Thursday, March 8, 2012

By Brian Waller - Feature Writer

Jordan Walden will be the reason the Angels either succeed or fail in 2012. It’s just that simple. Is it fair to put your season hopes on the shoulders of a 24 year old closer? Absolutely not, but it is the reality. Believe it or not, no player on this team is more important to the success of the Halos then Walden. Think about it, if Vernon Wells or Torii Hunter flop it is not a huge problem because we can just plug Mike Trout or Mark Trumbo into a corner outfield position. If the unthinkable happens and Pujols gets injured, or fails to perform, we can go with Kendrys Morales or Trumbo at first base (for the record, even if Pujols does not perform well I don’t think there is any way he would be benched…ever). If Weaver fails to come close to his 2011 numbers, well guess what . . . we have two other aces named Dan Haren and C.J. Wilson to fill the void. The fact of the matter is that this team, for the most part, has tremendous depth. So much depth that it will allow the Angels to not miss a beat if an injury occurs or a player just flat out doesn’t perform as expected; this team is built to win. To win however, the Angels need consistency and effectiveness from their bullpen, specifically Walden.

Elite teams have elite closers--that’s just the way it works in baseball. You need an arm in the back end of your bullpen that can shut down an opposing offense on a consistent basis. Think about it, the World Champion New York Yankee teams had a masterful Mariano Rivera; the Boston Red Sox had a shutdown Jonathan Papelbon; the Philadelphia Phillies had a dominating Brad Lidge; the San Francisco Giants had a fearsome Brian “The Beard” Wilson; and our very own 2002 champs had a lights out Troy Percival. Those teams may have been carried at one time or another by their offense and rotation but it was the consistency of the back end of their bullpens that made them special. If this team really does have a shot at making the playoffs and playing deep into October one has to ask the question, is Walden our guy? 

I’ll be very blunt about it: Walden is not an elite closer right now. He may become one someday, but truth be told he isn’t right now. That’s not an insult or a slight to him at all, it’s just the truth. As you can see in the stat line below, he had a breakout 2011 season where he was selected to the All-Star team as well as received Rookie of the Year votes:

Win         Loss        ERA        SV           SVO        IP            BB           SO           AVG.      WHIP
5              5              2.98         32            42*          60.1         26            67            .223         1.24
*Led MLB

Obviously the 10 blown saves are a black eye on an otherwise impressive stat line. Ironically, it’s those 10 blown saves that may be the very reason why Walden continues his evolution into a dominant closer. Walden gained valuable experience last season not only from his early success, but also from his failures. Wait, scratch failures—that’s a little dramatic—let’s go with “difficult times” instead.

Unfortunately, for the most part last year Walden mostly had to learn the closer’s job on his own. I’m not saying he didn’t have the support of his team or coaching staff, I’m simply saying he didn’t have a mentor to learn from. By mentor I mean an experienced closer who has had success at the major league level. We all know closers are a unique breed—it takes a certain mental toughness and mindset to take the rock in a save situation. Don’t get me wrong, having an experienced mentor isn’t essential to becoming an elite close,r but it sure as heck helps. Look what John Wetteland did for Rivera in New York, what Lee Smith did for Percival while with the Angels, and in turn what Percival did for Francisco Rodriguez. In 2012, the once mentor-less Walden will have not one brain, but two brains to pick and learn from with the additions of veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen, both of whom have experience as a closer. Between them, Hawkins and Isringhausen have appeared in 1,497 games, have recorded 387 saves and have over 30 years of experience at the major league level. Both players were brought in to stabilize a shaky bull pen as well as to share their wealth of knowledge with Walden. This team will play in its share of big games this season, all the more reason it will be extremely beneficial to have Hawkins and Isringhausen along for the ride to not only help Walden out when he hits a rough patch but to actually take the mound when needed.

Another encouraging sign going into the season is that closers tend to improve during their second year. You can say most players tend to improve during their second season at any position but for the sake of this piece let’s take a look at the closer position. Take the newly acquired Isringhausen for example:

2000 Season
 Win        Loss        ERA        SV           IP            BB           SO           WHIP
  6            4              3.78         33            69.0         32            57            1.44

2001 Season
Win         Loss        ERA        SV           IP            BB           SO           WHIP
  4            3              2.65         34            71.1         23            74            1.08

Obviously the increase in actual saves is very minimal but the decrease in walks and WHIP is fairly substantial. Another good example of how a young closer improved in his second year is Brian Wilson:

2008 Season
 Win        Loss        ERA        SV           IP            BB           SO           WHIP
  3            2              4.62         41            62.1         28            67            1.44

2009 Season
Win         Loss        ERA        SV           IP            BB           SO           WHIP
  5            6              2.74         38            72.1         27            83            1.20

Again, there is not a big difference in actual saves but Wilson’s ERA dropped sharply during his second season as a closer as did his WHIP. Like Isringhausen, Wilson’s strikeout total also increased. A final example is Francisco Rodriguez:

2005 Season
 Win        Loss        ERA        SV           IP            BB           SO           WHIP
  2            5              2.67         45            67.1         32            91            1.14

2006 Season
Win         Loss        ERA        SV           IP            BB           SO           WHIP
  2            3              1.73         47            73.0         28            98            1.09

As you can see Rodriguez’s ERA also dropped considerably. There are many contributing factors as to why these players improved. They most likely had a better knowledge of their opponents and they probably felt more comfortable in their role as a closer. Whatever the reasons, though, it is a positive sign for Walden. With a year under his belt, a successful one at that, Walden is poised to improve and that is big improvement for the Angels who look to dethrone the Texas Rangers as AL West champions this season. The Angels finished 10 games behind the Rangers in 2011 and ironically Walden had 10 blown saves. In no way am I implying that Walden is the reason the Angels lost the AL West (we all know the Angels had other problems at the time) but I am pointing out that with the additions the Angels made this offseason, an improved Walden added to the mix should more than make up that 10 game deficit.

I’ll admit it, I was one of the fans this offseason hoping the Angels would sign a shutdown closer with experience so that Walden could be moved into a set-up role. As those experienced closers were slowly plucked from the free agent pool by other teams, it became more and more apparent that the Angels were committed to the young right-hander. Rather than displace him as the closer, they went out and signed supporting players to help in his growth, and for that I commend the front office. After thinking about it a bit more this offseason and seeing the way the bullpen is shaping up, I am confident that Walden will not only improve this season but will become the shutdown closer this championship contending team needs him to be. The bats will produce runs, the rotation will shut down opposing offenses but it is the bullpen that needs to secure wins for the Angels to be successful. This team matches up nicely with any team in baseball and has become a true force with which to be reckoned. With all the hype and excitement surrounding the team this season, it really comes down to one key player: Jordan Walden. The Angels’ championship aspirations rest squarely on his shoulders. And because there are good signs that he will improve on last years’ good performance, I’m very confident in their chances.
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