Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Closing Machines on the Fritz

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

So much can happen in a week when it comes to closers.

You think everything is settled, and then - bam - your world is upside down. It's like an action flick sequence running rough shod through your fantasy bullpen. Suddenly you are picking up the broken pieces and wondering why you ever thought Fernando Rodney would manage to hold on to that job despite being such a below-average pitcher.

In that honor, we'll name this week's tiers after action flicks! And, by the way, this is no exhaustive list, nor should omissions mean anything. It's just five movie franchises that represent different talent levels.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Die Hard" Tier.)

Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

  • Let's just put Mo in the top tier, he belongs here until we get a hint that the end is near, that he's ready to yell 'yippee-kai-yay' and ride off into the sunset.

  • Everybody else in this tier is still doing well. Even a poor effort from this group is a strong effort, just like the Die Hard franchise itself. You still get the classic lines, the big explosions - and even in lesser parts of the trilogy, there are still airplanes hitting tankers, or two strikeouts and a baserunner of some sort.

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

    Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
    Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox
    Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
    Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins
    Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox

  • If you walk as many guys as Carlos Marmol does, you are going to blow the occasional save. That just makes him a second-tier option, and moves him down the list a tiny bit, but it doesn't mean that he's a bad closer. It just means that, like the Matrix movies, his great efforts will be awesome, and his lesser efforts, well, massively disappointing really.

  • All the talk about Joe Nathan sharing opportunities with Matt Capps have gone out the window, making our ranking of Joe Nathan so high seem prescient. On the other hand, Nathan still hasn't quite got the velocity or command back to his pre-surgery days, so we can't move him too far.

  • Let's give Jonathan Papelbon more time before we decide which way he's headed. He did manage three strikeouts in one appearance, but also let in a run on two hits. Brian Wilson might head up in the rankings once he shows he's healthy.

  • Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Bourne Identity" Tier.)

    Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets
    J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
    Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
    Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
    Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
    Huston Street, Colorado Rockies
    Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates

  • The Bourne Identity movies are sort of steady Eddie: you won't get elite action out of them, but they're usually solid. These guys, wether it's because of their team situation or peripherals, aren't quite elite closers either.

  • The only question with J.J. Putz is his health, but after a slight back issue in spring training, he's dealing now. Chris Perez has a save and hasn't given up a run yet, but he also hasn't managed a strikeout in two innings so far.

  • Craig Kimbrel deserves his own mention. He has five strikeouts in two innings and looks legit. Even though the team said at first that he would share opportunities with lefty Jonny Venters, Kimbrel has faced lefties in both of his save opportunities and has dominated. We have to watch his walk rate - he has a Carlos-Marmol-ian statistical profile - but so far so good. No walks on the young season.

  • It's hard to move guys around too much based on one weekend, but Joel Hanrahan is the sole closer and he's acted like it. One walk, three hits and five strikeouts in his first three saves works just fine.

  • Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Pirates of the Carribbean" Tier.)

    Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers
    John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
    Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins
    Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals
    Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
    Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles
    Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels

  • Jonathan Broxton should be at the head of this slightly wonky tier. You'll get some saves from him - three so far - but he's not quite right just yet. He's given up two home runs in three home games so far, and only gave up eight home runs in the last two years combined, or six home runs in 211 career games. Watching him, you get sort of that same uncomfortable feeling you get when you're enjoying a good stretch in one of these movies, and you're not sure you should be.

  • Jon Axford completely melted down in his first save attempt, but it wasn't all his fault. Third baseman Casey McGehee got no outs from a double play - like water from a stone. Even one out there helps the closer out. At least he got back on the horse, and at least it wasn't all about his control. Watch his walk rate, that matters most.

  • Kevin Gregg joins this group because he got the first save chance in Baltimore, which seemed like an open question mark. Koji Uehara might still take the job, but at this point it looks like it will take some sort of implosion from Gregg.

  • Oh, and Jordan Walden? He's immediately Johnny Depp. We told you how bad Fernando Rodney is, and it didn't take his manager long to see it too. Rodney is out and though Walden wasn't immediately officially announced as the closer, he got the first save. His big fastball should work, don't look too hard at his minor league numbers. He used to be a starter then.

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

    Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
    Jose Contreras, Philadelphia Phillies
    Sean Burnett / Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
    Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros
    Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays
    Brian Fuentes / Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
    Kyle Farnsworth / Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays

  • Brandon Lyon is just as terrible as we thought he was, and he could easily lose the role to Wilton Lopez any day. That's a handcuff you must make if you are depending on Lyon to close.

  • continue story »
    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.
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