Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Wild Cards in the Bullpen

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


We were supposed to get a more exciting September, right? That was the whole point of the two wild card system. We make the wild card round a terrible one-game luck fest, and in return we get more days like the final day of the season in 2012, when it seemed like every race hung in the balance with every pitch.

 

Not so much this year.

 

We've got two division races in question -- the American League West and the National League Central -- but in both cases the loser still gets a postseason game. In the National League, even the race for the wild card spots is pretty much over. Washington is seven games out of the final spot and has a 3.7% chance of making the postseason according to FanGraphs' playoff odds. Nobody else in the NL even has a one percent chance of making the postseason.

 

The fact that AL Wild Card race is still exciting does help. The loser of the battle between the Athletics and the Rangers will take their consolation prize, and then it's a scrum. The Rays have two-plus games on the field, but the Yankees (17.6%), Orioles (6.1%) and Indians (17.8%) all have decent chances to make the postseason. So we can have fun watching some AL games.

 

And really, the bargain was a little different. The bargain was made between the owners and the league office, and it was about postseason revenue. And maybe the second wild card will make most Septembers more exciting in general. But they can't make all Septembers more exciting with a wave of the rule-change wand. In honor of the new wild card system, we'll name the tiers after the remaining candidates for the second wild card spot in the American League.

 

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Rays" Tier.)

 

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

 

Considering that they are five and a half games back of the Red Sox for the division, it's thanks to the wild cards that the Rays have more than a 70% chance of making the postseason. The good news for them is that they have a two-and-a-half game lead on the Yankees for the second wild card. The bad news might be that they still have a series with the Yankees, and their out-of-division foes include the Rangers for three. They'll have to beat up on the Twins, Mariners, Angels and Blue Jays -- which makes it seem like they are fine.

 

Nobody is trading at this point, so let's just appreciate the top four closers in the game. Two have been here all year -- the rare expensive closers that were totally worth it. But combine the four and you have an insane 235 and 2/3 innings with 362 strikeouts (!) and 67 walks. That's Felix Hernandez (194 1/3, 200, 41 respectively) with enough left over to turn Joe Saunders (162 2/3, 87, 56) into Clayton Kershaw (209, 201, 47) … with enough strikeouts left over to cancel out at least one other fantasy team's best reliever! It would have been a risky strategy, but it actually would have been possible to roster all four of these closers in most leagues, too.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Orioles" Tier.)

 

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals

 

In the second half, the Orioles have been a top-five or six team in the American League at the dish, so even a little regression from Chris Davis hasn't taken the steam out. It's the rotation that's a bit worrisome. They have Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman for the future, but right now they're depending on Chris Tillman and his poor peripherals, Wei-Yin Chen's underwhelming stuff, Bud Norris' lack of a third pitch, and then a collection of iffy choices in the rotation. That's how the Orioles' rotation has given up the fourth-most runs in the American League in the second half, right behind the Blue Jays, Twins and Astros. You might notice that none of that group is in line to make the playoffs.

 

But the Orioles are still a decent team, with help on the way, and a bright (short-term) future. And these closers filled a similar niche, playing well and helping their fantasy teams all year. Many came with low prices. Even Joe Nathan didn't cost elite prices -- he was my number one closer on three teams, and I don't spend on closers -- and then the rest of the list (other than the venerable Mariano Rivera) is made up of great bargains. Glen Perkins, Sergio Romo, and Grant Balfour were closers from day one, and were always good bets to make this tier. It's Edward Mujica and Koji Uehara -- two pitchers with plus-plus command, iffy fastball velocity, and past issues with homers -- that qualify as the biggest surprises. And they throw the split finger more than any other pitchers in baseball. Maybe we should all learn the split finger. Hideo Nomo would approve.

 

Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The "Indians" Tier.)

 

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

 

The Indians have a 16.7% chance of making the playoffs, and that's not nothing. It's actually more than the Yankees' number despite being a game behind the Yanks. That's probably because of their remaining schedules. The Indians get the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Royals, Astros, White Sox and Twins over the rest of the season, in order. Any single one of these contenders would kill for that sort of schedule. Their staff, lead recently by the ridiculous fastball/changeup combo of Danny Salazar, has given up fewer runs in the second half than every team in the AL save two. It's the offense that's fallen apart, tied for 14th in the AL in the second half with the Twins. At least they've scored 13 more second half runs than the Rays?

 

The tale of two Jims. One Jim cost you second-tier closer prices at the draft this spring. Then he gave you his customary 40-50 strikeouts and 40+ saves, but this time it came with all the Maalox you could get down and a mediocre ERA and WHIP. After a couple years of getting lucky on balls in play, Johnson's fortune turned. The other Jim didn't cost you squat in your draft, if you paid for him at all. He gave you 150% of Johnson's strikeouts and an ERA a full run lower. And probably left you enough draft resources to make up for the twenty saves you missed out on. Can you tell which Jim I prefer? This, despite two bad games in a row from Henderson. It's the first time he's given up runs in back-to-back appearances. He's fine.

 

Joaquin Benoit had a bad game -- he gave up a grand slam to lose to the Indians and only managed to get one out -- and maybe there's a little more worry there. He hasn't necessarily been as sharp as usual since he faced seven batters to get five outs two weeks ago. Since that day -- and Benoit is not the sturdiest closer, so it's worth noting this -- he's walked five against two strikeouts in six and a third innings. Honestly, his velocity charts are kind of scary looking and there's a competent closer behind him in Jose Veras, so… we won't drop him a tier, it's just worth pointing out.

 

I never quite believed in Casey Janssen's strikeout rate, just from appraising his stuff, so it's not super surprising to me that his strikeout rate is lower this year. But it does surprise me that he kept the job all year and looks like he'll even enter next year as the favorite to close. I just wouldn't put my money on him in next year's draft, with Sergio Santos healthy again and Steve Delabar showing flashes of brilliance. He's not an elite ground-ball guy and he doesn't get the strikeouts of a closer, so he's a bit of a tweener -- even if his excellent control makes him a good reliever no matter where the Jays employ him.

 

Let's just hope that crazy velocity bar on Soriano's last start is a PITCHf/x error. Because otherwise, Soriano's shown his old velocity and strikeout rate in recent outings. That, and an easy end-of-season schedule for the Nationals, is enough for a tier jump.


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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