About three weeks ago the White Sox announced they had agreed to an extension with Matt Thornton. Before I had heard the details I assumed it was for semi-closer money1. When I found out it was for two extra years at $5.5m per year and a club option for one more at $6.5 million, one word popped into my head…bargain.
Closers have become and overpriced and overvalued players. Most of these guys will get the last three outs in a win 35-45 times a year, but often times the last three outs aren’t the most important or most difficult. For example, over the last three seasons Matt Thornton has pitched in 205 games and inherited 134 runners (about 0.65 runners per appearance). Bobby Jenks in that same time span, pitched in 164 games and inherited 34 base runners (about 0.20 per appearance). Jenks entered the game with the bases empty in 143 of his 164 games. Psychological factors aside, closers shouldn’t be paid 2-4 times more than the guy who comes in with guys on base in the 8th. But based on market value, getting Thornton at this price means that if he is still just the best 8th inning guy in baseball he’s only slightly overpaid, and if he’s a closer on a playoff team, he’s as big of a bargain as you can get.
Left Handed, So What?
I have heard the argument that Thornton can’t be a closer because he is left handed. This is an uneducated, unresearched opinion. If you take a look at the all-time saves list you will notice two guys in the top 5 (John Franco and Billy Wagner) were left handers. You will also find other notables throughout the list, Randy Myers, Dave Righetti, Mitch Williams, Brian Fuentes and Eddie Guardado were also lefties. Also, forget the theory that Thornton has mostly faced lefties in his career or is some kind of LOOGY2. He has faced about 1.5 times more right handed hitters than left handed in his career.
Speaking of Billy Wagner
Wagner is probably the guy we are hoping for. Wagner has the set the precedent for a fastball/slider guy having success as a closer. But Wagner has historically thrown his slider about 25% of the time. Thornton historically only throws his about 14%, but hasn’t been above 10.4% since 2008. It will be interesting to see if Thornton changes that at all. Wagner has shown a guy in his mid-30s can still bring it with this style as well. I know that Wagner got hurt around age 35 (Thornton will be 36 during the last guaranteed year), but he also had about 160 more games (2-3 seasons worth) under his belt when he was the same age Thornton is now.
The White Sox are planning to put Chris Sale in the bullpen this year. The hope is that this is a one year thing and he is in the rotation on Opening Day 20123. But it is possible that he is so dominant in the bullpen and/or can’t develop his other pitchers and ends up as the teams closer for the next few years. If this happens, they aren’t stuck with Thornton as an overpriced setup guy. Sergio Santos is another guy that could develop into a closer in the next couple of years. He is more of a longshot, but could be the answer in 2013. Again, Thornton would hopefully still be an effective setup guy. By rolling the dice on Thornton at a lower cost they won’t be in too deep if one of the above situations pans out.
And they are hedging against Thornton himself. They are definitely taking a risk handing the job to a guy who hasn’t done it for a full season and has some things working against him4. If Sale moves to the rotation next year they may need to go get a closer so having Thornton around for cheap will help.
Did I Mention Bargain?
The White Sox may or may not have just signed their closer of the next 4 years to a major bargain, but they definitely gave a well-deserved extension to arguably the best setup man in the league. Thornton likes Chicago and has earned my respect and praise. Whether he ends up being the best (or one of the best) 8th inning guys or if he ends up saving 40 games over the next three seasons, I still love the deal.