Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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The Veteran Closers Return

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The White Sox almost lost on an infield pop-up on Tuesday night. What a terrible way to lose a game that would be. 99.1% of all infield flies are outs


Are there worse ways to lose? As upset as Hawk Harrelson was, it might actually get worse.


And since closers are usually on the mound for these things, it's not even off-topic, for once, to name our tiers after the worst endings in the history of baseball. It's not what you want out of your closer -- it's what you dread.


Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "Yankees 9, Mets 8; June 12, 2009" 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


Obviously you know what's worse than almost losing a game on a dropped infield fly. And you might even remember the time it happened, because it was only four years ago that Luis Castillo dropped an infield fly that allowed two runs to score. Francisco Rodriguez got the loss, but he didn't deserve it. That game should have been over. This is not the last time the Mets will figure into this discussion, which is just *awesome* for this Mets fan.


Aroldis Chapman has four walks against four strikeouts in his last four outings, and he's blown a save. The iffy walk rate is back for what it's worth. And that might not be much. He still strikes everyone out and has a good first-pitch strike rate, a good reach rate, and a great swinging strike rate. That helps him get ahead, get them reaching and turning balls into strikes. He might even improve his walk rate going forward. A week ago, Jason Grilli blew a save on a Jay Bruce home run, and then came into a non-save situation on Sunday and gave up three runs. While there is some evidence that closers throw a bit harder and get more strikeouts in save situations, that's not something we fantasy owners can really do anything about. And the effect is fairly minor. Mariano Rivera isn't quite getting a strikeout per inning, and his WHIP right now would be the worst of his career. If he wasn't Mo, he might be down a tier. But he is. Even at his age.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Mariners 2, Athletics 1; April 19, 2004" Tier.)


Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals


It's possible that this one is worse than an infield fly ball. The Athletics lost to the Mariners in 2004… on a balk. On a technicality that's often hard to understand with detailed instructions and a telestrator at hand. Justin Duchscherer got handed the loss, but everyone lost when the umpire called that one. Who did the players even pile on? Who got the shaving cream pie to the face? Did the fans clap, or shrug, and go home? 


Addison Reed got the blown save in the box score, but it was Gordon Beckham and The Dropped Pop Up That Angered Hawk Harrelson that really were the culprits. Reed hasn't walked a guy since the fifth of June. That's more like the elite control artist he was in the minors. Edward Mujica walked his second batter of the season Tuesday night. That's almost as stupefying, especially when you consider he throws his splitter 60+% of the time, and that pitch is hard to throw for strikes. Rafael Soriano is pushing his strikeout and whiff rates back to normal territories, and that might be because he's also recovered some velocity. Still, a velocity chart as erratic as this is not terribly exciting.


Casey Janssen's strikeout rate has fallen a bit, but his control-first approach seems to be holding. I wanted to know more about how he does what he does, so I asked him about it. His answers were impressive. I'd still pick a guy with raw stuff over him -- I'd rather depend on a guy that can get a whiff when he needs it -- but his brainiac approach seems to be working well.


Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Pirates 2, Mets 1, August 27, 1963" Tier.)


Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets


Officially, two errors allowed two runs to score in the ninth. Officially. But the play-by-play was way less kind. Let Chris Jaffe take it away:

Then Manny Mota bopped a comebacker up the middle that got past the pitcher and through the middle infielders. Center fielder Duke Carmel fielded the ball - or at least he intended to. The ball clonked off his glove and went into right. Fortunately, the Mets had just inserted a defensive replacement in right: Joe Christopher. Unfortunately, they would've been better off with someone else there. Christopher's throw to third to head off the lead runner was badly off target and went somewhere between third and home.

Pitcher Galen Cisco went to retrieve it, but tripped over his own feet and did a lovely face plant on the ground. One run scored to tie the game, and the second chugged for home. Cisco got up and corralled the ball in time to make one last play at the plate to nab the would-be winning run. The throw was in time - but of course something had to go wrong: catcher Jesse Gonder caught it out of position. Instead of staying behind the plate, he had advanced upward. When he caught the throw, his back was to home, and when he did a 180 to tag Mota, he found out the hard way that he was five feet from home, and out of arm's distance to tag Mota. Pirates won, 2-1.



Jonathan Papelbon drops from the top of tier two to the top of tier three, and it's not just about his bad week. For one, his velocity, which was creeping upwards back to normal levels, dropped back down again. His strikeout rate in May and June had also climbed to almost one per inning, which amazingly rates as an accomplishment for him this year, but now he has had four strikeouts in his last seven outings. And he's blown four of his last five save opportunities. They've each gone differently -- a homer in New York, a string of hits in Washington, a bad walk in San Diego -- but the lack of velocity and strikeouts has to figure in. At this rate, Papelbon won't get traded to Detroit either, and that means his save opportunities won't get any better. He could be hurting. Mike Adams is out, though, so the replacement is not immediately obvious. It might be lefty Antonio Bastardo, who has gotten shots in the past, despite his left-handedness. Nobody else has the rates to do it, even if Justin De Fratus has some interesting assets (right-handedness, nice swinging strike rate, and good velocity). Still, it was Bastardo who got a save earlier this month when Papelbon and Adams were out.


Yes I know Jim Johnson has 27 saves. He also isn't helping in ERA or WHIP this year, and now that Brandon League is out of a job, he has the worst strikeout rate among closers (other than Huston Street). Just compare him to Glen Perkins. You lose eight saves, but you gain 11 strikeouts, a full point of ERA, and a third of a point of WHIP. Those are all categories that count! And don't tell me that the value of a closer's ERA is lessened because he pitches less often -- both of our teams need three or four closers, and if your four closers have bad ERAs and mine don't, my team will have a better ERA, all other things equal.


Kenley Jansen has 56 strikeouts against six walks in 38 innings. Brandon League has 13 strikeouts against eight walks in 28.1 innings. These things were foreseeable. Why the Dodgers gave League that contract and the job is… well, it's almost like tripping over your own feet.


Until Sunday, Ernesto Frieri hadn't walked a batter since June fifth. He walked eight guys in April, nine guys in May, and two in June. If he continues to corral the ball, he'll move up. He has the elite strikeout rate to do so, even if his team isn't giving him a ton of save opportunities. That's an expensive lineup, they could easily get it together and start scoring some runs for him.


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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