Kyle Farnsworth looks like a closer. Standing a solid 6-foot-4, the right-handed reliever routinely hits the mid-90s with his fastball. If you make him angry, he can reach back and hit 98 MPH on the radar gun or punch you in the face. His arms are tatted, he wears glasses on the mound, and despite his reputation of not having a closer’s mentality, he exhibits a quiet confidence on the mound regardless of the situation.
The results thus far have also been closer-esque. Although he holds no official title, Farnsworth has 13 saves for the Rays and has finished 23 games in 27 appearances. The beauty of the no-name closer is manager Joe Maddon has been free to use Farnsworth to put out pre-ninth inning fires; although he has generally used him as the go-to guy in save opportunities.
Go ahead and pick your preferred set of metrics. It will show Farnsworth has excelled in his high-leverage role with Tampa Bay. He has allowed just three earned runs in 23 innings (1.17 ERA) while not allowing a home run and handing out just two walks against 85 batters faced (2.02 FIP/2.72 xFIP).
Despite the look and results of a shutdown relief ace, Farnsworth is using a slightly different process. Most closers – or high-leverage relievers – have above-average strikeout rates. Even a soft-tossing lefty like J.P. Howell has averaged better than a strikeout per inning as a relief pitcher.
Spending most of his career as a middle reliever, Farnsworth’s career strikeout rate of 8.96 per nine innings – or about one punch out for every inning pitched – fits the mold. On the other hand, in his new role with the Rays, he has 15 strikeouts in 23 innings; a 5.87 K/9. That is more Andy Sonnanstine than a fire-balling closer with ice in his veins. While his strikeouts are at a career low for him as a reliever, so are his walks. He owns a miniscule 0.78 walks per nine innings fueled by a strike rate of nearly 70%.
Although the change in peripheral statistics is a bit drastic, Farnsworth has not suddenly turned in to a soft-tossing finesse pitcher. He still averages 95 MPH on his heater, and is actually generating a solid number of swing and misses. Despite the dip in overall strikeouts, his swinging strike rate is still above 10%. What has changed for Farnsworth is continued evolution in pitch selection.
When he originally signed, we spoke about Farnworth’s recent success coinciding with an increase in cut-fastballs. Farnsworth picked up the cutter usage in 2008 and has turned in very good results since then. It could be a coincidence, but a striking one if it is. In addition to the cutter, there appears to be another trick that the 35-year-old has picked up.
According to the pitch f/x data on TexasLeaguers.com, Farnsworth is throwing a heavy dose of sinkers this season. I haven’t checked beyond 2008, but this appears to be a new wrinkle in his arsenal*. Batted-ball data also backs up the appearance of more sinkers.
*beware classification issues in pitch f/x data.
Data from FanGraphs.com
In his career, Farnsworth has been a neutral pitcher. He has split his groundballs and flyballs nearly equally. Meanwhile, in 2011, he has transformed into a groundball machine. Keep the sample size in mind, so far he has an extreme groundball rate of 65%.
The sinker is a groundball inducer; however, it is not a strikeout generating weapon. The increased usage would also help explain the drop in strikeouts. Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s other pitches still get plenty of swings and misses; hence the solid whiff rate. In summation, he has traded in some of his strikeouts for fantastic control and the ability to keep the ball on the ground.
If he looks like a closer, gets results like a closer, but does not go about obtaining those results like a closer, is he really a closer? Truth be told, you can call Farnsworth’s role whatever you want. Just make sure the term “effective” is included somewhere in the description. Oh, and he’ll still punch you in the face if you make him angry.