Well LeBron James 'finally' has a ring.
It's not that he's such a villain -- he's probably not as bad as he's come off in the media, which can exacerbate situations like his -- it's that he really hadn't waited all that long. Sure, he is either the best or second-best player in his sport, but his title came in his eighth year. Others as good have waited longer. Much longer.
So, in the interest of putting LeBron James in his place among the pantheon of ring-less baseball players, we'll dedicate the tiers to the best players that played the longest and didn't ever get that special ticker tape parade. You'll see that while it was admirable for the admiral in Miami to stick to it and finally win, he hasn't quite suffered like Dan Marino. Or Carl Yastrzemski.
In a roundabout way the pairing makes sense -- sometimes even the best relievers end up setting up all year. Rafael Soriano has. Vinnie Pestano has. Greg Holland might. Even Mariano Rivera spent a year in setup. That's why we have to look at roles before skills -- sometimes the best question is 'who's the closer now?'
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Carl Yastrzemski" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
The Red Sox' string of futility should rank first because it probably created the two most egregious title-less players in baseball history. The Yaz played 23 seasons and ended up an All-Star in 18 of them. He didn't get a title. Ted Williams hit .344 over 22 seasons and is one of baseball's top five players of all time. He didn't get a title. So really the team 'wins' this one -- all those years with great players, and none of them brought home the biggest win.
Is there a chance that Jason Motte doesn't belong in this tier? The rest of the tier has elite strikeout rates, control, or both. Motte has a nice swinging strike rate (11.2%, average is 8.9% this year) and just around a strikeout per inning, but that's not elite for a closer. He walks a little over three per nine, and that's just about average. He gets an average amount of ground balls. This year, he has a bit of a homer problem. Any sign of trouble and he may find himself dropping. It took him what felt like forever to get the job in St. Louis (not quite Red Sox-ian), but that doesn't mean he'll keep it forever. For now, he's going to stick, but Motte's on notice.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Barry Bonds" Tier.)
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Let's not make this about that issue. Let's just appreciate that this dude played 22 seasons and made one World Series. Despite hitting .471 with four home runs in that series, he ended his career ringless. Well, he couldn't take the ball from Russ Ortiz and close the game out or anything. That's baseball's career leader in home runs, walks, and intentional walks -- and he never won it all.
We've been waiting all year for an injury from J.J. Putz, who knows when it will come. We waited for a while for a blowup from Joe Nathan, but it doesn't seem like it's on the way. Some are waiting for a trade for Rafael Betancourt -- Rex Brothers is looking better and better -- but Betancourt is signed for a reasonable team option in 2013. It would take a nice prospect to pry him loose. All these waiting games probably won't work out, so don't worry about rostering their handcuffs in saves leagues. On the other hand, we've been waiting for John Axford to find his control, and just when he finally looks like he had, he pitches the eighth inning Tuesday night. He hadn't pitched in four days, though, and his last appearance was a save. Don't wait too long for Francisco Rodriguez to close again.
Despite having nearly six strikeouts to every walk and almost two strikeouts per inning, Aroldis Chapman found himself in some hot water last week. In consecutive appearances, he gave up home runs and blew saves. That sort of thing happens. You can point out that he has three home runs and eight earned runs in his last ten appearances if you like, but he hadn't given up a run before that. And his strikeout-to-walk ratio in those same ten appearances was 17 to three. That's somersault-worthy, and Tuesday night Chapman showed us that same excellence (three strikeouts and one walk in a clean inning) and also the calisthenics we've been anticipating from the Cuban.
Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Roy Halladay" Tier.)
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Halladay 'only' has 192 wins, and with 1990 strikeouts, he probably won't end his career with many records in the counting stats. He played for a long time with a team in the Yankees' division. He's only made the postseason twice, and though he's been great, he hasn't played in a World Series game. Still, think about current title-less greats, and he comes to mind. He's still got time, even after 15 years of pitching and waiting.
