Tools and skills are at the heart of this game.
If you had the pleasure of watching just a few Michael Jordan at-bats in Double-A, you had proof that even the most gifted athletes in the world are in trouble once they step in against a Major League pitcher. And if you've had the pleasure of taking in a Jamie Moyer start any time over the last few decades, you've seen how far learned baseball skills -- and skills alone -- can take you.
We're always trying to uncover how many tools a player has, and how good he is at using those tools (or skills). When we write about reduced velocity, we're pointing out that a player is starting to lose his athleticism. But, if that same player has reduced his walk rate by learning where to put 'em, then he can survive and thrive even as he ages. It's the eternal battle of tools and skills.
Since the steals portion of this column is so much shorter, we'll use the tiers to focus on some base-stealing threats. Each tier will be named after two players. One uses his prodigious speed to steal his bags. The other adds value on the basepaths by having a good eye, judging the pitchers' move well, and picking his moments.
The best baseball teams -- real or fake -- will have a few players from each category. Because you can't be truly elite unless you have both brains and Ryan Braun.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Tony Campana and Shane Victorino" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Tony Campana could get to second on a good drag bunt. He could score from first on a nibbler. Tony Campana could steal first. He doesn't always steal bases, but when he does, he doesn't get caught. He is the speediest man in the world. Shane Victorino used to be that guy, but he doesn't quite have the wheels he used to. After all, he's 31. But one thing the Lower-Flying Hawaiian does really well now is identify the correct time to take off. Since the beginning of 2010, he has 60 steals… and hasn't even been caught ten times yet.
If we go with the idea that gas is athleticism or tools, and learning to corral that gas is a learned skill, then Craig Kimbrel is the five-tool dude and Mariano Rivera is the guy who has gone above and beyond his physical attributes. Mo has certainly succeeded despite less gas every year, and mostly by knowing his strength -- that cutter -- and having pinpoint control. Kimbrel has gas and sometimes doesn't seem to know where it's going. That put Kimbrel down the list -- he's walked a bit too many this year -- but it also gives him the most strikeouts in the tier.
John Axford is having the same control issues, but at least it's only one walk in his last five appearances. Jonathan Papelbon is showing his worst velocity since his rookie year, but he's still dominating. His pitching mix percentages show that he's using his split-finger more, which could be his way of learning how to make it work. Or it could just be the early season -- league average velocity peaks in August and has about a half-mile per hour variance during the year. Still, add a half-tick to Papelbon's gas and he's still way behind what he's shown in previous years.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward" Tier.)
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Here's a set of teammates that have accrued their steals in very different ways. This isn't to say that Heyward isn't fast -- he's got some wheels -- but if he raced Michael Bourn down the line it's clear who would win. That probably means that Heyward won't reach the same stolen base totals, but it is also means that Heyward might be able to give you that handful of steals late into his career, since he depends less on straight-up speed.
Seven years ago, J.J. Putz had a 96 MPH fastball and a minuscule walk rate. He even got tons of ground balls, but it was with his slider and changeup combo. These days, Putz is working around 91-92, but he's throwing the splitter a ton, and still has that great walk rate. Really, the only question is health -- since he left Seattle, his 58 innings last year were the most he could manage.
Speaking of walks. If he keeps his current pace, Rafael Betancourt might give up 50% more walks than he did last year. That would mean 12 on the year -- he's fine. Joel Hanrahan's control problems are more worrisome, given he had them as a starter in the Minor Leagues once upon a time. But he hasn't walked a guy in a week and should be good. Jose Valverde has more walks than strikeouts. THAT's something to worry about. If he didn't have so much leash, he'd be dropping tiers now and Joaquin Benoit would be disappearing from your waiver wire quicker.
Huston Street's the newcomer. His ballpark looks like a perfect fit for the fly ball guy, and he's responded by showing a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the young season. You can't predict save chances -- even a bad team like the Padres will play in plenty of close games -- so you might as well go for a good pitcher in line for all of his team's saves. There's an injury asterisk here, but research has shown that part of the Denver advantage is a difficulty in recovery. Maybe San Diego will help keep Street healthy -- and maybe he'll stay in San Diego all year. No trade rumblings yet though.
Tier 3: OK options (5) (AKA: The "Emilio Bonifacio and Carlos Beltran" Tier.
Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
Here's one of the starker pairings, especially these days. Emilio Bonifacio doesn't have patience or power, and strikes out a little much for a guy with his offensive profile. He wasn't a good defender on the infield. Now, he's a burner at the top of a good lineup, with a team that will let him run. Carlos Beltran used to be more of that guy, but even now, with his knees grinding into dust, he's stealing bases. He has the highest steal percentage in the history of baseball. That's smart.
There's an awkward moment here when you realize the okay options aren't as pretty as they should be. The top tiers have plenty of good pitchers, but once you hit this area, the question marks start cropping up too quickly.
Sean Marshall found that moving to the bullpen made his 87 MPH fastball hit 91, and suddenly his five-pitch mix looked even better. Now he's had a little work in the pen and he's dropped the changeup -- he still has four pitches, which is about two more than your average reliever. He has a great strikeout rate, good control, and ground-balls by the dozen. If he'd been a closer for more than two months, he'd be in the next tier already. But he did plenty of learning before he became a closer, and should be fine all year. Aroldis Chapman reportedly doesn't like to warm up on consecutive days and isn't a good option in the role then.
But the rest of the tier has louder question marks. Joe Nathan has his elite swinging strike rate back, and his velocity is back up over 93 MPH, but it's not quite like it used to be. And he's still a fly-ball pitcher in Arlington. Brandon League gets grounders. He understands them, and he coaxes them. But in the past, he's struck out more guys and walked fewer than now. He's also on a team that might decide to look to the future at any time -- and League's a free agent at the end of the year. Jim Johnson is the new Brandon League, which means that the strikeout upside is also low and he has less leash since he's less seasoned. But the Orioles own him for another year, and the only reason Pedro Strop got any saves was because Johnson was sick.
Leaping tall buildings and zooming from the final tier to this one -- further 'proving' the assertion that the tiers suddenly drop off -- is Santiago Casilla. The question was whether or not Casilla would hold off Sergio Romo, who is in some respects a better pitcher. But Romo's best pitch is a slider, which has some platoon splits, and he has had a wonky elbow in the past. The team seemed to want to try Casilla first (they did the same last September) and now he's shaken off some adversity and shined in the role. It's likely his the rest of the season. Congratulations to those of you that picked him up based on his first chair seating here.
Tier 4: Question marks (9) (AKA: The "Adam Jones and Dustin Pedroia" Tier.)
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Henry Rodriguez, Washington Nationals
Francisco Cordero, Toronto Blue Jays
This is not to say that Adam Jones is swift like a blur. But Jones did come into the league as a five-tool center fielder, and he's never stolen more than 13 bases in a year. He's barely stolen the bases he's stolen at a break-even rate (67.6% career, 66.7% is break-even, value-wise). Dustin Pedroia stole one base in 493 Triple-A plate appearances before hitting the bigs. Since, he's stolen 84 bases at an 80% success rate. In his breakout year, he stole 20 bases… and was caught once. This tier represents a good enough tier, as in Pedroia's got good enough speed to get it done. The top of the tier is itching to move upwards, but it was a bad week to make the move.
Javy Guerra, for example. He's been showing more swinging strikes than he's ever shown in his career, and he's had a better walk rate recently, too. He's (very slowly) changed my mind about him a little. Then he spent the last week doing his best to blow three games in a row. There's no talk about Kenley Jansen just yet, but with Jansen also showing improved control, and flashing better stuff… change might still happen.
Grant Balfour decided that this week was a good week to blow some saves, too -- Jordan Noberto had to get the final out for him Tuesday night. Frank Francisco has a hamstring problem and can't find the plate. Brett Myers already has trade rumors being bandied about. Jonathan Broxton has rediscovered the velocity but is still missing the swinging strikes. Capps still has great control, and a modicum of ground balls, but nary a strikeout to be found. A couple of these guys will persevere and be valuable all year. A couple won't. For the next week though, they'll be okay.
There's a bit of a change of heart represented at the bottom.
We've moved the temporary closers into this tier. They probably represent the closers I get the most negative feedback about, but that's not why they are up. They're all decent pitchers, but that's not why they are up. They all might lose their jobs within the next month, but obviously that's not why they are up. The reason they are up is because there's almost no doubt that they'll get the NEXT save for their team. As much as it made sense to keep them down because their usefulness is limited, it makes sense to reward them for the certainty they provide in the short run. Even if Francisco Cordero blew that game against the Rangers Tuesday night.
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.