Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Closer Changes At The Bottom

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Gerrit Cole debuted last night, and it was pretty impressive. He was home and, and it was the Giants lineup (ducks), but he went past the sixth inning, struck out two and allowed two hits while hitting 99 on the radar gun. It was solid with glimpses of spectacular.


It wasn't quite Strasburgian, though. And that might be the standard for debuts in the Free Agency Era (since 1974). We all remember that game. I had a meetup at a local establishment -- first of many that I've hosted since -- and we watched Strasburg debut next to Giancarlo Stanton and we just marveled at greatness.


So let's do tiers based on starting pitcher debuts since 1974. We're looking for strikeouts, yes, but also how the team fared and how many runs and base runners the pitchers allowed.


It's basically what we're looking for in closers, just a little different.


Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "Stephen Strasburg" Tier.)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees


Strasburg leads all post-1974 debuts in strikeouts, by two. 14 strikeouts and no walks in seven innings erases the two runs he gave up, especially since the team won. Delwyn Young hit a home run! So strange.


There's really no reason to move these guys around. Well, okay Jason Grilli moves up because his strikeout rate is better than the three behind him. But he's not quite Craig Kimbrel or anything. He does have three Kimbrels this year -- three strikeouts, no base runners in a save -- but he's not the guy who we named the stat after, not yet. Might be The Grilled Cheeses in a few years, but Grilli's age (36) suggests that he won't have the shelf life of the young Atlanta closer. (And I like Grilled Cheese, just saying.)


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Matt Harvey" Tier.)


Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays


We could have taken Steve Woodard for the tier, since he struck out 12 and walked one and had a one-hitter through eight innings in his debut. We could have, but we know that he never got his seasonal ERA under four and never had a season like Matt Harvey is having now. Is that fair? Who knows. But Matt Harvey came out breathing fire in his debut, as he struck out 11 against three walks, no runs and three hits in five and a third. That'll do.


Addison Reed blew a save this week, but he's still got excellent walk and strikeout numbers and only two blown saves on the year. The White Sox, though, are not scoring any runs -- worst in the American League -- so Reed might not get much more than 30 saves this year. Still, he'll help everywhere else, and he has leash, since he's not the problem, and he's young, and even if the team looks to the future, they'll keep him around. You could actually say some of the same things (not the young stuff, the team stuff) about Jonathan Papelbon, since the Phillies are 11th in the National League in run scoring.


Grant Balfour has only struck out two (no walks) in his last six appearances, which is strange, but his overall numbers are still rock solid. Rafael Soriano's peripheral numbers are not rock solid -- his strikeout rate and velocity are at career lows. His whiff rate is still above average, though, so maybe he can right the ship. Drew Storen looks like the handcuff if you're getting nervous.


It's not time to grab Steve Delabar or anything -- he's got a terrible walk rate, and that could bite him in the butt -- but Casey Janssen isn't on the best of streaks. Maybe I got into his head when I asked him how a closer that barely cracks 90 and has a below-average whiff rate has such great numbers. He was gracious in the face of idiocy and explained to me that it's all about his command. You *can* see from his career walk rate (2.25 per nine) and this year's version (1.31 BB/9) that he can put the ball where he wants to. And it's tempting to totally believe in him when you hear him talk about finding the umpire's strike zone and placing the ball just another inch further. So we'll just call that blown save against Texas a blown save and nothing more, and leave him in this tier.


Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Johnny Cueto" Tier.)


Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks


Remember Johnny Cueto? Dude had that crazy back turn in his delivery? Okay, it probably only *seems* like people forgot about him because of his injury-riddled season this year. Way back when in 2008, Cueto showed us what was to come by striking out ten, walking none, and allowing one hit and one run in seven innings. If not for the different strikeout rate, he might be second.


You shouldn't forget the closers in this tier, either. Greg Holland was about to move up to the second tier since he's actually improved his walk rate from last year and looks like a great closer. But then take a look at his first-pitch strikes and see that he's one of the worst in the league. That number explains half the variance in walk rate, so if he's not getting strike one even 50% of the time, he's shooting himself in the foot. League average is over 60%! A few more walks and the WHIP goes up closer to last year's number, and with the Royals struggling to win games, he's not a lock for much more than 30-35 saves either. Similarly, you can believe in Glen Perkins' numbers, but can you believe in his team. Ernesto Frieri, too, with the Ryan Madson asterisk.


Tom Wilhelmsen is officially worrying me. He still has an above-average whiff rate, but his strikeout rate is terrible for a closer. Jim-Johnson-esque. And there have been times when Wilhelmsen has lost fastball control -- when he first came to camp with the Mariners, they weren't sure he'd be able to manage his heater enough to contribute at all. So his rising walk rate is a little worrisome too. He's been scored on in three of his last five starts, and his clean slate save in June didn't have a strikeout in it. Carter Capps has the same velocity, way more strikeouts, and for once his bad WHIP has nothing to do with his control. He's been unlucky when it comes to homers and balls in play, and if those regress to league levels, Capps should easy show himself to be the better pitcher. It's not a red alert yet, but it's worth watching.


Jim Johnson doesn't drop because he got scored upon this week. Jim Johnson drops because there's no one number that you can point to as the cause of his troubles. This might just be who he is. His batting average on balls in play (.308) is a bit high, but not that bad. His ground-ball rate is at a three-year low, and though he has his strikeouts up over seven again (he's only managed that feat twice in his career), that's still a terrible strikeout rate for a closer. Maybe a little bit better luck on the bouncing ball will help his ERA sneak under four, but he doesn't really have a lot going for him other than saves totals, which is only one category.


Heath Bell is fine, but J.J. Putz is getting healthier and might be back by the end of the month. Enjoy -- and bank -- the free saves you got. Doubt he has much trade value.

Read about the more 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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