It took Carlos Marmol 18 pitches to blow the Cubs 3-0 lead in the 9th inning of Thursday's game in Cincinnati. He walked three of the five batters he faced, getting none of them out, throwing 12 balls in the process to continue this season of bad for him.
Friday, manager Dale Sveum removed Marmol from the Closer role. The problem is that neither of his potential replacements -- James Russell nor Rafael Dolis -- show much promise to do much better, Scott Pianowski implies:
Russell has 7.2 scoreless innings to his credit this year (6 H, 4 BB, 8 K), that sounds nice. But his career numbers don't point to a high-leverage role. Right-handed batters have a [.305 BA/.360 OBP/.465 SLG] career slash against the lefty; that could be a problem if he's asked to close. And for his career he has an ordinary strikeout rate and a low ground-ball rate; again, this is not the profile of a ninth-inning stopper.
Dolis has a 3.52 ERA and 1.24 WHIP after his matinee appearance, and he's been one of the trusted relievers on the club all year. But then you see his backward K/BB rate (just four whiffs against eight walks) and you want to run the other way. His five seasons in the minors were lukewarm at best: 3.69 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 4.5 BB/9. Keep in mind he never pitched above Double-A in the minors.
After problems with finding the finding the strike zone for over three seasons, the strikeouts aren't bailing out Marmol -- a pitcher who almost refuses to throw his effective fastball. Instead, it's nothing but sliders out of the zone, while hitters wait for him to force a easily hittable strike.
"He's thrown 62 fastballs this year and given up one hit on (the pitch)," Sveum said on April 30 of Marmol's 179 pitches to that point. "He shouldn't be afraid to throw that thing. ... Just know that you don't have to go to your slider all the time."
With $16.8 million owed to Marmol over this season and next, the problem shifts from how the Cubs can max his trade value between now and next season to how can he be useful at all, Matt Synder notes:
Marmol now has a 6.23 ERA and 2.31 WHIP with 12 walks and eight strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings. He was a good closer in 2010, when he had 38 saves, a 2.55 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and an incredible 138 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings. He's regressed into a guy with no confidence and no idea where the ball is going most of the time. I have no idea when the Cubs could ever feel confident about using him.
There's no data to prove what makes the big "c" Closer such a unique role, but there's no question that confidence is required to perform for an inning with the knowledge of such little margin for error. Your team will have more limited opportunities to re-acquire the lead (if any at all) and they can't make up for a bad inning by dominating through the next three or four.
But we can confirm that, with less opportunities to re-claim a lead, walking batters turn delicate endgame leads into the absolute need for strikeouts; something neither Russell nor Dolis have ever displayed the ability to produce. They can be passable closers in some organizations. But for a Cubs team fielding at a below average .978 rate, it can amplify these two's weaknesses.
To their credit, the Cubs are converting 70.9% of balls in play into outs (5th in the NL), largely due to better positioning before pitches. But the error rate is undeniably destined to bring that rate down. And more balls in play only increase those chances.
Look back to Thursday's game:
- Marmol opens the inning with two consecutive walks, moving that leadoff hitter into scoring position; and with a runner on first, that runner in scoring position is flying at full speed on most contact.
- Next hitter hits a grounder that's mishandled by the third baseman, allowing that runner to score from 2nd base.
- There was a high probability, with no outs, that a run would score in the inning. But with no outs and the tying run on 1st base, and a pitcher not getting ahead in the pitch count to get into strikeout situations, the game went from highly winnable to highly fragile in 11 pitches.
Balls in play are very dangerous for this Cubs team to develop pitchers who can't log strikeouts at a high rate.
The 26-year-old Russell may have the experience advantage over the 24-year-old Dolis and has more command to throw strikes, but he's also the Cubs' only lefty in the bullpen. And Russell pretty consistently allows about 12 walks and hits per nine innings, making the lack of ground balls and strikeouts all the scarier.
Dolis has shown the ability to keep the ball down well in the 15 innings he's pitched this season, but only 10 hits allowed in 48 balls in play is difficult to sustain with the Cubs' sketchy fielding.
There really is no good answer to the Cubs' closer woes. Marmol's only value has fallen getting traded to a team in need of a setup man. Russell doesn't get enough ground balls to not strike guys out. And Dolis just plain ol' can't get a strikeout.
With Dolis and Russell putting men on base too often while exchanging closing duties and Marmol's middle relief being interchanged with Kerry Wood, as Wood 'eases' back into the bullpen, don't be surprised to see Wood closing by the end of July.