Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Olympian Bullpen Moves

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

You picked up two closers at the trade deadline thanks to Saves and Steals. You've got a couple sleeper speedsters on your bench. You're in the home stretch, and feeling a little hubris. So instead of that baseball game, you channel surf just a little bit.


Odds are, you'll run into the Summer Olympics. Since it's a collection of sports, the odds are good that you'll run into a sport that is not up to par with baseball. Steeplechase? Have you watched any of the sailing so far? This guy did, and he understands just about as much as I did. How these sports are Olympic and baseball isn't seems a travesty that stinks of politics.


And so, with the underlying given that none of these sports ascend to the level of baseball (and also the assumption that you're most likely to end up watching beach volleyball), let's name the tiers after Olympic sports. They are not created equal, and neither are these closers.


Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "100m Dash" Tier.)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers


There's almost a direct link between these closers boring their high heat down on the batter and the athletic power demonstrated by a sprinter giving his all for 100 meters. It's remarkable to see such definitive expressions of physical strength. There's no pacing if you only have 100 meters to go, and there's no pacing if you only have three guys to get out. Grip the ball and go. Hear the gun and go.


Joe Nathan is great. Joe Nathan has an above-average strikeout rate for a closer (still above the 10 K/9 that closers are putting up right now), and Joe Nathan has his customary minuscule walk rate. There is one asterisk that has creeped up in his old age, a problem that he hasn't had since he was meat in San Francisco -- the home run. Even with his excellent run this year, he's giving up more than a home run per nine innings. That's probably a function of his below-average ground-ball rate and his home park. In any case, even with the occasional solo home run, he'll remain excellent this season. It won't quite look like the brute force of a 100-meter dash, but it's elite in its own way. 


Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Olympic Soccer" Tier.)


Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays


Okay, it's not quite World Cup soccer. And some will choose Olympic basketball over soccer, but those ballers don't seem to try as hard, and the outcome isn't really in doubt if the Americans are playing these days. Olympic soccer has its flaws -- it's an under-23 tournament with three over-age exceptions, and most professional leagues are in session -- but there's something about the mix of team dynamic with patriotic pride that makes for compelling matches. This goes extra for handball -- aka water polo on solid ground -- which is a sport worth at least a few minutes of your time.


Now that the trade deadline is past, there's really only one reason to not love Huston Street. It's not strikeouts -- he's re-found his double-digit strikeout ways in San Diego, after two years in which he dipped. It's not walk rate -- he's always had an elite walk rate. It's not ground-ball rate -- well, he's only average there, but his home park has helped him suppress home runs (he hasn't given up a single one so far). The only reason to hang an asterisk on him is that he gets injured. He hasn't topped 60 innings since 2009, and he won't this year. Oh, and if you're hurt in the season, you're more likely to return to the DL than a pitcher that's been healthy all season. But at this point, it's not the biggest asterisk. Kudos to Street, and to the Padres for inking him to a reasonable deal (especially compared to Heath Bell's deal).


Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Synchronized Swimming" Tier.)


Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles


Okay, as a 'sport,' this one would rank lower. The scoring is impossible to understand, there's no one-on-one competition, and nobody scores a goal, ever. Perhaps water polo should be here -- at least it's a team sport, with scoring, and incredibly impressive athleticism (try treading water with your hands over your head for ten minutes; they do that for a full hour). But synchronized swimming gets the spot for the utter bizarreness of the sport. It's probably unlike any other sport you've ever seen before. That makes it a strange mix with these less remarkable closers, but such is life.


Ernesto Frieri still has a great strikeout rate, that hasn't disappeared. He's struck out 13 in his last nine innings. But Frieri does have a bit of a control problem, and always has. He's walked seven in those last nine innings, and has two multiple-walk innings on his register since July first. Recently, those walks have led to two blown games, and if they lead to more, we already know that the Angels have a quick hook at the closer position. Thankfully for his owners, Scott Downs and Jordan Walden are hurt and LaTroy Hawkins isn't going to take the job from him right now. Tom Wilhelmsen has control problems, a great strikeout rate, and is reasonably safe, so it makes sense to pair the two.


Chris Perez? Well, he's blown two saves in a row and is showing a strikeout rate and walk rate that don't jive with his career numbers, but that's fine. We'll leave him here for now. Giving up seven hits and three walks while getting his last four outs is not reassuring though.


Tier 4: Question marks (5) (AKA: The "Men's Field Hockey" Tier.)


Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers


This might seem as bizarre as synchronized swimming, but to other countries, it's an everyday affair. In many parts of England, field hockey is just the spring sport for men. So, when you balk at watching men -- not in skirts -- follow each other around with sticks on a blue field, you're just having an educational moment. Culture!


Carlos Marmol may seem like a strange guy to move up in the rankings, but there are some things going for him. There's nobody behind him in that pen that can take the job from him capably, for one. And he's been more like his old self recently, too. He even has nine straight appearances without walking multiple batters! Baby steps. In those nine appearances, he has 11 strikeouts against four walks, and that's almost vintage Marmolian. He won't be nice to your WHIP, but he'll get you saves and strikeouts.


Jose Valverde is still just hanging on. He got a save Tuesday night in which he gave up two runs on four baserunners. He's not managing a league-average strikeout rate, let alone a closer's average strikeout rate. His control -- always bad -- is at its worst in a while. But he's the Big Potato, and as long as he's still the Big Potato we aren't coming up with a nickname for Joaquin Benoit.


Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.


Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Dressage" Tier.)


John Axford (first chair), Jim Henderson (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Steve Cishek (first chair), Heath Bell (second chair), Mike Dunn (third chair), Miami Marlins
Ryan Cook (first chair), Grant Balfour (second chair), Oakland Athletics
Frank Francisco (first chair), Bobby Parnell (second chair), Jon Rauch (third chair), New York Mets
Wilton Lopez (first chair), Wesley Wright (second chair), Houston Astros
Sergio Romo (first chair), Jeremy Affeldt (second chair), Santiago Casilla (third chair), San Francisco Giants
Jared Burton (first chair), Glen Perkins (second chair), Minnesota Twins


I'm not hating on horseback riding in general. I even did a little riding in my day. But dressage… I don't know about that. It's like synchronized swimming -- all about judges and strange, indecipherable rules -- but without the bizarre. It's elitist in terms of rules and equipment, and it's tough to see the athleticism of the human involved. Perhaps the definition of the word 'sport' needs some unpacking.


John Axford could move up, but some guy named Jim Henderson just got his first career save Tuesday night. It's probably because Axford got a five-out save on Monday night. Henderson is a 29-year-old journeyman who's just getting his first taste of the major leagues. He might have figured something out over the past two years, because his strikeout rate did shoot up, but Axford is still in the first seat.


Steve Cishek could move up, but Heath Bell is suddenly pitching better -- and pitching in the eighth inning. How much of a stumble would it take from Cishek before the highly-paid pitcher was back in the saddle again? Bell hasn't given up a run since he was demoted, and has seven strikeouts against three walks in those eight and a third innings. That's not the Bell of old, but it's not the Bell of earlier this season either.


Ryan Cook finding himself in trouble was somewhat predictable. His walk rate is not good. But the Athletics have already tried the other guy in that pen, Grant Balfour, so it's not likely they go to him. Would they use lefty converted first baseman Sean Doolittle? It's possible, but we already know managers prefer righties. Cook is a wait-and-see guy, but the Oakland pen does offer some opportunity for future saves.


Even with those two strikeouts in his last inning, Wilton Lopez, had he been your closer all season, would have cost you 15 strikeouts against the average closer. Then again, with only seven weeks remaining, he might only cost you five or six strikeouts the rest of the way. Probably worth the saves, but you better make sure.


There might be a couple real-life closer platoons happening right now. Often, a manager talks about having a committee at the position, but usually something happens to shake a full-time stopper out of the group. In this case, though, the platoons might last all season. In Minnesota, Glen Perkins looks like the better pitcher overall, so if you're only going to own one, own him even though he's the lefty. Both he and Jared Burton own two saves in August so far, and yes, managers prefer righty closers, but Perkins is that much better -- and he's owned by the team into the future. They have some motivation to find out if he can be a Closer with a capital C.


In San Francisco, there are three pitchers that could legitimately end up with the role, but the team is in win-now mode, and they might just play matchups the rest of the way. Sergio Romo is probably the best hurler of the group, but he throws a ton of sliders (which have a platoon split and can be murdered by lefties), his frame is slight and his elbow is often tender. The team has not trusted him in the past and he hasn't gotten a save since July 6th. Santiago Casilla was the closer for a while, and he's maybe the second-best pitcher of the bunch, but a couple of bad appearances in back-to-back-to-backs has cost him the confidence of his manager, who says the team is in full committee mode right now. Jeremy Affeldt, the lefty, got the last save chance, but it was against three lefties. Expect Romo to get the lion's share -- left-handed hitters are more rare after all -- but this might take a while to get figured out.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *




Andrew Bailey (thumb), Boston Red Sox
Sergio Santos (shoulder), Toronto Blue Jays
Matt Capps (shoulder), Minnesota Twins


Still no news on Capps since July, and since it's a shoulder thing, the bet here is that he doesn't pitch again this season. Sergio Santos is still out for the season, and Andrew Bailey is still in the minor leagues even though he pitched in back-to-back games this week.


The Deposed


Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels
Hector Santiago, Chicago White Sox
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Brian Fuentes, St. Louis Cardinals
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers
Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds  
Henry Rodriguez, Washington Nationals
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Dolis, Chicago Cubs
Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals


Could Ryan Cook swap places with Grant Balfour? It's not an impossible idea. The rest of these guys are stuck here for the rest of the season, most likely.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The Steals Department


It's time to drop Juan Pierre. The "Building for the Future" Phillies don't have room for him in their daily lineup. You might consider picking up the Juan Pierre of shortstops, Dee Gordon, if he was dropped. The first news had Hanley Ramirez playing shortstop, but it's not like the team has great options at third base either. So the second (predictable) update was that Hanley would probably play third, and since Gordon's glove is better, he'll get some starts at shortstop. Now, Gordon might still get platooned, but at least he's a lefty. That means he starts 2/3 of the time, and could be a stolen base boon for your team. 


While David Ortiz is out, there's a young guy with speed that's virtually unowned patrolling the Boston outfield. Ryan Kalish has power and speed -- in 2010 he hit 17 home runs and stole 34 bases -- but strikes out a fair amount. If you don't need batting average, he can play for you in the short term. Even once Ortiz returns, Kalish might split some time with Cody Ross (Ross is much better against lefties), and spell oft-injured Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury enough to be an own in deeper leagues. Especially in dynasty leagues, Kalish is worth a look.

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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