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Column: Angels’ Joe Maddon must decide best way to use closer Raisel Iglesias

Angels pitcher Raisel Iglesias pitches during a spring training game.
Angels pitcher Raisel Iglesias pitches during a spring training game on March 19 in Surprise, Ariz.
(Abbie Parr / Getty Images)

There was a good reason the Angels completely restructured their bullpen after last season, leaving Mike Mayers as the only pitcher on this year’s opening day roster who returned from 2020. Their bullpen shared the major league lead last season with 14 blown saves in 26 chances, led the majors in games entered with runners on base (92), and allowed 37% of inherited runners to score, contributing to a staff earned-run average of 5.09 that ranked 26th among 30 MLB teams.

General manager Perry Minasian’s main focus was to improve the back end of the bullpen and his prize acquisition was Raisel Iglesias, one of five closers with 100 saves or more since the start of the 2017 season. Trading right-hander Noe Ramirez and infielder Leonard Rivas to the Reds last December seemed a reasonable price to pay for the 31-year-old Cuban right-hander, who had converted eight of 10 save opportunities for Cincinnati last season and given up one home run to the 91 batters he faced in 22 appearances spanning 23 innings.

In the early days of Iglesias’ Angels career, though, his results have been mixed.

Iglesias earned the save in their opening day victory over the Chicago White Sox but gave up two runs and two hits in a non-save situation the next day, though he didn’t get the loss. He blew a save on Sunday but got bailed out — and earned the win —when Jared Walsh hit a walk-off three-run home run.

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Brought into a non-save situation in a 2-2 game against the Houston Astros on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Angel Stadium, Iglesias gave up a single to Yordan Alvarez and a two-run home run to right-center by Carlos Correa on an 0-and-2 fastball. When the Angels ran out of late-innings magic and were silenced by Ryan Pressly, Iglesias was tagged with the loss in the Angels’ 4-2 defeat.

Angels’ late-game magic was absent in the 4-2 loss to the Houston Astros on Tuesday at Angel Stadium.

He has faced 20 batters and has given up two home runs, double the total he gave up last season while facing 91 batters. His ERA is 9.00 in four innings over four games, and he has given up five hits. The rest of the Angels’ bullpen has performed well, but Iglesias hasn’t matched them.

It’s too soon to pass judgment on him, he said, adding that he hasn’t lost confidence in himself and his stuff. He attributed his problems on Tuesday to nothing more than the location of that 98.5-mph four-seam fastball that Correa launched to right field.

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“The plan was if we got to an 0-2 count situation was to attack with the fastball up in the zone, and if he took, then attack with a slider low and away,” Iglesias said through an interpreter. “Unfortunately, my fastball kind of stayed in the middle of the zone, and he was able to put a good swing on it.”

Manager Joe Maddon faulted Iglesias’ pitch selection in that at-bat, returning to a point he had made during spring training about the importance of pitch sequencing. Maddon wanted his pitchers to be more judicious and less predictable, saying the staff had the talent to improve overall and assume better command of the strike zone. That fastball to Correa was an unhappy example of what he had meant.

Maddon said he saw no quirk or weakness that would explain why Iglesias has given up two home runs so quickly this season. “Honestly, no. The 0-2 pitch right there, he had other options and I just think it was the pitch selection as much as anything. His stuff is fine,” Maddon said. “I think he actually looks pretty good. Just got to stay with it and work through it.

“Probably more than anything it’s just pitch execution. But his stuff is, I think, really good.”

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The matter of how and when Maddon will use him could turn into a sticky situation. Iglesias expressed displeasure two years ago that Reds manager David Bell repeatedly used him in non-save situations, believing he should exclusively be a closer. To bring him in to pitch tied games was “horribly wrong,” Iglesias told reporters in 2019.

The numbers seem to back him up: According to baseball-reference.com, before Tuesday he had a 2.44 ERA in 136 games in save situations and a 3.38 ERA in 120 games in non-save situations.

Iglesias said Tuesday he hadn’t talked to Maddon about when he’d enter games and indicated he’d accept the manager’s assignments. “Whatever situation Joe wants to put me in, I have to go there and do my job,” Iglesias said. “The confidence is definitely there. It’s still early in the season. I’m not too worried about it. I just have to go in there and do my job.”

Mike Scioscia will lead Team USA in an Olympic-qualifying tournament in Florida in June. The goal is to get into the Tokyo Games and win a gold medal.

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Maddon had no explanation for Iglesias’ struggles in non-save situations and said they hadn’t clashed over how he will use his reliever. “Two-two tie in the last at bat, you’re normally gonna to put him in there,” Maddon said. “The first time we put him out there, he hadn’t pitched. It was like coming out of spring training.

“I don’t believe there’s any correlation. Of course, I want to pitch him more, almost exclusively, in save situations. My conversations have been really good. I have not asked that specifically, but he has not indicated to me that he’s upset with anything.”

Maybe it’s time for Maddon and Iglesias to have a frank conversation and determine whether Iglesias is not only able but — more important — willing to pitch in non-save situations. If not, the revamped bullpen might be in for more restructuring.


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