The Toronto Blue Jays’ closer’s job at the moment seems to be between Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, although other candidates may have a say in the battle. For instance, Kevin Gregg may ink shortly with the Blue Jays, which would throw him into the discussion for the closing job. For the purposes of this article, however, I want to take a look at who would be the better candidate to close between the internal options of Downs and Frasor.
Tackling Downs first, the 34 year old joined Toronto for the 2005 season after being released by the Nationals. Downs served two years as a swingman, drastically improving on his Expos numbers thanks to increasing his reliance on off-speed pitches, along with his BABIP falling from .334 to .299. As a result of the tweaks Downs made to his game, his strikeout numbers rose, which was enough to put him on the map as a pitcher. In 2007, the Blue Jays decided to make him a full-time relief pitcher, and he pitched a league-leading 81 games while posting a 2.17 ERA.
The left-hander’s velocity continued rising, flashing an average 85-mph fastball in 2004 all the way up to the 90-mph fastball he showcases to this day. Since moving to relief, he has abandoned his slider in favor of increasing reliance on his fastball (unsurprising, given the additional velocity gained) and is now a two-pitch pitcher, flashing a solid curveball as well. His ERA continued to fluctuate season to season, posting a 1.74 mark in 2008 and 3.09 in 2009. However, the latter mark came with a .322 BABIP while 2008 was tagged with a .264 line. His xFIP has remained constant during his time with Toronto, never surpassing 3.89 or dropping below 3.18 — the 3.18 mark coming this most recent season.
Downs is a left-handed reliever with a good feel for his fastball and despite a down year with the curve in 2009, an above-average flashing of his secondary pitch. With the increase in velocity, he has emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball. He is an impending free agent.
Moving along to Frasor, the right-hander is also eligible for free agency following the year. He is one and a half years younger than Downs, and will begin 2010 with the official season age of 32. He has been a career Blue Jay, debuting as a 26 year old in 2004. Sans 2005, where it looked like he could become one of the better relievers in the league, Frasor instead settled into being a solid middle reliever, posting a 4.37 ERA over 154.1 innings from 2006-2008. His xFIP numbers largely support his cumulative ERA over the time period, although he was significantly better from 2006-2007 than his ERA would indicate, and worse in 2008. He boasts a 94-mph fastball which he backs up with a slider, split-fingered fastball and an occasional changeup.
His fastball and slider are his two best pitches, and experienced a breakthrough season in 2009 by posting a 2.50 ERA and converting 11 of of 14 save chances. While Downs is a groundball pitcher, inducing grounders over half the time, Frasor has marked down only 38 percent of grounders in each of the two past years. While Frasor’s 2.50 ERA should be commended, it came with a .268 BABIP and caused an xFIP of 3.68, not far off his overall xFIP of 4.05. (Downs’ career xFIP is 3.73.) Frasor has very similar strikeout, walk and K/BB numbers to Downs.
To break it down, Frasor allows much more balls in the air, but flashes a mid-90s fastball while Downs averages around 90 miles per hour. Frasor pitches from the right side, while Downs pitches from the left and has consistently racked up better ERAs and xFIPs than Frasor. Frasor has no appreciable platoon split, other than the requisite small downturn in effectiveness against lefties (.692 OPS as opposed to .642 against .644). A major strike against Downs is in this area, as his OPS allowed against right-handers is .136 higher than lefties. (.787 versus .651.)
One caveat here is that while Downs’ has naturally faced more left-handers over the last few years by virtue of being left-handed himself, much of the platoon disparity and ineffectiveness against right-handers comes from before the 2006 season. Looking at the last four years, his effectiveness against righties rivals that of Frasor.
All told, I’m far more inclined to hand Downs the closing spot simply because his numbers are stronger. Both pitcher’s strikeout and walk totals are essentially equal (excepting a major 6.08 BB/9 blip Frasor had in 2008), but Downs’ greater groundball percentage and sustained lower xFIP makes me more confident in his ability to close out a game. In addition, for a rebuilding club, I would haphazard a guess that a left-handed closer would fetch far more in return than a right-handed closer at the trading deadline. With both as impending free agents, Toronto should be looking to maximize their market value as much as possible. If the Orioles can get such a strong prospect as Josh Bell in return for George Sherrill (which you could make the argument is a worse pitcher than Downs), then everything should be done to make Downs as appetizing as possible.