April 10, 2017
A day after Jeanmar Gomez blew his first save of the season – and gave his team a ninth-inning scare for the second time in the six games the Phillies had played in 2017 – manager Pete Mackanin made a change in the closer’s role.
Gomez, who served as the team’s closer for the majority of last season, is out. He’ll return to a utility role in the bullpen, a role he served prior to rising into the ninth inning job last April.
Joaquin Benoit, a former closer and the elder statesman of the relief corps, is in. The 39-year-old Benoit has 51 saves in his 16-year career, including 24 for the American League Central champion Detroit Tigers in 2013.
“I don’t want to designate anybody as the closer right now but I told Joaquin that I was going to use him for the time being and see where that leads,” Mackanin said.
So Benoit isn’t officially “the closer,” but neither was Gomez this time last year, after both David Hernandez and Dalier Hinojosa struggled at the start of the season. But Gomez never had to be officially crowned as the team’s closer: Mackanin just kept handing him the ball in the ninth inning and, for four months, the unflappable Gomez converted saves anyway.
And now Benoit has the same opportunity.
“I wasn't really expecting it this early, this change,” Benoit said. “But it's the situation they have to address. I guess they have their choice and that was me. … For me, I try to make it simple. I'm not trying to make it harder than it is. It's three outs. Sometimes things don't go as well as we want them to. But I approach the game the same way. It doesn't matter if it's in the sixth (inning) or the ninth.”
So … do you even like closing, Joaquin?
“I've been asked that question a lot,” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy being on the mound. I enjoy pitching. I'm not going to break any records. I'm not going to go for Mariano (Rivera’s) record or (Trevor) Hoffman’s. I try to give the team an opportunity to get a win. That's what I'm going to try to do here.”
The decision to demote Gomez from the role was hardly surprising.
After a remarkable for four months of last season, getting ninth-inning outs without ninth-inning stuff, Gomez was 0-3 with a 13.20 ERA in his final 19 appearances, as opponents slashed .403/.469/.611 against him. On the season as a whole, he had a 1.456 WHIP on the season and a 6.16 strikeout rate, the latter ranking 83rd of 86 NL relievers with at least 40 innings.
“He’s a contact pitcher,” Mackanin said. “It made me think (a lot last year), ‘Are we getting lucky?’ But he just pitched extremely well. I talk about it all the time, command is a pitcher’s best pitch and he certainly showed excellent command. I think the only two saves he blew last year were ground balls in the hole. … But when you look at him, he’s not a strikeout pitcher. You’d like to have a guy who can strike people out in that role.”
Which makes the decision to replace Gomez with Benoit a bit surprising, and not because Benoit doesn'’ have strikeout stuff. The Phillies just have another reliever in the ‘pen who has some of the best strikeout stuff in the league: Hector Neris.
Neris enjoyed a breakout season a set-up man last season, racking up 102 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. Among National League relievers (min. 40 innings), Neris 31.1 strikeout percentage ranked sixth best.
But the Phillies also understand that last season was just Neris’s first full year in the big leagues.
“I don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on Neris for the time being because he had such a good year last year,” Mackanin said. “And I chose to do it that way because Benoit has been there before, Neris is pretty valuable where he’s at right now. Most likely at some point in his career, his time will come.”
What many people fail to realize (although perhaps that changed with the postseason a year ago, with the way Cleveland used non-closer relief ace Andrew Miller) is that the innings prior to the ninth are often just as crucial and produce high leverage situations, too.
In keeping Neris away from being tied down to the job as “closer,” when he’d be deployed for the ninth inning and the ninth inning alone, the Phils can keep him in his current place as a versatile set-up man that can take on the eighth and enter in the seventh, too, for an out or two, just as he did Sunday against the Nationals.
And then there’s also this, something we wrote in this very space a week ago: by promoting Benoit into the role the Phillies have increased his potential trade value for the July 31 deadline. Benoit, signed to a one-year, $7.5 million deal in December, could be flipped more easily to a contender before the deadline if he establishes himself as a guy who can dominate in the ninth.
Even if those last three paragraphs contradict themselves a bit, contending teams still do value having a steady, proven presence in the ninth inning. Just ask the Washington Nationals.
“Without a doubt,” Mackanin said of whether it could increase Benoit’s value. “Here’s a guy going in 40-years-old. He’s healthy (and) you can’t even tell how old he is by the way he pitches. This could be a blessing in disguise for us, spending on how it all works it’s way out. … He’s pitched in high leverage situations throughout his career and he’s very poised. He’s a seasoned veteran.”
Benoit, who turns 40 five days before the July 31 trade deadline, went 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA in 25 games with the Toronto Blue Jays after being traded at last year’s deadline. He’s appeared in three games so far this season; he hasn’t allowed a run and has struck out four of the 10 batters he’s faced.
Benoit has 43 saves, a 2.40 ERA, a 0.977 WHIP, and a 10.0 strikeout rate in the last seven seasons (since 2010).
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