Should the Blue Jays give Osuna a break from closing?

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Roberto Osuna
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Roberto Osuna /

Roberto Osuna has been struggling of late. Is it the right time to remove him from the closer role?

*Editor’s note- this article was submitted for review prior to Tuesday night’s game.*

Roberto Osuna is struggling.

In his last 10 games, he has a 9.64 ERA and 4 blown saves in 9 opportunities. He seems to be avoiding his fastball, although he claims that he is not injured, and his anxiety issues appear to have re-emerged.  Which begs the question – should Roberto be removed from the closer role, either temporarily or longer term?


Conventional wisdom is that the best way for a player to work his way out of a slump is … by working his way out of the slump.  Given playing time, the argument goes, the player will find a way to deal with his issues.  But conventional wisdom might not apply to an unconventional player like Roberto.  Given his anxiety issues, is it possible that continued exposure to high-pressure situations would work to Roberto’s detriment rather than to help him recover?  Would he be better served by being moved to a lower-stress role, at least until he recovers his mojo?

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

Backup plan

There are many scenarios in which Roberto does not close for the Jays in 2018.  He could be traded (rumour has it that he was highly sought after at the trade deadline).  He could be converted to a starter.  He could be injured.  Or his anxiety issues could escalate to the point where he is no longer effective in the closer role.

Problem is, the Jays have all their goose-eggs in the Osuna basket.  After Roberto’s 28 saves, the next highest save total on the team this year is 1 – and two of the three players with one save are no longer with the mlb team (Grilli and Biagini).  It behooves the Jays to have a backup plan and to see whether that player (Ryan Tepera is the logical backup choice) could be effective as a closer.  Why not give Tepera a dozen save opportunities over the remainder of the year, to see what the Jays have and to help with offseason decision making?

The eternal starter-vs-closer argument

It is a truism in baseball that a good starter is more valuable to his team than a good closer.

Some would argue that, where Osuna is concerned, a great closer is more valuable than a good starter.  But is Osuna an elite closer?  Suppose you take the 30 players with the highest save totals from 2015 to now (from Kenley Jansen‘s 111 saves to Brad Boxberger‘s 41).  Roberto would be 10th on that list, with 84 saves.  Of those 30 players over that period, Roberto’s 2.84 ERA would be 10th, his 3.26 xFIP would be 15th, and his 84% save conversion percentage would be 21st.  Good, yes.  Elite, no.

Roberto has said that he enjoys working out of the bullpen, with the “game on the line” pressure.  But given his anxiety issues, is that kind of pressure in his best interest? And given the Jays’ lack of depth at SP, is leaving him in the bullpen best for the team?

Moving Osuna into a long relief / shot start role for the remainder of the season would decrease his stress and stretch him out so a ~120-140 inning, 5th starter role in 2018 becomes at least a possibility.  It might also enhance his trade value, if the Jays choose to pursue that option.

Toronto vs Buffalo

Roberto can still be optioned to Buffalo without passing through waivers.  If the Jays did want to stretch him out to perhaps 100 innings in 2017 to keep the starter option open for 2018, would it make more sense to do so in Buffalo rather than Toronto?  The media attention and game pressure in AAA would be far less than in Toronto, and being out of the spotlight might (?) help him to catch his breath and to work on his ailing fastball.  It would also give the Jays a chance to give innings to one or more of their minor league pitchers.

The closer mentality

If you don’t control your emotions, your emotions will control your acts, and that’s not good. … Mariano Rivera

Much has been written about the “closer mentality”, and how an otherwise excellent pitcher might not have the ability to accept the inevitable failures that come with the closer role, and not let them affect their performance in subsequent days.

It is interesting (and potentially significant) that Roberto had three blown saves in five games in April, then went 33 games without a blown save, then had four blown saves in ten games, including three blown saves in his last five.  In 2016, he had three of his six blown saves in the last five games of the season.

Is it possible that a combination of an exceptionally strong desire to win and a high emotional response to failure makes it harder for Roberto to put blown saves behind him?  And if true, is closing his best role?

Next: Blue Jays have a budding star in pitcher, Nate Pearson

The bottom line

It is to Roberto’s credit that he loves pitching in the highest-pressure situations, and bringing the maximum value to his team.  But he is not helping himself or the Jays if he pitches through a dead arm or exacerbates his anxiety issues, particularly in a lost season like 2017.  It might be better for him and for the team for him to step down from the closer role, catch his breath and rediscover his mojo.  Once he is himself again, the Jays can make the call as to how to proceed.