Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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The Ax(ford) is Bringing Heat

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Write (or read) enough about baseball and you've probably seen the word 'fastball' only about a billion times. It can get old.

And yet there are many different ways to name the old four-seamer. We should push ourselves and push our baseball thesaurus as far as it will go without breaking the binding. We can be less boring about it.

So as part of that effort, we'll name this week's tiers after synonyms for fastball. All rankings are subjective anyway, so it should come as no surprise that we'll be assigning my favorite words to the best closer tiers. Let's push our vocabularies!

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Cheese" Tier.)

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

  • Cheese gets top billing because it begets so many more nicknames. Cheddar, Gouda and even Limburger can be used once the 'cheese' is induced. This even allows the writer to link varieties of cheddar to the player via ethnicity or name. Is there another synonym for the fastball that is as versatile?

  • Is Brian Wilson's WHIP enough to push him out of this tier? After walking 15 batters combined in April and May, he's corralled his cheddar a little better in June. But, still, four walks in three-quarters of a month does not mean he's suddenly painting the corners. He does have awesome stuff, and that probably contributes to his control difficulties. But it also means that we have a top-tier closer with a WHIP over 1.40. And it's not like he owns a strikeout rate like Carlos Marmol. We'll see if he continues making progress or if he's just going to walk guys all year. It's a worthy thing to watch.

  • Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Heat" Tier.)

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

  • This is a fun word to use for fastballs because a) it's kind of a reference to a fun movie and b) I'm pretty sure that I would be able to actually, you know, feel the heat if a fastball blew by me. It's a very evocative nickname.

  • J.J. Putz had a bad week. He's probably not feeling the heat, though. Yes, he blew a save (now three of his last five chances) and gave up three runs in his last two innings (four in his last four). But! He still hasn't walked a guy in June. Call it a slight luck regression that should stop soon if he's fully healthy.

  • The next time someone tells you that elite closers are worth paying for, it might behoove you to point out that there are two cheap closers knocking on the door and demanding entry into the top tier. Craig Kimbrel overcame a slight stumble early in the month and now has not allowed a hit or a run in five straight appearances. Over that time, he has 12 strikeouts against three walks in five innings. Crazlebeans. Now we dub the three-strikeout perfect inning the "Kimbrel" and move on to Joel Hanrahan, who has a Kimbrel of his own this year and has really cut down on the walks. He's lights-out and with every Neftali Feliz save, he's safer. It's less likely he'll be traded if he makes himself more expensive with his play.

  • And, really, if we can have Brian Wilson in the elite tier with a 1.4ish WHIP, then we can put John Axford in this tier with a similar WHIP. He has 44 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings! Sure, he's walked a batter in about half of his appearances, but he's got the flame-thrower.

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

    Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
    Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets
    Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
    Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
    Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
    Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
    Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins

  • Mustard doesn't have as many varietals as cheese. It's spicy, so the heat/speed connection is there, but it's not as versatile, in a literary sense. Still, it works.

  • We're not moving Francisco Rodriguez to the bottom of this tier because he blew a save by allowing a home run to a little-used backup in Atlanta. We're dropping him to the bottom of this tier because his team continues to languish and management continues to tell everyone that's he's available for a song and dance. Keep Jason Isringhausen close.

  • On the other hand, Leo Nunez moves down primarily because of his recent performance. He's blown three of his last five chances and seems to blow up once a week on average. He's still got an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he's inconsistent and he makes his owners worry.

  • Andrew Bailey is finally looking healthy and has pitched eight innings so far this year. He's no longer limited from back-to-backs even if Grant Balfour got a strange four-out, four-run save Tuesday night. Bailey also has seven strikeouts in those eight innings. Chris Perez has pitched 27 1/3 innings and has 18. Looking at Perez' 2.63 ERA, you might be forgiven for thinking of him as an elite closer. But it's just not right. He's like the Tim Hudson of relievers - everything looks good but there's a secret portion of the game that's just missing. Like eating a decent turkey swiss but someone forgot the mustard, know what I mean?

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

    Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
    Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
    Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
    Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
    Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
    Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
    Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals

  • "Bullet" is evocative. Straight fastballs certainly make one think of bullets. They can probably hurt as much as bullets when you get hit. But it's not very specific - couldn't a slider be a bullet? And also, the violence. The violence!

  • One scoreless appearance is not enough to feel that comfortable about Sergio Santos, even if he did strike out two and didn't walk a batter. Two straight scoreless outings, with five strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings does work a little better. Neftali Feliz is also closer to moving up because he's been better in June. In seven outings this month, he has eight strikeouts… and only one walk. Even better, the velocity is back and those bullets are flying again.

  • Joakim Soria has also re-found some of his missing velocity and is looking much better these days. He saved a game last week and now has seven strikeouts in his last six innings. He also only allowed five baserunners. He should continue to rise.

  • Fernando Salas, though, deserves to sit on the precipice a while longer. He still has three strikeouts for every walk, but he also has been scored up on in five of his last ten outings, and three of his last five. He's given up a couple home runs in the past week alone. Really, you never know with Tony LaRussa, he might just create his next closer the same way he found Salas. Kyle Farnsworth has hit a similar rough patch, but he's allowed three runs in his last four appearances and it's probably just a bump in the road. He's actually been improving his strikeout rate in June (11 strikeouts in 10 innings). And he's only walked two ballers all year! He would move up if we just didn't have the rest of his career as an argument against.

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

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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.
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