Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Dastardly Debuts

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Yu Darvish debuted this week. You may have heard.

 

It didn't quite end up the way he would have drawn it up, though. A four-run first inning peppered with walks and singles took some of the sizzle out of his steak. He did settle down, and his offspeed stuff still got plenty of swinging strikes -- so he's an interesting acquisition for those of you that need a starter with great upside -- but it wasn't the debut he wanted.

 

So our tiers today will be named after baseball debuts. The better the debut, the better the tier of closers. Because first impressions can be important, but they still don't mean everything.


Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Juan Marichal threw a one-hitter for the Giants with 12 strikeouts… at 19 years old" Tier.)

 

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

 

Apologies to Bob Feller, who struck out eight in three innings at seventeen years old, but Marichal's game actually counted in the standings. Feller's was an exhibition. Both had classic deliveries that would make for great additions to today's game, but Marichal threw a complete-game one-hitter in his debut. Doesn't get much better than that.

 

This is supposedly the last year we get to wonder when the magic will run out for Mariano Rivera. He gave us the courtesy of starting the season in that mode even. His velocity is down more than two miles per hour off last year's number, which was already a mile per hour lower than his career average, so there could be something there. On the other hand, these tiers are not all about inherent talent. Job security matters, and there isn't a closer in the game that has the security of Mariano Rivera. He'll harness his control, get just under a strikeout per inning, and give good ratios by the end of the season. That seems like a lock even now.

 

Jonathan Papelbon gets a slight demerit for also losing a tick on his fastball, and also for not throwing his split-finger yet, at least according to some PITCH f/x classifications. It's probably nothing -- the Phillies haven't had many save opportunities for him yet, and you never know what a closer is doing in those non-save chances. Oh and remember that John Axford once had a control problem and has three walks against four outs this season. Just remember that.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA: The "Babe Ruth gave up two runs in seven innings and went 0-for-2 at the plate at 19" Tier.)

 

Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins

 

Once again, you have the young debut. Once again, you have a successful pitching debut. This time though, the pitching wasn't dominant, and the player ended up being better known for his hitting. It was still an interesting debut for the Babe. These pitchers are all great pitchers, but their best shine probably doesn't outsparkle Marichal on his first night.

 

There's little reason to move guys around in this tier. Well, we'll move Bell down because he blew a save and is down a tick on the radar gun. He wasn't getting many swinging strikes, and he's on a two-year decline in that category, so it's something worth watching. It does look like his home park is a nice one for pitchers, though, so he's still a top closer.

 

The top half of this tier all have the upside to better a strikeout per inning, with good control for the most part. Well, excellent control for the Hammer and J.J. Putz, but good enough for Walden, who's been better since he moved to the pen. Bell and Jose Valverde might not quite strike out a batter per nine this year, but they benefit from the leash that's given to veterans with big contracts.

 

Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Huge J.R. Richard strikes out 15" Tier.

 

Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres

 

All six-foot eight-inches of J.R. Richard made quite the debut with the Astros, but the next big thing was not quite as huge as he was supposed to be. Well, he did have the strikeout punch, but he never quite found the health of the control that he needed to. In that same way, these closers all look good at first glance but have some question marks lurking.

 

We're going to have to move Sergio Santos back to his old tier. He's blown two saves in the early season, and he's walked four guys in three appearances, against one strikeout. His velocity is a little down, too, but if we give him a pass on that because of his age and it being the early season, then it's the control that's more worrisome. The former shortstop has thrown fewer than 150 innings in his entire Major League career, so we can't be sure that he's a four walks per nine guy. What if his control is worse? You can't sell him now, but watch his control most of all.

 

Brandon League won't ever strike out a full batter per inning, and closers usually give you extra strikeout punch. That's why Jason Motte and Brian Wilson are still ahead of him in this tier, and more likely to join the second tier. Right now, those two closers get an incomplete -- Motte because he's relatively new to the role, with a new manager in the dugout, and Wilson because he looked to be of sketchy health let year and hasn't appeared in a game yet.

 

Did you know that Betancourt has walked eight men in each of the last two years? Eight! He walked one in his debut. I think that walk will last him a month.

 

Tier 4: Question marks (9) (AKA: The "Satchel Paige strikes out two, allows four runs in two innings… at 48 years old" Tier.)

Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Actually, that's quite the debut for a 48 year old. And the wait was no fault of his own, as Paige was relegated to the Negro Leagues for most of his career. But his unique debut is a good fit for these closers, who may find ways to hold on to their roles in unique ways.

 

Sean Marshall -- for example -- is a lefty, and lefty closers are rare. But, ever since he's moved to the bullpen, Marshall has struck out batters at a great rate, shown above-average control, and paired it with a great ground-ball rate. He has the peripherals to succeed.

 

Joe Nathan moves down the list a little bit for giving up a game-losing home run to Alex Rios last week. He's a fly ball pitcher, though, so the big flies will happen from time to time. The better news is that he's picked up some velocity over last year, and if he can add another half-tick, he'll be right at his career norms. A healthy year will still mean all the saves he can handle and the occasional home run.

 

Don't let anyone tell you that closers on bad teams aren't useful. The Mets aren't probably a terrible team, but they'd be lucky to compete with the top teams in their division, and they gave Frank Francisco three straight save chances in their first three games. Brandon League Jr -- Jim Johnson -- has two saves. Brett Myers has a save and adds the ability to give you saves from your starter spot if you need him to. Grant Balfour has two saves already.

 

Carlos Marmol? We may have a problem. Three walks against no strikeouts. A blown save in which he didn't record an out. A team that already took him out of the closer's role last year. A team that wouldn't hesitate to trade him if he recovered trade value. The only thing missing is a clear heir apparent. Kerry Wood could take over the role if he wasn't busy blowing games himself. James Russell is a lefty with a bad platoon split. Rafael Dolis is a ground-ball guy without the strikeout punch of a closer (and an iffy walk rate to boot). Rodrigo Lopez? Rodrigo Lopez. Marmol has some leash.

 

Jonathan Broxton might be on his way up these tiers. In his save against the Angels last Sunday, he hit 98 on the gun and pumped sliders past Kendrys Morales. If his velocity is back, the swinging strikes should be here to stay, and the iffy walk rate will become much more palatable again. Greg Holland is a great pitcher and may close for the Royals in the future, but suddenly Broxton looks like Broxton again. Aaron Crow only got the save Tuesday night because rain shortened the game.

 

The closer he left behind in Los Angeles, Javy Guerra, has had some serious control problems in his career. But, as fellow RotoWorld writer Ryan Boyer pointed out to me on twitter, he's been a little better since he moved to the pen full time. He lasted started a game in 2008. Since 2009, he's walked 58 batters in 115 1/3 innings for a 4.5 BB/9. That's not great, but it's better than walk rates before, which were routinely above five per nine. If Guerra can strike out a batter per inning, then he'll have a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a decent ground-ball rate and could hold the job all year. Now, since he only had an average swinging strike rate and a 7.33 K/9 last year, that next part is no given, but we have to admit that there's a possibility that Guerra keeps this job all year.

 

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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