Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Two Closers Losing Their Grip?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's Labor Day weekend, that magical time when we all shake our heads and wonder where the summer went before frantically trying to get one last warm-weather activity in before the kids go back to school and work gets more serious again. Just remember the words of the legendary Baba Ram Dass, you said that we should all do our best to "be here now." Don't look forward too much. You'll just get depressed about winter and work and all that. Don't look backward too much, you'll just remember all those cookouts and vacations too fondly. Stay in the here and now, and you'll have a great weekend.In honor of this last great weekend of the summer, let's name the tiers after some prototypical Labor Day weekend activities. See where your plans rank! And still enjoy your weekend anyway! Also, see if you can guess which one I'll be enjoying this weekend.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Drive to a lake house with friends… for a sweet party weekend" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Nothing better than heading to the edge of a large body of water with a good selection of food and (adult) sodas. Enjoy responsibly.
Jonathan Papelbon has not allowed a baserunner since August 12th. Jonathan Papelbon has not allowed a run since July 16th. Jonathan Papelbon has not walked a batter since July 10th. In conclusion, Jonathan Papelbon.
Here is a list of perfectly fine starters that have not managed to strike out 103 batters like Craig Kimbrel: Jeremy Hellickson, Edwin Jackson, Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy. So it's important when you have a closer that can strike out this many people. It's almost like having an extra starter. Put it this way: I'll take Kimbrel and Hellickson (205 strikeouts) and you can pay way more for Mariano Rivera and Dan Haren (206 strikeouts). In the meantime, my offense should have gotten fat with all that extra money or those extra early picks.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Drive to a lake house with family… for a pretty sweet mellow weekend" Tier.)

John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Look, I'm sorry. I'd rather go to the lakehouse with some friends right now in my life. But I know it won't be long until I'm the father looking forward to a family break at the same body of water (and maybe even yelling at the loud kids the next house over). But here, now, this is a second-tier thing. Still good!
J.J. Putz Has been fine since owing back. In 14 appearances, he has 11 strikeouts against his customary tiny walk total (two) and has only allowed two earn runs. He's a great pitcher when he's healthy.
Drew Storen moves past a few dudes in the middle of some iffy patches even if he blew a save on Sunday. Mostly, it's nice to see that he's struck out a batter per appearance since July 5th, and that he's had nine strikeouts in his last five outings. That sort of strikeout punch is the only thing keeping him from the upper-upper echelon. And yes, I know that Jose Valverde has not blown a save this year. He also has a 1.30 WHIP and a control problem. He has three walks against one strikeout in his last four outings, so it's not getting better right now either.
Heath Bell returns because Heath Bell was not traded. Maybe he was never going to be traded. Still not an elite year for him, but solid enough and he's not going anywhere for the time being.

Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Barbecue at friends house… so you don't have to clean up" Tier.)

Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins 
Not cleaning up is part of the allure of going to a party at someone else's house, isn't it? Admit it. It is.
Joakim Soria is just not having a great year. Now he hasn't blown a save since August tenth, but he's given up six runs in his last seven appearances and has been way more hittable this year. He's in danger of falling again. Sergio Santos and Jordan Walden are primed to ascend. If only Santos wasn't occasionally losing a save to Chris Sale, and Jordan Walden wasn't (less than) occasionally losing a save to the blown save monster. Their strikeout and walk rates are deserving of being in the top two tiers, though.
Ryan Madson moves up in the rankings because he put his six-run blown save squarely in the mirror. Since then, he hasn't given up a run or a walk and has looked like the Madson we've come to expect. He's been under-rated his whole career, so it's no surprise he's been under-rated this year.
If Brandon League's strikeout rate is not impressive, his walk rate is. Nine walks all year! That's Papelbonian. Carlos Marmol has nine walks since July 18th, which is actually one of his better stretches of control on the year.

Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "A trip… downtown to see the labor day parade" Tier.)

Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Mark Melancon, Houston Astros 
Hey. At least at the parade they'll probably have churros and funnel cake and sausages and all sorts of yummy food. Beats yard work.
Okay, let's just make sure the professor's tender elbow is okay, and then we can move Kyle Farnsworth up. Not sure what sort of deal he made with what sort of devil, but his control has held up all year. He has trended towards better control lately in his career, but this is still his best walk rate by more than a batter per nine innings.
He's been much better than Francisco Cordero by peripherals. Co-Co has seen his strikeout rate plummet to the point where he has three strikeouts in his last ten innings. At least he's only walked one, but he wasn't known for his control in the past. If his ERA wasn't so low, and his manager such a veteran-lover, this role might have changed hands already. Here's a wrinkle: is he worth a $12 million option next year? Probably not. Especially when you have the cheaper Aroldis Chapman behind him. Any stumbles in that Reds pen and you may see an audition this month.
Neftali Feliz has a walk rate around three and a half per nine in the second half, and that's about a batter better than his first-half rate. He's finally striking out about a batter per inning, too (16 in 18 1/3 in the second half). He's been figuring it out, which is strange because it happened after his team traded for some intimidating setup men. Maybe that lit a fire under his buttocks. He's surprisingly safe.
Chris Perez is still the closer in Cleveland, so he moves up. But let's go over his credentials for the bottom tier, just for kicks. Among the top 35 relievers in saves this year, this is where he ranks in a few categories: Strikeout rate -- 33rd; Walk rate -- 28th; Ground-ball rate -- 34th. That's pretty stark, no? By anything other than saves and ERA he's probably the worst closer in baseball. Of course, saves and ERA are the categories we play with, but that's not the point. What's the likelihood that a closer with the second-worst strikeout rate and the seventh-worst walk rate continues to put up a good ERA and garner saves? It's not high.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Yard work… but at least you're grilling and drinking" Tier.)

