JUPITER, Fla. -- St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin threw his fastball 91.2 mph on average in 2009. That's not bad, but it's still a marked departure from the heat that Jonathan Broxton, Jonathan Papelbon and some other prominent closers are packing on a daily basis.
On a given night, Franklin will choose from an assortment of four pitches. Other than Kansas City's Joakim Soria, it's hard to find a closer with such a varied repertoire.
And finally, there's that beard. Unlike Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Joe Nathan, Franklin adheres to the tradition of closers enhancing their mystique with inventive forms of facial hair. He has a patch of brush hanging from his chin that looks like an unidentified field rodent.
Call it a chin-chilla.
"One dude in Chicago told me it looks like one of Chewbacca's body parts," Franklin said. "I gave him a ball for that one."
In the latter stages of his career, Franklin has done something virtually unprecedented (see chart): Beginning almost from scratch at age 35, he blossomed from a fringe starter-middle reliever into a dominant, All-Star closer. But because of the manner in which he induces outs -- and the way he finished last season -- Franklin faces skepticism that he can carry the bullpen load for a St. Louis team that's the consensus National League Central favorite.
Franklin's most memorable appearance last year came in Game 2 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers. The Cardinals were one out from handshakes and high fives when left fielder Matt Holliday dropped a James Loney fly ball for a two-base error. After a walk, a single, a passed ball, another walk and a bloop RBI single by Mark Loretta, a 2-1 St. Louis lead had turned into a disheartening 3-2 loss.
Franklin's luck was horrendous, for sure. But precisely because he's a contact pitcher rather than a swing-and-miss guy, he's destined to be more vulnerable to bad bounces and the whims of fate. He averaged a pedestrian 6.49 strikeouts per nine innings in '09, and opposing hitters made contact 82.3 percent of the time, so his defense is going to be involved more often than not.
Better late than never
Most career saves recorded by a pitcher after age 35 when he had fewer than 10 career saves before age 35.
-- Source: Elias Sports Bureau
For sake of comparison, opposing hitters put the ball in play against Nathan 68.5 percent of the time, and Broxton, Francisco Rodriguez and Soria were all in the high 60s to low 70s. Conversely, Rivera had an even higher contact rate than Franklin (82.8 percent), and it didn't cramp his style.
"I think those guys who throw hard, their careers are definitely shorter," Franklin said. "They're throwing 15 to 20 pitches an outing trying to strike everybody out. I'm throwing eight to 12 pitches and letting my defense play. There are a lot more positives than negatives."
Although Franklin's overall numbers last season were stellar (a 1.92 ERA and 38 saves in 43 opportunities), he faded down the stretch with a 6.75 ERA in the final month. Amid questions of fatigue, he thinks his biggest problem was a sporadic workload. The Cardinals won only 14 of their final 30 games, and there weren't as many leads to protect.
Franklin plans to ramp up the weight work this season -- increasing his total-body workouts from one to two per week -- in an effort to maintain his stamina. The Cardinals, impressed by his conditioning but mindful that he's 37 years old, are trying to make sure they have their bases covered.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan arrived at spring training determined to identify one or two young relievers as eighth-inning guys and Plan B closer options. General manager John Mozeliak said it's more a case of thinking ahead than lacking faith in Franklin.
"We have extreme confidence that Ryan can do the job, and I hope he recognizes that," Mozeliak said. "But you always want to have a succession plan in place. You're never as deep as you want to be."
The kids are still works-in-progress. Jason Motte, who had a very brief run as closer in 2009, throws extremely hard, but his fastball is straight and he still needs to develop consistent command of his secondary pitches. Mitchell Boggs needs to show he can get out left-handed hitters, who have a .618 slugging percentage in 213 plate appearances against him. The Cardinals sent Chris Perez to Cleveland in the Mark DeRosa trade this past summer, and they've been looking at Kyle McClellan as a starter this spring. If Jaime Garcia wins the fifth job in the starting rotation, as expected, McClellan could shift back to the bullpen.
Although La Russa and Duncan are renowned for scoping out pitching talent, there's some guesswork involved. They can discern only so much about a young pitcher's ability to handle pressure when it's spring training.
"You keep an open mind and look for two things," La Russa said. "Can he control his emotions, and can he locate? And when he locates, is it good enough to avoid hard contact?
"You have to have enough stuff where the ball is tough to center, and makeup is critical. If you get too emotional and throw balls [out of the strike zone] or balls down the middle, that doesn't work."
Franklin is Exhibit A that closers don't fit a cookie-cutter mold. He was just kicking around Seattle in 2005, with a career record of 33-46, when he received a 10-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. After the Phillies designated him for assignment in 2006, he made a pit stop in Cincinnati, then found new life with the Cardinals, who thought he might fit as a fifth starter or innings-eater in the bullpen.
Franklin's biggest attribute is durability; he's been on the disabled list only once in his career, with a viral infection in 2002. He's also blessed with resourcefulness. There are times when he'll gear it up to 94, but he's more content changing speeds, working the corners and zigging when hitters expect him to zag.
"He has so many weapons," Motte said. "We'll be in the bullpen saying, 'He's going to throw this now,' and then he throws something else for a strike. Last year it seemed like he was 0-1 or 0-2 against everybody. It's tough to hit down 0-2 no matter who you are."
Franklin, more interested in security and peace of mind than a huge payday, signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract extension in September. After the disappointing end to the Division Series, he returned home to his 500-acre ranch in Oklahoma and spent a lot of time hunting and letting the travails of a long season melt from his shoulders. He's just an unpretentious husband and father of three who realizes how fortunate he is to be in his position. And if he loses his mojo for some reason and finds himself pitching in the seventh or eighth inning rather than the ninth, he's not going to pull a diva act and complain that he's uncomfortable with his "role."
"I never considered myself to have the best talent in the world, but I was always a fierce competitor and I worked really hard," Franklin said. "If you told me in the minor leagues that I would have 10 years in the big leagues and be an All-Star, I would have said, 'Whatever,' because I never really had high expectations for myself. It's crazy what hard work and competing can do for you."
Franklin didn't have a big league save to his name until age 34, and now he's at 56 saves and counting. It took him a long time to land this gig. He's not going to relinquish it without a fight.