How do I put this column together?
First, I depend on the five categories of the normal fantasy league to guide my rankings. So, yeah, Jim Johnson gets a ding because most years he'll cede about twenty strikeouts on the average closer, and twenty strikeouts are useful in almost any league. I'll look at some large-sample statistics that speak to the true talent of the players involved -- Mariano Rivera didn't look good at first, but he's been so good for so long that he deserved the benefit of the doubt. At this point in the season, I'm still looking at last year's numbers to an extent, because relievers have pitched maybe ten to twelve innings, and that's not a great sample.
On the other hand, I will look at per-pitch numbers, since they've probably thrown more than a hundred pitches by this point -- velocity, contact rate, and first strike rate. I use first strike rate because I found that it (along with reach and contact rates) predicted future walk rate better than current walk rate. I use velocity and whiff rate because a writer of mine found that velocity plus whiff rate predicted future strikeout rate better than current strikeout rate ($ link). Oh, and velocity has been shown to be more important to the ability of an aging reliever than it is to the older starting pitcher. And then I'll look at pitching mix -- sometimes the pitchers change their offerings and it's meaningful quickly.
I won't look at closer experience, because others have failed to find a link there. I won't look too much at walk rate, because the link isn't there -- plenty of closers have walked plenty of batters. I won't look at ERA, or even FIP. No link to saves specifically. I won't look at team record -- unimportant -- but I will look at how many runs a team scores, because I found a link there to save opportunities.
If I'm trying to predict a closer change, I will look at handedness. Managers prefer righty closers, as I found. Most importantly, I'll look at velocity and strikeout rate. ($ link) New closers have more gas and higher strikeout rates than the closers they replaced ($ link).
That's how I predicted that Junichi Tazawa would get the closer's role late Monday night, before his manager confirmed the choice.
So in his honor, I'll name the tiers after the things I find most important to the success of a closer.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Strikeout Rate" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan is a good figurehead for this tier. He's only throwing 91ish this year, and that's down from 94 mph, and that would be worrisome if he wasn't showing a great strikeout backed by an elite whiff rate. I do mention walk rate sometimes, particularly in respect to the work by Nathan, but that's so I can speak to the quality of the pitcher and the likelihood they give your team a good WHIP. I mean, nobody really thinks that Aroldis Chapman's worse-than-average walk rate makes him a risky play, right? Craig Kimbrel has blown three saves since April 24th. For another closer, that might matter.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Velocity" Tier.)
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Sergio Romo is at the head of the velocity tier and has the worst velocity of the crew. He survives by being elite everywhere else. Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Betancourt are all missing velocity, but it hasn't yet meant much. Jason Grilli put on velocity in his mid thirties, and kept it this year, and that's a big part of why he's creeping up the rankings. Tom Wilhelmsen? Still throwing 96 mph gas with a hammer curve, and now his strikeout rate is finally normalizing to his career rate. He has nine strikeouts in his last eight outings -- but no Kimbrels yet.
Let's move Jim Johnson up. For the last 170+ innings going into this year, he had struck out just over five per nine and been a real problem in that department. This year, his strikeout rate is almost up to eight per nine, and that would only cost you about two strikeouts per nine innings on the average closer. Seriously -- last year, the average closer struck out ten per nine, so he's still no asset in the department. Johnson's whiff rate is not up, his velocity is down, and his pitching mix is unchanged, and yet he's striking out almost eight per nine. Color me slightly skeptical of this new strikeout rate, but if it's real, he can overcome the strikeout shortfall. Obviously he's got lots of leash.
Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "First Strike Percentage" Tier.)
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Glen Perkins hasn't been perfect. And focusing too hard on walk rate or it's peripherals is not a great idea either. Perkins has had elite control over his career, and has an elite first-pitch strike rate this year. Expect him to end the year with closer to two walks per nine.
Addison Reed blew a save last week -- against the Royals, with two walks, a hit, and no strikeouts -- but in general, he's showing the strikeout rate we expected of him after he blew through the minor leagues. He also showed an elite walk rate in the minors and is now walking a batter every two innings. Well, voila, his first pitch strike rate is elite as well. All he needs is for batters to reach a little -- and they have in the past -- and they'll help turn some balls into strikes and push that walk rate down. I'm not worried about Addison Reed.
I am worried about Fernando Rodney, and on the precipice of dropping him down a tier. He never had good control, and that was enough to tank him on the keeper closer rankings last year and on rankings going into the season. Right now, he's helped by the fact that Jake McGee is struggling, and few people are banging the door down for Joel Peralta. But the control is gone once again, even though he went back to the first base side of the rubber, and his walk rate peripherals are not happy. His first-pitch strike rate is below average, his reach rate is below average, and his swinging strike rate is below average. This is a trifecta of uh-oh. I suppose Joel Peralta is an interesting saves pickup.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.