Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's the final throes of the season in both fantasy and real baseball. And yet, it kinda seems like the season is already over.


Is there as much juice to this year's season-end as there was last year? Remember the epic collapses? Remember that final, frantic day? Now we have a less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts Dodgers fighting the still-here Cardinals, and a trying-to-surge Angels team that's three out of a Wild Card slot. Just doesn't seem like the same sort of high drama, especially when you factor in the fact that all of these teams are playing for just one extra game. And we added a wild card to make this sort of thing happen more often.


Then again, last year's finish was epic and historical. And having fewer playoff slots helped make it so. Perhaps it's not a surprise that this year's finish is not up to the same standard.


And, as we've learned from our own fantasy playoffs, it's epic if you (or your teams) are still in it. And there are still some teams that could come out of nowhere to get into the playoffs. So we'll rank this final group of closers in honor of the long shots -- the longer the shots to make the postseason, the more like the Rays and Cardinals of last year, the better the closer.


Hopefully along the way we'll help your playoff team make that final push.


P.S. Mike Trout is my MVP. Say what you want about the triple crown stats, but Trout's been so much more valuable on the basepaths and with the glove that if you look past homers and RBIs, it's not even really that close. Cabrera might have taken one for the team in moving to third, but by most metrics (and by the eye test) he's the worst (or second-worst) third baseman in the league defensively, so he isn't offering value there. And he's not burning up the basepaths either, nor can you give either credit for 'carrying the team to the postseason' or being 'all alone' on a good team...


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Philadelphia Phillies" Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals


Yes, the Rays are further back from the wild card. And yes, other teams in front of the Phillies sold and gave up on the season like the Phillies did. But this team looked more lackluster than any competitor left within five games back of the postseason and is now winning games. This team spent half the season without half its infield. It lost its best starter for long stretches. It couldn't score a run. It has fewer games to play than the four teams in front of it, and yet the Phillies are only four games out of the second wild card!


Aroldis Chapman's still here because his aura is so good that it's preserving his ranking even as he's on the bench. But those scrounging for saves can definitely hold on to Jonathan Broxton, with Sean Marshall getting the lefty-heavy saves, most likely. But Chapman's supposed to throw a bullpen today, so he's close.


What a year for Jason Motte. He's got nine more strikeouts than innings pitched, and that's the first time he's put in a full year with a double-digit strikeout rate. Now that he's reliable with that above-average control, and pitches in a park that suppresses home runs, he's one of the best keeper closers… but that's for the keeper ranking coming out two weeks from now. For now, just enjoy your elite closer.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Milwaukee Brewers" Tier.)


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


The Brewers are a game closer than the Phillies, but they also sold a major piece in the middle of the season and never looked back. What makes them slightly less of a long shot is that they have mashed all season and were supposed to do so. Offense hasn't really been a problem. It's just an amazing few finds in the rotation -- Michael Fiers, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada in particular -- that have put them on a run and brought them closer than three games out with two weeks' worth of games to play.


Jonathan Papelbon was doing fine, but just didn't have the saves going into late August to make him an elite pitcher. Sure, his strikeout rate was Papelbonian, and he wasn't walking people, but the Phillies were bad and he wasn't giving the saves. And he's an exhibit in the unpredictability in save opportunities -- just when his team got going, he started racking up saves. He added eight saves since August 24th, which is, like, a 50-save pace. Get good closers, maybe give good closers on good teams a little nudge, but don't get obsessed with save totals in season.


Joel Hanrahan's season has gone the same way, but in reverse -- he had a whopping 11 saves in July. Then had three in August. Then he went from August 19 to September 15th between saves. No reason to hate on the season he's had. Jim Johnson had ten saves in August. He has had three in September.


Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Rays" Tier.)


Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks


Okay, if the Rays make up six games and take Baltimore out of the playoffs, it would be epic. They are a long shot. But taking away from some of the mystique would be the fact that they did this just last season. Some part of us all would say, oh, the Rays, sure, yeah, okay.


Obviously Kenley Jansen should be ranked better on talent, now that he's been cleared to play again. But he's getting eased back into his role, and you never know when Brandon League or Ronald Belisario could steal a save. So this ranking reflects a little angst about the final two weeks, while also pointing out that you should own him if he's out there.


There was a second where it looked like David Hernandez was already the closer in Arizona -- there's a chance he'll be that next year, since Putz is a free agent -- but Putz got over his back pain and notched a clean save Tuesday night, and that does mean something. But the fact that he just missed two weeks with a stiff back, and is a 35-year-old soon-to-be-free-agent closer, well that doesn't scream 'steady value.'


Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles" Tier.)


Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Andrew Bailey, Red Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros


The Orioles are the favorites for the AL's second wild card. The Pirates are only two and a half games out in the NL's second wild card race. And yet, it would be somewhat of a long shot for these guys to win. Because they've overachieved all year and weren't supposed to be here.


Addison Reed still hasn't shown the elite walk rate he had at every stop in the minor leagues, but at least he's getting the swinging strikes and the strikeouts of a real-life Closer. He also in the midst of a real-life Closer's real-life Tough Stretch. He's given up seven runs in nine September appearances, and was removed from a save opportunity (in favor of Matt Thornton) last week. But he only has two walks in September, and he's been suffering from terrible batted-ball luck: over half of the balls he's allowed into play have fallen for hits, and that number is usually 30% across baseball. Call it a bad stretch -- and Reed got the save Tuesday night after Thornton got four outs, so he hasn't been removed from the role -- but know also that the White Sox are fighting for the post season and may be finickier about their bullpen then some other teams. Matt Thornton is still an interesting play for those desperate for saves.


Andrew Bailey underachieved this year, like his team, but he's now on a roll -- four saves and a win in September, with three of those saves coming from September 14th. Don't call the Red Sox a spoiler just yet, but it's looking that way. Bailey might be an under-rated pickup in those leagues where he's a free agent if Boston is prepared to go on a run.


Ozzie Guillen said he wanted to get Heath Bell some saves for just about the eighteenth time this year. But then he blew a save early this month and that didn't come up again. The Marlins aren't providing many opportunities, anyway -- Steve Cishek has three saves in September. Tuesday he blew his second save of the month, and Heath Bell closed it out with a pristine inning. Now Bell has 11 strikeouts against one walk in his last ten outings, and he's got to be in the mix for saves, at least next season.


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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