The San Diego Padres are in need of a closer for the 2022 season. Could it be former starter Dinelson Lamet?
The Padres have been one of the best organizations in baseball at finding diamonds in the rough and turning them into effective closers. Not many teams find a failed shortstop prospect and turn him into a Hall of Fame relief pitcher, like one Trevor Hoffman.
Pitchers like Heath Bell, Huston Street, Brad Hand, Kirby Yates, and Mark Melancon have been named All-Stars as San Diego’s closer since Hoffman’s departure from the team following the 2008 season. If the Padres are good at one thing, it is developing closers.
2022 presents another opportunity. Looking up and down the roster, there is no clear-cut guy ready to slide into the role seamlessly. The most obvious choice at the moment is Robert Suarez, who the Padres signed away from the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League for $6 million. At that price, you would hope he is closer material. He certainly appeared so when pitching across the Pacific Ocean, earning 67 saves with a 1.65 ERA over the last two seasons.
However, if the Padres feel like Suarez has not taken a stranglehold on the closer spot like they hope, might they turn to Dinelson Lamet?
To this point, Lamet has made 69 appearances in the big leagues, 56 of them being as a starter. All of them came as a starting pitcher until last season when Jayce Tingler attempted to ease him back into a heavy workload after forearm discomfort plagued him through the start of the 2021 season.
At times, Lamet appeared to be a star on the rise in the Padres’ rotation. In 2020, he posted a 2.09 ERA and 201 ERA+ in 12 starts, earning himself a fourth-place finish in Cy Young voting.
Should Dinelson Lamet be the Padres’ closer?
— Nick Lee (@NickLee51) March 21, 2022
However, Lamet has been plagued by injuries several times in his career. Might he be better suited for a high-leverage bullpen role? That would allow him to lean on his strengths, which is a two-pitch repertoire, producing strikeouts in high-pressure situations. His fastball-slider combo is one of the most lethal two-pitch arsenals in baseball. That is usually a trait of a strong reliever, not someone who could have sustained success as a starter. He threw over 800 pitches last year, and only 49 of them were not considered a fastball or slider.
His slider is one of the best pitches in baseball. In 2020, he used the slider over 53 percent of the time. It turned out to be a fantastic decision, as he allowed the fifth-lowest batting average with his slider in major league history with a single pitch type, as batters hit .080 against it. They did not fare much better last year, hitting .158, with a 42.5 percent whiff rate.
He can make even some of the best hitters in baseball, like Carlos Correa, look silly with his dizzying slider.
Getting “whiffs” is a vital skill of any closer. They come into the game with tensions high and the score close. One mistake, one bad pitch, and the game could be tied or worse. Managers need a guy they can trust to get swings-and-misses with the game on the line.
For new manager Bob Melvin, Lamet could be that guy. The 29-year-old has not been worse than the 82nd percentile in whiff rate in the last two seasons. Of the 166 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched over the last two seasons, Lamet ranks 12th in SwStr% (swings and misses over total pitches), better than the likes of Gerrit Cole and 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. Clearly, Lamet can induce whiffs with the best of them.
He can even do it with his fastball, which flirts with 100 mph.
Lamet’s days as a regular starting pitcher are murky. The durability concerns are real. With how frequently and violently he throws his slider, the risk for further injuries remains high. Why not move him into a role where he is throwing one inning and maybe 15 to 20 pitches every few nights instead of attempting to go over five innings and 100 pitches every fifth day?
The biggest question mark regarding Lamet as a closer is whether or not he can pitch on consecutive days. Normal closers may be asked pitch three, maybe even four games in a row. Lamet’s injury history is concerning. If the Padres fear he isn’t ready for such a workload, perhaps they can make him part of the late-inning rotation and pitch every few days.
The fire-balling Dominican’s stuff is elite, there is no debate there. Given his top-drawer slider coupled with durability concerns as a starter, the closer role, or at least a late-inning, high-leverage role, may be better suited for Lamet’s skills as well as the needs of this Padres squad.