Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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First Half Closer Rankings

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The All-Star game is a strange time, stuck in purgatory. There's very little 'now.'

 

You get to look backward. Your fantasy season is stuck without new input, so you can peruse what you've done and give your team a physical. It's a great time for trading for that reason. Everyone's staring a hole into their lineups, trying to decide how to get better.

 

You get to look forward. The end-game looms, and you've got your second-half sleeper articles galore. Every anticipated move is seen through the lens of which category you might be able to dominate, and which you'll have to leave by the wayside.

 

But now? It can be a silly game, half-played by stars trying to avoid injury, announced by national voices telling us stories we have heard a million times about the players we love. Every once in a while, though, the game transcends. So we'll name the tiers after remarkable all-star games of the past.

 

And, since you're looking backwards right now anyway, we'll pair these tiers with a look at some retroactive rankings. To that end, I asked my friend Zach Sanders to run the top 50 players in the saves category through his auction value calculator. The resulting ranking looks backwards while these tiers hope to look forwards, but this exercise also helps us correctly value a pitcher's contribution in each category against a replacement level set by the pitching population. We might even move a pitcher or two based on the results, or at least have to defend a ranking. You can find the full backward-looking ranking at the end of this piece. The tiered ranks are still forward-looking, as they always have been.

 

Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "1934" 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

 

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx made up the meat of this lineup, but it wasn't something they did that made this all-star game remarkable -- it was what was done to them. Carl Hubbell struck out all three of them in a row. Then he struck out Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in the next inning. Five straight Hall of Famers.

 

The top five relievers for the season so far are Joe Nathan, Jason Grilli, Craig Kimbrel, Edward Mujica and Greg Holland. I've talked some about why Edward Mujica is down a few spots in my forward-looking rankings from where his production to date would land him, and it mostly surrounds the fact that I don't trust a closer that throws more than half of his pitches with the split-finger grip. That pitch has the worst strike rates in baseball because it's so hard to throw in the zone. (Jeff Samardzija talks about that fact a bit here.) Mujica is surviving/thriving because he's getting batters to swing at *two-thirds* of the split-fingers he throws. That's only up ten percent over his career levels, but it's still kind of absurd. Then again, the ball rate on Mujica's splitter is 29%, which is much better than, say, Samardzija shows (41%). But is his ball rate so low because batters swing at the pitch so often? I'm suspicious. It's just so rare.

 

The reason MVP Mariano Rivera is on this list above his ranking is obvious. He has more leash than anyone in baseball. He could seriously implode and the Yanks would give him a couple days off. Mo's ninth on the first-half value list anyway.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "1955" Tier.)

 

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

 

Stan Musial won the game in the fifteenth, with a home run, which is fun. Ted Williams walked 'em off too, in the 1941 season -- also the season he hit .406. Which do you like better? Might be a choice between youth and age. Musial was 34 and in his twelfth all-star game. Williams was 22.

 

The second five on the rankings to date are, in order: Bobby Parnell, Aroldis Chapman, Glen Perkins, Mariano Rivera, and Grant Balfour. It's weird to see Bobby Parnell so high on the list, but it should also be obvious why he's not this high on the rest-of-season rankings. For one, there's some trade risk for a team that's rebuilding. And for two, his lower strikeout rate and reliance on the ground ball (and complete lack of a single home run against) suggest that he might have some regression risk in his future. The rest of the list looks mighty familiar, and obviously Kenley Jansen will start adding saves to his repertoire.

 

Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "1971" Tier.)

 

Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

 

In 1971, 25-year-old Reggie Jackson hit a homer. Not just any homer. Maybe the biggest homer in all-star game history, it almost left the stadium. That's probably more than 'okay,' but the all-star game has higher standards. It didn't win the game or anything.

 

After the top ten, you start getting some interesting names that don't line up so well any more. Sure, Jim Johnson. Addison Reed and Jonathan Papelbon, numbers 12, 13, and 14 on the first half production list, are in this tier. But Sergio Romo is only number 15! That's probably because of his meager saves total (21), and the fact that's he's pitched fewer innings than anyone other than Mariano Rivera in the top 20. That might not change -- the Giants like to baby his elbow, perhaps because he throws more sliders than anyone -- and it doesn't *look* like the Giants will be winning a ton more games in the future. Perhaps Romo should drop out of the top tier?

 

Number 15 on the list so far should be a surprise. And one that will change the rankings. Because 15th on the list is Koji Uehara! Even with only eight saves, Uehara's minuscule ERA (1.7), great WHIP (.76), and 60(!) strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings has him ranked higher than we have him rest of season. With Casey Janssen looking human (and looking for his strikeouts) and Steve Delabar looking awesome, let's switch Janssen (number 23 in value to-date) with Uehara to better reflect the value of their overall skillets. There's still some risk with Andrew Bailey in the pen, but Uehara has given great value so far, and should continue to be an excellent reliever, saves or no.

 

16-19 on the list contain more interesting names: Kenley Jansen (low saves total and all), Rafael Soriano, Ernesto Frieri… and Drew Smyly. Drew Smyly! Four wins, two saves, and great ERA and WHIP will do a lot for you. Those looking for rates and ratios help should consider him. With Joaquin Benoit being a little shaky in back-to-backs, Smyly should get some saves against lefty-heavy lineups.


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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