Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Age in a Young Man's Game

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jamie Moyer is still hanging on by a thread in the Rockies rotation. Roy Oswalt is coming back. Hideki Matsui is playing with the Rays. Manny Ramirez might be up any day. Barry Bonds was spotted in the Giants' broadcast booth. Are we having a little mid-life crisis here in baseball?


Going into this year, we thought we might see an elite season from a 40-something reliever, but then Mariano Rivera went down to injury. And, as often as it's physical decline that contributes to a player's age-related exit from the game, it's health that does the same. After all, since the free agency era begin in baseball, only seven players over 40 have managed to even rack up 600 plate appearances.


The odd ageless wonder still comes through in the end. So let's name our tiers after the men over 40 that provided strong numbers for their teams. The better the production, the better the closer.


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Randy Johnson" Tier.)


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


In 2004, Randy Johnson put up the best season by a pitcher over 40, and it wasn't particularly close. He won 16 games, which is fine, had a 2.60 ERA, which is good, walked fewer than two per nine innings, which is great, and struck out 10.62 per nine, which is elite, and threw 245 2/3 innings… which is unbelievable. Then you scan down the leaderboard and see that he's in the top 25 four times, and you realize that he doesn't get enough credit for producing so late into his career.


Craig Kimbrel almost got a Kimbrel Tuesday night -- two strikeouts and no baserunners, so just a K short -- but he's been walking fewer guys recently, and that's the only flaw in his game. John Axford has the same flaw, but he's slowly pushing that ERA and WHIP to the elite territory where it belongs. Nine straight appearances without a walk for Jonathan Papelbon, and four on the year.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA: The "Nolan Ryan" Tier.)


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


By wins above replacement, Nolan Ryan had the second- and third-best seasons by a quadragenarian in league history.  In 1989, he, like Randy Johnson, won 16 games and struck out batters at a double-digit rate. It's just that his ERA was over three and his walk rate was below average. Eh. He threw TWO no-hitters after turning 40. Maybe he should be first, but there's always that walk rate as an asterisk.


Speaking of asterisks, J.J. Putz has his age. Joe Nathan too, with recent surgery to boot. Joel Hanrahan has some walk issues from time to time. Rafael Betancourt still hasn't had a season with double-digit saves. There's really nothing wrong with Santiago Casilla, though. He doesn't have the strikeout rate of an elite closer, but he's got everything else right now.


And now Kenley Jansen, who does have the elite upside, based on his 13.5 strikeouts per nine. Now Jansen even has a league-average walk rate, which is quite an accomplishment for him. He did blow his last save, so the timing is a little curious, but just watch him once and you know he deserves this. Even when he 'blew up,' it was one walk and one hit against four outs. That's not the kind of blown save that costs you your job.


Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Carlton Fisk" Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers


It's time for the position players to get a little attention here. In 1990, Carlton Fisk had a season that may not have looked amazing on the surface. He only hit 18 home runs with a .285 batting average. Then again, he was 43, and he was a catcher. That position runs roughshod through a man's knees, and here was Fisk, hitting over 30% better than the league average at the time, at an incredibly important position. By wins above replacement, he had the best position player season over 40 in history, and it's only 'okay' because the counting numbers might not wow the layman.


Whether Fernando Rodney is enjoying the framing of his excellent defensive catcher, the new spot on the rubber, or just the crazy Rays clubhouse, something has changed. Prone to long stretches of control problems, Rodney hit a blip last week -- he 'blew up' with a walk and a home run and lost a game in Boston -- and then he just got back on the horse the next night with a clean slate against the same opponent. He might not have the old strikeout punch he used to have, and so he might not rise up the tiers too much, but he looks to have leash and a new lease on life, and kudos to those that picked him up.


As the White Sox pen settles into their roles (a little slower than a certain former White Sox catcher), people will begin to realize how good Addison Reed is. Dude has a 95 MPH fastball with great movement, a wicked slider, and a show-me change to keep lefties honest. He's had double-digit strikeout rates and only double-digit strikeout rates. Once his walk rate starts to dip below two like it did in the minors, he'll make people do spit-takes. He kinda looks like a right-handed Chris Sale even. Remember how wicked Sale is?


Since Rafael Soriano became the closer in New York, he's struck out six batters against no walks in five and a third. He's given up an earned run, just one, and there's a chance he holds on to the job all year. After all, when Dave Robertson returns in June, will they shake things up if Soriano is still dealing? History suggests no.


Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "Jamie Moyer" Tier.)


Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins


Jamie Moyer is famous for pitching longevity -- he's 49 this year and has inspired more age jokes than anyone in baseball -- but the seasons have not all been excellent. Yes, there was 2003, when he won 21 games with a 3.27 ERA, but he only struck out about five and a half per nine innings that year and didn't really have a standout peripheral statistic. And that was his only season in the top 30 among 40+ year-olds, despite having another eight chances to pad his lead. His second-best season after 40, for example, was 2008, when he won 16 games with a 3.71 ERA. This was about being willing to go out there and throw the changeup, rack up high ERAs, and win some games at the back end of a competitive team. It was remarkable and admirable, but it was not elite.


Alfredo Aceves has been a little up and down, and in the last week he blew two games by allowing home runs. He's not really a fly ball guy, so this probably won't continue, but really his peripherals have been all over the map in his career so far. Because he's changed roles, it's hard to know what he is. This year, he's showing great strikeout ability. Last year, it was more about control. At times, he's been a ground-ball guy. The main thing is that the Red Sox don't really have competition for him now.


Heath Bell looked a little Moyer-esque for a while, but he's now saved two in a row, with two strikeouts in each appearance, and he might just keep the job all year. He has the salary to keep it, and for sure that must factor in on some level. His velocity drop wasn't that huge, and really it was about the curveball. If he can locate it and has confidence in it again, he'll be fine. Probably not worth $30 million, but that's another story.


Frank Francisco is labeled as a question mark, but he's not so much of a question mark as many in his tier. He now has five strikeouts against no walks in his last four appearances, and 24 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings on the year. That's what you pay your closer to do. The walks were a problem for a while, but he's regressing back to his career levels now and though Jon Rauch is next in line, Jon Rauch is no Frank Francisco.


Glen Perkins hasn't been quite as dominant as he was last year, and he is left-handed, but he does have nine strikeouts in his last five innings, which shows the kind of strikeout punch he's found since moving to the pen. He's now at 27 in 21 innings on the year… and Matt Capps? He has 10 strikeouts in 19 innings, and blew a save last week. Perkins is a decent pickup if all the rest of the save speculators have picked your wire mostly clean.


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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