When a closer enters a game with a one-run lead, that is a high-pressure situation and sometimes it is difficult to deliver. A three-run lead, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Grant Balfour entered the game with the Tampa Bay Rays having a 96% chance of winning and could not do a single positive thing to get the Rays any closer to victory. He now has a 6.46 ERA in 15 appearances, striking out 11 while walking 14 in 15.1 innings pitched. That simply is not going to cut it. What can the Rays do to get the ninth inning on track?
The easiest way to explain Balfour’s struggles is his fastball velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, his velocity has dropped from 94.45 MPH last year to just 92.85 MPH this year. Balfour simply has not been able to overpower hitters the way he used to. However, that’s only half the problem. Despite the decrease in speed, Balfour’s fastball has been located for a strike just 56% of the time compared to 66% in 2013. It is not as though he has been incredibly wild, but he has tried to make up for the velocity loss by being too fine on his pitches, and the results have been disastrous. Balfour’s inefficacy with his fastball has also caused him to throw it just 49% of the time, far below his 65% mark from last year, and that has put a major strain on his secondary pitches. Balfour is not a lost cause yet, but he has to get back to attacking the zone with his fastball despite the lesser velocity for him to look anything like his former self. Hopefully that is an adjustment Balfour can make on the fly, but if not, the Rays could end up putting Balfour on the disabled list to straighten him out.
We have not yet arrived at a Heath Bell situation with Grant Balfour because he still has the capacity to succeed–and because the Rays owe him $12 million through next season. With that in mind, the Rays’ strategy with him would be to send him to Port Charlotte or Durham for a couple of weeks to work on his arsenal before bringing him back. Every pitcher has soreness somewhere, and you have to think that finding an excuse to put Balfour on the DL would not be so difficult. We know that Joe Maddon has unwavering confidence in his pitchers, so the Rays are not rushing to demote Balfour, but if he continues to struggle, they would have to consider it.
If Grant Balfour were to go on the disabled list or be otherwise demoted from the closer role, who would the Rays replace him with? Based on both stuff and performance–and especially given Joel Peralta‘s struggles–the obvious answer seems to be Jake McGee. The hard-throwing left-hander is not perfect, but at least the Rays could be confident that they had a pitcher with a dominant arsenal appearing for them to end games. Eventually, if he keeps pitching well, ex-Marlins closer Juan Carlos Oviedo could be another option. Either way, the Rays can’t possibly do any worse in the ninth inning if they make a change, and it could be worth a try at some point in the near future.
The Rays have ample reason to move on from Grant Balfour at closer for the time being and at least one pitcher with whom they can replace him. Hopefully Balfour can rebound, but if not, they have solution that can work. We will have to see how long it takes for the Rays to finally make a move.