Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Closers in Waiting

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

There are now ten post-season teams, not eight. That means fewer sellers -- even the Phillies, six games under five hundred and more than eleven games back in the division, were supposedly buyers at one point recently -- and that means fewer deals. Perhaps it means that we should push the deadline back, as Dave Cameron has suggested, because clearly fans love trades. 


What it means for us here is that we're trying to publish in the middle of one of the more languid deadlines of memory. Hopefully the bullpens are all settled. By our count, there are really only two closer situations in flux -- the Cubs could trade their closer, and the Diamondbacks could trade for a closer -- but there are always the mystery teams.


And, since Saves & Steals has used all-time trade deadline deals as tiers before, we'll change it up this year. Let's use last year's trade deadline deals for the tiers. By focusing on one year, we'll remember what it was like under these same conditions, and maybe have an idea what the trades that have just happened actually mean for their teams. Baseball has large rosters -- 25 or 40 depending on how you count -- and that means one player pushes the needle less than in other sports.


Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Philadelphia Phillies traded RF Hunter Pence to San Francisco Giants for RF Nate Schierholtz, C Tommy Joseph and RHP Seth Rosin." Tier.)


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


Well, flags fly forever, so we'll put this one first. And, as a position player that had 250 plate appearances coming with him, he had the biggest chance to make an impact for his team. But let's not forget that Pence played poorly for the Giants, batting under .220 in 300+ plate appearances including the postseason, striking out at a career rate, and showing a below-average walk rate to boot. Tommy Joseph was a legit prospect, but hasn't played well in the Phillies system. Let that bit of hindsight push this to the best trade of the 2012 deadline.


Joe Nathan was rumored to be on the block this week, but this author never believed it. Maybe there was actually a conversation once, and maybe he was actually linked to the Tigers as the rumor went, but the Tigers got their man in Jose Veras and are probably done adding to the bullpen. Especially after they spent their chips on Jose Iglesias. So Joe Nathan will remain one of the best closers in the business on one of the better teams in the league.


We'll leave Sergio Romo in this tier, but an old friend is haunting him currently. He pitched poorly in his last two games in Chicago, and in both cases, a particular type of player figured prominently. In the first, Julio Borbon singled, Dioner Navarro walked, and Anthony Rizzo hit a rocket that Brandon Belt couldn't handle. In the second game, Nate Schierholtz homered to end the game. All of these players hit from the left side. With Sergio Romo's help, I pointed out that he does have a plan against lefties, so hopefully this is just a blip. Hopefully. We do know that the slider is his best pitch, though, and that it isn't a great pitch against opposite-handed hitters. This could be an issue.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Chicago Cubs traded LHP Paul Maholm and LF Reed Johnson to Atlanta Braves for RHP Arodys Vizcaino and RHP Jaye Chapman." Tier.)


Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox


The Braves gave up an interesting arm in Arodys Vizcaino, and they didn't go all the way like the Giants or anything, but they did get an asset in Paul Maholm that didn't expire at the end of the season. For that reason alone, the trade rates well. Paul Maholm is no ace, but he's a useful arm in a game that chews up arms. Speaking of which, Arodys Vizcaino had Tommy John and has not thrown a pitch for the Cubs yet.


Brian Wilson signed in Los Angeles! That's more newsworthy for un-newsworthy reasons, if that makes sense: he heads down the five to pitch for his old team's archival, and he brings all the zaniness to a new market. But when it comes to baseball news, he's headed to the disabled list, and maybe not be back until the end of the month. Kenley Jansen and his ridiculous numbers are safe for now, and actually biting on Romo's heels.


Greg Holland finally walked a guy. That sounds strange, but he hadn't done so in 13 straight appearances. My research has suggested that the most important walk rate peripherals are first-strike rate, reach rate, and swinging strike rate. Those last two might not make sense right away, but think about it: if a batter reaches at a pitch outside the zone and misses, he helps turn a ball into a strike. Holland has the third-best swinging strike rate in baseball's bullpens and gets batters to reach at an above-average rate. So maybe it's not such a big deal that he has a below-average first-strike rate. At 56.7%, he's inching closer to league average (60.3%) anyway. 


Glen Perkins walked a man, that's not such a big deal, even if he has great control. Weirder was that he walked three guys in one appearance. He hasn't done that since May 29th of last year, and only twice now in his career as a reliever. Paired with a Kendrys Morales homer in his next time out, it's tempting to say something is happening to Perkins, but it's also probably just two iffy games in a row.


Every day without a home run is a notch in Koji Uehara's belt, and it's been 14 appearances, so holy belt. Addison Reed doesn't necessarily drop because of something he's done, but if there are three main components to closing -- strikeouts, walks and save opportunities -- it makes sense to say that Uehara has Addison Reed beat in all three of those facets. With the White Sox trading pieces, it's only going to get harder for Reed to add more saves going forward, and he cedes three strikeouts per nine innings to the Boston closer.


Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Miami Marlins traded RHP Edward Mujica to St. Louis Cardinals for 3B Zack Cox." Tier.)


Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins


We end one tier with an Edward Mujica and we name the next tier after him. Using our hindsight glasses, this probably deserves a better tier. But at the time, it's worth noticing that the Cardinals traded a legitimate (if flawed) positional prospect for a reliever. That's a bit risky, and not the usual way of doing business. Cox hasn't really shown the power he was supposed to, and he strikes out a bit much, but he could easily end up as the Marlins' starting second baseman fairly soon, and they'll make this trade over and over again if that happens. The additional asterisk is that Mujica was under team control for an additional year, and it's that additional year that was so important to the Cards and swings the trade back in their favor.


Addison Reed is fine! I like him! I promise! It's just that he doesn't have the double-digit strikeout rates of a Holland or Perkins, and he doesn't have the team situation of a Mujica or Uehara. So he falls by staying the same.


Bobby Parnell is an interesting cat. It's tempting to poo-poo his relatively low strikeout rate, but as he told me, he does that on purpose. And he does have a nice ground-ball rate, and he did just give up his first homer of the year. So maybe it's good that he's more than Captain Fastball these days. The knuckle curve looks good, the split finger is his surprise pitch, and he still has the gas to get the K if he lets someone get on base. The Mets might be better next year -- look at their young pitching -- and he could actually rank higher than this on a dynasty ranking.


Jim Johnson moves up by staying the same. Basically, he's in a group of pitchers behind Addison Reed, and since they all have sub-optimal strikeout rates, he fits right in. Except that he's been doing this his whole life, which actually becomes a notch in his favor. If Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon are suddenly seeing huge drops in their strikeout rates, it's worrisome. It could be a health thing. There were some rumors that those two closers would move today, but it doesn't look like they picked up steam. It's doubtful that Tyler Clippard or Antonio Bastardo will get saves because of a trade… but that doesn't mean drop them. The guys in front of them are not the pictures of health.


(As a side note, the general manager for the Nationals said on the radio today that the team mismanaged the Soriano signing… if getting a proven closer that managed 40+ saves in New York City was mismanaging. I'd say that those things are fairly irrelevant, since it's my feeling that pitching the eighth inning for the Marlins when they visit Los Angeles is still pretty queasy (aka pitching in the majors is stressful), and that most relievers with the right rates could close, given enough of a leash.)


Since June first, Steve Cishek has more than a strikeout per inning and an above-average walk rate. That's stabilized his rates for the season and assured him of the job going forward. There's a non-zero risk that he gets traded today -- every Marlin has that risk, pretty much at any time -- and then A.J. Ramos is probably next in line. But for now, he's safe and he looks healthier than some of the guys ahead of him on the list.


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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