Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Closer Keeper Rankings

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Saves and Steals is about to take a break, and maybe you should too. Fantasy baseball can be grueling -- there's no other sport with as many lineups to fill and as many decisions to make. It can wear you out.


But there's time for one last snapshot of your team before you refresh. Even those that are in redraft leagues should look back at their draft results, look at the teams that finished at the top of the table, and assess what went right and what went wrong. You'll learn something that will stick with you all the way into next season. Something about how you drafted, or how other winning teams drafted, and about the players you gravitate towards. For good or bad, you'll learn something.


Those in keeper leagues obviously have even more of a reason to scan their team and league pages before taking a break. You'll be making decisions soon about who to keep and who to jettison. Even if that date isn't now, it's worth setting your first off-season appraisal now. Then you can see how your first thought holds up. Blink now, reappraise later.


In order to help you with that appraisal, we'll do a tiered list of rookie closers. This won't go five deep -- there are barely 20 keeper closers, let alone thirty. But we will pair a position player with each tier in order to give you a sense of the relative value of your possible keeper reliever.


Stay in touch on twitter and through my email, I only do baseball, and I do it all year. Hopefully I helped you have a great fantasy season!


Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Jay Bruce" Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals


I'd probably take Jay Bruce over a closer, even an elite one, but it's close enough. Bruce is just on the outside of the top ten outfielders looking in, and though he has real power, the lack of stolen bases or batting average make him a flawed player. Useful, but flawed.


These closers are not flawed in any way, and they are the right age, but they are still closers, so their overall value doesn't quite reach the same heights as the elite position players. There's also much more turnover at the closer position -- even if it seems these three are fine, there's risk. Aroldis Chapman could find that his late-season shoulder swoon was indicative of a bigger problem, or the team could still decide that he needs to be in the rotation, with longer rest periods in between appearances. Craig Kimbrel could see all those breaking pitches come back to haunt his elbow. Jason Motte… well, he seems pretty solid, with the fresh arm of a former catcher and a reliance on his fastball.


In any case, the elite tier has to get even smaller when it comes to keeping. As we saw with John Axford, any small wobble can derail a train when it's not on the sturdiest of tracks to begin with. 


Tier 2: Rock Steady (4) (AKA: The "Hunter Pence" Tier.)


Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates


Another outfielder with an iffy batting average and declining wheels, Hunter Pence doesn't quite have the power that Bruce has. And these closers? All pretty good, but they don't quite have the total package -- youth, security, and stuff -- that the elite three have.


Jonathan Papelbon (32 years old) and Joe Nathan (38!) are here just because they're slightly aged compared to their peers. And that means a lot for relievers. Just check out these aging curves, which show how starters and pitchers fare as they get older. Starters and relievers lose velocity at comparable rates, but relievers see that velocity loss kill their strikeout rate while starters 'find a way.' Both Papelbon and Nathan have seen their velocity decline… they seem fine, and that's why they are here. They are signed for next year, and they've shown the ability to dominate for year after year, and that's why they are here. But the reality is that age comes for all -- even Mariano Rivera.


Joel Hanrahan has an asterisk. And so does Rafael Betancourt, really. Hanrahan has the strikeout numbers, but his five-plus-per-nine walk rate this year is worrisome in a John Axford kind of way. But Hanrahan had more of a track record than Axford, and even though he's had control issues, they've never been this bad. Last season he even had a sparkling walk rate. If he returns to his career rate (4.35 per nine), then he'll be fine. And he's still under contract, on an improving team. Betancourt has sparkling numbers and survived the move to a terrible park, but the asterisk is his team. Will that team find a way to get some starting pitching and improve next year? They do seem to find a way to be competitive every other year, and they have some pieces (Dexter Fowler?) that might bring them some pitching.


Tier 3: OK options (5) (AKA: The "Andre Ethier" Tier.)


Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Andrew Bailey, Red Sox


Let's just stick with outfielders. With Andre Ethier, you're down to a guy with questionable power, questionable health, no wheels, and a good batting average. With these closers, you're down to a secure role or good rates, but bigger asterisks.


Tom Wilhelmsen seems fine in aggregate. The Bartender has wicked stuff -- a power fastball and a hammer curve -- that has produced double-digit swinging strikes. His walk rate has been below four at every stop since rookie ball. Here's the thing though: he was in rookie ball in 2010. So the entire sample on him is just around 250 innings. And when he first arrived in Seattle camp in 2010, he couldn't find the plate. That wasn't so long ago, and Wilhelmsen had stretches were he lost the plate this season, too. Still, unless Seattle trades him -- a possibility considering how strong their bullpen is and how week the rest of their team is -- he's fine.


