Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Hit The Road, Matt Thornton?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

This is Saves and Steals. We are not going to talk about Manny Ramirez here.

Well, we are, but just to set up the tiers this week. Because Manny went out in such an explosion of bad that he set a new basement for retiring with grace and class. He was a great hitter, but that was a terrible ending. Craptacular even.

And so, the tiers this week are labeled by players ranked by their ability to 'go out on top.' Somewhere in this muddled mess you'll find plenty of information about non-Manny-Ramirez relievers and speedsters, we promise.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Ted Wiliams" Tier.)

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

  • Ted Williams hit 29 home runs in fewer than 400 at-bats in his final season - and hit a home run on his final at-bat ever. He's the gold standard for retirements, and these are the gold standards for closers this year. John Elway, who won a title on his way out, would provide the football version.

  • There's really only one worry on this list is the fact that Soria only has two strikeouts in his six-plus innings. And that's not a huge worry just yet. Well, let's say that wouldn't normally be a problem if he wasn't also suffering from a two-mile-per-hour drop in his fastball velocity. It's not like Soria's history is without injury - if you can get a solid, healthy closer back, along with an upgrade elsewhere, it wouldn't be crazy to trade His Mexcellence away.

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

    Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
    Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins
    Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
    Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
    Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

  • Brett hit .266 with 19 home runs and played 145 games in his final season, which is a respectable final season. Tiki Barber rushed for a ton of yards in his last season. These guys were "Rock Steady" into their twilights, like these closers.

  • This tier has seen some upheaval recently. Gone is Matt Thornton, and down a couple ticks goes Brian Wilson… for now. The Beach Boy hasn't returned with his full beard-force, but let's give him a little slack since he missed time with injury and is just now getting up to speed, as evidenced by Tuesday's nights excellent work.

  • To replace Thornton, we have Braves wunderkind Craig Kimbrel joining the second tier in his first season. He's not ceding save chances to lefty Jonny Venters, and he's blowing people away with his big fastball and nasty slider. The possible control problems haven't even surfaced yet - one walk so far.

  • Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Tony Gwyn" Tier.)

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

  • Tony Gwynn hit .324 in his final season, but only managed 71 games. That's an okay way to go out - he still had his skills, but health failed him. In the same way, this tier has skills, but a flaw or two keeps them from joining the top tier.

  • J.J Putz hasn't walked a guy and is performing well - but health always lurks in the background. Francisco Rodriguez has a nice strikeout rate and is obviously an elite closer on skills alone - but he's walked too many so far this year and who knows what team he'll be on at the end of the year. Jose Valverde is strong now but has also failed to pitch more than 55 innings in half of his seasons, so health is a lingering question for him. Chris Perez is nice, but he still hasn't struck out a batter per inning in the American League.

  • Huston street has a whopping five saves already, and has been getting steady work all week. He even went to three innings last Friday. If he's healthy all year, he'll end up a strong second-tier option. Joel Hanrahan has eight strikeouts against one walk, and Evan Meek is hurting, so he moves up a little inside the tier as well.

  • Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Dale Murphy" Tier.)

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

  • If we opened this up to other sports, Brett Favre would name this tier (and really, it's amazing that Manny could top Favre). Instead, it's Dale Murphy, who was traded out of Atlanta after injuries ravaged him and left him a below-mendoza corner outfielder. Sad ending to a shortish but great career.

  • Let's just tackle the new closer in the tier, shan't we? We will list him alone as the closer for now, but there's obviously some cause for concern for Matt Thornton owners. But! He had the best fastball in the league last year (which is good because he used it more than anyone else, too), and he's been great ever since he put on the black and silver. He's had some defensive help in blowing his saves this year, but his manager is talking about going to a committee. The problem with using that press conference as a jump-off point is this: Ozzie Guillen also said, in the same presser, that Thornton would have gotten the ball Sunday had he not thrown so many pitches Saturday. Sergio Santos, Jesse Crain and Chris Sale are all handcuffs and this is an open sore of a situation. Thornton is a good pitcher and could easily come out on top, so we'll leave him here just to remind you that it is too soon to drop him.

  • It's tempting to move Jonathan Broxton up since he's been successful in his save chances so far, but his velocity hasn't recovered its' peak speed, and he's getting about half the swinging strikes that he got last year. He's not completely right, and his one strikeout on the year confirms the diagnosis.

  • Same verse, same as the first for Francisco Cordero, whose velocity is down from last year's career-worst. He's also getting the fewest swinging strikes of his career and is so far surviving on the fact that he hasn't walked a batter yet. Okay, but not solid.

  • 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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