Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Injured Closers Abound

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Welcome to a new year of S&S, "fresh to deaf" as the young people on the teevee used to say before I put my boot in it. Even if the new season is fresh, there are differing levels of freshness.

For example, there's plenty of hope in Boston, where the spring has brought bird-chirping optimism. They probably feel so fresh, so clean and so ready to go. I'm sorry to the fans in Pittsburgh, though - there's more ennui than hope in that city, maybe.

In honor of the coming season, we'll name our first tiers after teams. As you drop in tiers, you drop in hope, and you drop in closer quality. It's a sad reality, but a strong way to rank the closers, in the end. What else are we doing when we draft these guys but hoping that they perform well?

And to everyone in every city - keep hope alive. You never *really* know.


Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Red Sox" Tier.)



Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals

  • You might be surprised by the names that are missing from this list as currently constructed. Let's instead focus on what's here.


  • What you have are three young fireballers that are in the prime of their careers, providing strong strikeout numbers, and keeping their ratios minuscule for most of their careers so far. You may quibble with what's missing, but it's clear that these guys belong here. Only Heath Bell really has any risk of losing his job if his team falls out of contention, but the Padres also kept Trevor Hoffman through some lean years… they might stick with the Bell tolling.



  • Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA: The "Braves" Tier.)



    Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
    Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
    Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox
    Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins
    Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox

  • The Braves are a good team but have some flaws. These are all good closers, but not without their flaws as well.


  • Mariano Rivera is still great, and most would have him in the first tier. The fact remains that he is 41 and showed the third-worst strikeout rate of his career last year. Only Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley have ever saved more than 30 in a season over the age of 41, and no-one since 1970 has done it, period. The gravy train will come to a standstill at some point, and that risk has to be reflected somewhere. He's a value if you don't believe there's much risk, but he's not usually one of the first three closers off the board anymore.


  • Carlos Marmol has an elite strikeout rate, and a league-worst walk rate among relievers. Matt Thornton is a great pitcher with perhaps the best four-seamer in the business, but there are whispers that he's not a great closer. Joe Nathan was a great pitcher and should be a value pick this year, but he has to show he's healthy before he gets all the save pops.


  • Jon Papelbon? He's coasting on his laurels, really. Going off the numbers he put up last year, he should be a tier lower. His strikeout rate was still there, but he showed a full-season career-worst walk rate and was disastrous in September. Long memories are good for fantasy managers, and that's why he'll debut here. Of course, short memories are better for closers, so hopefully he's forgotten all about last year.



  • Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Rockies" Tier.)



    Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets
    John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
    J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
    Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
    Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
    Huston Street, Colorado Rockies

    Comment:
  • The Rockies may make the postseason, they may not. These closers may put up great numbers, they may not.


  • Francisco Rodriguez halted a decline in his peripherals last year, showing that he can still put up the big year. If only his team wasn't facing a $17+ million option that triggers if he finishes 55 games, we'd pencil him in for a strong season. Who knows where he ends the year if the Mets struggle?


  • John Axford lacks a long resume, and his walk rate is also a reason to worry. J.J. Putz does have the resume, but it's spotty and includes many lost seasons due to injury. Last year, Jose Valverde showed the worst strikeout rate of his career, and the worst walk rate of the last five years. The groundball rate, upped on the back of his new splitter, helps, but you also own your closer for his strikeout rate. Which is also why you have to be a little skeptical of Chris Perez, who didn't manage a K per inning last year, and still walked four per nine. Huston Street had an okay year, but only put in a little more than 47 innings last year - so he belongs in the tier named after his own team.



  • Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Orioles" Tier.)



    Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers
    Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
    Craig Kimbrel / Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves
    Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
    Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins
    Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals
    Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds

    Comment:
  • Count me as a believer that Jonathon Broxton can still find what he's lost, but it sure gets harder to believe in him with every day. He was doing okay until a recent spring shelling, and he's supposedly the closer for now, so draft him, and then handcuff him with the young fireballing Kenley Jansen or the wily lefty Hong-Chi Kuo perhaps.


  • Joel Hanrahan is pretty good - his tendency to give up flyballs and walks is mitigated by a nice strikeout rate - but Evan Meek lurks. Craig Kimbrel is Carlos Marmol redux, but because he's so young, the team has announced the season will begin with Kimbrel in a tandem with lefty Jonny Venters. By the end of the season, the smart money is on the strikeout guys, Hanrahan and Kimbrel.


  • The list of more assured closers ends with a group of serious question marks. Drew Storen is listed alone because he was groomed to be the closer and has a nice four-pitch mix that should help him win out, but Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett may get some early saves. Leo Nunez 'might' be the closer according to his GM (Clay Hensley lurks). Ryan Franklin has the worst strikeout rate among closers and if his team implodes any further, they may trade him and go to the future with Jason Motte. Francisco Cordero has been sliding for three years, doesn't have good peripherals, and has the famous Aroldis Chapman breathing (heavily) down his neck.


  • A few of these guys will be solid all year, but they have as many question marks as a young team in the American League East would.



  • Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (9) (AKA: The "Pirates" Tier.)



    Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros
    Koji Uehara / Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles
    Fernando Rodney, Anaheim Angels
    Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
    Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays
    Brian Fuentes / Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
    Ryan Madson / Jose Contreras, Philadelphia Phillies
    Sergio Romo / Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
    Kyle Farnsworth / Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays

    Comment:
  • Brandon Lyon had the second-worst strikeout rate among closers last year, and despite being a flyballer in a hitters park, managed to give up a career-low in home runs per nine. That combination of facts probably won't continue, and young Wilton Lopez, who only walked five batters all season last year, is there to take the ball from him. Fernando Rodney is in a similar situation - he's a terrible pitcher that's somehow been installed as a closer - and has Jordan Walden (young smoke-thrower) coming up behind him. Once Scott Downs recovers from his broken toe, he'll be involved too.



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    Eno Sarris is an editor and writer at FanGraphs.com. You can find his work gathered in one place at and enosarris.com. Follow his misadventures in writing on Twitter as well.
    Email :Eno Sarris



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