The unit that dominated the Arizona Diamondbacks’ headlines in April and May is re-entering newsworthiness. But this time, they’re doing it in a totally different fashion.
With 15 blown saves through the first three months of the season, the back end of the Diamondbacks bullpen — namely J.J. Putz, David Hernandez and Heath Bell — was the lowlight of the first half of the season for the team. They led the majors in blown saves for most of the first half and it didn’t seem to make a difference who got the ball in a save situation — closing a game was a lost cause for Diamondbacks relievers.
Putz hit the disabled list with inflammation in his throwing elbow and Bell, general manager Kevin Towers’ former closer with the San Diego Padres, took over closing duties, first succeeding, then floundering in the role.
Hernandez, the rock-solid setup man of the Diamondbacks’ past two seasons seemed to be giving up home runs with each appearance, tossing hanging curveball after hanging curveball and up-in-the-zone four-seamer after up-in-the-zone four-seamer.
The depth manager Kirk Gibson and the Diamondbacks thought they had coming into the 2013 season had seemingly evaporated.
Then came a shake-up.
Last month, Gibson opted to move his most reliable reliever, Brad Ziegler, to the closer role.
The manager had simplified his thoughts on save opportunities, boiling it down to one main goal: “Keep the ball in the park when we get to the ninth inning.”
And if groundballs are what Gibson and the Diamondbacks were looking for, there may be no better pitcher in the history of the game to deliver them.
This season, Ziegler is trying to match the groundball rate record (75.5%) he set last season, inducing groundballs at a league-high rate of 74.7%. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, no one has come close to coaxing grounders as frequently as Ziegler has. Seventy-three percent of Ziegler pitches put into play have been on the ground. Baseball’s next best rate in that category is 68.3%, held by the Atlanta Braves’ Jonny Venters.
For every ball hit in the air off Ziegler this season, eight have been hit on the ground.
And the role shake-up has evidently helped everyone who pitches in late and close games for the Diamondbacks.
Since July 11, relief pitchers Bell, Putz, Will Harris and recent trade acquisition Joe Thatcher, along with Ziegler have combined to toss 34.2 innings, allowing just two earned runs, 26 hits and nine walks, while striking out 36. That’s good for a 0.55 ERA, a 0.760 WHIP and a 9.34 K/9 rate.
Bell hasn’t allowed a run in eleven consecutive outings. Ziegler has converted each of his six save opportunities. Harris has come out of nowhere as a perfect situational righty while Thatcher has filled the team’s lefty specialist void. And Putz has accepted his auxiliary late-inning role, performing well in each of the seventh, eighth and ninth innings for Gibson’s club since being activated from the disabled list.
The issues which once looked to doom the team, and had many calling for Towers to add a closer at the trade deadline, have all but disappeared over the last 25 days.