1st Chair: Fernando Salas, 2nd Chair: Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
1st Chair: Leo Nunez, 2nd Chair: Edward Mujica, Florida Marlins
1st Chair: Bobby Parnell, 2nd Chair: Jason Isringhausen, New York Mets
1st Chair: Frank Francisco, 2nd Chair: Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
1st Chair: Rafael Betancourt, 2nd Chair: Huston Street, Colorado Rockies
1st Chair: Sergio Romo, 2nd Chair: Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants 
Yeah, so this is where I find myself. Don't cry for me America, I'm already locked in. Digging trenches and moving trees and planting things, oh my. At least I'll have a beverage in hand and something on the grill!
The biggest closer news of the week came in an innocent-sounding post-game comment from Tony LaRussa. TLR admitted that he was going to give Jason Motte a few chances down the stretch because he'd earned them. Motte has been excellent this year since adding a cutter to his 96 MPH fastball. The former catcher has been long touted as the Closer of the Future in St. Louis, and LaRussa has actually been fairly upfront about his closer, even if he's been a little quick on the trigger at times. This could be happening, right now, even if Fernando Salas got the save Tuesday night. Make sure Motte is not on the wire, because he can be as sweet as apple juice.
Not to get all math-y on you, but there's been some advancement in the research concerning the batting average on balls in play. Matt Swartz found that high-strikeout pitchers have lower balls in play -- particularly relievers. So while it looks like Leo Nunez has had average luck with a .295 batting average on balls in play (the league BABIP is .294 this year), a pitcher with his amount of strikeouts, ground balls and fly balls could actually expect a .278 BABIP according to that recent research. In any case, it's strange that a guy with a strong strikeout rate and good control in a pitcher's park would allow so many home runs. But he does. So keep Edward Mujica close. Steve Cishek could be up too, but Mujica has more major league experience, and even if Cishek has the better strikeout rate right now, Mujica is the one that gets more whiffs per pitch from his stuff. Mujica should get another shot after blowing his first save chance.
Bobby Parnell looks like he's the Mets closer right now. He's having a little trouble getting up to his 102 MPH gas on the first batters he faces in an appearance, and that's led to having some ducks on the pond in most of his saves so far. Still, the team needs him to succeed so that they have a cheap closer next year. They'll let him struggle in the role.
Frank Francisco has only earned one save in his most recent turn at the the closer role in Toronto, and Jon Rauch is starting to heal up. But it's been since July 20th that Frankie Frank has given up a run or a home run, and he's been great since. He might actually keep the role, especially considering he has so much more strikeout punch than his competition.
Rafael Betancourt is staying in the first chair in Colorado despite Huston Street's return. Given their respective salaries (Street is paid twice as well as Betancourt) this is a surprise, but Betancourt has been been better for a while now. If you'd been waiting on picking up Betancourt, you might as well do it now. But Street's a mighty big name to have as a setup man. Don't get comfortable.
No-one is comfortable in San Francisco. But the injury news on Brian Wilson seems decent. Wait until you hear worse.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers (elbow)
Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays (appendicitis)
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants (elbow) 
As of now, Brian Wilson won't be back on August 31st, the first day he's eligible. But it won't be long after that, most likely, considering he threw two straight days late last week and there hasn't been any bad news since. Jon Rauch is already throwing simulated games and fielding balls. He might be back as soon as Thursday. Who knows that that means though. Now Jonathan Broxton might be back this year. He should be throwing bullpens next week. If you have Javy Guerra and a space on your DL and Broxton is out there… the path is clear.

The Deposed:
Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles Angels
Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros
Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox
Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
David Aardsma, Seattle Mariners
Jason Isringhausen, New York Mets
There. Now we have Jason Isringhausen here. Is Fernando Salas up next?
* * * * * * * * * *

The Steals Department
So far, Brian Bogusevic has only stolen three bases this year, and four on his major league career. He has some power, but he's slugging over his head right now. Most likely, he's about a .280 hitter with 15 full-season home run power at best. But you know what? He's hitting right now, and other than an unsightly swinging strike rate, there's not a ton wrong with his line. He stole 20 bags in Triple-A this year, and 23 last year. So he has speed. He's also "stolen" all the at-bats against right-handers from Jason Bourgeois, too. Even if he doesn't play every day, he's a great bench speed player for most leagues. He's definitely a little batting-average safer than his center-field counterpart (and last week's deep league recommendation) Jordan Schafer for example.
You know who's playing most days in Cleveland right now? Jason Donald. Yup, he's back in the majors and after Jason Kipnis went down and Orlando Cabrera was shipped out, he's suddenly the best option at second base. He's getting really lucky on balls in play, which is surprising given his modest .281 batting average. With his major league strikeout rate, and lack of power, he's more of a .260 true-talent hitter. And his seasonal high in stolen bases, achieved in 2008 in Double-A, is 11 stolen bases. Still, that's about a 15-stolen-base full-season pace, so it's not nothing. And in the deepest leagues right now, it's mostly nothing that's on the wire.

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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