Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Confounding the Numbers

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


There are many tough aspects about finding saves and being a statistically-oriented analyst.

 

For one, there isn't actually any statistical link between good rates and the closer role, as Derek Carty has found in the past. It's true -- there isn't a correlation between strikeout rates or walk rates or ground-ball rates and taking the closer job. We talk about those rates in this column because they are the backbone of a good pitcher -- pitchers can largely only control strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates and little else. But even good pitchers behind bad closers remain setup men.

 

There are other ideas that don't hold statistical water. Good closers come from bad teams, and good teams barely produce more save opportunities than bad teams. And no matter how good your lefty reliever is, he's about half as likely to become a closer as he should be. Managers don't seem to prefer the lefty closer.

 

So we can barely use the skills of the player or the quality of the team to determine how valuable a reliever will be… what do we do?

 

Well, we try to find the best pitchers, because quality has a way of rising, and because strikeouts are an actual category -- get a guy with a good strikeout rate, a low walk rate, and a high ground-ball rate, and he's likely to help you in relevant roto categories (strikeouts, WHIP, ERA) even if he doesn't close.

 

Then, we have to look at roles. When a player is being used is more important, sometimes, than how good the player is. Ernesto Frieri was just Ernesto Frieri in San Diego, but when he got to Los Angeles and was used in high leverage situations, that's when we knew he was headed for saves as The Closer. He always had the strikeout rate skill, but the role change was important.

 

Hopefully that provided the reasoning behind some of the choices made in this column. And we'll name the tiers in honor of the good closers from bad teams that can return so much value on your smaller investment, just for fun.

 

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Eric Gagne" Tier.)

 

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

 

In 2003, Eric Gagne saved 55 games in a row for the Dodgers. He was lights out, with velocity and break and goggles to boot. Dude was nasty. The team won 85 games, which isn't crappy, but they didn't make the postseason either. Points to the lowered value of the position a little, but that's 'real' baseball. In fantasy baseball, Gagne that season was saves gold, but 2002 was really his fantasy gold season. All he'd done before 2002 was rack up a 4.5+ ERA as a starter, so he was really cheap going into that great season.

 

Jonathan Papelbon blew a save this week, and he is showing the worst swinging strike rate of his career. That's where the negatives end. He's still got a double-digit strikeout rate and a minuscule walk rate. He's gotten a little unlucky on home runs so far -- he's already given up as many homers (three) as he did all year last year -- and his velocity is at a career-low, but he'll be fine. There should be an added entry in our list of requirements for closers -- salary. Like Heath Bell in Miami, Papelbon will get a year-long leash if things get hairy. And they aren't.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Randy Myers" Tier.)

 

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

 

In 1993, the Cubs finished 13 games out of the postseason and their closer racked up 53 saves. Another remarkable thing about those 53 saves is that they make up the most ever by a lefty closer. Randy Myers, Billy Wagner, John Franco… and your list of dominant lefty closers starts to dry up.

 

Joel Hanrahan got his first Kimbrel of the year, with three strikeouts and no baserunners Tuesday night. Both his strikeout and walk rates are up, and though that's not great on both counts, it's nice to see The Hammer use his gas to get whiffs this year. The 2010 version was a little more valuable than the 2011 version, after all -- those extra 39 strikeouts go a long way.

 

Kenley Jansen didn't get a Kimbrel Tuesday night -- two strikeouts and one hit -- but he's due for some in the future. His walk rate is much better this year. As a former catcher he didn't have the long track record of poor control that Javy Guerra (now on the DL after surprise knee surgery) showed. Even if the control takes a step back, he can be Carlos-Marmol-like with that strikeout rate. (Old Carlos Marmol, not the current version.)

 

Yes, Aroldis Chapman has been excellent and has whiteout stuff. But, going into this season, a source in the Reds organization felt he'd never close because he didn't like warming up on consecutive days. Has so much changed in the last two months? Maybe. It is worth noting that Sean Marshall has gotten a save since he was removed from the role, and it was because Chapman had pitched too often recently. So, the Cuban is excellent and offers strikeout and ratio value beyond his saves, but he also has a tiny bit of risk attached to his name.

