Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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New York, New York

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Summer is in full swing, and the closer carousel is practically flying off its hinges. In New York, it's been spinning out of control for weeks now.

 

Two years removed from New York City, I have a little perspective now on what it's like to live in that media cycle. The talking heads are always on -- David Robertson went from savior to pariah in the matter of minutes, most likely. Frank Francisco was Armando Benitez and then he was a cheaper Francisco Rodriguez and then he was Armando Benitez again. There's so much air time to fill in that city that every emotional upheaving is magnified by millions.

 

Then again, the city has its charms. There is no other like it. No matter what you like to do, eat, or watch, you can do, eat or watch it at any given moment in The City. Whatever tiny sliver of culture you've staked out for yourself, you can enjoy the best of it in at least one of the boroughs.

 

Summer in the city brings out the best and worst. For every screaming fan on the radio, there's a screeching pair of brakes in the sweltering subway. And then there are lazy afternoons in Central Park with a cold beverage and a ball of some sort. Or meals on a terrace in the setting sun.

 

You get the picture. So, to fill it out, we'll name the tiers after the great and terrible aspects of summer in The City. Since you'll find New York news throughout this update, it only seems right.

 

Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Sheep's Meadow Sunday" Tier.)

 

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

 

Sheep's Meadow is a section of Central Park that fills with crazy people of all types during the summer. Everyone's sitting on blankets and enjoying themselves and the sun. Early in the summer, the meadow is particularly impressive, as the novelty of good weather hasn't worn off and practically everyone comes out and shows off their bodies in some shape or fashion. Best part of the Meadow might be that it's free.  

In the exuberance of Craig Kimbrel's rookie season, we coined a term here. The Kimbrel is a three-strikeout, no walk, no-hit save. Really, it probably should have a walk or two sprinkled in, since we know Kimbrel has some trouble controlling his stuff sometimes, but since we're talking about dominance, let's run with it.

 

This year, Kimbrel has one Kimbrel. John Axford has none. Neither does Jonathan Papelbon. Should we redo the elite tier? Hardly. What gets you here is a track record (career), health (injury history, and age is an allowable facet), leash (lack of great alternatives, large contract, or professed confidence from management), and performance (what have you done for me lately). While these three may not be blowing the doors down with in the last category, they are doing well enough in the rest to be elite. Elite like a nice day in the park.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA: The "Free Shows at South Street Seaport" Tier.)

 

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

 

Glad to hear they are still doing these. And you'll actually find that most cities around the states have free summer shows that benefit some sponsor or another. There is one tiny downside to enjoying good music for no cost -- the lines can be gargantuan. Everyone else thinks it's a good idea, too.

 

J.J. Putz has elite control, but his velocity is down more than a tick and he has four home runs in his last eight outings. Plus, there's his injury history. Jason Motte was supposed to rise in the rankings today -- he has great strikeout punch, elite control and average ground-ball ability, and it looks like the young, healthy closer is developing some leash -- but a poorly timed blown save says it's time to wait a week. Hey, sometimes the music at a free show is bad. Doesn't mean you don't go back.

 

Rafael Betancourt update! He walked a guy Tuesday night, bringing his walk total to five on the year. He walked eight all year the past two years. This is probably not a big deal, since he's had months without walks in the past and that would tidy up his pace real nicely. He didn't flinch Tuesday night, even with the tying run at second.

 

We've got to give some credit where credit is due. Joe Nathan has his gas back where it used to be. With it came his old swinging strikes, too. His pinpoint control never left town. He has a great ERA and WHIP -- and there's upside for better. He's giving up home runs on 16.7% of his fly balls so far this year. Across baseball, that number is between nine and ten percent every year. So once the home run rate normalizes -- and yes, it could do so even if he plays half his games in Texas -- he should survive any age-related regression that might be coming. He's Rock Steady.

 

Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Outdoor at a Restaurant" Tier.)

 

Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers

 

This is another universal element of summer, although to be fair, New York City does have the best bars and restaurants in the country. Then again, they are the most expensive in the country, the outdoor spaces are not always so impressive since it's a cramped city, and an expensive, crowded, sweaty backyard at the wrong place is a little bit less exciting than your other options. 

