Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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The Rise of the Kimbrel

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It probably happens once a minute across the digital landscape. The jarring song shuffle. This morning, I ran with it. Went right from Weezer into Outkast and kept on rocking. Only took a quick musical shiver and was back to singing along to the classics.

I know, I know -- really keeping a stiff upper lip here. Managing to go on despite serious problems. Serious, easily solvable problems.

So let's name this week's closer tiers in honor of the jarring song shuffle! The more jarring the shuffle, the better the closer. And since I'm not on your computer right now (that would be weird), I'll use the songs from my playlist to populate these tiers.

Let's have some (discordant) fun.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Beastie Boys Sabotage into Iron and Wine Such Great Heights" Tier.)

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants

  • This one comes from Steve Alexander over on the basketball side, but it's genius. You could actually use the Beastie Boys song as your pump-up music on the way out to bat against one of these closers, but it's probably Iron and Wine in your head as you drag your bat back to the dugout. See? That's the link between these two things.

  • Let's revel in the brilliance that is Craig Kimbrel. Walks were supposedly the problem, but he has only five walks in thirteen June innings - against 23 strikeouts. That other-worldly strikeout rate has followed him up through the minor leagues and is built on an excellent swinging strike rate. He's the real deal and has two Kimbrels (three strikeouts, no baserunners, one inning) in the past two weeks. 96 MPH heat with an 87 MPH, hard-breaking slider is making a lot of batters rock themselves to sleep with Iron and Wine playing. Oh, and it's worth mentioning that old man Mariano Rivera struck out five in his last two innings and suddenly has a decent strikeout rate again. Not quite classic Mo, but he's not done yet.

  • Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Weezer My Name is Jonas into Outkast Wheelz of Steel" Tier.)

    Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
    Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
    Huston Street, Colorado Rockies
    Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
    John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
    J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
    Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers

  • Yes, this was the musical shuffle that inspired the column. Both great songs. Both completely different in terms of tempo, genre and feel. Kinda like going from Heath Bell's 94 MPH fastball to his 82 MPH curveball. See? Not so much of a stretch as it first appeared.

  • Heath Bell is still a great closer. Heath Bell has walked one guy in two weeks. Heath Bell is also on a team that's floundering, doesn't have much money, and has turned out excellent relievers like a factory. They've even traded relievers recently. There's still a slight chance he signs a below-market deal to stay with the team, but if his agent is not saying the right things, the Padres won't hesitate to move him and insert Mike Adams into the role. That's a real risk for Bell owners. Enough to at least pick up Adams.

  • Joel Hanrahan has one walk in his last eleven appearances (and nine strikeouts). He hasn't blown a save all year. If he had any more pedigree, he'd be in the elite tier. As is, he probably still deserves it. Really, you could almost say the same for John Axford. He's only walked three in his last ten (against 12 strikeouts) and has only blown two saves all year. Mustache power!

  • J.J. Putz, on the other hand, has hit a little rough patch. Not enough to drop him a tier, but there's enough going on that he has to drop in the ranks. In his last ten appearances, he's given up seven runs and blown four games. In his last seven appearances, he has five strikeouts against three walks and has given up six runs. Eh, it's just a little bad stretch. David Hernandez would probably be next in line if there's an injury lurking.

  • Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Beenie Man Bad Man Nuh into Bon Iver Skinny Love" Tier.)

    Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
    Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
    Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
    Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins
    Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
    Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
    Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels

  • This combination isn't quite as jarring musically, but the content separates them pretty well. From Beenie Man's bravado to Justin Vernon's nostalgia stands a chasm. And between the near-elites of tier two and the flawed closers of tier three stands a chasm. Still, these guys are useful.

  • Andrew Bailey hasn't really stumbled since returning. He had a great save Tuesday night as he accomplished his first-ever Kimbrel. Usually, strikeouts haven't been a big part of his game. Then again, you could say the same about Drew Storen, and there are actually some similarities. They both have the repertoire of a starter - three-plus pitches. That gives them a step up even if the rates aren't quite elite in terms of strikeout rate.

  • Joakim Soria is a bad man suddenly. Since being re-inserted into the closer role, he has 11 strikeouts and two walks in seven innings. That's the Soria of old, and even his velocity has returned. That's also boss, and hopefully you didn't drop him when he was struggling. Of course, the team still has a viable replacement in Aaron Crow, so if someone is interested in Soria, he could still get traded. But for now, he deserves this ranking.

  • Oh what a week. Jordan Walden has now blown three save chances in a row. He has two walks and no strikeouts over those chances too. The control is always an issue, but with gas like he's got, he should be fine. We'll see how much leash he's earned, but mosey on over to Scott Downs' numbers and you might want to find a way to get Downs on your team as a handcuff.

  • Here's some love for Chris Perez: He has eight strikeouts and two walks in his last ten appearances (nine innings). If he can keep up those kinds of ratios, he'll be solid all year.

  • Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Wale Strings into Cut Copy Lights and Music" Tier.)

    Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
    Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets
    Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
    Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
    Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
    Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins

  • In some strange world, this transition makes sense. Perhaps that strange world is the one between my ears. Even the hardest core of Cut Copy fans would have to admit how not hard core their music is, though. Good thing Wale is really just about the good times, too.

  • If we're going to move Heath Bell down a tier, then Francisco Rodriguez deserves to be demoted a little bit as well. Depending on the circumstances of the team after a probable Rodriguez trade, the new closer will likely be Jason Isringhausen or Bobby Parnell. The knock on Parnell so far has been that he's got gas but no control, but the youngster has managed 14 strikeouts against three walks in his last ten outings (and 13 hits). Despite his hittability, Parnell is the only young reliever worth developing in the closer role. If the team continues to try and compete, Terry Collins will go with the reliable veteran with closing experience - Jason Isringhausen. Most likely it's Izzy with Parnell moving into higher-leverage setup innings.

  • Sergio Santos could be ready to make the leap in tiers. He had a poor stretch at the beginning of the season but now has struck out ten batters in his last five appearances - against zero walks. If he's going to make progress with his walks, he's going to be a nasty nasty closer. There's little reason to worry about him at this point.

  • Neftali Feliz was on a path to redemption, but maybe he turned on the lights and music a little early. He still has ten strikeouts in his last ten appearances, and only one walk, but he also blew a save spectacularly in Houston last week. And his team is deflecting rumors about their interest in Francisco Rodriguez. There is reason to worry about Feliz, but unfortunately for his owners, his handcuff is probably a closer for another team right now.

  • 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.
    Email :Eno Sarris

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