Comfort is a powerful thing.
Making the relievers comfortable is the best argument for even having a closer. If it weren't for the value of having predictable roles, teams would be best off using their best reliever against the best hitters late in closer games, and mixing and matching the rest of their guys depending on the matchups. It's just how things work -- there are more important innings than the ninth in some games, and there are easy three-run one-inning bottom-of-the-lineup saves, too.
But because the players like comfort, and the managers like predictable bullpen arrangements too, we have this constant search for The Closer that'll save the pen.
We know about this search for comfort in our own lives. And those things that give us comfort are your tiers this week.
Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Puffy Slippers" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
I don't know about you, but I have cold feet. All the time. Nothing better than slipping my feet into my big puffy slippers. Does that make me less of a man?
These guys don't question their manhood. They also make their owners comfortable. Craig Kimbrel is so good that a one-game blip in velocity -- he was down around 94 instead of 96 in his last save -- made the news. The team wasn't worried. He had pitched 16 hours before, and he's had some lower velocity outings in his career. In 2011, he was down around 94 three or four times. Last year, he never dipped below 95, but if the pitcher isn't worried, let's not make a mountain of a molehill.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Old Furniture" Tier.)
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Food items came to mind here, but not everyone loves the smell of popcorn like I do. Furniture, we all have. Sofa, lazy boy, bean bag, doesn't matter. Everyone's got something they like to settle in to at the end of the day. You can settle down alright with these closers. A few might have some creaky springs.
It would be comfortable to slide Mariano Rivera into his old customary seat in the elite crew, but the peripherals don't have him there. He's still showing his career-worst swinging strike rate, the second-worst strikeout rate of his career, and his career-worst ground-ball rate. His cutter is slower than it's ever been, too. Obviously he has elite job safety, but if he won't even strike out eight batters per nine, he doesn't belong next to three guys that are striking out double digit batters per nine.
J.J. Putz moves down in the tier because he's blown two of his last three save opportunities, and three on this young year. Two things leap out on his record -- he's walking too many and he's allowing too many home runs. For the last three years, Putz has had excellent control, and for the past seven years, he's kept the ball in the park well. The last time he had bad control for a season, it was a harbinger for injury, but we can't know that now. He needs to get strike one at his excellent career rate, and get batters reaching again -- which shouldn't be too hard, he's still got an excellent strikeout rate, despite his velocity being down about a mile and a half per hour.
He joins another good closer with strange rates at the bottom of the tier. Rafael Betancourt is not getting the whiffs he's accustomed to. And his control is gone too -- but that's a part of his game that has never once been worse than league average. He'll get it going. It's easy to say that if he had three more strikeouts, he'd be the same he always was, but his velocity is down below 90 for the first time in his career. He's 38, and relievers don't do well with velocity loss. The team is doing well, though, and Betancourt has a pristine ERA and WHIP, and Wilton Lopez, ostensibly the man behind him, does not have those things.
Seen in the light of Putz and Betancourt, Jonathan Papelbon belongs at the bottom of this tier. The fact that he's also down a mile and a half on his fastball, and is also looking for lost whiffs, that just fits right in. But Papelbon is 33, so he might be the most likely of the three to recover what he's missing. One (or more) of these three might not be in this tier again next week if they don't start to push the needle the right way.
Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Ratty Clothing" Tier.)
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Other contenders for this tier were movies -- Caddyshack, or, if you're like my nephew, Cars -- but we can't agree on movies. One suggestion was video game music, but then we're going to run into age issues… Or can we all agree the Super Mario tune is comforting? If not, let's go t-shirt. Or, in my case, that flannel that I'd had since sixth grade that I find comforting even though it mostly just hangs out in my closet.
One of these guys will end up stashed away out of sight this year, more than one even. Can we figure out which one? Fernando Rodney sticks out to me. He has six walks in seven appearances this year, and he didn't walk his sixth batter until July 24. We've been skeptical of Rodney's walk rate resurgence at his old age (36) here, and it looks like his old habits are creeping back in. The Rays are better than anyone at finding new closers, too.
It might seem premature to move Jason Grilli up a tier, so we won't, but there are a few key things that argue in his favor. Number one is that he's kept his velocity gains from last year, which was always dicey given his age (36). Even in the cold early season, his fastball is averaging almost 94 mph, a velocity he's shown mostly with the Pirates. Focusing on the fastball and slider has led to elite whiff and strikeout rates, and those things have arrived this year. The Pirates are giving him opportunities, too. He's on the precipice of moving up.
Jim Johnson's strikeout rate is still encouraging, but it's coming with the same amount of whiffs and grounders as usual -- the better bet is on regression. Grant Balfour's velocity is back up at a four-year high. Maybe the surgery was good to him. Glen Perkins is on fire, but will the Twins keep giving him opportunities? They don't have a great lineup, and run scoring was the metric best correlated with save opportunities. Say all of that for Bobby Parnell, too.
It's Addison Reed that deserves a paragraph all to himself, though. He's got his whiff rate up into elite territory, and his walk rate is dwindling down to his customary elite levels, too. He's focusing more on the slider, and though his velocity is down a bit, he's still throwing 93+ mph. With elite control, he might be a dark horse to jump a level.
Read more about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.