 

It looked like Santiago Casilla might be slipping, since Sergio Romo saved a game for him, but it's mostly about his bruised knee. The team is acting like Casilla is still their closer and he just needs a day or two to rest. That's how his fantasy teams should act, too.

 

Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Bryan Harvey" Tier.)

 

Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers

 

In 1993, the Marlins won 64 games. Their closer saved 45 of them! Bryan Harvey was a decent closer with a double-digit strikeout rate, but those early Marlins were not yet good. He's the champion, the patron saint of a good closer on a bad team, though. Even if you might expect a handful less saves from a bad team, you can always remember that 45 saves is possible even on a bad team. It's happened before.

 

Huston Street is back from his lat injury. We slowly moved him up, tier by tier, because he looked healthy to begin the year and we thought maybe he'd pitch more than 50 innings for once. Boom. Then he went down. And we can't even pretend that his seasonal injury is behind him -- injuries don't work that way. So Street might look out of place in this tier with his good ratios, but we have to remember that health is a skill. One that he doesn't necessarily have in spades.

 

He didn't have a good day -- Jim Johnson gave up two runs to blow the save against Boston Tuesday -- but he hung in there and got the win. It was the rare home run allowed for the sinkerballer, and it doesn't mean much for now. Pedro Strop has more strikeout punch, but also less control, so he's a holds guy for now.

 

Chris Perez. He's sort of one-man proof that strikeout and walk rates don't always predict the closer role situation. Vinnie Pestano is still striking out more batters than Perez, and for the second straight year he's had better peripherals than his closer, but he's still the setup man. Let's give Perez some credit -- he's got his strikeout and walk rate to about average for a closer, and he's even improved his ground-ball rate (though it's still bad). He's been better this year, and there are still reasons to be skeptical. After 252 innings of a walk rate over four (which is bad), he's got his walk rate under three this year (which is good), but that's in 22-plus innings. He also hasn't given up a home run this year on 26 fly balls. Across the league, it's a fact that 10% of fly balls leave the yard. If he regresses on the home runs and the walks at the same time, it might not take a long time to make a change at the position. It's also important to point out that he's an excellent pitcher that made it to the big leagues, but when judged against the other 20 best relievers in the game, a relatively normal 93 mph fastball and a slider can be seen as a recipe for platoon splits (that's just the nature of the movement of a slider), and Perez walks almost twice as many lefties as righties. For now, though, he's proven himself to be definitely okay.

 

Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Greg Aquino" Tier.)

 

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

 

The 2004 Diamondbacks had a bad bullpen. They also only won 51 games. But Greg Aquino managed 16 of the team's 30 saves with the best numbers of his life… on the surface. His 3.06 ERA and 1.16 WHIP were hiding some poor ratios, though, thanks to some batted ball luck and a short 35 1/3 innings of exposure. He would soon cede the job to a flashy kid named Jose Valverde, but in 2004, Aquino was the guy that got his owners saves for cheap. Sometimes you have feel a little dirty on the way to a win.

 

Should Brett Myers be rated higher? After all, he's a good closer on a bad team, and there's very little competition for saves in his pen. On the other hand, his contract has a vesting option that depends on games finished, and the Astros don't really have use for a multi-million dollar closer right now. They'll be highly motivated to move him -- think Francisco Rodriguez and the Mets.

 

Frank Francisco technically blew a save Tuesday night, but it was a mess of Tim Byrdak's making, and it was in the eighth inning. More importantly, he didn't walk anyone, which makes six straight appearances without a walk. He's back on track, and Bobby Parnell is no great threat to his job. In some ways Frankie Frank even has better ratios than Jonathan Broxton, who has only struck out 14 in 22 2/3 innings, and didn't whiff a guy Tuesday night either. At least he's not walking guys…


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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