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Watching Gerrit Cole dominate the Texas Rangers in Arlington was a complicated moment. Cole, bringer of heat and drop, had lost the strikeout punch over the last year and a half. It didn't make sense with all of his nastiness that he was below the league average in that category. So I asked him about it, and he admitted: the Pirates wanted him to focus on the fastball and the ground ball. Fastball command, and in particular, using the sinker to get ground balls, is the Pirate Way. Recently, though, Cole has been throwing his breaking stuff more, and it's meant more strikeouts.
Which should mean death to opposing lineups in post-season play. But now the Pirates are considering using him as a reliever, which seems a shame.
Still, the whole thing makes you think about the young pitchers that stepped forward this year. Matt Harvey would be atop the list if it wasn't for his elbow ligament. Shelby Miller, Jose Fernandez, Cole… the list of formerly untested pitchers that blew away the league this year is fairly long. So let's spotlight a few of them as we name our tiers. It might help you make some keeper decisions in the coming offseason. So our tiers are named after starters under the age of 25, and how they might fare next season.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Shelby Miller" Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
The debate here in the first tier is between Shelby Miller and Jose Fernandez. Both have great fastballs and feature a curve-ish type secondary pitch primarily. But Fernandez calls his a slurve, and appropriately, his platoon splits are more worrisome. Sliders have worse platoon splits than curves, and Fernandez sees his walk rate double against lefties. Miller is two years older, yes, but he'll also see a full season next year, while Jose Fernandez will be shackled to 160+20% or so. Miller will get more wins. If we compare their changeups, it's possible Fernandez has a better one, but really both of them get an incomplete. The nod then goes to the guy with the 'true' curveball, and the better team. Even if year three might favor the Cuban, it's all about next year.
How can you decide between these closers, though? Greg Holland actually leads all relievers in Wins Above Replacement, thanks to his excellent home run rate paired with almost 14 strikeouts against two walks per nine. But Craig Kimbrel is right there and has five more saves -- plus he's been doing it longer. Aroldis Chapman leads qualified relievers in strikeout rate, and Kenley Jansen is second in the league in second-half strikeout rate. Only one name really has a shot at this crew -- Koji Uehara, who leads the league in reliever WAR and has ten strikeouts per walk. Still, he's a bit homer-prone for the American League and Boston in particular.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Gerrit Cole" Tier.)
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Gerrit Cole might have some competition here from Julio Teheran. After all, the Braves' rookie strikes out a full batter more than the Bucs' freshman, and both have elite control. But Cole is the one with a great ground-ball rate, and he also has four miles per hour of gas in pocket. All pitchers lose velocity as they age, so it's comforting to have a pitcher with great velocity as he starts his career. Cole has been throwing his secondary stuff more often, as we mentioned, and the strikeouts are coming. And if we're talking about their worst pitches, this is what Cole's changeup looks like. Fire. (Matt Moore's changeup is better, but he's already having owies in his elbow, and has bad control.)
Uehara moves up to the top for reasons aforementioned. Mariano Rivera has blown two saves in a row, but he struck out three of the eight batters he saw in the last one and got the win. He's probably okay. Joe Nathan stopped walking people, if you were worried. Still waiting for Edward Mujica's first strikeout of September -- he's struck out five since the beginning of August -- but that's okay because he's walked ONE guy since June ended.
Tier 3: Okay Options (6) (AKA: The "Patrick Corbin" Tier.)
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
This might upset some people, to have Patrick Corbin so low. His ERA is under three and he's looked sexy all year. But that doesn't mean there aren't cracks in the foundation. For one, Corbin spent the most time at any level in the minor leagues in Double-A, where he had a combined 3.84 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. Those aren't great numbers. He's known for his ground-ball ways, but his grounder rate this year was only 29th-best in the league. He got lucky on batted balls and "should" have had an ERA in the mid-to-high threes. But, hey, that's still pretty good. And he's a young man pitching in the National League, against a poor offensive division for the most part. He's a good keeper, as long as you're keeping more than eight.
Here's something that sorta shows what I'm talking about with Jim Johnson. I know WAR isn't the best for relievers, but let's say Johnson gets to 50 saves, he won't be in elite company by the stat. In fact, he'll probably show the worst WAR among that crew -- and he'll also be third-worst in the group. Rod Beck and his one-win 51-save 1998 season will be sandwiched in between. He just doesn't do the things normal elite closers do. On the other hand, Casey Janssen must have heard us talking crap about him, because he has five strikeouts in his last four appearances and has generally been better with the K since the calendar turned from August. Here's something strange that happened when I checked his velocity charts: he's been all over the place. Maybe he's hiding an injury?
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.