Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Baby Closers

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What a couple of weeks.


In the last two weeks, a closer in Toronto went down for a while, a closer in San Francisco went down for longer, an old closer candidate went back to the bullpen in Boston …


And Felix Cortez Sarris was born. Sorta puts all of this in perspective. The next time you are pulling your hair out about a closer, go vent with a family member. Talking to your dad or your son or your sister or your mother will quickly remind you that there are more important things in the world.


Later, with a clear mind and a healthy heart, you can go back to your team and make decisions about your closers.


In honor of all the baseball moments I will soon share with my son, I'll name the tiers after baby gifts. Cause that's where my life is at right now, okay?


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Team baby socks" Tier.)


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


Simple, understated -- the team-branded baseball sock allows the youngest of fans to express their nascent enthusiasm for a game they cannot even see yet, much less comprehend. Put them on your baby to declare your alliances before they have them, or better yet, troll the crowd by choosing the rival's socks. Who's going to hate on a baby? Who's going to hate on one of these closers?


In the last two weeks, Craig Kimbrel is knocking socks off. He has 12 strikeouts against four walks in six innings. Six innings! Two strikeouts per inning gives you a lot of leeway with your other closers -- it can even make up for a low-K starter.


Compared to John Axford, who also has close to two strikeouts per inning, Kimbrel is a control artist. The mustachioed Brewer has a walk per inning so far, but at least he hasn't walked a guy since April 15th. He'll probably be fine. Look at Joel Hanrahan, who was a preseason favorite to join this tier (he has all the prerequisite strikeout punch, control, and long leash), who also has more than a walk per inning, but has paired it with only seven strikeouts so far, and it still makes sense to keep Ax in the top.


But Mariano Rivera got right back on his horse and rode by him in the meantime.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The ""I'm a Boob Man!" baby t-shirt" Tier.)


J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers


I first saw this T-shirt idea in London at an Oh Baby London stand at a market, but since it's been co-opted by a good cause as a breast cancer baby shirt. The humor paired with do-gooding is a great combo, but there are other more nefarious versions. Try "I've been on the inside for nine months" on a prison onesie if you like. Should turn some heads, like these closers, who all have the chance at being elite if they consistently show the ability to strike out more than a dude per inning with great control.

J.J. Putz is not a walk man. He hasn't walked a guy yet this year and only walked twelve last year. The only problem is that he's usually only good for about fifty-plus innings per year, and a DL stint or two. The interesting news out of Arizona is that Bryan Shaw may have passed David Hernandez. Shaw's already gotten two saves this year and might be next in line when -- oops if -- Putz goes down.


Rafael Betancourt walks even fewer guys than Putz. In the past two years, he's only walked 16 guys. This year, he's working on one. Even as a fly-ball pitcher, he's got the extreme control and strikeout ability to thrive in Denver. The longer he shows his manager he can close, the longer his leash becomes, and the more he'll rise.


He zooms by Jordan Walden. Walden had a control problem back when he was a starter in the Minor Leagues. He seemingly corralled that problem when he moved to the pen, but now he's walking people again. The good news is that more of his pitches are in the zone than ever -- and more than average. He's just throwing strike one only a third of the time, and the average is almost twice that. He hasn't had that particular problem in the past, so he could still be fine.


Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Mustache pacifier" Tier.)

Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers


There's enough hipster in me that I should prepare this baby for the eventuality of finely-groomed facial hair. Should he have the Fu Manchu, or the Barber? Definitely the Handlebars. Then again, if he's got his father's facial hair, the best he'll manage is the Skeevy Teenager Trying to Look Older In Order To Get Into The Club. The guys in this tier should elicit knowing smiles as often as the mustache pacifier, so hold on to em.


Maybe the mustache pacifier is better than we think. Or maybe it's worse. This tier, appropriately, is full of trouble.


Heath Bell moves down because his velocity is down, he's not getting the swinging strikes that he used to, and he generally looks uncomfortable in those ugly unis. The last week has brought two saves, but the two before that one he blew. Even if he holds on to the job all year, he doesn't look like the elite option he used to be.


Moving out of the question marks and into more comfortable territory are three very different, and yet three very decent pitchers. Sean Marshall is a lefty, yes, but ever since he moved to the pen he's had the lights-out peripherals of a closer, and now he has three straight successful saves with nary a problem to give him some leash. Jim Johnson doesn't have a great strikeout rate, yes, but he does have one of the best ground-ball rates in the bigs, and he's proving to be unflappable in the closer's role in Baltimore. Joe Nathan is old, yes, but the 37-year-old has his velocity and his swinging strikes back. He'll give up a few home runs, but he's righted ship in three straight successful pops over the past two weeks.


Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "Baseball bat baby spoon" Tier.)


Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Hector Santiago, Chicago White Sox
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Frank Francisco, New York Mets


It's still a gift for my son, so I won't hate it. And it might even get some work once we graduate from breast milk to pureed squash. But it's just a bat spoon, it doesn't support a team, and it's not that distinguishable from a regular spoon. The closers in this tier? They work, like a bat spoon, but they won't excite. Except in a bad way, maybe.


Brett Myers and Grant Balfour are fine. They're fine. Myers has his velocity back over 90 again in the pen, and has the swinging strikes to match. Balfour has seemingly shown that he's the man in Oakland. But both guys have trade rumors already swirling over their heads -- in the first month of the season. If they make it through the season on their original teams, it will be an upset. And they aren't no-doubt closers on their new teams either.


Hector Santiago is a big cup of who-knows-what. It's worth noting that his per-pitch numbers (which are always more reliable in a small sample like this) suggest that he has serious swing-and-miss stuff. So far the control is holding up, too, but he hasn't always been able to direct the ball correctly. Addison Reed is still the Closer of the Future there, but we'll give Santiago an early pass here.


Frank Francisco put some base runners on and was removed in the middle of a save chance over the weekend, but he came on to finish Johan Santana's gem on Tuesday night and his manager still says he's the closer. Carlos Marmol has more problems. He now has as many walks as strikeouts and he blew a save Tuesday night at home. Rafael Dolis is the guy who's been setting him up, but he's a ground-ball guy with wonky control of his own. Marmol might 'ick' his way through a year in that role, despite the peripherals.


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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