Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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It Takes Two to Handcuff

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

It takes two. Well, at least it does in monogamous relationships and chess matches.


This year, it takes two to capture the baseball fan's attention -- there's a pair of rookies that are taking the league by storm. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are already doing things that haven't been seen from a pair of guys who aren't of drinking age yet. They could become the best duo to debut in the same season without doing much better from here on out.


Most years, it takes (at least) two in your better bullpen. There are days when the primary closer has pitched too many games in a row, for example. And about a third of all pitchers hit the DL in a given year, so there will be the odd two-week stint where the number two has to step in for number one. Handcuffs are good, at least in monogamous relationships and chess matches.


In honor of these two types of twos, we'll name the tiers after dynamic duo debuts, and we'll point out the robins behind the batmen in each bullpen. Is it too much? You decide.


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Evan Longoria and Joey Votto" Tier.)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers


In 2008, you had a trio of youths, really, with Jacoby Ellsbury playing out his rookie eligibility to great success along with Longoria and Votto. Even if you use Ellsbury instead of Votto (since the Red Sox center fielder accrued three-tenths of a win above replacement more than the Reds first baseman), you get just over nine wins from your 2008 pairing. Harper and Trout are projected for just under nine wins, though, so they do belong in this conversation. And what a conversation it is -- Votto hit .297 with 24 home runs and seven stolen bases, Longoria hit .272 with 27 home runs and equaled his stolen base total while playing third, and Ellsbury hit .312 with 50 stolen bases in center field. What was in the water that year? Mike Aviles even put up four WAR that year.


In this tier, the backup men are likely to be of little use. Jonny Venters isn't having the year he had last year, but he's still the setup man. Probably won't see many saves. Once the Phillies get going, it will be Jonathan Papelbon getting all the saves, and Antonio Bastardo dominating the eighth inning. Even after a little hiccup, Mitchell Boggs is behind Jason Motte in St. Louis. Well behind.


Newcomer Kenley Jansen has always had the elite strikeout rate, but the former catcher had a control problem. That was before this year. Now his walk rate is hovering around average, and he's actually throwing more balls into the zone than the league-average pitcher. And still nobody can make any contact -- he has 48 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings! 12 walks in that sample doesn't mean he'll never have trouble with his control again, and he has walked batters in four of his last eight appearances, but Jansen looks dominant and deserves this. Josh Lindblom is probably next in line. Doesn't matter much.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez" Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants


Four wins above replacement makes you an All-Star player most years. In 2006, Dan Uggla (4.5 WAR) and Hanley Ramirez (4.6 WAR) managed that feat as teammates, which is pretty sweet. The teammate tandems that make up this tier are also pretty sweet.


Aroldis Chapman spits fire. Well, he blew a save this week and finally gave up some runs, but his work in back-to-back games cements his status as the closer, and makes Sean Marshall a backup. But Marshall will get some saves still, considering Chapman's reluctance to warm on consecutive nights. At least nights when Chapman has pitched twice in a row still seem open for Marshall.


We've been waiting for him find the plate again and return to the elite form that he found the last two years, but it's not coming. John Axford keeps walking too many batters, and he's now throwing balls in the zone at his career-lowest rate. There's no reason to think that he will have a nice WHIP going forward -- he'll probably keep his job and give his owners plenty of strikeouts and saves, but he'll also give up plenty of walks. Francisco Rodriguez isn't having a K-Rod season, but he's still the second half of that back-end tandem in Milwaukee.


Santiago Casilla hopped right back on the horse and rewarded our patience in him by proving he was still the sole closer over the past week. In the meantime, Sergio Romo showed that he's the handcuff, even if Javier Lopez will get the occasional situational save. Casilla might use his backup more than others, since Romo is so excellent, but J.J. Putz will need David Hernandez at some point. And Joe Nathan might need Mike Adams to take the ball once or twice, considering his age. Joel Hanrahan left town to deal with family stuff for a little bit, and Juan Cruz was the guy who got his save chances, but it's Jason Grilli who's doing more of the setup work these days. Pick one. Matt Belisle would step in for Rafael Betancourt if there was an injury, but probably not because of poor play.


Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Jemile Weeks and Ben Revere" 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
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins


Two WAR makes you an average major league player, or so goes the general benchmark. To have a rookie turn in a major league average season in his first year is actually an impressive feat, even if it doesn't sound like it. Maybe it's old hat to some -- we've seen three duos turn in exactly two wins above replacement since 2005. Ryan Church and Clint Barmes did so in 2005 and Casey McGehee and Will Venable did it in 2009. But last year we had two speedsters that might factor into fantasy seasons for a long time manage the feat in Jemile Weeks and Ben Revere, and that just seems like a fun oddity. This tier is made up of an odd assortment of vets and young closers, but it'll work.


