Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

jason motte cubsEven though he had a 2-0 record and only one blown save, few relievers struggled as much as Jason Motte did in July.

And his struggles may have led to a demotion from the closer’s role.

Motte pitched to a 4.09 ERA/3.17 FIP/4.04 xFIP in July. He faced 49 batters, who hit .298 with a .468 slugging percentage off him. Motte yielded a 36.8 percent hard hit rate, which was tied for the highest with Neil Ramirez among the team’s regular relievers in pen.

All this despite seeing his strikeout rate — which was a lowly 13.6 percent in May — jump to 18.4 percent in July.

Motte’s rough ride could be linked to struggles with his fastball. Only five relievers threw a higher percentage of fastballs than Motte, who threw it 85.1 percent of the time in July, per Fangraphs. Overall, he throws fastballs 84.7 percent of the time, which is the second highest percentage among relievers behind Baltimore’s Zach Britton (90.7 percent).

Fangraphs’ pitch type linear weights attempts to gauge how well a pitcher performs when using a particular pitch. It isn’t a perfect tool, but it is one that can be telling, as it is broken up into total runs saved by pitch (ex.: wFB for runs saved on fastball, wCB for curveballs, wCH for change-ups, etc.) and standardized runs per pitch (wFB/C on runs saved per 100 pitches) that measures a pitch’s effectiveness per 100 pitches. You can read up on pitch values here.

As for Motte’s fastball, it checked in at -1.0 wFB in July — which ranked 128th among 174 qualified relievers. For the season, his heater’s 3.6 wFB ranks 47th among big league relievers.

For comparison, Yankees relief ace Dellin Betances’ fastball (12.8 runs saved) rates as the gold standard by this measure, while Travis Wood’s 7.3 runs saved via his fastball ranks him 14th among relievers and best on the Cubs.

What might be complicating matters here is the lack of an effective secondary pitch.

Take Betances, who teams his 12.8 wFB with a slider that has saved the fifth most runs 6.5 runs saved. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal throws his fastball 73.6 percent of the time and has a 7.6 wFB. But unlike Motte, Rosenthal uses a change-up 16.1 percent of the time, which checks with 2.7 runs saved — 15th best among relievers. Padres relief ace Craig Kimbrel’s wFB only has a 2.2 wFB, but he also has a curveball that ranks second among relievers with a 4.6 wCB.

Motte’s second option is a cutter that he has thrown 15.1 percent of the time and checks in at -0.8 wCT. Motte threw 26 cutters in July and did not get one swing and miss on it.

Further, Motte hasn’t missed many bats with his hard stuff.

He threw 152 four-seam fastballs in July and only produced 12 swings-and-misses — or a 7.89 percent whiff rate, per Brooks Baseball. Overall, he has thrown 478 four-seamers, getting only 41 whiffs, which comes out to an 8.58 percent whiff rate.

This is where Rondon can take a firm grip on the closer’s role, thanks in part to simply having a better pitch mix and swing and miss stuff.

And that is despite Rondon’s second most used pitch — a slider at 33.7 percent — checking in with 0.85 runs saved per 100 pitches.

Using pitch values per 100 pitches, Rondon’s 1.12 wFB/C on his fastball is almost twice as good as Motte’s 0.67. Rondon also owns a 2.78 wCT/C on a cutter he throws 3.6 percent of the time and a 2.19 wCH/C on a change that has a 3.9 percent usage rate.

Rondon has faced 80 batters in high leverage situations and has limited them to a .211 average, .278 slugging percentage and .227 wOBA. In 21 high leverage innings pitched, Rondon has struck out 20 batters (25.0 K%). Motte, who has faced 55 batters in 12.2 high leverage innings has struck out 8 (14.55 K%).

Motte proved to be effective in a spurt when the Cubs needed a stabilizing force in the back end of the bullpen who could make good pitches in tough spots without his best stuff. But since then, Rondon has really rounded into form as the team’s high-leverage ace.

And if those spots continue to come up in the ninth inning, Rondon is likely the best choice moving forward.

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