Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Which Way Will You Go, Sergio?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We've all seen it before. The obvious blown call. Especially when the call goes the wrong way for your team, the emotions that run through your body are priceless: incredulity, anger, disbelief, and maybe a little nihilism might explode within you. Some Tampa Bay Rays fans have this toxic mix still coursing through their veins after the phantom swipe tag of Justin Ruggiano on Monday.

Maybe there is a little similarity between the prominent blown call and the dominant closer. Both can leave you pretty f'in upset depending on your allegiances.

So, in the spirit of the moment, we will name the tiers after the most egregious blown calls in recent baseball history. We'll do this even though there's no way that you, personally, could blame an unsuccessful at-bat against one of these guys on the umpire. No, it was probably the high nineties stuff that broke hard in on your hands that decided that at-bat.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Derek Jeter - Jeffrey Maier home run" Tier.)

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox

  • In 1996, the Orioles weren't so bad. They could have even beaten the Yankees that year in the playoffs. Unfortunately, a twelve-year-old fan turned a Derek Jeter fly ball into a home run. Apologies to Cards fans, who may rightfully believe the Denkinger calls to be worse, but 1985 was a long time ago.

  • Heath Bell had a bad week - he gave up the deciding two runs in two games and looked human. He's also walked five batters in his last seven outings, and only 11 all year. Lastly, former GM Jim Bowden said recently that Bell would be the most surprising player to remain with his team after the trade deadline this year. So maybe it's a good time to shop your excellent closer and go find Mike Adams on the wire. But not at the same time, that would be too obvious. Brian Wilson moves up because he's only walked three batters in June, which bodes well for him. (To be fair, though, his last strikeout may have been a blown call.)

  • Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Armando Galarraga (im)perfect game" Tier.)

    J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
    Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
    Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
    Huston Street, Colorado Rockies
    Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
    Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs

  • It didn't decide the game. It didn't decide a series. But the blown call on what should have been the final play of a no-hitter by Armando Galarraga was egregious. Everyone immediately knew the call was wrong and even the umpire, Jim Joyce, admitted that he got it wrong.

  • Craig Kimbrel had a bad week, but it wasn't as bad as Joyce's week after the blown call. He gave up three earned runs in two outings and blew his fifth save of the season. The second appearance came in a non-save chance, and Jonny Venters also managed a save this week, so it made sense to wonder if the closer was on shaky ground. Despite Venters' amazing ground-ball rates and dominating presence, Kimbrel is still the closer. He doesn't have the same career platoon splits as Venters, and managers usually prefer strikeout pitchers to ground-ball dudes in the ninth inning. He'll be fine.

  • Jose Valverde deserves some positive attention. He hasn't given up a run since May 29th, and he's struck out six batters in five June outings. Sure, he's been walking a few more than normal, but he's been one of the best values at the position all year. Kudos to those that drafted him. Of course, Joel Hanrahan was cheaper and has been even more dominant, but that's besides the point.

  • Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Kent Hrbek lifting Ron Gant's leg" Tier.)

    Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets
    Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins
    John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
    Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
    Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
    Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
    Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians

  • No, this one had nothing to do with urinating. Ron Gant was trying to get back to the bag and Kent Hrbek helped him travel right past it for the successful pickoff. It came in a big moment, in the World Series that the Twins eventually won. It didn't have quite the same feel of injustice as the others, however: it was equal parts Hrbek craftiness, Gant over-aggressiveness, and umpire negligence.

  • John Axford sure overcame his early-season issues. He has ten straight appearances without a run, and though he walked the bases loaded a couple weeks ago, his walk rate has settled into mere Axford-ian territory. While he's still throwing 95 MPH gas and striking out 11+ per nine innings, he can afford that slightly wonky walk rate.

  • Jordan Walden finally makes the jump he's deserved for a while now. We were ready to move him up in the last week of June, but then he had a little blip. Now he's held June scoreless, with seven strikeouts and no walks in four innings this month. His 98 MPH, coupled with better than Axford-ian control, means that there's even more upside with this young man. With every successful save, he makes his case to move up the rankings.

  • The risk with these rankings comes from the sample size. Most of these closers have pitched only about 20+ innings so far this year, and it's hard to take away a ton from that kind of a sample. Consider Francisco Cordero, who had a poor strikeout rate this year and looked like he was furthering his three-year decline. Monday, Cordero struck out the side. Now his strikeout rate looks about the same as last year's rate, and his improved control makes him interesting. Until he walks three batters in his next outing and returns to his career rate there. This much is true, though. He's not a great pitcher, and he's getting extremely lucky on balls in play. If there were better pitchers behind him in the pen, and his luck was worse, we might be discussing a change here.

  • Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano and Mike Napoli get in a pickle" Tier.)

    Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
    Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
    Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
    Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
    Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
    Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
    Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals

  • Talk about incredulity. Jorge Posada gets hung up in a pickle between home and third. Then Robinson Cano gets too close to third base. Then Mike Napoli tags em both out. Then Cano is safe at third. Wha?

  • Sergio Santos has a "Wha?" story of his own. Just two years ago, he was a failed shortstop looking to revitalize his career by moving to the mound. Then this spring he lost a game of 'nose' and was made the closer. He was excellent until just this past week, where he gave up eight runs in three outings and re-started the familiar White Sox closer chatter. He's *probably* fine. But it's worth noting that he has worse control and less strikeout punch than Axford, which is not good news. Santos also walked six batters in those three innings, so control is part of this picture. Watch his walks going forward if you're thinking about acquiring him cheap.

  • Andrew Bailey got his first save of the season and is poised to jump tiers, but also hasn't pitched in back-to-back games yet. Kyle Farnsworth has been improving his strikeout rate recently - he's had seven straight outings with a K - but he did get hung with the loss on Monday. He's still safe. Matt Capps hasn't pitched in a week, when he blew a save, and the Twins are apparently regretting their Wilson Ramos trade now. Sorry, but that's a 'duh.' Neftali Feliz also has three strikeouts in his last three outings - and now walks. Maybe he's healthy now.

  • Finally, Fernando Salas deserves to move up. Sure, he's given up some runs recently, but his manager keeps running him out there and his overall rates still look great. Even those runs he's given up have come in small doses - one at a time. Given the state of the rest of the bullpen, it's starting to look like Salas will be the closer all year.

  • Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.

    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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