Dusty Baker was asked this winter what he looks for in a prototypical closer as the Washington Nationals searched for relief help and tried to add a ninth-inning arm.
“No. 1, a guy who throws strikes,” Baker said. “A guy that doesn’t walk people. A guy that’s unfazed, or at least the appearance of being unfazed if he gets into trouble, because a lot of times your closer, you’re going to live and die with him.
“Usually the closer is going to rescue somebody else, nobody usually has to rescue him and sometimes you don’t know until he fails and then you have to see how he handles failure.
“Look for a guy that has the ability to forget yesterday. You’ve got to have a guy that’s kind of — a little on the crazy side. Most of the great closers I know are a little on the crazy side, or at least different. I’ve played with some good ones and they’re all different, because to try to get that last three outs out of a team is very difficult.”
Shawn Kelley definitely throws strikes. He had the third-highest Zone% (pitches in the strike zone/total pitches) among NL relievers in 2016 according to Fangraphs.com.
He doesn’t walk a lot of batters either. His 1.71 BB/9 were the seventh lowest amongst National League relievers in 2016 and were down for the fourth straight season from 3.88, 3.48 and 2.63 BB/9 between 2013-2015, respectively, and his 4.9 BB% was the NL’s eighth-lowest among relievers.
As for Kelley being a little on the crazy side? He does occasionally wear a horse head... and there are other things.
“There are a lot of things we can’t talk about on the air,” he joked in an MLB Network Radio interview on Tuesday morning.
“I think Dusty knows there’s probably a little bit of a crazy side to me,” Kelley said.
“I think that’s why he’s had confidence in me in the past when we’ve been closer-less, to finish games.”
Baker and the Nationals turned to Kelley last June/July, when Jonathan Papelbon was placed on the DL.
He remained in the role until the Nationals acquired Mark Melancon, converting 6 of 8 save opportunities and posting a 3.24 ERA, two walks (1.08 BB/9), 30 Ks (16.20 K/9) and a .262/.279/.615 line against in 16 2⁄3 innings over that stretch.
Kelley finished the first year of his 3-year/$15M contract with the Nationals with a 2.64 ERA, a 2.97 FIP, 11 walks (1.71 BB/9) and 80 Ks (12.41 K/9) in 58 innings, over which he held opposing hitters to a .193/.232/.403 line in a 1.1 fWAR campaign.
While he’s been discussed as a potential closer option this winter, as the Nats tried to replace Melancon, who left via free agency, but failed to land the big-ticket relievers they pursued, Kelley said he’s ready for whatever the Nationals ask him to do.
“I don’t go into anything and think like that’s my job or that’s my role or it should be me,” he said.
#Nationals Shawn Kelley on closing "that's Dusty and Mike Maddux's decision. I would embrace it and give them all I've got if it is my job"— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 1, 2017
“That’s Dusty [Baker] and Mike Maddux’s decision and will I take every opportunity and push myself and work just as hard like it is my job? Sure. Yes. And I would embrace it and I’ll give them all I got until they tell me it’s not my job or until the season ends and hopefully we win the World Series.”
While Kelley spent most of his time last season working in the eighth inning, posting a 1.01 ERA over 26 2⁄3 IP in which he held opposing hitters to a combined .151/.186/.312 line, Kelley said he was ready and willing to work the ninth if asked.
“It’s not necessarily different,” he said. “It’s another beast as far as knowing that the weight of everything that’s come down to it, when you look back on it, kind of comes down to you. It’s kind of like the field goal kicker at the end of the game, like closers for us. No matter what happened for eight innings or whatever it is throughout the course of the game, it’s coming down to you to be the guy to either nail it down or be the guy they’re going to write the articles about, about how bad you are and how everybody wants to take you out back and beat you with a stick.”
As Kelley explained it today, it’s always been like that. He likes the challenge of having the game on the line.
“I like those situations,” he said. “I like it coming down to me. I get nervous when my friends or my teammates or a team I’m cheering for is out there and I can’t be out there helping them. I just want to be in that moment, and put it on my shoulders, hop on my back and let me do it.”
Will the Nationals let him? Will they give Blake Treinen a shot? Koda Glover? Another option?
We’ll find out when the Nationals get to Spring Training and their new home, which, Kelley said, will hopefully be ready for the players to arrive in two weeks.
“Heard rumors they’re going to be putting the last bolt on when we walk in,” he joked, “so I guess if there is dirt and grass and mounds I’ll be excited.”