 

Jim Johnson might move up, but it's still worth pointing out why he's not in the second tier yet. He has 12 strikeouts in 16 and 2/3 innings. That's about six and half strikeouts per nine innings. That's below average in the major leagues (a little over seven), but it's way below average for a closer. Closers average right around eight strikeouts per nine. So if I had a team full of average closers and you had a team full of Jim Johnsons, I'd probably end up with 200 more strikeouts than you. Or more.

 

Right behind him is Santiago Casilla, who's only striking out about seven guys per nine right now. And he hasn't always shown the elite ground-ball rate he's showing now, either. But Casilla has some upside beyond Johnson. He's struck out eight per nine over his career and has an above-average swinging strike rate. Johnson's swinging strike rate is below average for his career and well below average this year. Both are decent establishments with a straight-forward menu and a nice outdoor space. One of them just attracts better fauna from time to time. (Ignore the Tuesday home run from Marco Scutaro, at least for another week.)

 

Newcomer Fernando Rodney is a risky proposition, even now. He had 430 innings before this year where he had terrible control. Last year, he walked almost eight batters per nine in Los Angeles Anaheim. He's never had a walk rate that was better than average. He's always gotten the whiffs and the grounders, but his control has been so legendarily bad that he's lost the closer's role for two teams before he joined the Rays. Now he suddenly has great control. The Rays moved him on the rubber, and that could be it. Or it could just be a one-month blip that will make us scratch our heads forever. "Remember that time we found that hole in the wall with the two seats out front and those tacos were amazing…"

 

A pair of injury situations wraps up the tier. The easy one first -- Jose Valverde, despite all his flaws, is the closer in Detroit. A diagnosis of back tightness doesn't seem like a harbinger of DL time. Joaquin Benoit is the handcuff -- he's been used in the eighth inning and he doesn't have a platoon split as bad as old man Octavio Dotel's.

 

In New York, it seemed like a lock that David Robertson would step right into the shoes of Mariano Rivera. He was striking out fifteen batters per nine! Now he has a strained left oblique, and the whispers that he's better as a setup man have begun. Of course, Rafael Soriano has done it before, and he's looked comfortable getting his saves so far this past week. He doesn't have the gaudy rates of a Robertson, but he has the mythical closer experience, and more importantly he has the job now. If he performs well for the next two-to-four weeks, the job will be his.

 

Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Grilling on a Rooftop" Tier.)

 

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians

 

This summer option could be cheap and great. Or you could arrive late to the party, find the coals cooling down, the food eaten, and the drinks warm. You could get a great view of the setting sun, or you could enjoy looking at the building across the street and the pigeons circling overhead. You could relax on some lawn furniture and take in the Hudson, or you could feel your feet sinking into melting tar as you take in Atlantic Station. Could go either way.

 

We'll just move Kenley Jansen right to the top of this tier. We never should have doubted him. He doesn't have a Kimbrel yet, but he's a great bet for one, considering he's struck out three in a frame four times already this year. Now that he's still whiffing everyone, but has his walk rate close to league average, there's really no reason to think he'll lose the job. Especially when Javy Guerra is being used in the fifth inning like he was Tuesday night.

 

Broxton has the pristine ERA of a real-life lockdown closer, and his velocity is back up to 2010 levels. But all is not well for the Brox Ox. His swinging strike rate is well below average, and he wasn't about being average in that category. His strikeout rate is also still suffering. With Greg Holland back, it's not impossible to dream up a scenario where he loses his bounce-back job.

 

Frank Francisco gave everyone shades of Armando Benitez this week in New York, but his manager stuck by him. There really isn't anything going wrong with Francisco's peripherals other than some terrible batted ball luck. He still has a great whiff rate, his velocity is still there, and he's still using his split finger as much as ever. Well, Frankie Frank is walking too many batters and he's struggled with that from time to time. But it's been over since 2007 since he really had a bad walk rate in a full season, so he should be able to find the plate again soon. It's not like Jon Rauch's really blowing them away.

 

And Chris Perez. Chris Perez. I get more feedback about him than anyone. The ERA looks fine for a third straight season with the Indians, and he doesn't seem close to losing his job. This, despite not showing the ability to whiff guys at an average rate, not usually showing good control, and being a fly-ball guy. This year he's improved across the board! He's still below average in strikeouts and ground balls. But he's finally showing above-average control, and his ballpark does suppress the big fly. Maybe he'll make it work.

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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