Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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It's the Same Every Year

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How about this for a crazy closer year? 62 relievers already have a save. At least ten teams have already made a change at the position due to injury or poor play. Nightly, there's something happening in a bullpen somewhere that will make the news.


Guess what. It's the same every year.


At least a third of all closers lose their job in any given year, so we're right there. 84 relievers managed a save last year, and you have to figure that many of the pitchers that will earn saves going forward will be the same that have earned saves so far (even if the distribution of those saves is altered). And every year, RotoWorld brings you up-to-date analysis about bullpen moves for just this reason.


With Mariano Rivera going down this year, it's never been more clear. Closers are a volatile group of pitchers. They owe all of their value to their specific role, which is liable to change at the drop of a hat. While position players and starters are given more playing time, which helps them display their true talent, relievers are judged on the tiniest of sample sizes.


All of this is to say that the closer is devalued compared to other players, even starters. For the few of you that have extra closers and are wondering what kind of return you might get, we'll name the tiers something useful for you. Each tier name represents the quality of arm that you might be able to score for your closer right now.


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Tommy Hanson" Tier.)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals


Tommy Hanson's walk rate is up, and his velocity is down. His injury history and possible tendency to wear down as the season progresses are risk factors even if you like his arsenal. That said, he'd be a pretty good get for one of these closers -- even with a reduced projection, he's likely to pitch more than twice the innings of your reliever. And he'll win some games even if he doesn't save any.


In his last ten-plus innings, Motte has actually blown two saves. But he also has ten strikeouts against one walk, and has given up seven hits. He even won the games he blew because he didn't blow up and he's got a good team behind him. He's got leash, gas and control. He's elite. Even if nobody on this list is elite like Mariano Rivera was once elite, he's elite.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA: The "Matt Moore or Chris Sale" Tier.)


J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies


Matt Moore has never had a walks problem. Matt Moore only has to better his walk rate to be the excellent pitcher he can be. Watch a start of his, and you know he has excellent stuff and is worth a buy-low. Chris Sale has nice numbers, and the stuff to back it up. On the other hand, he's fresh off an MRI and has been the subject of injury speculation since he entered the league, or since someone spotted the fact that he only weighed about a buck fifty. Now there's added research that shows that the sidearm arm slot might lead to more stress on the elbow. And, as a converted reliever, Sale probably has an innings limit. Still, there's no way he doesn't manage 150 innings, which is about twice your typical reliever.

J.J. Putz blew a save, but more amazing was the fact that he walked two batters Tuesday night. He had walked one all year. He didn't walk two in a game all last year. You have to go back to April 28 of 2010 to find a game where he walked two batters. Amazing.

Joel Hanrahan moves down because he's still walking guys, and Rafael Betancourt drops a few spots for the two blown games in his last three decisions, but the story here in this tier is Santiago Casilla. Casilla is showing that he's got a stranglehold on the job in San Francisco, by putting up the best walk and ground-ball rates of his career. He's still pumping 94+ MPH gas, and even if he doesn't have the strikeout rate of an elite closer, eight strikeouts per nine is no Jim Johnson situation. The artist formerly known as Jairo Garcia is painting in San Francisco.


Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Ervin Santana" Tier.)


Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds


Ervin Santana is a bit of a Steady Eddy. Well, last year he got a little lucky on batted balls and the overall line looked a little better than his stuff warrants. But he's mostly a fastball/slider guy and he has some platoon issues because of it. This year, he's giving up too many homers than he 'should,' but he's also getting lucky on batted balls. As those two numbers regress, he'll probably be about the same going forward. That isn't sexy, but it's useful. This might be the shocker of the group -- there are plenty of you that wouldn't trade Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen for Ervin Santana -- but even if you were guaranteed that those relievers would keep their jobs, their overall value could be very similar.


Kenley Jansen has turned into a steady eddy. He'd be the hardest guy to trade away in this tier, given his extreme strikeout punch -- 36 in 22 and 2/3 innings. He's Kimbrel-esque, but the amazing thing is that he's really gotten better at that whole control thing this year. He hasn't walked a guy in five appearances and has only walked eight all year. That's a big turnaround that might be worth being suspicious of, but progress might come quickly -- Jansen was a catcher not too long ago. Hold tight to your new closer with elite upside.

Rafael Soriano is not a steady eddy. He's been all over the place. But his closer face is legendary and David Robertson won't be ready to come off the DL when he's eligible. Add in the fact that Soriano has now converted three saves in a row with no trouble, he might just be the closer all year. It's worth noting that he's gone five straight without a walk, too.


Fernando Rodney has done nothing but save games and liven up the clubhouse. His ERA is under one and his WHIP is under one-half, and he's never shown control like this. Now we have some more information on why this is happening. For one, he's getting more called strikes on non-strikes than any other reliever in the business. And that might be related to the fact that he's got a catcher that has proven that he's the best at framing pitches in the league. When you fall back on his career control, you still have to admit there's risk. But all this information makes him very interesting. 


Speaking of Aroldis Chapman, he's number one with a bullet shot out of the cannon that is his left arm. But not quite. He's still uncomfortable pitching in back-to-backs, and hasn't done it much over his career. That led to a Sean Marshall save… even after Chapman was declared closer. So keep Sean Marshall around, he'll vulture some saves. And don't get too comfortable with a closer that has a career walk rate over five. Even when it looks so, so awesome right now.


Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "Hiroki Kuroda" Tier.)


Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins


Hiroki Kuroda is just a 37-year-old righty trying to make it in a hitter's park that loves lefty power. His velocity is down, his walks are up, his whiffs and strikeouts are down… what do you like again? Then again, if you are selling one of these closers, what are you hoping to get, really? Kuroda could improve his home-run luck -- he's giving up home runs on almost 20% of his fly balls, and that number is 10% across the league -- and could rack up some wins on that team. You might want to package your closer with another starter to get an improvement, actually.


Chris Perez! Yell at your fans some more! Even if it's their 'fault' you're finally throwing strikes, it's a good thing! Seriously, whatever got in his dander and made him get his swinging strike rate up (to average), his strikeout rate up (to average for a closer), and limit his walks (to average), it has to rate as a good thing for his owners. After years of declining peripherals (and velocity), his numbers look much much better this year (even though his velocity is down again). I doff my cap (and razor) to you, sir.


I still might rather have Addison Reed, as crazy as that will sound to some. Reed has a strikeout rate that's almost half-again better than Perez, and while his walk rate doesn't look great now, he's been elite in that category all of his career to date. He's the closer now, and he was groomed for this job all along. Once he puts some distance between him and his three-walk meltdown on May 13th, his overall numbers will look more excellent-er than those Perez puts up.


Brandon League is having some trouble. He's been rocked two consecutive times out there, and it's not like his entire year speaks well for him beyond that. He has one more strikeout than walk, and that's because he now has one of the worst walk rates of his career. His vaunted ground-ball rate has even disappeared. Now you're left with a closer that doesn't get strikeouts, doesn't limit the walks, and doesn't get ground balls any more. Go get Tom Wilhelmsen. League's a free agent after this year anyway.


Frank Francisco seems to have held on to his job through thin. Now he's thick with strikeouts and Jon Rauch is the one almost blowing games. Really, it was Bobby Parnell that was the real threat to the job, but the team seems fine with him where he is too. What if the newfound control dissipates, after all. Frankie Frank is walking too many people, but he's still got the strikeout stuff… and the job.

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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