When concocting a gourmet roster, a closing pitcher is often seen as a key ingredient. While the "save" stat is just empty calories, it is hard to argue the nutritional value of a relief ace who can polish off close games and escape tough jams. Counting saves isn't a recipe for success, but avoiding blown saves is a great way to prevent heartburn. After shipping Andrew Bailey to Beantown, the Athletics have turned to Grant Balfour to throw some shrimp on the barbie. However, it is clear that Balfour (and Brian Fuentes) are short-term options; you can enjoy them now, but you're just going to be hungry again next season. Luckily, there is a new closer candidate brewing in the bullpen: Ryan Cook.
If you are unfamiliar with Cook, here is a quick rundown: He was acquired as part of the trade that sent Trevor Cahill (and Craig Breslow) to Arizona. He wasn't the centerpiece of the deal (that was starter Jarrod Parker), but he was an attractive piece with high upside. He was a starter for most of his minor league career, but he wasn't very good at it. Last year, the D'Backs moved him to the pen, where he dominated AA batters (10.2 K:9, 3.57 K:BB) and held his own in AAA (2.12 ERA in 17 innings, despite 1.5 K:BB). This season, Cook has been one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball, tossing 12.1 scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts and only 2 hits allowed (highlighted by his 4-strikeout inning last week). Sure, he's walked 7, and the hits will start falling in any day now, but Cook has clearly made a statement on a team who is actively searching for their next closer.
Now, I'm not really that concerned with whether or not Cook will ever close for the A's. He's only thrown 20 innings in the Majors, and he's only been a reliever for about a year. What I am curious about is how much of his current success might be for real. Really, it has been Cook's last four appearances which have made me take notice:
April 25 vs White Sox: Cook enters in the 7th inning, after Chicago has finally scored off of Jarrod Parker. He enters with Kosuke Fukudome on 3rd, but benefits from a botched squeeze play. Fukudome is retired, and it's hard to give Cook credit for it (unless you want to argue that his pitch was so wicked that it was un-buntable, but that seems like a stretch). Neverthless, he struck out Brent Morel to end the frame. He allowed a leadoff walk in the next inning, but retired three straight good hitters (Alejandro De Aza, Alexei Ramirez, and Adam Dunn) with a runner in scoring position.
May 1 vs Red Sox: Cook entered in the 8th inning of a close game (a 4-run lead in Boston is always "close"), with the heart of the order coming up. He retired Lars Anderson, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz, despite walking Adrian Gonzalez (which isn't a bad idea in itself). Again, those are some tough hitters. Well, three of them are.
May 2 vs Red Sox: Same opponent, second day in a row. Cook is summoned to squash a 7th inning rally (and protect a 3-run lead), and he is asked to retire the exact same hitters that he had the previous night. He started off shaky, by walking Pedroia, but then recovered to strike out Gonzalez. Not just strike him out, but strike him out swinging. He got ahead in the count, stayed sharp while Gonzalez fouled off a bunch of pitches, and then returned to the same backdoor slider on which he'd gotten the first strike. It was just a beautiful sequence by Cook. Despite serving up a leadoff double to Ortiz, he retired the next three batters to finish off the 8th. In reality, he didn't retire any of those big hitters twice (Pedroia, Gonzalez and Ortiz each reached base once against him), but he did get out of one big jam and protect two somewhat close leads.
It's not the fact that he strung together four good outings which impresses me. It's not even that he escaped a couple of jams, or that he retired a lot of good hitters. It's that he did almost all of those things by STRIKING OUT tough hitters; specifically, K'ing them on swinging strikes. He has struck out 11 batters in his last 4 appearances, spanning 5 total innings. Ortiz was the only one of those who took a backwards K; the other 10 went down swinging. That is a very important distinction, and it brings me to the stat which I want to highlight.
Fangraphs keeps track of "Plate Discipline" numbers for pitchers. You can find out how often hitters make contact off a guy, how often they chase his pitches out of the zone, and how frequently the hurler throws a first-pitch strike, among other things. Here is a rundown of the (rough) league averages for each stat. Ryan Cook, in his brief 12-inning stint so far, is just about league average in all categories except for one: the percentage of his pitches which go for swinging strikes (and, conversely, the percentage of his pitches which result in contact). The league average is about 8.5% of pitches resulting in swinging strikes. Cook's number so far is 12.2%, which ranks him 30th in the Majors (among pitchers with at least 10 innings). This isn't meaningful yet, especially considering that his rate was only 8.6% in his 7 innings for the D'Backs last season. It does, however, give us something to look for.
Cook relies almost exclusively on a hard fastball, which averages nearly 95 MPH, and a great slider, which he throws about a quarter of the time. He has the stuff to miss bats, which is why it is so encouraging that he is actually doing so. His control is still a major issue, but even that seems to be slowly improving over these last few games. As with my piece on Kila Ka'aihue last week, I'm not here to make predictions. What I am here to do is point out things which are worth watching. With Ryan Cook, that thing is his ability to not only retire tough hitters in high-leverage situation, but to miss bats. Batted balls can do funny things, and umpire's strike zones can vary. A swinging strike is the best result that a pitcher can hope for, and Cook is so far proving to be among the best in the game at getting batters to miss. If he keeps it up, he might find himself closing games for the Athletics in 2013.
Wouldn't that just be delicious?