Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Closer Change in Arizona Again

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It's no big deal or anything, but scoring (and rules) in baseball can be a funny thing. Like last night in the game in San Francisco. In an inning that featured a throw into center field and a poor throw at the plate, Dillon Gee gave up two earned runs. With the team throwing the ball around like a little league team, the runs were still earned. Take those two away, and Gee is on his way to slowly whittling down that ERA. Add em in, and he's still got that bad ERA. I guess it can happen when you put balls in play, but that's a subjective scoring decision that meant a difference in a few people's lives.


The funny thing is, baseball has all sorts of silly rules. Like the save rule, are you kidding me? Why three runs? Why are those three outs deemed so important when the three-four-five hitters might have come up in the eighth?


It goes on. So we'll name the tiers after the sillier rules and stats in baseball. This should be fun.


Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "RBI" Tier.)


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


So we track when a batter makes contact in the field of play (most of the time, since you can get an RBI on a foul-out) and the ball is either cleanly fielded or not fielded at all, and it's not a double play, and there's a player on base and that player scores? We track that? And we hand out awards based on who does this a lot? Cool.


On July fourth, Craig Kimbrel gave up his first run in a month. He promptly started another scoreless run. If only he had more than one Kimbrel (three strikeouts, no base runners) this season we could really call him elite. (Joking.)


Mariano Rivera blew a save. Adam Jones hit a home run. These things happen. He's still got tons of leash, great rates and ratios (even if his strikeout rate is only about average for a late-game closer). "On pace for" stats are terrible, but he's still on pace to blow fewer saves than he did in 2011. Ageless wonder. Jason Grilli doesn't have the same leash or background, but with 61 strikeouts in fewer than 40 innings, we'll ignore a few bad games this month.


Old man Joe Nathan looks a little out of place here, but he's got a better strikeout rate than Rivera, hasn't walked a guy in nine appearances, is on a great team, and has blown only one save all year. He belongs.


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


Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers


Yeah we fetishize contact with runners on, and we also love this idea that getting the last three outs of a game are the most important. They often aren't. The correlation between saves and winning percentage is pretty low, too. Sure, if you have a good bullpen, it helps to win games. But sometimes that means having a great setup guy. If saves weren't already ridiculous enough, check out Edward Mujica's one-batter save last night: the team was four runs ahead, but the bases were loaded. Strange rule.


Grant Balfour is breaking Oakland consecutive games saved records once held by Dennis Eckersley. He's no Dennis Eckersley, but he's rock steady.


Do we have to start thinking about Greg Holland as an elite guy? The Royals' offense is improving, and he's thrown 20 strikeouts since his last walk. That includes two Kimbrels. He's really figured things out, and the only thing holding him back is his team. Still, with 22 saves… if he cracks 40 and continues to show this level of control, he'll overtake someone in that top tier.


It's not enough to really worry, but it is worth pointing out: Edward Mujica has a below-average strikeout rate for a closer. He's had 14 appearances without a K, and six of his last ten. That lines up with a bit of a shaky patch for him in late June and early July, and also with his career rates. He's also giving up his share of home runs like he always does, and throwing more than 50% split-fingers, which nobody does. It's like his fastball is his changeup, really. Anyway, he's had a great season, but he's not elite, and he allows more balls into play than your typical closer -- that could hurt him eventually.


Jansen replaces Janssen here, and that's what happens when you have *more than twice as many strikeouts* as the guy ahead of you in the rankings. He only has one more walk to boot. It's nice what Janssen has done, but these rankings are rest-of-season rankings. There's really no reason to doubt Kenley Jansen at this point -- other than the state of his team -- and his ratios are pristine.


Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Wins" Tier.)


Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles


We're not talking about team wins here. Obviously those are important. You play to win the game. But pitcher wins? Those can be incredible. Pitch five innings! (Don't worry about what happens if no pitcher pitches five innings, we'll just give it to the reliever that happened to pitch when they scored a run to go ahead.) Have your teammates score enough runs to be ahead! (Don't worry about how many runs you gave up, at all, if your team is ahead.) Give all the credit for the win to one player! (Don't worry about the other 24 players and the coaching staff.)


Casey Janssen hasn't recorded a strikeout since June 22nd. He's struck out six in 11 June and July innings, and that's a bad rate. He was always a bit of a risk as a closer who barely cracks 90 and relies on control, but his owners are locked in and it probably doesn't matter that Sergio Santos is ready to come back after the All-Star break. He drops a tier just to reflect the fact that he's always been risky for strikeouts and isn't giving his owners that category right now.


Jonathan Papelbon will stay in the tier but drop some to reflect the trade risk. Detroit was the old rumor, Boston is the new one. He'd probably close in Detroit, but it's no lock that he would in Boston. If homers, strikeouts and walks are the things most under a player's control, Papelbon beats Koji Uehara in two categories, but not by much -- and he cedes the most important one (strikeouts) to the incumbent. Also, Boston's bullpen is fine, they don't need Papelbon as much as some other contenders. Still, there's a tiny bit of risk here. If he does go, it's Antonio Bastardo who's going to take the job, most likely. He's gotten the opportunities when Papelbon had to sit -- like last night.


Rafael Soriano's velocity continues to trend upwards but he only has one strikeout in his last six appearances. If he was having trouble finding the zone, we might worry about his health, especially since he's had elbow woes in the past, but other than the reduced strikeout rate, there's not yet a reason to worry about the state of his arm. Here's a weird thing: he's cut his slider usage in half. Research I've done suggests that sliders are rough on the arm.  Hmmmm….


Not only does Jim Johnson hurt you in terms of strikeouts -- only Rafael Soriano and Tom Wilhelmsen have a worse strikeout rate in the top 20 in saves this year -- but the lack of strikeouts means he allows more balls into play. Those can bounce any which way, and right now Johnson is having the second-worst luck of his career on batted balls. Add a five-year worst in walk rate, and you get what's going on this year. The saves are nice, but nothing else is, and with two blown saves since late June, the whispers about Tommy Hunter (or a trade) are coming out again.


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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