According to today's Baltimore Sun, “the Orioles are giving serious thought to trading closer Jorge Julio before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, with multiple teams showing interest in acquiring him as a primary setup man.” Potential trading partners mentioned are the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.
Fire and rain
Like many of his Oriole mound-mates, Julio has been frustratingly inconsistent this year. After starting the season strongly by allowing only one run over his first 12 appearances, he has allowed runs in 12 of his last 24 outings. That's not exactly slamming the door on the opposition.
Julio has become a master of the close call. Because manager Lee Mazzilli usually uses him to start the ninth inning, Julio rarely inherits baserunners (just four all year), so he tends to concoct some drama of his own; in two-thirds of his appearances he has allowed a batter to reach via a hit or a walk, putting the outcome of the game in doubt in many of those cases. Most of the time, he gets the last out before blowing the lead—he has notched 14 saves in 16 opportunities—but his penchant for the hair-raising finish has caused television announcer Jim Palmer to dub him "Mr. Excitement."
A middling finisher
Although I have previously measured relievers by Adjusted Runs Prevented, an esoteric relief stat from Michael Wolverton's Reliever Evaluation Tools Report, ARP are less relevant in Julio's case because he is rarely used to put out fires. The heavily context-dependent design of ARP gives a lot of credit to relievers who inherit baserunners and strand them. Meanwhile, pitchers who typically start and end an inning, as Julio often does, have less opportunity to earn credit towards their ARP. For example, middle reliever Ryan Madson of the Phillies leads the majors in ARP at 20.8, while his team's closers this year, Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell, have accumulated a total of 13.9 ARP despite pitching about 40% more innings and allowing fewer baserunners per inning than Madson. (There's a rant about optimal usage patterns for relievers here somewhere, but I'm not in a ranting mood today.)
Nevertheless, by ARP and most other measures, Julio is no better than the average closer, and in most cases he is worse. Of the 25 major-league relievers with at least ten saves as of July 22, Julio's 0.8 ARP and 4.59 Runs Responsible Average both ranked 21st. In that same peer group, his 1.50 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP) was also 21st, his .718 opponents' OPS was 18th best, his 7.65 K/9 ranked 12th, and his 1.48 K/BB was 22nd out of 25. Those rankings make clear that Julio is nowhere near the level of the elite closers of the game—Eric Gagne, Mariano Rivera et al. In fact, his teammate B.J. Ryan eclipsed him in all of those categories.
In addition to being unimaginative in his usage of Julio, Mazzilli has professed a sort of tunnel-vision loyalty towards his young closer, saying essentially that he will live or die with Julio at the end of games. Those may be fateful words. At some point, performance has to take precedence over loyalty. If Julio's prolonged inconsistency does not eventually force Mazzilli to use him in less critical situations, then Mazzilli may come to regret putting such unconditional allegiance in one player above the interests of the team.
Closers 101: Julio's midterm grades
Some relevant thoughts about closers (or “relief aces,” if you prefer to view them in the Bill James mold) appeared in Peter Gammons's June 28 column under the subheading “What makes a successful closer.” Gammons's “quick poll of pitching people” yielded the following Four Habits of Highly Effective Closers:
1. The ability to command the fastball on the outside corner, particularly down.
2. The ability to repeat both command and stuff, two and three days in a row.
3. Some kind of swing-and-miss pitch. ...
4. Heart. No fear of the ninth inning.
Some people might phrase things differently or add other aspects (e.g., low home run rate), but those criteria are a good start. I'll simplify them further into Command, Stuff, and Resiliency, then rate Julio in all three. The scale I'll use is A-E. All grades are relative to other major-league closers.
Command: Julio has wavering command, if his walk rate is any indication (5.2 BB/9 this year, 4.4 career). He seems more concerned with the speed of his fastball than its location, and he doesn't usually seem to have a good idea of where his pitches are going. Julio would do well to study the archived performances of Randy Myers, whose 1997 season was arguably the finest ever by an Oriole closer. By that late point in his career, Myers did not possess outstanding velocity—if I recall correctly, his fastball maxed out in the low 90's—but he had a knack for throwing his fastball over the outside edge of the plate at the knees, and that skill alone put most hitters at his mercy. Grade: D.
Stuff: Julio's stuff is above average for a reliever, but unremarkable among closers. He has no deception in his windup—he more or less rears back and throws. His bread-and-butter pitch is his fastball, which regularly reaches the 97-99 MPH range but lacks late movement, making it hittable if the batter is looking for it. His slider is a decent swing-and-miss pitch when he doesn't hang it, but batters have learned not to swing at it, and Julio doesn't get ahead in the count often enough for it to be an effective weapon. Because of those limitations, Julio's strikeout rates (7.6 K/9 this year, 7.7 career) are pedestrian for a closer. On the other hand, his line-drive rate (11.9%) and infield fly percentage (24.5%) this year are respectable, and his gopherball rate (0.90 HR/9 this year, 0.99 career) is acceptably low though not exceptional. Julio would likely benefit from developing another off-speed pitch like a change-up, even if he only uses it sparingly. One- and two-pitch pitchers thrive only if their arsenals are top-notch, and Julio's is not. Grade: C.
Resiliency: I don't have the results of Julio's psychological evalution, but from what I've seen I don't think he has trouble suppressing a fear of failure or putting memories of past disappointments behind him. This year, whenever he has blown a save or had an otherwise bad outing (which I will define as giving up more than one run or being credited with a loss), he has bounced back with a save or an improved performance. So his problem has not been an inability to mentally bounce back from setbacks. Rather, he has not been able to harness his stuff to dominate hitters for an extended stretch of games. Grade: C.
And in closing...
Julio is a decent major-league reliever, and at 25 he may yet have his best days ahead of him, but it appears increasingly likely that he is not destined to be a lights-out, top-flight closer. Like most Oriole pitchers, the area he most needs to improve is his command. He should know by now that his fastball is not good enough to get major-league hitters out consistently. If he doesn't improve his pitch location and his off-speed arsenal, instead of going up the ladder and becoming a Billy Wagner, he may go down the Billy Koch road and become a middle reliever.
A note about the possibility of a trade with Oakland: the A's indeed have holes in their bullpen and at second base. But it's hard to believe that they would give up much in return for Julio or Brian Roberts. For one thing, they recognize that pitch velocity is overrated, and velocity is Julio's calling card. And at second base, Roberts would not be much of an upgrade over their current starter, Marco Scutaro. So I doubt that an O's-A's trade will occur, and I would put zero chance on the Orioles landing Barry Zito for Julio and Roberts.