Huston Street's fine even if he does get traded, but betting on anything more than 50 innings from him these days is an iffy bet. Give Andrew Bailey that same asterisk, really.


Addison Reed and Chris Perez are very interesting players to have in the same tier. Perez had a better 2011, and Reed's best numbers came in the minor leagues. But Perez never put up numbers in his minor league (or major league) stretch that looked anything near as nice as Reed's numbers on the farm. and if you zoom out on the career that Perez has put up so far, he has a below-average strikeout rate for a closer (8.68 K/9), a below-average walk rate (3.84 BB/9) and a below-average ground-ball rate (35.1%). Put Reed up against THOSE numbers, and he's already better (9.53 K/9, 2.74 BB/9, 31.5% ground balls). Perez may be a better keeper -- if he stays in Cleveland and keeps his role despite his silly comments this year -- but Reed belongs in the conversation since he is under team control for a long time, stayed in the saddle this year, and won the respect of his manager.


Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "David Murphy" Tier.)


Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Ryan Cook, Oakland Athletics
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers


If your league is so deep that you'll keep a mostly-platoon outfielder, then you can consider keeping some of these young fireballers. Otherwise, just move on. Because this tier is full of players with big, honking problems.


Ernesto Frieri has a nice, deceptive fastball. He also has control problems and sorta kinda lost his job a couple times this year. Look at all the different closers the Angels have had, and you know it's no sure thing that he's the closer next year. But if he is! He'll be pretty good!


Drew Storen has been groomed for this role ever since the Stanford closer was selected in the draft. His injury was worrisome, but his velocity has returned to pre-injury levels, and his swinging strike rate is the best it's ever been. He's always had strong control, and gets more grounders than most closers (45.9% career, 53.7% this year), so his 'meh' strikeout rate (8.39 K/9 career) is somewhat mitigated. Still, Tyler Clippard is around again next year, and Storen already once had injury issues.


Glen Perkins was on a terrible team this year, but even terrible teams usually provide at least 30-35 save opportunities. With the way he's pitched this year, he's probably the closer next year just because he'll be cheaper than re-upping Matt Capps for another four-plus million. He's really a great pitcher, with swinging-strike stuff, great control, and great velocity ever since he went to the pen. In a long-term keeper league -- and that's what we are probably talking right here -- he's a good asset.


Ah Jim Johnson. We've talked about him so much this year, but if you want to keep him, there are so many things that have to go right -- on the team level. After all, these Orioles boast an average-ish Wei-Yin Chen and an up-again down-again Chris Tillman as their best pitchers. They had a negative run differential for three-quarters of the year. They killed teams in one-run games. Those last two things aren't usually aspects of a team that lead to sustained success. With Brian Matusz in the pen now, they don't really have exciting young starting pitching coming up, either -- unless phenom Dylan Bundy is ready for a full year. In any case, there have been only seven 50+ save seasons since 2000. Only Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagne managed to do it twice, and their numbers dwarf Johnson's. Francisco Rodriguez managed a 47 save season once (before his 62-save record season), but do you remember how awesome he was back then? Even Jose Valverde (49 and 47 in 2007 and 2011) has better rates than Jim Johnson most years. Here's a name to remember: Brian Fuentes. He saved 48 with the Angels in 2009, with the lowest-non Johnson strikeout rate in the top 20 seasons by saves in the 2000s, and that didn't work out so well for him since. That said, there just aren't a ton of 60+% ground ball guys in the role, so he's probably better than Fuentes was that year, and the Orioles do own him for another year. If he puts up 35+ saves, with those rates, he'll be above-average again, most likely. Barely.


Ryan Cook's not even a closer!! Yes, that is true. But Grant Balfour is up and down, and not a lock to be re-upped next year at four-plus million on a cheap Oakland team. And Cook has been great this year, even with his bad stretch figured in. His walk rate has been bad in the past, but this year in total it was 3.36 per nine, which just about average. If he gets strike one over more often next year, he could keep that gain, and his stuff is good enough to turn balls into strikes by convincing batters to reach and miss. Let's put Greg Holland and Kenley Jansen here too. For Holland, you can really just repeat the entire paragraph, except that Holland has Joakim Soria returning at some point, and that might mean something -- if the Royals bring Soria back as the closer after a second Tommy John. For Jansen, it's just about health. With these three guys, at the very least you'll get a strikeout ace in your bullpen, which is about as useful as a platoon outfielder for your bench. 


Read more about the closers I wouldn't keep on the next page. 

continue story »
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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