Late-bloomer Jason Grilli Ready For First Season In Closer’s Chair With Pittsburgh Pirates

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

4.50, 7.00, 8.28, 9.66, 10.19, 13.81.

Those numbers might just be an arbitrary upward progression for most, but for Jason Grilli of the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s a representation of exactly how the career journeyman came to be one of MLB‘s best relievers.

More accurately, they’re Grilli’s K/9 rates over the last six years, starting from when he was just a middling 29-year old reliever with the Detroit Tigers in 2006, and ending with 2012, when only three relief pitchers – Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Antonio Bastardo – struck batters out at a higher rate than the 36-year old righty.

Now, after putting up his best-ever numbers 10 seasons into his 11-year (he missed 2010 due to injury), Grilli is ready for another first: his new role as the Pirates’ closer in 2013.

It was a role that had previously belonged to Joel Hanrahan, but the off-season trade that sent him to the Boston Red Sox changed that, and the Pirates simply passed the torch down to the set-up man.

That’s not to say that Grilli doesn’t deserve the role, though. In fact, it may well be because of Grilli’s progress at he reached his mid-30s that gave the Pirates an impetus to move their All-Star closer over the last two seasons. Grilli walked fewer batters than Hanrahan in 2012 (3.38 BB/9 to 5.42) while also striking them at at a considerably higher rate (13.81 K/9 to 10.11), and gave up fewer home runs (1.07 HR/9 to 1.21) to boot.

Grilli was simply the better pitcher across the board than the All-Star with 36 saves, and he costs the Pirates less money over two years ($6.75 million) than what Hanrahan will make in one ($7.04 million) with the Red Sox.

So, maybe the Pirates weren’t just making a move for the sake of saving money after all – they felt they had a better arm, too.

Their faith in Grilli will likely be rewarded. Unlike most pitchers headed into their age-36 seasons, the right-hander’s numbers have been trending upwards for years. That includes his velocity, which has seen a three-year increase up to a 93.6 mph average on his fastballs in 2012, tying a career-high from 2007.

At this rate, that fastball might just propel Grilli to a place among the best closers in the league in 2013.

That’s not too shabby of a place to be, especially for an unheralded 36-year old who has bounced around nine different organizations over his career.