Mike Maddux calls Shawn Tolleson the “ultimate flat-liner,” a pitcher whose heart rate doesn’t move whether he’s getting outs or getting shelled or whether he’s pitching in the ninth inning or the sixth inning.
Aside from stuff, or maybe just as important, composure is a key trait for a closer, which Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister said Tuesday is Tolleson’s official role.
“He’s cool as a cucumber,” said Maddux, the Rangers’ pitching coach. “I think that would help.”
Tolleson has been closing games since Neftali Feliz was removed from the role last month. All relievers were stripped of roles in a bullpen shakeup, but Tolleson has been the Rangers’ choice for the ninth inning since May 17.
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The right-hander has flourished, and the Rangers’ bullpen has improved, too.
But Tolleson doesn’t look at his job any differently than before he became the closer. Even that title doesn’t seem to make his heart race.
“I thought that I had that role,” Tolleson said. “It’s really just a word; it’s just a title. It’s not going to change how I approach anything. It’s nice to hear him say that, that he has the confidence in me to get the job done, but besides that it doesn’t change much.”
Tolleson had the night off Wednesday at Dodger Stadium after pitching the previous three days. He was planning to sit back and enjoy watching a game at the ballpark of the club that drafted him in the 30th round in 2010, the club that gave him his big-league debut in 2012, and the club that designated him for assignment after the 2013 season.
Not even that DFA while recovering from back surgery gets him going. The Rangers claimed him Nov. 20 — the day they also traded Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder — and he’s been in the major leagues the past two seasons.
“There’s nothing really much to it,” said Tolleson, who had back surgery in 2013 and pitched in only one big-league game. “I’m not bitter. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. I had good experiences here. Baseball’s baseball. They had to do what they had to do. It’s just kind of how it goes.
“I feel like I’m in a really good situation right now, and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Tolleson is 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA this season and is 9 for 9 in save opportunities — the first of his career. Since finishing off a 5-1 victory May 17, he is 1-1 with a 1.23 ERA and the Rangers’ bullpen has responded accordingly.
Before the decision to strip the bullpen of roles, the relievers’ ERA was 4.75 and average against was .270. From May 1 to May 16, the bullpen posted a 6.27 ERA and a .292 average against.
In the past month, however, the bullpen has pitched to a 4.04 ERA with a .252 average against.
“He’s been consistent closing games,” catcher Robinson Chirinos said. “To have that in the bullpen is big. You need a guy that can go in and close games, and he’s been doing that so far.”
Tolleson, 27, isn’t without prior closing experience — with 49 saves as he was climbing up the Dodgers’ system — but has made things easier on himself by reducing his pitches per inning from last season.
Though it looks like a small change — from 16.1 before closing to 15.2 since — he has avoided the 20-plus-pitch innings that bogged him down in 2014. The reduction has also allowed him to work multiple days in a row and keep his fastball velocity up and his slider and changeup sharp.
Maybe some extra ninth-inning adrenaline has helped, too. His average fastball velocity this season is a career-high 92.9 mph.
“Am I throwing harder?” Tolleson said. “I feel adrenaline every time I pitch, but I’m not trying to throw harder. I try to throw every pitch just about as hard as I can.”
Whatever the freshly crowned Rangers closer is doing, it’s working. Even if his heart isn’t.
“He’s a guy that really stays on an even keel,” Maddux said. “The stuff’s good — a sneaky fastball, a good slider and a plus-changeup — and he makes a lot of good pitches.”
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760