Huston Street is one of those closers who, when he comes in to face your team, always makes you think your boys have a chance for a comeback. Listed at 6-feet, he's not an intimidating presence and doesn't throw smoldering fastballs or wipeout splitters or bat-breaking cutters. He has that funky delivery when the bases are empty, in which he takes a big step to the side with his left leg and sort of drags his right plant leg across the rubber, like he's drawing a starting line in the dirt, and then taps his toe before going into his windup. He kicks his knee up and sort of scrunches his chin down and his shoulders together, like a dog curled up for a rest.
It's a form of deception -- maybe working to hide the ball just a little or present a motion batters aren't used to seeing -- enough to help his stuff play better than a scouting report would ever suggest. His fastball has averaged 89.4 mph this year -- his fastest has been a mere 91.8 mph -- velocity that hardly screams "closer."
But that's what Street has been in the major leagues since the A's made him a supplemental first-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2004. He was closing a year later and won American League Rookie of the Year honors with 23 saves and a 1.72 ERA. At his best, he leaves batters guessing, confused and probably shaking their heads in frustration as they head back to the dugout.
Take, for instance, Miguel Cabrera on Sunday. Brought in to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth for the Angels after David Freese had homered in the eighth off Joba Chamberlain, Street retired Austin Jackson on a fly ball to center and Ian Kinsler on a grounder to first. That left Cabrera. Street is basically a fastball/slider guy, who mixes in the occasional changeup (his breakdown on the season: fastballs 50 percent, sliders 33 percent, changeups 17 percent). That ratio hasn't really changed much in recent years. Two fastballs for every slider; two sliders for every changeup. His two-seam fastball has some sink, though he tends to pitch up in the zone with it. He's been prone to home runs at times, especially in 2013, when he allowed 12 in just 56.2 innings with the Padres.
On this day, however, it was nothing but fastballs and sliders. He threw Jackson five straight sliders before finally getting him with a fastball. He started Kinsler off with a slider before retiring him on a 1-1 fastball. Cabrera swung through a first-pitch slider on the outside corner and then took a fastball for a strike, a pitch that might have been just off the plate. The 0-2 pitch was another slider, off the plate and in the dirt, but Cabrera read or thought fastball and flailed harmlessly for strike three.
This is exactly why the Angels acquired Street -- for those tough saves in one-run games against good clubs. It allows Mike Scioscia to stretch out his bullpen. Underrated Joe Smith is back in a setup role and pitched a perfect eighth inning. Rookie Mike Morin, a 12th-round pick in 2012 out of North Carolina, struck out three in 1 2/3 perfect innings and lowered his ERA to 2.50. Throw in the recently acquired veteran, Jason Grilli, plus Kevin Jepsen (1.84 ERA, .164 average allowed) and lefty Joe Thatcher, and the Angels' bullpen suddenly looks like a strength, not the weak spot it was the first two months of the season.
It's been a complete bullpen makeover for the Angels. Look at how the bullpen stacked up coming out of spring training:
Closer: Ernesto Frieri
Mopup/long relief: Jepsen, Matt Shoemaker
Only Smith and Jepsen remain from that original group (Salas was just optioned to Triple-A Salt Lake), with Shoemaker now doing a solid job in the rotation. Give credit to general manager Jerry Dipoto for making some moves, but it's also a reflection of the often volatile nature of bullpens. Who could have predicted Morin's rise (he was Baseball America's No. 14 prospect for the Angels heading into the season) or Jepsen having the best year of his career? Bullpens can go up and down from year to year -- or, often, within a year.
This group reminds me a bit of what happened with the Cardinals back in 2011 on their way to a World Series title. That club had bullpen issues much of the season, as eight different relievers saved games, and two closers (Ryan Franklin and Salas) lost their jobs. Franklin, like Frieri, didn't last the season with the club. The Cardinals picked up Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski at the trade deadline and signed Arthur Rhodes. By the time Jason Motte finally became the closer, the bullpen had turned into a strength and was key as the Cardinals beat the Rangers in seven games.
If you need more evidence of the rising strength of the Angels' bullpen, check out the following monthly totals:
April: 4.37 ERA, .239/.343/.397, 2.02 K/BB ratio
May: 4.46 ERA, .225/.308/.362, 2.21 K/BB ratio
June: 4.00 ERA, .251/.334/.400, 2.55 K/BB ratio
July: 1.90 ERA, .205/.248/.259, 5.20 K/BB ratio
Expect Mike Scioscia to lean even more on this group over the final two months, like he did Sunday when he pulled Hector Santiago after 85 pitches in the sixth inning. Santiago had allowed a one-out hit to Jackson, but with Kinsler and Cabrera up, Scioscia wanted a right-hander to face the meat of the Detroit lineup. Morin, who has held righties to a .157 average, got the call. Morin throws 90 to 94 mph with his fastball but has a very good changeup and developing slider. He struck out both Kinsler and Cabrera on changeups.
A lot will still depend on Street, however. Maybe he's not cut from the prototypical closer mold. But he's been getting major league hitters out for a long time. He has depth in front of him. The Angels are looking good.
If you're the Oakland A's, I'd be very worried about the team breathing down your neck.