Everybody knows relievers are weird dudes. They spend inordinate amounts of time hanging out, entertaining themselves and creating deviant ways to offend everyone outside their hermetic community. Their job security is nil, their roles and responsibilities change with the weather. Guys are great one week, awful the next. The bullpens of the world overflow of miscreants, castoffs, jagoffs, and miscastreants.
To be thought of as "the best reliever in baseball" doesn't really mean too much unless you have the fancy saves to lean on. It doesn't matter who does the high leverage heavy lifting, whoever shakes the catcher's hand at the end of the game gets the credit. Which is a shame; because Matt Thornton has only 9 career saves and is the best reliever in baseball.
Playing second fiddle to Big Bobby Jenks on the second favorite team in America's Second City is far from a glamorous job. I'd hazard a guess that many of you reading this sentence right now have, at best, a hazy understanding of who Matt Thornton might be. I'll let Jeremy Greenhouse of The Hardball Times introduce the powerful lefty:
A common mistake made by baseball fans is to call a pitcher unhittable when that pitcher is not Matt Thornton. His stuff is the best in baseball, and today, he demonstrated why his fastball is truly unhittable.
While Greenhouse raved about Thornton just a few days into the season, three weeks have passed and Thornton's been nothing short of insane. He throws that "unhittable" fastball 90% of the time yet he induces swinging strikes (whiffs) a whopping 17% of the time. Throwing a four seam fastball. Almost exclusively.
He throws that fastball at 95 while his slider sneaks in unfairly at 83. Mean, just mean. So far in 2010 his FIP (fielding independent pitching) checks in at 0.49. Less than one half of one run per 9 innings! Granted, he's only pitched 10 total innings, so take that number with a grain of salt, but watching him absolutely destroy hitters is a real treat.
Saturday night, Ozzy left Thornton in to pitch 2 and 1/3 innings in a tight game versus the Mariners. He faced 7 batters; he struck out 5 of them. His strike out per walk rate of 8 is stellar until you realize both batters were issued their free passes intentionally1. Left handed hitters shouldn't even bother, right handed hitters are simply overmatched. He's an electric arm with pinpoint control at the top of his game. Watching hitters flail away at Thornton's offerings is the most fun you can have at U.S. Cellular without having to fill out a police report.
For right now, there isn't a better bullpen beast than Matt Thornton. He's the perfect mix of eye-popping both on paper and in the flesh. Somebody will hit him hard this season, but it won't happen too often. If you're a bigger fan of your local nine than you are stuff that's awesome, your tendency might be to go for a drink or hit the head when he emerges from the bullpen late in a game. Feel free to embrace this reality, as your chosen side ain't getting nothing done for the next 3-6 batters.
Hat tip to Fangraphs and Joe Lefkowitz's database thingy for the nitty gritty nerdy.
1Ozzie, seriously, what are you thinking? Your boy here is untouchable. Pitching around Jhonny Peralta and Matt LaPorta to get the matchup in your favor is nearly as inexcusable as the absence of full blown insanity from your twitterfeed. Let him fire away.