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The Brewers’ Latest Closer Controversy

For the second straight season, the Brewers have a closer controversy in early April. While last year Jim Henderson usurped the incumbent John Axford, now Henderson himself is on the hot seat. This time manager Ron Roenicke took a unique approach, evidently switching closers between Spring Training and Opening Day. Even the Brewers players were unaware that Francisco Rodriguez would be handling the ninth-inning role, assuming that Henderson would keep the job. Both are good options, but Jim Henderson ultimately deserves to be the closer for the Brewers.

Rodriguez could definitely be an effective closer for Milwaukee. Still only 32, he has had an illustrious career dating back to his remarkable rookie run with the 2002 Angels. Further, K-Rod has looked good so far in 2014, with six strikeouts in just three innings pitched. Last season, his 3.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the second-highest of his career, and Rodriguez notably did not blow a single save in 2013. He did tail off toward the second half of the season; following the All-Star break he posted a 4.13 ERA and an alarming .547 slugging-percentage-against. Yet for much of that span, Rodriguez was in Baltimore pitching against rugged AL East lineups. Further, judging by advanced metrics such as his .299 BABIP and his 3.04 xFIP, there is no reason to expect Rodriguez to regress in 2014. Rodriguez would be trustworthy in the closer’s role.

While Henderson was reliable as closer last season, he lost the position because of his Spring Training performance. The Canadian right-hander was lit up for a 6.00 ERA during Cactus League play. Further, Henderson struggled to keep runners off base, as his WHIP was a worrisome 1.56. More significant than the exhibition numbers, however, is his loss in fastball velocity. During Spring Training, Henderson’s fastball rarely approached the 95 MPH that he averaged last season.

However, it seems unfair to punish Henderson for these results. At 30 years old, he is too young to be permanently losing velocity. Rather, throughout much of the spring Henderson was tweaking his pitching mechanics and trying to develop the use of a new pitch. It seems likely that these attempted adjustments have turned him astray.

Last season, Henderson had success while using only two pitches. As noted, he was able to pour in heat with the fastball, and batters managed just a .236 on-base percentage against his slider. Even more impressively, Henderson had incredible control of the slider and walked just one batter with it all season. Given these results, it is unclear why he would have risked tinkering with the arsenal to begin with. If he returns to the fastball-slider combination that worked for him in 2013, there is no reason why Henderson cannot repeat the success he had last season. In fact, his fastball did get up to 95 MPH against Atlanta last week, indicating that he is already in good form.

This has hardly been a typical closer controversy. Roenicke has indicated that, at some point this season, Henderson will reclaim the ninth inning role. The odd handling of the situation appears unlikely to instill confidence in either Rodriguez or Henderson. Yet once Henderson returns to his 2013 mechanics, the job should be his for the taking. Having too many closers certainly beats the alternative, and the Brewers would be pleased if they can continue building ninth-inning leads to save.