The Cincinnati Reds’ new closer should be…

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Last year’s World Series winning Kansas City Royals were notorious for their near flawless end to games. Timely hitting was not the only contributor to their success, a dominating bullpen stymied opposing offenses for two, three, sometimes four innings per game. Your 2016 Cincinnati Reds are not last year’s World Series champions.

The closer to begin the season, J.J. Hoover has been as far from reliable as Cincinnati is from another World Series. After establishing himself as a dependable setup man evident by last season’s 2.94 ERA (and ERA’s of 2.05 in 2013 and 2.86 in 2014) Hoover was essentially the obvious choice to close games in 2016. Two weeks into the season and he may be without a ninth inning role, although the Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Bryan Price is sticking with Hoover for the time being. In just 3 2/3 innings pitched so far this year Hoover has allowed seven earned runs, four walks and two home runs. His hard-hit rate (33.3 percent) is the highest of his career despite just 50 of his 88 pitches being thrown for strikes. He is not consistently hitting the strike zone, but when he does, hitters are sitting on it and hitting the ball harder off of Hoover than they ever have.

But this should not be coming unexpectedly. Despite his sub-3.00 ERA a year ago, his .215 BABIP indicated a probable regression — and a potentially significant one. In seven save chances in 2015, Hoover converted just one, blowing his other six opportunities.

Over the past four seasons, by and large, Hoover has proven to be a reliable reliever for the Reds. But pitching in the ninth inning with the game on the line is a different beast and Hoover has done very little to prove that it’s a beast he can tame.

Who are the other options?

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Jumbo Diaz: He may be the obvious choice as the hard-throwing righty with the power arsenal of fastballs, sliders and sinkers. He has closed games in the past including a save for the Reds last season and eight more in Triple-A. He also had 18 saves in 2014 with Louisville. His BABIP has gravitated back to a realistic .276 this season and does have better peripherals than Hoover at this point. Now, those numbers still aren’t the greatest as his 7.40 FIP (4.26 ERA) proves that he has gotten help from his defense this year, but if Hoover isn’t the guy, Jumbo could be the beneficiary.

Blake Wood: After saving 29 games for the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate a year ago, Wood has impressed through 6 1/3 innings of work so far this year. His 1.42 ERA is second on the team, he is stranding runners at an astonishing — but probably unsustainable — pace with an 88.9 left-on-base percentage. His arsenal is similar to Jumbo’s in that he uses a fastball, slider and sinker, however he uses them differently. Early in his career he was throwing his sinker upwards of 80 percent of the time. During the spring this year, he worked on his fastball and slider, and as a result, has a strong three-pitch mix. In the regular season he is throwing his sinker 41 percent of the time, his slider 33 percent and fastball 15 percent with the occasional changeup mixed in.

Caleb Cotham: The current ERA leader on the Reds, Cotham has yet to allow an earned run in six innings of work. Opponents are hitting just .200 off of him, but his .211 BABIP suggests that is not sustainable. Cotham is also primarily a two-pitch pitcher using just a fastball-slider combination. He is the least likely candidate as his two career saves (one in Triple-A and one in Double-A) prove inexperience in the role. 

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Michael Lorenzen: A suggested candidate in the Enquirer’s article linked above, Lorenzen was a collegiate closer saving 16 and 19 games in each of his final two seasons at Cal State Fullerton. However, not a strikeout artist in college and certainly not professionally, a ninth-inning role for the Reds seems unlikely. His ratios last year consisted of 131 hits allowed and 57 walks in just 113 1/3 innings of work — not encouraging in a role where outs are crucial.

The under-the-radar but otherwise obvious choice is former starter Tony Cingrani. After starting 29 of 36 games in 2013 and ’14, he was tough to hit … especially in 2013 when he allowed just 72 hits in 104 2/3 innings. Previously using as many as five pitches in a season as a starter, Cingrani has simplified his approach as a reliever using his devastating fastball-slider combination. And that’s all he really needs. In about a 71-29 split, his 13 mph difference between the two pitches makes him unique. Pair that with his successful history as a closer and the transition only makes sense for Cincinnati. In 2011, Cingrani’s final season at Rice University, he saved 12 games while striking out 66 batters in 57 innings. In his major league career, Cingrani holds a 10.0 K/9 percentage and has allowed just three home runs in 37 2/3 innings across this season and last.

He has pitched well so far this year, too. Although his 4.15 ERA (two earned runs in 4 1/3 innings) isn’t among the leaders, his peripherals suggest he’ll be better. He has struck out six (12.5 K/9) and allowed just two hits. His FIP (3.83) is actually better than his ERA and his 44.4 percent groundball rate is the best of his career. Only 55 of his 93 pitches have been thrown for strikes this year, but he pairs that with a near-11 percent swinging-strike rate to make him an effective late-inning reliever.

This is not to say that Cingrani will suddenly become the Reds’ all-time saves leader, that he’ll become Mariano Rivera or Lee Smith, but is he the best option in the ninth inning for the Reds right now? Without a doubt.