential suitors.

Last year, 38 qualified relievers entered the game with an average leverage index of 1.5 or higher. This group contains most of the closers and a few of the elite setup men in baseball, giving us a pretty good feel for what kind of performances teams can expect to get from pitchers who are given this kind of role. The group, as a whole, posted a strikeout rate of 24.9%. With only a few exceptions, teams give their most important relief situations to pitchers who miss a lot of bats.

In fact, of those 38 high-leverage relievers, Cordero ranked 36th in strikeout rate, coming in only ahead of Sean Burnett and Matt Capps, neither of whom had particularly strong 2011 performances. When you’re hitting free agency and looking for a closer’s payday, you probably don’t want to be compared to either of those two pitchers.

Cordero’s continual decline in strikeout rate go along with what Eno Sarris wrote about on Tuesday, as the aging curve for relievers shows a pretty sharp drop-off in K% as a pitcher reaches his mid-30s. Cordero turns 37 years old in May, so while the magnitude of the drop-off might be more extreme than most, we shouldn’t be overly surprised that Cordero has lost his ability to throw the ball past opposing hitters, and his drop in velocity support the idea that his fastball just isn’t what it used to be. And, in fact, his pitch data shows that he’s entirely aware that he just can’t pitch like he used to.

From 2002 to 2010, Cordero threw his fastball 60.8% of the time. In fact, in 2010, he threw his heater 66.7% of the time. Last year, however, he all but abandoned the pitch, as his FB% fell to just 41.2%. He added a curveball to the mix and upped his slider usage a bit, but the most dramatic leap came in how often he threw his change-up. The adjustments to his pitch mix can easily be seen in these charts.

First, his 2010 pitch mix.

Now, 2011.

It’s easy to see the new breaking ball down in the right hand corner, but look at the massive increase in yellow blobs – those are his change-ups, and it became a go-to pitch for him after being nothing more than a a show-me offering earlier in his career.

This extra reliance on his change-up allowed him to stabilize his strikeout rate against left-handed batters, as his K% against LHBs actually went up slightly – from 17.7% to 18.3% – compared to 2010. However, the pitch isn’t nearly as effective against right-handed batters, and his K% plummeted from 19.4% to 12.8% against RHBs. Cordero’s change in pitch mix allowed him to stay maintain some level of effectiveness against opposite handed batters, but essentially made him a pitch-to-contact guy against same-handed hitters. And teams generally prefer not to hand their high leverage innings to guys with that kind of skillset.

Cordero’s traditional closer numbers – 37 saves and 2.45 ERA – look just fine, but applying any kind of scrutiny to his performance shows all kinds of reasons for concern. His results last season were propped up by a .214 batting average on balls in play, and while some relievers have shown a consistent ability to post low BABIPs, Cordero isn’t one of them – his career mark is just .294. With a lot of regression coming in his hit prevention and no reason to expect his strikeout rates to return to previous levels, Cordero’s expected future performance simply isn’t very good, and not only are teams wise to avoid handing him a lot of money, he’s probably not the kind of pitcher you really want to be giving high leverage innings to in 2012.

Scott Boras might see this off-season as “teams turning their backs on the closer’s role“, but in reality, teams just decided that they’d rather pay for future performance rather than past performance. Cordero might have the track record of a proven closer, but given how he pitched in 2011, he’s not going to be a shutdown reliever going forward. He’ll land a job with someone, but he’s going to have to settle for a setup role, and his days pitching the ninth inning are probably all but over.

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