Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Valuing Relief Correctly

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I messed up. All season, I've been rating Jim Johnson as an average closer. He's come in in the third tier most weeks, averaging about a 12th-to-16th place ranking. My reasoning -- that he costs you strikeouts more than any other closer in baseball, and that the Orioles can't be counted upon to continue giving him so many save opportunities -- is still sound in my mind.


But I probably should rank him higher. Say, about tenth or eleventh.


In an ongoing conversation with a reader, I kept coming back to the value of a good strikeout rate from a reliever. Jim Johnson cedes five strikeouts every nine innings on an average closer, and that's meaningful. You have your relief slots, and I have mine, and if I have a lot of Jim Johnsons, I'm going to have to make up strikeouts with my starting staff, and starters have a lower strikeout-per-inning pace than relievers. Strikeouts from relievers matter.


If you run a valuation of the closers and just the closers alone, Jim Johnson comes out 18th in baseball this season. The other closers dominate him in strikeouts, and the average closer's 2.88 ERA is just too close to his 2.91 ERA to make that valuable. Since I write in the closer's world for this article, I may have gotten lost down this rabbit hole, only looking at the position against itself.


But of course, a staff is a staff, and on some level at least, a strikeout is a strikeout. So of course you want to evaluate your closers within the pitcher universe too. I re-ran the valuations (look at the bottom of this piece for those backward-looking rankings) -- which use standard deviations above the mean in each category to put an overall number on a player's contributions -- but this time all of pitching was the baseline. Since the starters were involved, they brought down the average strikeout rate, and Johnson's strikeout rate wasn't as bad to his overall ranking. Now Jim Johnson came out eighth.


So I'll return to the Orioles. They have a good bullpen, but their offense is not good. Those are the only two things that predict save opportunities with any reliability. Since he's missing one, it makes sense to expect fewer saves going forward. After all, the Orioles have been overachieving this season, and more losses means fewer saves. So dock Johnson a couple spots off his valuation for fewer saves going forward, and you have his current ranking -- 11th, at the top of the third tier.


And yes, to some extent this is irrelevant. Congratulations to everyone that picked him up on the cheap. We got a lot of bang for our buck. I traded Jim Johnson away most of the time, maybe you kept him, but the investment turned out to be a good one. But, looking at the closer landscape, this conversation is going to be important -- not only for when we attempt to evaluate closers in-season, but especially when we do our keeper rankings. Because if Johnson does this same dance next year, but only manages 30 saves, he won't be a very valuable closer.


I'll name the tiers after representative closers from that backwards-looking valuation. Remember, Saves and Steals is about looking forward, and these look backwards, but they are useful nonetheless.


Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Aroldis Chapman (#1) and Craig Kimbrel (#3)" Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers


Aroldis Chapman would obviously be atop any valuation. He's been lights-out, with little indication that his early trouble warming up for back-to-back appearances was a hindrance. Recently, though, Chapman has hit a velocity dip so even if he's still averaging mid-nineties heat, there might be something to worry about, long-term. He hasn't been the healthiest chap. In the short term, it looks like he'll be shut down. We could take him off the list, but instead, we'll risk it and just make a note that Jonathan Broxton is getting save opportunities in the short term. Still, you can see the red flag pretty clearly on his velocity chart:



Joe Nathan showed up tenth in the valuations because of his meager saves total (31), but his ratios are elite and his team has both a great offense and a great bullpen around him. I can't think of a player, save Rafael Soriano, who's in a better position to rack up saves. So he'll stay here despite his valuation to this point.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Fernando Rodney (#2) and Jason Motte (#4)" Tier.)


Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels


Fernando Rodney has done it mostly with great control, an average amount of strikeouts, and a great amount of saves, which might be what you'd expect from Joe Nathan any given year. On the other hand, I'd still expect it from Joe Nathan more than Fernando Rodney next season, and I'm not surprised that he therefore shows up a few rungs below Nathan.


Ernesto Frieri hit a slump in late August and early September, but it had nothing to do with his work. It's a tiny sample, but in his last six outings, he has 14 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings! And one walk! The slump was all at the hands of his teammates, who failed to give him save opportunities. But the Angels have a strong team in multiple facets, and now they're rolling again. Frieri is rock steady and might even give you three times the strikeouts of a Jim Johnson over the next three weeks.


Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Jim Johnson (#8) and Casey Janssen (#15)" Tier.)


Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins


I think we've talked about Jim Johnson enough.


Tom Wilhelmsen, on the other hand, ended up 13th on the valuation, but that includes two-plus months in which he was not a closer. He was a good enough reliever to accrue value in April and May that he beat out full year relievers like Chris Perez. So, going forward, he seems like a solid bet, even if he did lose his fastball control a little recently… well actually it is worrisome that Wilhelmsen is showing poor control again. That was always the problem with him as a prospect, and it even showed up in Seattle for a bit. It seemed like it was behind him, but then the Bartender hit this stretch -- in the last ten outings, he has nine walks! That's a developing issue.


J.J. Putz drops a tier. His work to date has come in at 18th, the Diamondbacks aren't necessarily any better going forward than they've been in the past, and now he might be hurt or sick. Add to this the fact that he's not under contract for next season and the team may want to give David Hernandez a little run in the role at the end of the season, and you see why. Still love his strikeout-to-walk ratio, still hate his inability to stay healthy. Repeat all of this conversation, minus the health issues, but heavier on the team struggles component, and you've got your Rafael Betancourt blurb.


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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