We're headed towards the stretch run in both the real and fantasy games, and the focus narrows. Most of you, for example, will just skip ahead to the final tier, looking to scrounge a few last saves out of the waiver wire. And in the real game, it doesn't matter that the Baltimore Orioles have played over their heads so far -- those wins are in the bank. They're just looking to scrounge a few last wins out of the talent they've got, in order to see how far they can push this boulder up the hill.
In the coming weeks, there will be time for looking back and looking forward. I'll lay out my hits and misses so that we see what they would teach us. And I'll run a keeper ranking, to sort out the one-year-wonders from the lasting studs.
But for now, it's okay to have tunnel vision. Because it's time for the final push. In honor of that final push, we'll name the tiers after the Wild Card contenders and the likelihood that they'll play an extra game. Good luck to both the fake and real teams out there.
Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Athletics and Braves" Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Our number one rule for closers here at Saves and Steals is "who's closing now?" The number one rule for who's going to make the postseason might as well be "who's the number one wild card now?" The Braves were supposed to be here, and barring a collapse, they will be in the 'postseason' or whatever you want to call the extra game. The A's, though? Their offense was supposed to sink the ship, and despite using the third-most position players in the American League, they've managed to put up enough O to make it work.
These guys all put up 0s of another kind. Aroldis Chapman puts up zeroes while also racking up the strikeouts, so the zeroes don't do him justice. How about this: He has 117 strikeouts against 17 walks. Or: he has 100 more strikeouts than walks, and no other reliever even has 90 strikeouts. Fire.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (8) (AKA: The "Rays and Cardinals" Tier.)
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Who would have thought the Rays could survive losing their best player for most of the season? Who would have thought the Cardinals could lose Albert Pujols and be just as good? Oh, that's right, yeah, me. Longoria is just one player, even in a tight race, and letting Pujols go allowed the Cardinals to spend money elsewhere. And the smart teams just keep on chugging.
The smart money is also on most of these closers.
Like Joel Hanrahan, Jason Motte and Rafael Soriano -- all good closers on teams with good bullpens and good offenses, the only things correlated with save opportunities. Of course, the Pirates have slowed down, and The Hammer only has three saves since the beginning of August, and Jason Motte had a tiny bout with homer-itis, but that sort of thing happens if you zoom in on a small stretch. You could focus on Jonathan Papelbon's latest blown save, but Chipper Jones did that to him, and he's having a heck of a last year. Papelbon? Still has 70 strikeouts to 14 walks in fewer than 60 innings and stellar ratios. Sometimes, even when things don't work out, they work out.
The percentage of pitches Fernando Rodney has thrown in the zone has diminished over the course of this season. Fernando Rodney had three walks in August, his most of any month this year. He has two already in September. Probably nothing to worry about, but it might just effect his keeper status.
The goggled one in Washington is not going to lose his job. Tyler Clippard has strikeouts, walks and ratios that look like Papelbon's, but his team is better and so he's getting more save opportunities. He deserves to be here.
Tier 3: OK options (9) (AKA: The "Tigers and Dodgers" Tier.)
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Here's where the two leagues take a major step in different directions. CoolStandings has the Tigers as 46.8% likely of making the postseason, while the Dodgers are clearly off in the distance with a 34% likelihood. The American League will be a close race, with some good teams on the outside looking in. In the National League it's the Cardinals, Dodgers or Pirates, and the Cardinals are heavy favorites.
Maybe I was hard on Jim Johnson. Yes, he costs about five strikeouts per month against an average closer. And yes, those saves are banked and don't necessarily mean that he'll lead the pack going forward. All we know about save opportunities is that they are tied to bullpen strength and scoring punch, and I'll admit my skepticism about the Orioles informed my belief that the Orioles weren't terribly strong in either department. But then an email made me consider my stance, and you guys are great about that. And then I saw this tweet from Britt Ghiroli, who covers the Orioles: Baltimore is 60-0 when leading after 7 IP. Os post 2nd consecutive shutout win. And then I realized that Pedro Strop is not the only other good pitcher in that pen. At the same time, the Orioles' bullpen ERA is only about seventh in the American League, and only four lineups have scored fewer runs. There's luck involved here, and there's no sense in getting worked up about the ranking for a guy that's probably not going to lead the league in saves over the last month, is probably not on your waiver wire and most likely not available in a trade.
Since June first, when Tom Wilhelmsen first got the job in Seattle (after three months of being pimped here), he had a 1.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 41 strikeouts and 23 saves. Since that day, Jim Johnson had a 4.11 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 20 strikeouts and 25 saves. Soooooooo…
Vinnie Pestano finally got a save in Cleveland, but it was only because Chris Perez was away on paternity leave. Even a slightly slower second half for Perez shouldn't mask the fact that he's had an excellent year. In April, he had seven strikeouts against four walks, and then in every single month after that he had double-digit strikeouts and fewer than four walks. Well done, Perez.
Greg Holland has a control problem, sure. But he only had four walks in August, and seven in 26 1/3 post All-Star break innings, after 20 in 29 2/3 pre All-Star break innings. The number one peripheral stat correlated with walk rate is first strike rate, and Holland's been bad there all year. But he gets the ball in the zone at an above-average rate, so that's good. He also gets batters to reach at balls outside the zone at an above-average rate, and batters make below-average contact on his pitches, which means he can help them turn a ball into a strike. If all he has to do is hit on strike one more often, that seems do-able. He's exciting.
Steve Cishek and Casey Janssen? They're not losing their jobs at this point, and they're decent enough pitchers. They won't figure highly in the keeper rankings -- Janssen has Sergio Santos returning next season, and you could see the Marlins giving Heath Bell a fresh start in Spring Training next year. Bell's already pitching higher-leverage situations, and is a sly asset in holds leagues.
Tier 4: Question marks (5) (AKA: The "Orioles and Pirates" Tier.)
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros
Now we're getting into the longer shots. Sure, the Orioles are only a game out of first in the AL East, but they've been playing over their heads for a while (see above). You could say the same about the Pirates, but their descent has already started. The Orioles are much, much more likely to make the postseason, but they also play in a league with the Rays, Tigers and White Sox. As exciting as it might be in Baltimore, that's a sobering thought.
These closers have mostly been in descent all year long. That's why we cleared out the guys that don't really have question marks over their heads. Now, other than Andrew Bailey -- who's just passing through, even if he did almost blow the game in Seattle Tuesday night -- this tier has players that have legitimate questions about their role, but are in a more sure position than the tier below.
John Axford obviously has questions about his role and his control. He was awarded a save in Tuesday night's game and I'll question that save even. The tying run wasn't on base and the Brewers were up by four runs. Axford only got one out but the tying run was on deck. Has to be about the easiest save you can get, but he's not complaining.
Wilton Lopez? Okay, he's the unquestioned closer, but can his team get him a close lead to save? That's a terrible, terrible team.
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.