Santiago Casilla has been an enigma for the San Francisco Giants this season. And even more enigmatic is how San Francisco Giants regard their team’s closer.
The vitriol spilled over on social media Friday night after Casilla gave up a solo home run to a struggling Justin Turner in the top of the ninth inning, allowing the Los Angeles Dodgers to beat the Giants 3-2 at AT&T Park.
It left most Giants fans in one of two camps.
Camp A: “Casilla is a disaster,” “I’ve had enough of Casilla,” “We need to find a new closer.”
Camp B fans will point to Casilla’s long track record of solid seasons and certain statistics that would seem to indicate the Camp A folks are wrong. Camp B folks get upset when manager Bruce Bochy pulls Casilla in the ninth inning WITH THE LEAD, something he’s done twice this season. “You don’t do that to your closer,” they said.
So who’s right?
Well, to put it simply, neither. They are both wrong. And here’s why.
First, let’s go down memory lane.
Brian Wilson was the Giants’ closer from late in 2007 to early in 2012, when he blew out his elbow.
Initially, Bochy said the Giants would use a bullpen-by-committee in the ninth inning, but quickly Casilla took over the closer roll and was sporting a 1.32 ERA by June 18. But by July 18, his ERA ballooned to 3.34 and he was replaced by Sergio Romo in the closer roll.
Romo held that job until the end of June in 2014 when his ERA sat at 5.01 and he had five blown saves in 27 opportunities. Casilla took over, recorded 17 saves in the final three months of the season and finished with 1.70 ERA.
Casilla remained the closer in 2015, ranking fourth in the National League with 38 saves. That’s the good stat. The bad stat was that out of 28 MLB relievers with 20 or more saves in 2015, Casilla ranked 22nd in save percentage.
That trend has continued into 2016. Out of 26 MLB relievers with 11 or more saves, Casilla ranked 23rd in save percentage. His four blown saves are second-most in the majors.
But Casilla’ enigmatic pitching personality goes deeper than that.
Casilla’s 2016 ERA of 2.96 is the highest of his seven-year Giants career when he posted annual ERAs of 1.95, 1.74, 2.84, 2.16, 1.70 and 2.79. But it’s not THAT much higher, his supporters will say. And that’s true. It’s certainly not the 5.01 ERA Romo had when he got yanked as closer in 2014.
And here’s a stat that will likely stun the anti-Casilla crowd: His 2016 WHIP of 1.11 is the second-best WHIP since he became a regular major leaguer in 2007, only surpassed by his 0.86 in 2014.
Casilla has added to his pitching repertoire recently. He’s always had his two-seam fastball and hard-breaking slider. Now, he tosses in the occasional curveball and changeup. And that has led to his strikeout rate to climb. Last year he fanned 9.6 per 9 innings, a career-high. This year, the number has jumped to 11.5. And his 2016 walk rate of 2.6 is the second-lowest of his career.
So what’s going wrong in 2016. Well, we can narrow that down to his home run rate, which currently sits 1.5 per 9 innings, a career-high. His next highest is 1.1, last posted in in 2012.
Casilla has always struggled with control of his pitches. But this year, instead of missing out of the strike zone, he’s missing in it.
All four of the home runs he’s allowed this season have been allowed at AT&T Park. Three of the four were allowed to the first batter Casilla faced. It’s the main reason why he has a 4.50 ERA at AT&T Park this season and 0.87 ERA on the road.
That’s Casilla in a nutshell: Really good or really mediocre.
OK, so you want to get rid of Casilla as closer. What other options do the Giants have?
Cory Gearrin? The journeyman pitcher has done well this season (2.36 ERA) bouncing back from injury. He has the lowest WHIP of the Giants’ bullpen (0.94), but his K/9 is low for a closer (6.4).
Hunter Strickland? I think the Giants viewed Strickland as a closer of the future, but I’m not sure they think he’s there yet. He has a 3.22 ERA, 9.7 K/9 and the lowest FIP among Giants relievers (1.92). He also got off to a rough start in 2016. But since the start of May, he has a 2.08 ERA.
Sergio Romo? He’s on the DL and is not expected back until later this month at the earliest.
You want a trade? Well, at this point in the season, a trade means one of two things: Paying a very, very high price in prospects and/or acquiring a pitcher with a ton of baggage (in the form of pricey contract and stats uglier than Casilla’s). The Giants won’t pursue that route until after the All-Star break.
So then what’s the solution?
It’s a bullpen-by-committee with Casilla the lead option in the ninth.
If you haven’t had the need to play matchups to get out of tight spots in the seventh or eighth, play matchups in the ninth. That likely will more situations like what happened Wednesday against the Red Sox, when Casilla faced the first two batters, then Javier Lopez faced two lefties and Strickland got the save getting one batter on one pitch.
Casilla, and his supporters, just need to deal with that. Casilla is a good relief pitcher, but he’s no Mariano Rivera, locked-down, game-over closer. So he has not earned the right to get that ninth inning while everyone else in the bullpen sits and watches. You don’t blow four saves in two months and expect to get that right.
Casilla has been very good against right-handed batters. They are hitting .182 against him this season, and the home run by Turner was the first by a RH batter this season against Casilla. Righties have slugged .255 vs. Casilla this season.
But lefties, it’s a different story. Lefties are hitting .278 with .333 OBP and .611 slugging. That’s a .944 OPS, boys and girls. That’s precisely the reason Bochy hooked Casilla the other day when the tying run was on second and David Ortiz was coming to the plate. Ortiz’s track record, especially against righties, combined with Casilla’s numbers against lefties, the math didn’t add up.
So going forward, I’m fine with giving the ball to Casilla in the ninth, particularly when righties are coming up. But you always have someone in the bullpen ready to go. And at the first sign of trouble with lefties coming up, you make the move.
Oh, and to all those folks who lost their marbles when Bochy hooked Casilla with the lead in the ninth? Both times Bochy did that, the Giants won.
Let me repeat that.
THE …. GIANTS …. WON.
Isn’t that what we’re after here?