Oakland Athletics' Grant Balfour Making Surprising Transformation Into Elite Closer?

By Thom Tsang
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Though Grant Balfour was always a good reliever, he was never really considered “closer material” even when he initially stepped into the role full-time for the Oakland Athletics down the stretch last season.

In 2013, however, he’s left little doubt about who the top man is in the bullpen.

Sorry, Ryan Cook, but as good as you’ve been this season, it’s unlikely that there’s going to be an opening for you to get your job back as long as the 35-year old is still healthy enough to take the mound. Not when Balfour has collected 28 handshakes, good enough for a seventh place tie in the majors; and not while he’s posting a 1.88 ERA through 43 innings, bested only by his incredible 2.1 fWAR season with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.

Yes, it’s been a quite the encore from the Oakland closer so far this season, and he seem to be showing no signs of slowing down.

If anything, he might actually be picking up steam going down the stretch. Having allowed runs in just two of his last 23 appearances dating back to June 1, Balfour’s 0.91 WHIP over 11 innings to close out July represents a season-best as far as monthly ratios are concerned.

In fact, he’s not allowed a single hit in six of his last 12 outings, so maybe unhittable is a more apt word here.

Simply put, he’s shown most of the signs of what one would call an elite closer this season: a double digit strikeout rate (10.05 K/9), decent walk rate that doesn’t hurt him (2.93 BB/9) and a sub .200 BAA at .195. He’s even been able to find an extra bit of gas on his fastball this season, hitting a 93.2 mph average — a four-year best.

Oh, and all this comes after offseason knee surgery that cut his preparation time in Spring Training too.

Yessir, this man is as tough as he looks on the mound. That’s not to say he’s not without his faults, however. If there’s anything that truly holds him back from the upper echelon of relievers that he’s found his name around this season, it’s his home run rate: at 1.05 HR/5, Balfour has definitely benefited from the gift of the baseball gods in the form of a 92.1 percent strand rate.

Then again, he’s helping himself a bit in that department too with a career-best 12.2 percent swinging strike rate, so you couldn’t say it was all luck.

With the once league-best Oakland offense now struggling, pitching will be more important than ever for the A’s as they’re likely to participate in their share of close games down the stretch. If Balfour can continue his remarkable run on his journey to join the MLB elite, Oakland has to feel pretty good about their chances in most of those games.

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