Addison Reed is looking safer these days. He's only walked one batter in his last nine appearances, and he always had excellent control in the minors. Suddenly, though, Jesse Crain is the setup man there and might be next in line. We learned when Huston Street was out that the mustachioed Dale Thayer was his backup. Thayer and Crain could see some saves, but if Reed and Street stay healthy, they won't see many. Pedro Strop backs up Jim Johnson, and might be the future closer in Baltimore, even if he did blow a game last week. Rafael Soriano blew a save, too, but it wasn't a huge blowup -- no walks, no home runs, and just three hits that led to a run and a blown save -- and the guess here is that David Robertson is his backup when he returns. Fernando Rodney and Chris Perez aren't the most stable relievers, so their partners in crime are interesting. At the same time, Fernando Rodney might have done enough to stave off Kyle Farnsworth's return. Chris Perez has also improved and Vinnie Pestano didn't get many chances while Perez was bad, so he's not likely to get many when Perez is better.


Should Heath Bell move up? He straight up stunk -- he couldn't locate his slower fastball and he was bouncing his curve -- until he was returned to the closer role May 28th. Since that day, he's struck out ten in 6 2/3 innings and only walked two. He's looked good, too. His contract already meant that Steve Cishek was likely to remain his backup, but now the performance is starting to look Bell-ian. Let's move him up.


Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Billy Butler and Delmon Young" Tier.)


Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox


There were actually two rookies in 2007 that managed to play to exactly zero wins above replacement, but Mike Rabelo didn't really have much of a career. So it's more impressive to find that Billy Butler and Delmon Young only managed three-tenths of a win together, considering how much playing time they got that year (over 1000 plate appearances). But if you pair a bad-glove outfielder with a no-glove designated hitter and neither walks at an average rate, that's what you get. A replacement player.


Brett Myers could stay in Houston all year and make his owners happy for the return they got on their cheap investment. But his contract vests at a certain number of games finished, and we all know what happened to Francisco Rodriguez when an uncompetitive team was faced with the same situation. The new crew in Houston has no loyalty to Myers, and all they need is a decent prospect back and he'll be gone. And if he's gone, so will his save chances disappear. It's probably Wilton Lopez back in Houston if Myers leaves -- his ground-ball heavy approach isn't quite ideal for the closer's role, but he's back to his elite walk rate, and striking out batters at a career-best rate. He'd be a pretty good closer, and a better Jim Johnson than Jim Johnson even. Brandon Lyon's numbers look good -- even in the peripherals -- but they are so out of line with his career numbers that they look ridiculous. Believe the other 590 or so innings before you believe the 20-plus he's put up this year.


Tuesday night, Jonathan Broxton saved a game -- not news -- but he struck out two batters -- that's news. With 16 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings, he's obviously not the ox he used to be. Greg Holland is back and has leapt ahead of the rest of the bullpen by putting up two Kimbrels (three strikeouts, no walks, no hits) since he's returned. Holland is the long-term own in this bullpen still, and at some point the Royals may just look to the future to see what they have before they make a decision on Joakim Soria's contract option. 


Jose Valverde… well, he's the big potato. It's probably best to own his handcuff, Joaquin Benoit, if you're rolling Valverde to the mound. Valverde's strikeout rate (and swinging strike rate) and ground-ball rate have disappeared, leaving him alone with his terrible control. This closer change could really happen, and we'll demote Valverde to reflect that chance.


Frank Francisco is safe in perhaps the worst bullpen in the league. His handcuff is probably Jon Rauch, but if you want to know how bad the bullpen is, Miguel Batista is probably next in line -- Manager Terry Collins said so at least, and maybe in response to Rauch's troubles against the Yankees. Matt Capps can't get the strikeouts of a Francisco, but he's in a better pen and has only blown one save all year. You can hang on to Glen Perkins if you like, but he doesn't look like he'll get many saves unless a deal happens. Capps probably wouldn't net them anything interesting like a decent catching prospect (cough cough Wilson Ramos), but that boat has sailed. Alfredo Aceves has one foot in the bottom tier and one foot in this tier. He saved a perfect frame Tuesday night, but he'd blown two of his last three games before that. He's still got an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his peripherals look good. And Andrew Bailey continues to talk about his return. And there's no clear backup ready to take 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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