Picture, in your head, the perfect closer. What do you see? Let me take a guess – physically, it's either a big, imposing righthander with a goatee, or a wiry Latino. On the mound, it's a simple delivery with few moving parts that delivers a big fastball in the upper 90s and one seemingly untouchable breaking pitch. This guy in your head never blows saves, mostly because he never gives up hits and never walks anybody, managing to be both nasty and precise. He's a perennial 40-save guy that gives you the utmost confidence that a lead after eight innings means the game is over.
What you probably don't picture is a six-footer with a herky-jerky motion and a fastball that only occasionally creeps above 90 mph, a guy who relies on command and deception. Not even Rockies fans have that image as an ideal closer, despite the fact that that image is their closer. Huston Street might be the least intimidating individual to close baseball games since Dan Quisenberry's hey-day, and he's certainly not the guy central casting would choose to pitch in the ninth inning. But he's the main man at the back of the Rockies bullpen, and there aren't many guys I'd rather have.
The ninth inning has never been the most comfortable frame for Rockies fans, dating all the way back to the franchise's inception in 1993 when the Rockies had eight different players save 35 games and blow 21 saves. Darren Holmes was nobody's idea of a relief ace, but he wasn't half bad that first season. Bruce Ruffin, Jerry Dipoto and Dave Veres were among those that owned the closer role in the first few years of the franchise's existence, but the Rockies didn't find stability at the back of the bullpen until Jose Jimenez led the team in saves from 2000-2003. Jimenez saved 102 games in those four seasons despite only striking out 5.2 batters per nine innings, but blew 20 saves for an 83.6 percent conversion rate.
Jimenez gave way to Shawn Chacon in 2004, and, well, the less said about Chacon's nine blown saves and 7.11 ERA in his lone, ill-fated year as the Rockies closer, the better. So badly stung were the Rockies by Chacon's performance that they made the inspired decision to open the 2005 season with rookie Chin-Hui Tsao as the closer. That experiment lasted all of ten games, in which Tsao blew a save in four tries and posted a 6.55 ERA, before the kid's elbow exploded.
Tsao's unfortunate injury paved the way for Brian Fuentes to take over the role and eventually become the Rockies' best closer ever, as well as the first closer in franchise history to warrant a heavy-metal bullpen entrance with corresponding highlight video. Fuentes saved 111 games in his four seasons in the role, and made three straight All-Star Games from '05 to '07 (and his '08 season might have been the best of the bunch, when he re-assumed the closer role from a struggling Manny Corpas and saved 30 games.) Fuentes got the job done at an 85 percent success rate in those four years, a number lowered in part due to not having the best command (3.6 walks per nine).
When Huston Street came over from the Oakland A's in the Matt Holliday trade, he came over with the stigma of having lost the closer role in each of his final two seasons with the A's due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness, the former generally playing a heavy role in the latter. His save percentage was an uninspiring 78 percent, including a staggering 11 blown saves in 2006 and seven in 2008. It was for those reasons that the Rockies were hesitant to make him their closer to start the 2009 season, deciding instead to bank on a return to effectiveness from Corpas, but Street wrestled the job away early and never let it go except for a trip to the DL in August. Street went 35 for 37 in save situations that season and was lights out in September as the Rockies held on for a Wild Card berth.
Street missed significant time with a spring training injury in 2010 and wasn't the same pitcher all season, saving 20 games in 25 appearances. But so far in 2011, Street has converted 14 saves in 15 chances despite HR/9 and H/9 rates that, if they held, would be career highs. The reason? His usual excellent strikeout rate (8.7 K/9) and an outstanding walk rate (1.6 BB/9). The total, entering Thursday's action, was a 90 percent save success rate in a Rockies uniform that ranks him second best in the National League in that time frame.
No, Street's never going to pour his fastball by hitters like San Francisco's Brian Wilson does. His 90-92 mph fastball is best located on the outside corner. And no, Street's slider and changeup don't belong in the 'untouchable' classification, particularly since he doesn't typically throw his slider to lefties or his change to righties. It's not elite stuff – it's not 'closer stuff'. Street must paint with a fine brush every time out. But considering that, his success in the ninth inning role actually looks more impressive – his slim margin for error has rarely been breached since he donned the purple pinstripes for the first time.
Street's failure in the 2009 postseason – losses in both Games 3 and 4, though the Game 3 loss was bum luck and he never should have been left in to face Ryan Howard in Game 4 – has surely colored the perception of Street amongst Rockies fans. And that's life for a closer, where a big game disaster isn't forgiven until a big game success erases that memory. But amongst National League contenders, where closers range from dominant (Wilson) to callow (Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel, Florida's Leo Nunez) to uncertain (whoever's rolling out in the ninth for St. Louis), the Rockies and their fans should be happy to have solid, steady, and experienced Huston Street emerging from the bullpen, getting the job done more often than most and proving you don't have to look the part to get the job done.