What Should The Cardinals Expect Out Of Jason Motte?

christophercarelli
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We learned early Tuesday from St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel, that the St. Louis Cardinals would tender a contract to reliever Jason Motte for the 2012 season. Motte, who turns 30 in June, will now head to arbitration for the first time, unless he comes to an agreement before the hearings. Motte has been considered the closer in waiting since his call up in 2008. He was finally transitioned to the role at the end of last season. He ran with the job once former manager Tony La Russa gave it to him. His performance continued right into the World Series run. Now that the job is seemingly his to lose, what should the Cardinals expect out of Motte in 2012 and beyond?

Motte was fantastic in a short call-up in 2008 and it only led to the hype he had generated while in the Cardinals farm system where he was striking batters out at rate of 14.85 per nine innings at AAA. During his cup of coffee he managed a 13.09 K/9 rate. It ensured him a role in the 2009 bullpen where he could continue being groomed to take over as closer.

However, 2009 did not work out to be the year where Motte built on his early and small sampling of success. In 56 innings he compiled a 4.76 ERA and his xFIP was 4.21, so his results were pretty much on him. His K/9 ratio fell to 8.58 and his walk rate was high at 3.65. Alarmingly, his HR/9 rate was 1.59. This was not the stuff of a closer.

The 2010 season was a complete and welcome reversal. In 52 1/3 innings his ERA went down to 2.24 and the K/9 rose to a respectable 9.29. He stranded 88.5% of inherited runners. His walks were down slightly, though still an issue, and his HR/9 rate went down to .86/9. He produced a 0.6 WAR as compared with a -0.4 in 2009. The growth was obvious and in 2011 the Cardinals hoped he could take it to the next level.

In 2011, the Cardinals had 8 players record saves. It was something of a merry-go-round in the ninth. Fernando Salas was up and down; Eduardo Sanchez received a shot as did Mitchell Boggs. It was Motte, who pitched steady all season who eventually usurped the role from the group and took it all the way to the World Series championship.

His numbers in 2011 were excellent. In 68 innings he posted a 2.25 ERA (3.39 xFIP) with an 8.34 K/9 ratio. He decreased free passes by almost 1 per nine innings (2.12) and best of all, his HR/9 rate plummeted to .26/9.  That is astounding and what managers expect of their closers. It resulted in a 1.5 WAR. In the postseason Motte kept on going in the NLDS and the NLCS, but faltered a bit in the World Series blowing the save in Game 2 and letting up two more earned runs in the amazing Game 6. But he closed the door in Game 7 and ended the postseason with a 2.19 ERA.

All of this portends to a bright future as the Cardinals closer. Having an arm like Motte’s at the back end of the game is surely a benefit to any manager. He also will come at a bargain price when compared with veteran closers who perform at the same level as Motte, or below in some cases. Motte is on the older side for someone who is just getting a real taste for the closer role. He has managed to have two straight successful seasons, each building off the last. There is little to suggest based on his numbers that 2011 cannot be duplicated in 2012. The question, if any, is whether he can close games for a full season. How will he handle himself after he blows two save chances in a row? Can he bounce back after the tough outings like the great closers do?

Watching him in the playoffs, this seems like a man who can handle the pressure. Despite the future closer tab early on, it was wise of La Russa to let him learn the game in a set up role and pull the trigger when he felt Motte was going to be able to flourish. Expect Motte to once again build on his previous successes. So long as he can keep his walk rate and HR/9 rate down, he will be fine. The Cardinals should expect to be involved in many close games this season as the offense is sure to take a step back in production with Albert Pujols out of town. If Motte can keep his mindset straight he has the ability to be the closer in St. Louis for the next few years. In due time, he too could get one of the ridiculous contracts doled out to veteran closers.

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