Greetings from vacation (of a sort). I'm in Hawaii with extended family and babies are screaming everywhere. Work is a bit of respite if you can believe it.
Especially since I burned my kneecaps at the beach the other day. My kneecaps! Only my kneecaps! How does that happen? It's probably not the first time this sort of thing has happened, but it confounded me. Just the kneecaps.
In honor of all the sunburns out there, this week's tiers will be named after the terrible, terrible things a sun can do to us. The worse the sunburn, the better the closer -- stepping in against most of these guys probably feels about as nice as a category-five sun storm on your face, but we'll go granular to separate out those closers that truly deserve reverence for the heat they bring.
Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Blister" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Really, any burn that blisters is terrible. You can't put clothing on it, and at least that first night of sleep is out the window. It's going to peel, it's going to hurt, and in general your life is going to suck for anything from two days to a week, depending on how much aloe you can pack on the area without turning your house into a grease pit. Can you sleep in a bathtub full of aloe without risking your life? Can you fit in your freezer? Is there a way to sit on your couch without touching the couch at all? These are the questions you ponder when you've got a blister burn.
Speaking of blisters, Papelbon has the worst heater in this tier at 93.6 mph, and fastball velocity is well-correlated with strikeout rate. Well, Kenley Jansen throws his fastball around 92 mph, but it's really a cutter, which makes the velocity function better. Should we be worried that he's throwing that pitch almost 95% of the time? Maybe. Except there was once another famous pitcher that threw the cutter most of the time and got similarly great swinging strike rates. Speaking of Mariano Rivera, there's a thought he might return this year! We'll believe it when we see it -- early returns from 40-year-old players are rare -- but that might make for a late-year waiver wire pickup supreme.
The blisteriest blister on this blister list? Craig Kimbrel throws 96.8 mph with his heater. There's only one dude on this entire list that can beat that, but Kimbrel has been healthier and doing his job longer than that guy, so that's why the different tiers.
Kudos to Joe Nathan for his comeback. Dude is 37 and coming off Tommy John surgery, and he's got his fastball velocity back up to levels he hasn't seen since 2007, and his swinging strike rate is as good as any he's shown in his career save one. His always excellent control is incredible this year -- he's walked fewer than one man per nine innings! His ligament should be fresh, his team will score enough and his bullpen is good enough to hand him leads, and there's little to not like about his work.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Sunglasses" Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
You go out for a bit thinking you'll just run a few errands and then you end up in line outside waiting for a torta at that one great taco stand, and then you end up hanging out at the park for a bit, and your wife wants some stuff from the garden store and then you get home, take off your sunglasses and oh no. The worst thing about the sunglasses/raccoon sunburn is that everyone can see it, you can't do anything about it, and when it starts pealing you look like a leper. So there's nothing good about it, really. Maybe you can sleep a little better than having a blister burn on your back, maybe.
Aroldis Chapman could be a blister burn -- only Andrew Cashner has been throwing a faster fastball this year than Chapman's 97.6 mph heater -- but there are just a couple asterisks to his candidacy. First, he's had elbow and shoulder issues over the past couple of years. Second, and perhaps related, he's not really willing to pitch back-to-back-to-back days after only just now getting used to back-to-back days. Sean Marshall has gotten a couple save chances since Chapman was made the closer. That's just enough to keep him here.
And really, like the sunglasses burn vs. the blister burn, these are comparatively similar tiers. Joel Hanrahan is a really good closer. He gets a strikeout per inning, and though his walk rate is a little high, he's been limiting the hits so far to mitigate that. In the end, there's nobody to take his job, and the surging Bucs probably wouldn't trade him. He could be elite, too. Rafael Betancourt has walked more guys than he did in 2010 or 2011, but he still has great control. There's still the chance the Rockies get a good trade offer, so that's more of an asterisk than the walks. J.J. Putz has given up as many homers in the first half as he did in 2010 or 2011, but he's still got great control and could be elite, if not for the injury asterisk.
Ernesto Frieri could even be considered elite! Of course his huge asterisk is lack of track record and a short leash perhaps -- Scott Downs is still there -- and you might even call his control iffy. On the other hand, his strikeout rate is more than excellent. That's how he ends up between tiers. We'll move him up even though he's got six walks in his last ten innings. Nobody seems to see his fastball well. Maybe they need sunglasses.
Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Chest and Back" Tier.)
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
You put sunscreen lotion on your arms and face and then you take your shirt off. It's a classic summer move. Maybe you didn't plan on jumping in, or you thought it wouldn't be that hot. Whatever the reason, you're now burnt in all the places you normally wear clothes. That makes sleeping and wearing clothes more uncomfortable, but at least you can hide your shame.
Some research of mine has found that first-strike percentage is the most important peripheral for walk rate. Unfortunately, John Axford has a below-average first strike rate this season after a couple years spent on the other side of average. That same research found that zone percentage was not as important as the ability to get whiffs on pitches outside the zone -- that action turns a ball into a strike, so it makes sense. After years of getting batters to reach, Axford isn't getting the same reaches this year. So the peripherals paint the same picture: he's lost the zone a little this year.
Santiago Casilla drops in the rankings but not off his tier. It's not like blisters will tank him from the job, given the way the Giants have been so reluctant to hand the full-time closer role to Sergio Romo. The time off should be the salve he needs.
That leaves surprises Chris Perez and Fernando Rodney at the top of the tier. Perez has two Kimbrels this year -- three strikeouts and no baserunners -- and in the other five years of his career, he'd done that once. Once! Rodney had one walk in June, two in May and two in April. Before this year, over his nine-year career, he'd had a two-walk month four times (five-plus innings in the month). Three times in three months vs. four times in 45 months! So these guys are doing things they haven't done before. Kudos.
Tier 4: Question marks (5) (AKA: The "Book on Chest" Tier.)
Ryan Cook, Oakland Athletics
Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Don't fall asleep at the beach with a book on your face or chest. Again, you can hide the damage if you do it on your chest, but you'll know how stupid you've been when you look at yourself in the mirror.
This group keeps getting smaller. Honestly, you could move Ryan Cook into the next tier if you wanted. But he's still walking almost five guys per nine innings, and that's in line with his minor league rates. He hasn't given up a home run in his major league career yet, and that won't continue. He's stranding runners at a rate above the league average, and balls are not falling for hits. That probably won't continue to happen all year. So Cook's on shakier ground than you might expect for a guy with an ERA under two.
Tyler Clippard lost a tie a game going into the break, which isn't great timing for a guy that's in front of a returning Closer of the Future in Drew Storen. Clippard's rates and peripherals all look great, and he's been pitching like a closer for years, but Storen sill provides the question mark. Jonathan Broxton looks fine, but he could get traded -- there are even some rumors to the effect -- and his swinging strike rate says he's not exactly what he used to be. Alfredo Aceves has been better than his ERA, but he's got a returning closer coming too, in the form of Andrew Bailey. Those are all question marks.
Does Jose Valverde deserve to be this far down the list? He's fallen far. It's not about the three-run inning he had before he went into the break, although the two walks were concerning. It's more about the fact that he's showing the second-worst walk rate of his career (and wasn't known for control anyway), the worst swinging strike rate of his career (and the accompanying worst strikeout rate), and the worst ground-ball rate of his career. Joaquin Benoit is worth owning.
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.