Santiago Casilla joins the tier because of some shaky work last week in Oakland. He gave up runs in three straight games. One of those outings, he didn't get an out, and gave up a walk and two hits to make a blowout win close. In the other, he gave up a game-winning home run. Maybe it was about pitching on back-to-back-to-back days. He took a day off and then got the save with a clean slate Tuesday night. Still, the fact that Clay Hensley is an able reliever that was called on to close a game that Casilla was supposed to finish -- that fact is not one that supports Casilla's candidacy for the Rock Steady tier.
In the interest of symmetry, some part of me was rooting for a closer to rise up out of this tier. But each gave me reasons not to.
Some were performance related. Heath Bell has been better -- 15 strikeouts against three walks in his last ten outings -- but then he blew a game wide open with a four-run inning last week. He looked terrible doing it, too. Addison Reed has been better, and in particular, his three walks in his last ten-plus innings were a good sign that he'd found the elite control he used to show. But he doesn't quite have the crazy strikeout rate that he showed in the minors, either, and then he walked another and gave up two runs in save Tuesday night. Doesn't sound Rock Steady. Jim Johnson is great, but playing him still means you're spotting 15-20 strikeouts against other closing tandems in your fantasy league.
Some of these guys are not moving up because of other reasons. Huston Street is on a team that is renowned for trading their relievers. Fernando Rodney has been great, but supposedly Kyle Farnsworth looked excellent in his rehab appearances. Rodney's unique story -- finding the plate this late in his career -- could still pumpkin at any time. We could be waiting for Godot, or we could be waiting for regression. Just depends on when he reverts.
At the top of the tier, though, sit two enigmas. Consider this fact: Rafael Soriano gets many more whiffs than Chris Perez does. His swinging strike rate is an elite-ish 10.2%, while Perez has a swinging strike rate of 6.9%. Average, again, is 8.9%, and our research at FanGraphs showed that swinging strike rates and velocity combined are very good predictors of future strikeout rate. At least Perez has a tick-plus on Soriano. If you believe that Perez suddenly has elite control after more than 200 innings of poor control, you'll slide him ahead of Soriano and consider him a great candidate for the second tier. If you think Soriano can continue to avoid giving up home runs despite pitching in that Yankee park (none so far this year), then you might advocate for Soriano. If, like me, you don't think either of these things will hold, you end up leaving them in this tier and scratching your head.
Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Josh Hamilton" Tier.)
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Ryan Cook, Oakland Athletics
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
Josh Hamilton has played six seasons, but could easily have debuted before his 26th year on this planet. If he'd arrived any earlier, he'd fit LeBron James to a tee. They've both come within a win or two of a title, they've both burned bright at the top of their sports, and neither has shown many signs of decline yet. That's right, LeBron's suffering would only end up in the fourth tier among great baseball players.
The Mariners did say that they wanted to get Brandon League back in the closer's role last week. Tuesday night, their manager used League in the seventh inning and he gave up two hits while getting an out (and a blown save). Actions speak louder than words, and roles speak louder than skills most times. Wilhelmsen is in the ninth and he's not screwing up, finally doing just what some of us have been waiting for all year. He's got great strikeout punch, and if his control holds, he'll be a great closer all year. In some leagues, he's even starter-eligible, which makes him even more attractive. Not that I'm saying he's attractive. Which would be fine if I was.
We waited for a short while for Ernesto Frieri to be the closer, and he's still not alone in that role in Los Angeles of Anaheim. We thought that Brian Fuentes wouldn't be the closer all year, and Ryan Cook is the shutdown guy none of us were waiting for long. Some were waiting for Jonathan Broxton to regain his excellence, some of us were waiting for Greg Holland to take his job. We'll both wait all year.
Alfredo Aceves moves down to the bottom of this tier through no fault of his own -- it's just that Andrew Bailey is nearing return. At times, Aceves did it ugly, but if you look at his peripherals this year, they are all at or near career highs. If you held on to him, congratulations. Thank Aceves for his work so far and start looking for his replacement. It's not about 'if' with him, it's about 'when.'
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.