Carlos Marmol probably converted his last save as Cubs closer in Chicago’s 3-2 victory Thursday over the Pirates. The play, above, isn’t particularly notable on its own. Neil Walker hit into a routine double play, and the Cubs made the turn with ease.
Two days later, Marmol served up a pair of home runs to a pair of Upton brothers in Atlanta. The next day, he was done as Cubs closer, and there’s a good chance he never saves a game for the Cubs again.
The memory of the Marmol era is likely to be a sour one — just ask Facebook Cubs Fans. Marmol’s distinctive characteristic became his wildness, and as such it was fitting for his final save as a Cub to come with his soon-to-be replacement, Kyuji Fujikawa, warming in the bullpen just in case Marmol created yet another jam.
Reducing Marmol to an unharnessed fastball-slider combination belies just how important he is to the game. He doesn’t have any particular accomplishments other relievers of the recent past can’t boast. Instead, Marmol’s importance comes from his role as the archetype of a new family of pitchers we’ve seen crop up almost entirely in the last 25 years.
Marmol’s family is the hard-throwing possessors of tremendous stuff who can’t rein it in and throw strikes. Of course, this kind of pitcher has existed well before Marmol’s mid-2000s heyday. If Carlos Marmol is the current archetype, Ryne Duren was the historical archetype. Duren routinely led or was near the top of his league in strikeout per inning leaderboards, but he was nearly blind and had the types of problems finding the strike zone you would expect from somebody who couldn’t see it. He hit 41 batters in just 589.1 career innings and just twice posted a BB/9 under five.
In 1958, Duren posted a 5.1 BB/9 and a 10.4 K/9. As a result, he became the first player since Bob Feller in 1936 — at age 17 — to post at least a 5.0 BB/9 and a 10.0 K/9. Only 18 times did it happen between 1901 and 1990, and Duren was the only reliever to repeat on the list (Sandy Koufax appears twice, as does Nolan Ryan), and Duren managed the feat in 1959 and 1960 as well.
He was unorthodox to be sure, but he had special velocity, particularly for his era, and the result was brilliant numbers: Duren posted a 2.02 ERA (176 ERA+) with 87 strikeouts against 43 walks in 75.2 innings in 1958 and a 1.88 ERA (195 ERA+) with 96 strikeouts against 43 walks in 76.2 innings in 1959; each year he made the All-Star team. He fell off after that — his career ERA+ finished at 98 as his walk problems grew out of control — but he was one of the earliest impact relievers, and certainly the earliest of his kind.
Outside of a few random seasons, though — the occasional Mitch Williams, Bryan Harvey or Dave LaRoche, to name a few — the game didn’t foster the Duren approach. In 1991, we saw this type of pitcher grab a foothold in the major leagues:
Over the past 22 seasons, MLB has seen 63 pitchers post a K/9 above 10.0 and a BB/9 above 5.0. It’s a common occurrence now, almost certainly tied to the league-wide rise in strikeouts since the early 1980s. The power pitcher has been a major factor as teams see strikeouts from a pitcher can be valuable even if it means praying for control on a regular basis.
Armando Benitez did it four times, thrice in the early 1990s and one last time in 2007. Marmol is the only other pitcher to record such a season four times, as he’s done so each of the past four years. But we have seen a crop of pitchers come up who can be defined similarly, the power pitcher liable to hit the Bull at any time, and not on purpose.
The following have posted 10.0 K/9 and 5.0 BB/9 seasons multiple times: Derrick Turnbow (2007-08), John Rocker (2000-01), Matt Mantei (1999-2000), Mike Gonzalez (2005-06) and Jose Veras (2010, 2012). And there’s a whole other host of relievers capable of slipping into this group. Just of current closers, Joel Hanrahan, John Axford, Aroldis Chapman, Fernando Rodney and J.J. Putz have all been on the 10 K/9 and 5 BB/9 list once.
Unlike Marmol, most relievers don’t fit so neatly into one type or group. It’s why so many of the best prospect evaluators (or at least the best who do so in public) are quick to tell you they don’t force comparisons — because most players tend to at least be a combination of two or three types of players, if not more.
But even though we only see two or three players a decade who neatly fit the Duren/Marmol type, we see a myriad of relievers who share similar characteristics. Part of the legend of the “Wild Thing” character in Major League — clearly influenced by Duren, right down to the glasses — was the spectacle of a player like him in actual professional baseball in 1989, when the movie was released. How little they knew Wild Thing would be commonplace within the next few years.
And that, to me, is part of what makes Marmol so interesting. His skillset is so unique, constantly testing the bounds of how much wildness a pitcher could suffer and still be productive, or showing just how much one of the nastiest pitches in MLB history: his slider.
The slider was unhittable throughout his career until it came out flat this season; hitters have a paltry .149/.149/.198 mark against the pitch according to Brooks Baseball. The pitch could get into the upper 80s at its best, and its movement exploded. When Marmol was at his best, particularly in 2007 (1.43 ERA, 325 ERA+) and 2010 (2.55 ERA, 167 ERA+, 16.0 K/9), hitters were faced with one choice: hope his wildness would bail them out
Marmol’s career isn’t necessarily over — he’s just 30 years old and his 2012 season was major league quality, as he posted a 3.42 ERA and 3.98 FIP. But his elite years appear to be behind him, as his control is worse than ever and hitters have finally figured out how to hit home runs off him — 11 since 2011 after just three in 2009 and 2010 combined.
But Carlos Marmol’s time as closer in the North Side shouldn’t be overlooked. Players like him who live on the extremes are fascinating. Their constant testing of the game’s boundaries at once gives us some of the finest spectacle and some of the finest education baseball can offer, and Marmol, for a few years, provided just that.