One series into the 2010 campaign and a major narrative for the season has unfolded: should Chance Ruffin, the fieriest, most experienced pitcher on the UT staff, be closing games? Ruffin has been a mainstay in the starting rotation ever since a Sunday victory against Missouri two seasons ago, but, the logic goes, in order to be an elite team the Horns need an elite closer that can have an impact on more games than a starter can. Huston Street did it in 2002 and 2004, J. Brent Cox did it in 2005, and Austin Wood did it in 2009. Thus Ruffin to closer makes a whole lot of sense.
The argument against Ruffin closing hinges on two main datapoints. First, Ruffin the starter has eaten up innings with an incredible consistency. He made 17 real starts in 2009 plus one limited start against Alabama A&M in essentially an exhibition game, and he made 9 starts as a freshman after joining the starting rotation, which gives us 26 starts to judge Ruffin the starter. In those 26 starts, only 3 went fewer than 5 innings (LSU, ASU and Nebraska in '09), in 16 starts he went more than 6 innings, and in 5 starts he went 9 or more innings. Overall as a starter he has averaged 6 2/3 innings per start, a great figure to have maintained over the course of nearly two full seasons.Second, since the middle of last season, Ruffin has started to give up a lot of homers. Consider, as a freshman Ruffin gave up 4 home runs in 78 innings, and he only had given up 1 through 8 starts in 2009. Through the middle of 2009, Chance had made 17 career starts with an average of 7 innings pitched per start. But over his next 9 starts Ruffin averaged a full inning less per start and gave up 13 home runs. He gave up 3 in a complete game win over TCU, then three in just four innings pitched against Arizona State and LSU.
For whatever reason, Chance Ruffin since the middle of 2009 just has not been the same dominant pitcher we once called 'Awesome'. His overall numbers last season were very, very good. 10-2 record, 3.32 ERA, opponents hitting just .230, yet something seems to be missing. As GoBR has noted, Ruffin is leaving pitches up in the zone and getting hit hard. He's not quite the same guy who had a 1.98 ERA, but he's still one of the top starters in college baseball. As a starter, Ruffin has a margin for error to give up a home run every once in a while but still eat up innings. A closer just does not have that margin for error. The homers are an annoyance for Chance the starter, they're deadly for Chance the closer.
So the question becomes, where would his talents be best employed?
Let's assume the worst case here for Chance (no matter the role), that we're going to have a darn good albeit mortal pitcher that won't return to the brilliance we saw his freshman year. As shown on Friday and Saturday, Ruffin will probably get hit hard at times this season. You can't have that in your closer. Your closer doesn't need to throw a ton of pitches (it's prefered that he doesn't), but while he's on the mound, he needs to be just about perfect. The reward for the Horns having Ruffin the closer, best case of the worst case, may be Austin Wood from 2009, let's say one of the top 10-15 closers in the country. A very good pitcher that probably won't quite be the quality of Huston Street of '02 or J. Brent Cox of '05. A guy that'll have magical moments but might not be unhittable at the most important times of the season.
The price for that is Chance the starter. Over the course of his career, Ruffin's greatest asset has clearly been that he can consistently eat up innings at a fantastic rate. He may not have a lot of complete game shutouts in him, but Ruffin will give the bullpen a rest and ensure you're in a great position to win the game in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. He's done that almost every start over his two year career. In making him a closer, Texas has lost that sure thing from a starter. Brandon Workman is talented but erratic and Austin Dicharry is an unknown commodity at this point. A Taylor Jungmann, Workman, Dicharry starting rotation is one of the best (and possibly the best) starting rotations in the country. A Jungmann, Ruffin, Workman/Dicharry/Cole Green starting rotation is the best hands down without a real close second.
Of course the closer debate cannot come in a vacuum. By moving Chance back to the starting rotation there will be an opening at closer and a lot of uncertainty at a very important position. Could one of Green/McKirahan/Thomas/Stafford/???? fill the role well enough? It would be a downgrade. The replacement probably wouldn't be Huston Street, but could he be Austin Wood-esque? There would probably be moments where you wish someone else were on the mound to close a ball game. But it seems the risk may be worth it to have an extra day of certainty in the starting rotation.
So is it worth giving up an amazing starting rotation to have a really good starting rotation? As a Texas baseball fan, trusting Augie's decisions has been the surest way to avoid saying "I was wrong". Perhaps Ruffin will return to the form we grew accustomed to seeing, and if so the Horns may have a special closer on their hands. Perhaps Augie is having this debate himself right now. Ruffin to closer may be the most important issue of the 2010 season.
(Happy B-day AO).