Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Change in Every Tier

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


It's Josh Hamilton's world and we're just happy to be a part of it.

 

The Rangers' slugger popped four home runs last night in an awesome display of power and discipline. That would make five in two games, too. It was enough to make you shake your head and wonder if you just saw something that hadn't been done before.

 

Except Hamilton was the 16th player to hit four home runs in one game. 16th! No player has hit five in a game, but 15 others hit four. We could fit three four-home-run players into each of our tiers! It's almost pedestrian.

 

Of course it's not. And in Hamilton's honor, we'll name the tiers after members of the four-home-run club. The more impressive, the higher the tier. Here's looking at you, kid.


Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Mark Whiten" Tier.)

 

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers

 

Mark Whiten might be the standard in single-game power production. He hit four home runs -- like the rest of this crew -- but amassed 12 RBI in a 15-2 win in 1993. That's the most RBI, by three, over the next-most in the group. And we all remember him for it, too. Of course, we could have named this tier after Lou Gehrig, who was the first to manage the feat (back in 1932), but he's known for so many other things.

 

We'll all remember Mariano Rivera's dominance, but hopefully he'll be back to remind us for another year, as he proclaimed. In the meantime, we're left looking at this young trio, wondering if any of them can manage the longevity it takes to be a legend, yet knowing that none of them is Mo.

 

We'll move Craig Kimbrel ahead of Jonathan Papelbon this week, but it's not because of Jordany Valdespin's walkoff home run. And it's not to shmear Paps' name. No we move him back in the rankings because he's showing the worst fastball velocity of his career and is using the pitch less than ever. Kimbrel, on the other hand, still has the same velocity, the same pitches, the same gaudy strikeout rate, and the same wonky control as ever.  It's a bit of a high-wire act, but it's exciting. Ditto John Axford, whose ERA would look like Kimbrel's if it wasn't for atrocious luck on batted balls. 

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA: The "Josh Hamilton" Tier.)

 

J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds

 

Josh Hamilton went 5-5 (only four people managed that or better) and amassed 8 RBI (once again a feat that four managed). Put those two together, and only Mike Schmidt (5-for-6 with 8 RBI in 1976) and Gil Hodges (5-for-6 with 9 RBI in 1950) were his equal. That sounds about right for this tier.

 

On talent and talent, alone, J.J. Putz and Jason Motte belong in the elite tier. They are not in the elite tier, for separate reasons. Putz has averaged only 47 innings per season for the past four years, and his owners have to have Bryan Shaw on auto-dial in order to feel secure. Motte, on the other hand, is the youth to Putz' age. He's got 17 career saves to his name. It may not require a special mindset to become a closer -- more likely, it requires skills -- but it does require a great combo of longevity, health, and leash to stay elite. If Axford and Kimbrel continue to walk the ballpark, however, we could see change this year.

 

Joel Hanrahan blew a save Tuesday night. Strangely enough, it was by way of home run and not by way of walk. Because most of this year, the Hammer has been walking too many guys (without the elite strikeout rate of a Kimbrel or Axford), and the home run has only been an occasional problem. He's still showing 96 MPH gas, hasn't changed his pitching mix, and was fresh off a two-year run with great control. He's safe.

 

Sean Marshall has impeccable peripherals. He has a strikeout rate over 12, a walk rate under three, and is getting over 70% of his contact on the ground. He'll avoid the big home run, and he won't walk his team out of the game. Right now, he's got some bad luck on batted balls going on. Once that corrects, we have another guy who could join the elite by the end of the year… even with a 90 MPH heater.

 

Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Carlos Delgado" Tier.)

 

Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
David Robertson, New York Yankees

 

Delgado del got a lot of those balls in 2003, when he muscled in six RBI in a 10-8 win. His team needed every run in one of the closest matchups that included a four-homer dude. Remember how good Carlos Delgado once was?

 

Remember how good Jose Valverde once was? His last year in Arizona, he almost struck out a dozen batters per nine, showed average control, and kept the ball on the ground almost at an average rate. That was the last year he was really a candidate for the elite, and it was also his first year as a full-year closer. Since, he's lost strikeouts and swinging strikes every year, and is proving this year that his control problems never went away. Now his swinging strike rate is below average for a late-game reliever, his strikeout rate is as well, his walk rate is terrible (even for him) and he's got the same old average ground ball rate. He deserved to drop, even before that blown save last week.

 

Brandon League slips behind fellow ground baller Jim Johnson because he's walking too many batters this year. He only walked ten all year last year and he's already got six in the first month. He doesn't strike enough guys out to do that.

 

Newcomer David Robertson follows in Santiago Casilla's footsteps as he leapfrogs into this tier from nowhere. Robertson is showing the best control of his career this season, and to pair that with his outstanding strikeout punch gives him a heck of a lot of upside. He only got his first save Monday night, but it will be the first of many. Don't bother with Rafael Soriano unless Robertson gets hurt.  You could say the same for Casilla, but you have to walk back the strikeout rate. Then again, he has the swinging strike rate of a guy that should get more punchouts. Expect more of those, and ground balls. And saves, even if Javier Lopez will steal the occasional matchup save.

 

Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "Mike Cameron" Tier.)

 

Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Henry Rodriguez, Washington Nationals
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox

 

Dude. Mike Cameron hit four home runs… with four RBI. That's right, they were all solo home runs. In a 15-2 blowout in 2002. Somehow, that's not quite the awesome as some of the other performances. And all of these guys are unquestioned closers for their teams right now, but they just aren't quite as awesome as the other closers.

 

Even Jonathan Broxton, for example. His velocity is back, but his swinging strike rate is still down. He hasn't blown a save in a while, but seven strikeouts in almost eleven innings is not great. Fernando Rodney has been great -- and his new spot on the rubber might be the reason for his newfound control -- but there's always the threat that he reverts to the Rodney of old, or Kyle Farnsworth gets healthy someday.

 

There really is little to dislike about Brett Myers, but his team would move him for a prospect at the drop of a dime. And he's probably not going to close at his next destination. Grant Balfour -- despite blowing two saves as the calendar turned -- has the peripherals to be a decent closer, but once he gets it together, he could get the Myers treatment. Henry Rodriguez is the most exciting of the three, but he has a terrible walk rate, and it led to the second blown save of the season for him Tuesday night. Plus, Drew Storen.

 

Alfredo Aceves gets his own paragraph. He's now thrown 8 2/3 innings of scoreless ball with 13 strikeouts against two walks over that stretch. That's pretty impressive for a guy that looked like a miscast swingman trying to close earlier in the year. He now has the best strikeout rate of his career going, and the swinging strike rate to support it. Then again, he went multiple innings in both of his last appearances, and that sorta looks like his old usage. He's not anything to bank on, but you might as well hold onto him now. Andrew Bailey will be gone a while. Mark Melancon is dealing -- but he's in the Minor Leagues.

 

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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