Where It All Went Wrong for Grant Balfour

It wasn’t too long ago that Grant Balfour was one of the premiere closers in the game and a prized free agent commodity. His reasonable new deal (two years, $12 million) with the Tampa Bay Rays, signed during the 2014 off-season, incited extensive elation throughout a fan base that already had very lofty expectations for their team. I don’t think anyone would have predicted the scenario we’ve seen play out over the past 13 months or so.

After a swift and unanticipated decline, Balfour’s second stint with the Rays came to a rather unfortunate end when he was designated for assignment late Saturday night. Balfour was fresh off a horrific relief outing in which he walked three and surrendered a tape-measure grand slam to Chris Young in just two-thirds of an inning. That appearance perfectly epitomized Balfour’s recent woes as a member of the Rays. His struggles stemmed from several fundamental deficiencies, some of which probably could have been foreseen.

In his breakout campaign of 2008, Balfour relied almost exclusively on his four-seam fastball. According to FanGraphs, Balfour threw that pitch 91.7 percent of the time, averaging 94.7 mph, but often reaching 95-97 with it over the course of his stellar season (1.54 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 12.65 K/9, 36 ERA- in 58.1 innings). FanGraphs valued that pitch at a remarkable 23.0 fastball runs above average, meaning that he had incredible effectiveness with this particular pitch and that his extremely frequent use of it was justified.

Balfour showed signs of regression over the subsequent two seasons — the last two seasons of his initial stint with Tampa Bay — with his minor dip in fastball velocity correlating with a steady decrease in usage. However, Balfour continued to be a highly valuable relief option for Joe Maddon and the 2009-2010 Rays. His career turned a bit when he inked a deal with the Oakland Athletics before the 2011 season. Even though he was throwing his fastball less and with somewhat reduced efficiency, he became a model of consistency for Billy Beane‘s squad, using his slider with more prevalence.

Balfour took over as the club’s regular closer during the 2012 season, and his relentlessness helped him excel in this new role. However, his peripherals continued to indicate that a downtrend was on the horizon. Balfour’s FIP was consistently inflated well above his perpetual mid-two ERA. Despite this concern, Balfour continued to thrive in the area of run prevention throughout his tenure in Oakland, and this reality made him a coveted player when he once again invaded the free agent waters.

In December of 2013, Balfour was in agreement with the Baltimore Orioles on a new contract that would make him the new closer in Birdland. That deal fell through, however, when Balfour failed his physical in Baltimore. The Orioles refused to reveal what they saw in their exam, but they were clearly alarmed by something they saw in the now 36-year-old Balfour. This opened the door for the Rays to swoop in and sign their former relief ace to what seemed to be a very club-friendly two-year contract.

Balfour was immediately inserted into a ninth inning role for the Rays, replacing the erratic Fernando Rodney. It was in this 2014 season that Balfour’s seemingly inevitable collapse began to occur. His early season difficulties led to his removal from the closer’s role, and, even though he displayed a level of resiliency on several occasions (primarily when he found command of his fastball), he failed to accomplish that with any regularity. Predictably, Balfour’s career-low average fastball velocity (91.6 mph) in 2014 caused a plunge in frequency to a paltry 51.4 percent. He clearly had minimal confidence with that pitch, and the effects were severe.

In 2014, Balfour compiled dreadful numbers across the board, including a 4.91 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 1.44 WHIP, 5.92 BB/9, and a 135 ERA-. He also averaged more than two fewer strikeouts per nine innings than he did the season before. Balfour began utilizing his slider more often, a pitch that FanGraphs graded out at a meager -1.3 slider runs above average. It was simply not an effective alternative to Balfour’s fastball.

On the hook for Balfour’s 2015 salary of $7 million, the Rays opted to keep him around in a diminished role. The injury-riddled Rays rotation, though, has left the bullpen taxed in the early going, and Balfour’s ineffectiveness was exposed once again. Now averaging just 89.7 mph on his four-seam fastball — albeit in a small sample size — Balfour was throwing it less than 40 percent of the time before he was DFA. That lack of confidence in his dwindling heater is what surely led to his demise.

In an era of flame-throwing relievers in seemingly every big league bullpen, it quickly became clear that Balfour just didn’t have it anymore. He lost confidence and personality on the mound, and looked like a shell of his former self. Once he’s granted his release, Balfour might find himself with another opportunity somewhere else. If not, it’s been a fine 12-year career for the Australian-native, who will turn 38 years old in December.

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