Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Problems in the Bullpen

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Seems like the closer carousel is starting at lightning-fast speed this year, no?


In my vigorous self-approval after my column last week, I thought -- this makes sense, you begin the season with three elite guys, three bullpens in trouble from day one, and it takes some time to settle into something, but it should be a bell curve from day one.


Add a few problem children to the bottom, it looks like. At least the top stayed in one place, for the most part. But the bottom of these rankings got crowded, fast.


And, speaking of problem children, my one-year old is starting to find a way to wreak havoc. This looks like it'll be a lot of fun, years and years of it even. So I'll dream up some tiers based on it.


Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Please Don't Drop My Cellphone in the Toilet" Tier.)


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


Nothing like retrieving a toilet-water-covered cellphone next to a clapping baby. Probably about as much fun as facing Craig Kimbrel.


Joe Nathan needed a rather generous final strike call to survive a rocky save in against Tampa, but for the most part he's been fine. It'd be nice if his velocity wasn't down so much (91.2 mph from 94.0 last season), but if you give him the .5-1mph bounce that pitchers get from April to August, then maybe he'll be fine.


Aroldis Chapman's velocity is down too! All the way down to 96.4 mph. That's still elite velocity, and with nine strikeouts in five innings, it can't be hurting too bad. Plus, there was the inconsistent role in the spring. That might have affected things.


Breaking: Craig Kimbrel is still nasty. 


Tier 2: Rock Steady (8) (AKA: The "Wires Are Not for Chewing!" Tier.)


Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Joel Hanrahan, Boston Red Sox
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays


Chewing wires, facing Mariano Rivera… pick'em?


In general, it makes sense to leave players alone for at least a week. For example, batters have made contact with 100% of Fernando Rodney pitches they've swung at in the strike zone, and he's already walked one and blown a save. That's fine! We'll need a few more games to figure out if his new walk rate will survive into this season. One piece of potentially bad news is that he went back to a placement on the rubber that was more like his early career. But still he has the best framing catcher in baseball behind the plate, and all those strides he made last year. The bottom of this tier is where he still belongs. For now. If it looks like his old walk rate is coming back...


And yeah, Mariano Rivera is showing career lows in velocity, swinging strike rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate. Dude's 43. We'll cut him some slack, especially since it looks like he can still be effective with that cutter. Rafael Soriano blew a save and is down a full tick on the gun! Eh, that's less than other slow starters, and he's still getting whiffs and saves otherwise. Tom Wilhelmsen has a tiny swinging strike rate. He's still throwing 95+ with a hammer curve. Rafael Betancourt is 38 and showing the worst velocity of his career. Still hasn't walked a guy.


Guess who hasn't lost a tick. Joel Hanrahan. He's 31 and there was talk about him fading since he lost more than a mile per hour last year on his fastball, but this year, he's back up over 97 mph. It's nice to see him walk fewer guys so far, but it'd be even nicer if he backed that up by getting first strikes more than the league average. That's the peripheral best associated with walk rate.


Sergio Romo is not up a tick. In fact, his fastball is barely cracking 88 these days. It does look like he's experimenting some with his pitching mix in the early days, but even if he doesn't add more pitches, he's still getting tons of strikes on his slider. And not walking anyone. Mostly, he moved up because the team showed confidence in him and provided him four close games in the first week-plus. He might earn a ton of saves this year. Maybe he is a Maddux-like reliever.


Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Dude, Where Are the Keys to the Car" Tier.)


Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians


Jonathan Papelbon's velocity is still down. His splitter can still befuddle you, like reaching for your keys where you know you left them, but he's got less gas this year. And if you want to poo-poo this as a spring thing, take a look at this image from FanGraphs. He didn't have a game in the last two seasons where he showed velocity this low. He's still getting whiffs and showing great control, but this is not a fun picture.



Let's not panic about Chris Perez for blowing a save. It was a Joey Bautista home run, and that can happen. We'll move him down within the tier -- he wasn't a great closer before last year -- but we'll keep him here. Addison Reed moves down with him, not because he blew a save, but because he's down over a mile per hour on the gun, and not getting whiffs like he needs to. Could still be cold weather, but he hasn't yet lived up to the promise of his minor league numbers, so there's some worry. And by the way, when it comes to gun readings, they become statistically significant after three games. At least, that's what Jeff Zimmerman found for starters.


Old men Glen Perkins and Jason Grilli deserve shout outs. Perkins is 30, and it took him a while to get where he is. He's a lefty, and a former starter, but there's plenty to like about him. His velocity has stayed 93-94 since he moved to the pen, and his swinging strikes lurched forward with it. He's always had excellent control, and even bad teams give more than 30 save opportunities. Grilli is 36 but got a velocity boost with the Pirates. Now he's following that up with even more gas this year. He looks ready to be the Big Value Closer that happens every year.


Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Do NOT Pick That Dirty Diaper Up and Swing It" Tier.)


Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals


These guys still sling poop, as you might say, but there are question marks around them.


Even the steadier of the options in this tier have some question marks. Bobby Parnell's team hasn't given him a save chance yet. Casey Janssen has looked good in two outings so far, but he's been overperforming his stuff for a couple years now. Sergio Santos gave up a bad home run one game, but he's got the velocity of a closer. (And that velocity is back up over last year's dip.) Ernesto Frieri has two two-strikeout outings so far, but if Ryan Madson ever gets healthy, he could end up as the setup man due to his on-again, off-again control. Brandon League has the best setup man in baseball behind him in Kenley Jansen, and has a lower ceiling because of his strikeout rate.


But it's the bottom two guys on the list that are causing real dilemmas.


Greg Holland has more walks than strikeouts. Greg Holland has two walks per inning pitched. He always had a walk problem but right now it's ridiculous. His velocity is down, too, a bit over a mile per hour. Of course, that's a tough one to believe -- the radar gun in Kansas City is notoriously hot, and Holland finally pitched at home Tuesday. If you look at his velocity chart, his current work fits in, for the most part, even if on the lower end:



More concerning for Holland's owners is the wildness. His manager gave him a vote of confidence, but then he went out and promptly walked two in a save. He's still getting whiffs, but he needs to settle down. The Dominican Republic setup man, Kelvin Herrera, is one of the better setup men in the league, and he has much better control. He also has even more gas than Holland. Herrera is a great speculative add right now.


In Miami, there's no such clear-cut speculative add. The problem with the incumbent closer is also not so clear-cut. Steve Cishek is getting whiffs, not walking a ton of people, and still getting his customary ground balls. The problem is that more than half of the balls in play are going for hits. It's a tiny sample, and just be happy that his velocity is up and he's getting the whiffs. He's probably fine, and who would you pick up anyway? Preseason S&S sleeper A.J. Ramos is probably the guy -- he pitched the eighth in their sole win -- but he's young and the team would like to keep him cheap if he's a long-term bullpen answer like he looks to be.

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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