Who should pitch in high-leverage situations for the Padres?

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The San Diego Padres roster has seen several shake-ups this offseason. The starting rotation has seen an extensive overhaul, swapping Michael Wacha & Seth Lugo for Michael King & Dylan Cease

Offensively and in the field,  names like Jackson Merrill, Tyler Wade, Graham Pauley, and Eguy Rosario have supplanted and replaced the roster spots of the departed  Matt Carpenter, Trent Grisham, Juan Soto, Garrett Cooper, etc. 

But perhaps the part, or area, of the roster that has seen the most significant overhaul is that of the Padres Bullpen. 

Yes, all-star closer Josh Hader is gone, and so are other quality, dependable, and high-leverage arms, such as Scott Barlow, Nick Martinez, and Steven Wilson

In their absence, A.J. Preller has, to his credit, done a solid job this offseason of signing or trading for quality arms on the dollar. Wisely pivoting from an inflated starting pitching market to a more cost-effective and less violative Relief market. 

With the acquisitions and players who remained on the team, San Diego now boasts a pen of names including Robert Suarez, Yuki Matsui, Tom Cosgrove, Wandy Peralta, Jhony Brito, Enyel De Los Santos, and  Stephen Kolek

It’s a group that also has depth waiting in the wings in El Paso with Alek Jacob, Jeremiah Estrada, Woo-Suk Go,  Sean Reynolds, and Adrian Morejon.

Still, one, or perhaps several, key questions remain: Which of these names should work the high-leverage innings of the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings for San Diego in 2024?

We got a glimpse into Mike Shildt’s mind and bullpen management in Thursday’s home opener, but who will and should work the 7th, 8th, and 9th the most this season for San Diego?

Let’s take a look.


Robert Suarez, Closer/ 9th Inning 

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Robert Suarez should be your closer to start the 2024 season. Back in November 2022, the Padres handed Suarez a five-year, 46-million-dollar deal to stay with San Diego. 

You don’t pay a reliever nearly 10 million a year to work the 7th or the 8th; you pay them to pitch the 9th. And it’s not just the contact that makes me believe Suarez will close in 2024; it’s the simple fact that he has more electric stuff coming out of the bullpen. 

For his career, Suarez has a 29% k%, a 3.67 FIP, 3.34 SIERA, and an xFIP of 3.49. Yes, it’s only two big league seasons, but it’s quality data that exemplifies his effectiveness. 

Consider this: Even in a down season in 2023, one plagued by injury, Suarez’s raw stuff was still nasty. His fastball velocity was in the 95th percentile; he posted a 119 stuff+ and a 109 pitching+, according to FanGraphs. 

Suarez’s closing ability was perhaps best showcased in his first outing in the Seoul Series. 

In the 15-11 victory, Bobby Fastballs worked 1.1 innings, allowing zero runs and striking out two. Suarez took down the heart of the Dodgers lineup with ease. The fastball sat between 97-99 w/ 18.5″ iVB, The Changeup averaged nine inches of Horizontal Break, and the Command was excellent, throwing 66% of his pitches for strikes. 

In his save vs. the Giants, Suarez’s stuff looked even more electric. Yes, he surrendered a solo home run to Michael Conforto, but his fastball generated 21 inches of iVB, and both his Fastball and Change-up posted 131 and 133 tjStuff+, respectively.

That’s the type of data and raw stuff you want in a closer, and Suarez is the only one out of the bullpen who has it.


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Yuki Matsui, 8th Inning

Yuki Matsui made a living in the NPB pitching high-leverage innings. In the three seasons he shifted to the bullpen in Japan, Matsui posted a 1.42 ERA with 214 strikeouts in 152 innings. 

In his final season with the Golden Eagles in 2023, Matsui put together his best season with a 1.57 ERA, career-high 39 saves,  and recorded 72 strikeouts against just 13 walks in 57.1 innings.

The numbers so far have translated to success this spring, as he dominated hitters in a small sample size with a 72% K% and 0.67 WHIP. In his first regular-season experience, he fared well enough vs. the Dodgers, working one ⅓ innings, striking out one, walking two, but allowing 0 runs. 

Given his track record closing in the NPB, one could make a compelling argument that he could or should be given the first shot at closing duties. Yet, his raw stuff, while good, is still not to the level of the aforementioned Suarez. 

Matsui’s fastball is 91-93 mph but is more effective due to its vertical ride, averaging 23.8″ iVB, which is excellent. His splitter is also a plus pitch at 87-89 mph and can generate ground balls and whiffs from both LHH and RHH. 

Now, velocity isn’t everything, but in 2024, it feels vital to have a closer who can just rear back and throw it by a guy if needed. Sitting at just 5 foot 8, 170 pounds, and with that FB that hits only 94-95 at its top speed, Matsui is not that. He can be, and still is, nasty in a different way. With spin & break, rather than raw velo, that is fine. 

Matsui should be slotted for the 8th inning, at least for the start of the season. Given his previously mentioned closing experience in the NPB, high-leverage innings should not phase him.


Wandy Peralta, 7th Inning

Wandy Peralta has a superpower: inducing ground balls. Since 2021, he has had a GB/FB ratio of 2.08 and a HardHit% of 31.8. Both of those data points rank 24th and 21st out of 203 qualified relief pitchers. In the last season, 2023, he posted 57.1 GB%. 

But for all the soft contact and ground ball outs he produced, Peralta still has the ability to make hitters swing and miss if he so chooses. Again, just last season, he posted 29.7 Whiff%, 32.4 Chase%, & a 95.9 Avg. FB in 23, all of which were in the 75th percentile or higher last season across major league baseball. 

Pairing with this is a 2023 track record of success in high-leverage innings as last season Perelta held hitting to a BA of .164 in the 7th, .186 in the 8th, and 154 in the 9th and held hitters to an OPS  of just .611

Now, as with any pitcher, Perelta is not without flaws or uncertainties. In 2023 with New York, some concerning trends included a 4.50 xFIP,  5.05 FIP,  4.70 xERA, and 13.2 BB%. 

The walk numbers and his Zone% are both something to monitor, as his BB% was 3.1%  higher than his career numbers. 

His Zone% has been declining for six-plus years as In 2017, his zone% was at 45 percent, while last season, it dipped to 30%. 

However, the issue is and should be fixed with him now under the direct watch of Ruben Niebla. If he can tick back up to his career mean, he should become even more effective. 

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