Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Izzy? How Much Longer?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Now that the contenders have all stocked up with trade deadline acquisitions, our attention turns forward. Who will emerge victorious?

But not all division races are created equal, since not all of them will create the same sense of excitement. In some cases, like the National League East, the division is all but sealed away already as the Phillies are already running away with things on the backs of their dominant staff. In other cases, it just doesn't seem like the rivalry at the top has the same juice as other divisions.

So for today's Saves and Steals, we'll name the tiers after the division races. The more exciting the race, the better the closer. It's intuitive for once!

Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Milwaukee vs St. Louis" Tier.)

Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

  • What this matchup has is a winner-take-all urgency. Most likely, Boston or New York will take the wild card as a consolation prize, but that's not the case in the National League central. In fact, there's the added fact that the Brewers have gone all-in on this year after mortgaging most of their prospects to acquire upgrades. This may end up the most exciting, in the end. There's even a little David and Goliath in this.

  • Before last year, Mariano Rivera hadn't blown five saves in a season since 2003. Now he's done it two years in a row, with his blown save Tuesday night making it six on the year. Still, there's not much in his peripherals that is worrisome. Well, his swinging strike rate has been merely average over the last three years after spending years in elite territory, and his groundball rate is at a career low. Still! He's excellent. Just not vintage Rivera.

  • Everyone else on the list continued to be excellent, so there's not much to report. Well, Joel Hanrahan hasn't gotten a save in August yet, but bad teams get save opportunities, too. Even if the Pirates fall out of the race, they'll get their closer more opportunities in the future.

  • Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Boston vs New York" Tier.)

    John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
    Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
    Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
    Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
    Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
    J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Apologies to those that think that the media is already too friendly to the east coast, but if this weekend was any indication, the coming two months in the American League East will contain plenty of drama. It's funny that the two juggernauts are a tier behind their closers, but this is the wild card era and the loser gets quite the consolation prize. Top-flight baseball between two giants. It will be good.

  • Is there something going on with Heath Bell? He just blew a save in New York, but more worrisome are his seasonal peripherals. He's got the lowest swinging strike and strikeout rates of his career. He's getting fewer strikeouts per walk than he ever has before. His velocity is right at career levels, and he's still a fastball/curveball guy, but batters are making more contact than ever. It's hard to say why this is happening, but this will surely go down as Bell's worst season as a closer.

  • Jordan Walden, for example, is striking out two-and-a-half more batters per nine innings than Bell. He's not even walking half a batter more per inning despite having 'control issues' on the way up. Walden is having a much better season, but since neither has pitched more than 50 innings, we have to note their career performances some, too.

  • J.J. Putz is back on the mound and healthy. He hasn't quite shown his elite strikeout rate since returning, but his elite control has been there. The team is winning, and the odds that he can stay healthy for nine weeks have to be okay now that he's had his yearly health scare… right?

  • Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Detroit vs Cleveland" />" Tier.)

    Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
    Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
    Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
    Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
    Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
    Huston Street, Colorado Rockies

  • Neither one of these teams comes from a large market, which actually ups the intrigue some. Cleveland seemed like such a longshot at the beginning of the season, and has so many young players in their lineup, that they might be the popular favorite. On the other hand, is there any pitcher more exciting than Justin Verlander right now? He could throw a no-hitter in any start, it seems.

  • Brian Wilson drops in the rankings for a few reasons. Lately, he's only been okay, with six strikeouts and six walks in his last ten outings. And that poor control has hounded him all year. He's walking almost five per nine, which would be Marmol-ian, but his strikeout rate isn't elite to make up for it. His added use of the cutter has probably led to some of his move from strikeouts to ground balls, but in fantasy we prefer the almighty K because it's a scoring category.

  • Sergio Santos got his first Kimbrel of the year, and it's kind of surprising considering his improved control this year. He's got almost three strikeouts to every walk and hasn't blown a save since July fourth. The problem? His manager. Ozzie Guillen has cost Santos at least two saves in the past month with his use of Chris Sale and Tuesday night was an out away from giving Sale another save. Of course, that's a great way to run the real-life team, since you want to use your pitchers to their strengths and the White Sox have two excellent pitchers of different handedness. But in fantasy, it's the only thing holding Santos back.

  • What's going on with Huston Street? His strikeout to walk ratios for the year (over six) and the last ten outings (five and a half) are still really great. He's also on an historic home run pace for a closer and has given up eight runs in his last ten innings (and five in his last four). Looking at his peripherals, it's probably just that he's not a great fit for his home park. He's a fly-ball pitcher in Coors. This sort of thing will happen. Now he's got a lat injury bugging him and Rafael Betancourt got the save Tuesday night. He'll avoid the DL, but maybe that has been hindering him some too.

  • Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Texas vs Los Angeles" Tier.)

    Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
    Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals
    Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins
    Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies
    Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins
    Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles
    Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds

  • This could go down to the wire, but there's no clear 'Milwaukee' in this arrangement. To the casual fan, these are two powerhouses going up against each other without the same name value of the Red Sox against the Yankees. Plenty of exciting pitching on the Angels, and a well-rounded incumbent in Texas are compelling. But in this subjective rankings, it doesn't seem like the Angels will have enough in the tank to keep this going to the very end.

  • Joe Nathan is not quite ready to move up in the rankings, it seems. He has pitched poorly in two straight non-save situations now, and only has five strikeouts in his last ten outings. Boston and Chicago have enough offense to make most pitchers nervous, though, so maybe this doesn't mean a ton, long-term. Carlos Marmol zips by him by walking only one batter in his last five innings - against seven strikeouts. That's the way to keep your slates clean.

  • Kevin Gregg is pitching a little better of late -- 11 strikeouts in his last ten appearances. But his control is still poor -- seven walks in the same time frame. No matter, with Koji Uehara gone, Gregg's moderately safe even if he's only a mediocre pitcher.

  • Ryan Madson looks like he's the closer in Philadelphia the rest of the way. Brad Lidge has been okay since he's returned, but only okay. His velocity is not all the way back and he's spiked more than a few sliders. Antonio Bastardo is a lights-out-lefty, but managers seem to prefer right-handed closers. Madson hasn't really given his team any reason to think he shouldn't be the closer either. He only has twelve walks all year, and one in his last ten appearances. He hasn't blown a save since returning, either. He'll move up this list as the season progresses, most likely.

  • 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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