Trying to get ahead of closer changes is almost impossible. Closer experience doesn't matter. ERA -- one-year or three-year -- doesn't matter. Even fielding-independent advanced pitching metrics don't matter. The list of things that don't matter is long. Trust me, I've got a research-backed list of the things that don't matter.
But there are a few things that matter. Managers like righties over lefties in the role. They like velocity. And they like strikeout percentage. That's the short list of things that correlate well with closer changes.
You may think I'm a little obsessed with strikeout rate, that's fine. But, other than the fact that they are fascist -- a ball in play has so many possibilities, and the strikeout just one -- and they are a category in almost every version of the fantasy game, there's another reason to like strikeouts: They just might predict the next closer change.
So, in honor of the strikeout, we'll name each tier after the appropriate strikeout artist. Strikeouts might be on the rise, and there might be more of them every day, but the K still stands for king.
Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Nolan Ryan" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Had to be Nolan Ryan. 5,714 strikeouts, tops, by far. You think of strikeouts, and you think of The Express.
Think of rock-steady saves with WHIPs much better than Ryan ever managed, and you think of these guys. Even if Aroldis Chapman and Joe Nathan have seen their velocity drop a bit, there's not a worry in the group right now.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Tom Seaver" Tier.)
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Tom Seaver had a great career. He amassed 3,640 strikeouts, and ended up a mere 2,074 strikeouts short of Ryan. On a career scale, that's not terrible -- he is sixth overall all-timer -- but it's not quite the top of the top.
These guys are top but not quite top of the top, too. It's actually sort of hard to move a guy to the top of the tier, even. It's J.J. Putz this week. Despite his velocity going down, Putz has been great in the short term, with strikeouts in bunches. His walk rate is a little up, but he's had great control his whole life. Other than his health issues there's no real reason to put an asterisk on him. You could say the same about Rafael Soriano, but his knee has been a bit balky and he's given up a home run or two too many this year. Rafael Betancourt's velocity is down yet another year, but he should have excellent control (even if it took him until May 15th last year to walk his fourth batter), and his whiffs aren't down too far just yet.
Below those three, the questions are a bit more legitimate. Well, maybe Sergio Romo should join them, but he blew a save. And despite writing up Romo's approach against lefties in a positive manner for FanGraphs, I'm a little suspicious and wonder if he can truly finish off lefties all year with a front-door slider, sinker, and iffy changeup arsenal. He got Anthony Rizzo in a big spot last week, but at least one of the pitches was grooved to the big lefty first baseman.
Then you have the rest. Why is Tom Wilhelmsen, owner of a 95+ mph fastball and a hammer curve, not getting any whiffs or strikeouts right now? Every peripheral is in a bad place for Mariano Rivera. His velocity, whiff rate, strikeout rate, and ground-ball rate are all at career lows. They left a 38-year old Hiroki Kuroda out on the mound to finish out a close game the other day, and they were warming up Boone Logan in the pen. Fernando Rodney's walk rate is back up, but only to average, and he's still getting strike one. It's the lack of swinging strikes that might be more worrisome.
Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Pedro Martinez and Bob Feller" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Call this the short but sweet tier. Pedro Martinez is 13th on the all-time list (3,154 strikeouts), and Bob Feller is 21st (2,581 strikeouts), but what makes them special is that they are two of the three pitchers in the top 25 that didn't start 500 games. David Cone is the non-named third member of this group, which burned bright, but not as long as many others.
Jonathan Papelbon looked like he was at risk of having a short career, but now signs look a bit better. He's still down over a mile and a half on the gun, and his swinging strikes are still way down -- even below average for a late-inning reliever -- but all of those secondary metrics have moved in the right direction recently. And his control is still there. Along with Papelbon, Grant Balfour is still one of the best other shots to move up a tier, especially since he's one of the few guys who's showing better velocity right now, but his swinging strikes are not there.
Since he hasn't changed his pitching mix much, and hasn't added velocity, there aren't great reasons to believe in Jim Johnson's new strikeout rate. His swinging strike rate is the worst of his career, even. Just something that happens when you've pitched in seven games and have six strikeouts, randomly. What's news is that the Orioles are continuing to win close games. If he saves 45+ again, he'll be very valuable again. If not, he'll just be a few strikeouts short of the second tier.
It's a small sample, but Bobby Parnell always had the upside to do what he's doing now. He has good control -- no walks on the year -- and the gas (95+) to get whiffs. With the Mets looking to the future, it probably makes sense for them to let him get comfortable in the role.
Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Tommy John" Tier.)
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Obviously Tommy John is known more for the surgery that extended his career than he his for the K, but he also struck out 2,245 batters over 700 games. It's not a great strikeout rate -- he's just a few strikeouts ahead of CC Sabathia, who has started 386 games. But he was there, and he did his job, for a long time, and that counts.
Huston Street is not throwing his fastball much at all, and it's slower than it's ever been. Along with the lack of whiffs and history, it's legit to worry about his health. Three home runs in four innings, for a Padres pitcher especially, makes you sit up and take notice. Not much to be done, though, unless you want to handcuff with Luke Gregerson. Sell-low closers don't have much trade value. He's still there, and he's doing his job, but it's fair to be worried.
Casey Janssen has long over-performed his velocity, so maybe it's not a big deal, but he's down to 89 now, down from close to 92 last year. That's not a closer's velocity, and it's not much separation from his 89 mph cutter and 73 mph curve ball. Throw in the shoulder surgery and the fact that Sergio Santos is striking people out left and right with 94+ mph gas -- and the research cited above -- and Santos looks like one of the better saves gambles on your wire… when healthy. He's off to the DL again with triceps soreness for now.
Nobody else in this tier has a guy behind them that satisfies the 'strikeouts and gas' rule as well. Kelvin Herrera has more gas than Greg Holland, but if you use a bigger sample, not more strikeouts. And the Royals say they are sticking with Holland for now, too. And Herrera just got blown up by the Bravos. Ernesto Frieri has more gas than Ryan Madson, and even if Madson finally looks closer to a return, Frieri has been great while he was out. Steve Cishek has nobody behind him, really, since A.J. Ramos is now pitching the seventh and Mike Dunn is a lefty.
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.