Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Here's To the Setup Men

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a $5,000 One-Day Fantasy Baseball Contest tonight (Wednesday). It's just $2 to join and first prize is $700. Here's the link.


With a week left in the year, let's turn our eyes to a position that we have ignored all season here at Saves and Steals. Honestly, to our detriment. They should get more attention next year, because plenty of you play with rules that favor them in some way or another.


I'm talking about setup men.


This will have some double use in the last week of the season -- if saves and saves alone are all you need, you may want to acquire one or two of these setup men anyway. Anything can happen this time of the year, and teams more assured of the postseason might give their closers the night off on an important night for your fantasy team. In assessing each tier, you'll get more than five names to consider in that effort. Even if the last group consists of names you'll want to avoid in most leagues.


In any case, here's to you, master of the Hold. Without you, there wouldn't even be a save chance to talk about.


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Trevor Rosenthal" Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox


Apologies to Tyler Clippard and David Robertson, who could both be closers, and should be again in the future, but Trevor Rosenthal is the lights-out non-closer of the season. By throwing 97 with a wicked change and a good curveball, he's avoided home runs, walks, platoon splits -- you name it. He strikes out a batter and a half every nine innings. Yeah, his last outing wasn't great, but he's only given up more than one run four times all season. You can forgive him for it, since his ERA does. What he does have in common with the other two relievers is that they are all the unquestioned setup men, and they all get the ball in close games.


Craig Kimbrel blew a save! Well, he's done it four times this season, so it's not the only time this has happened. He walked two players! That's happened four times, too. He gave up three runs! That hasn't happened all year. There have been some velocity dips this season -- more than previous seasons -- but he looks generally the same over the second half. And while he's had control problems before, three walks in two straight appearances isn't a trend. He's still awesome.


Koji Uehara gave up a run and the Red Sox lost the game. It was the first run he'd given up in thirty innings, but that's not the most impressive part of the streak he'd been on. Going into that game, Uehara had retired 37 straight batters. He was within splitter distance of the record -- 45 batters -- but he fell short. Sam Miller on Baseball Prospectus has an excellent piece about how Uehara does it -- one of the keys is throwing the split for strikes, which is rare -- but the guy is a machine with an insane 12 strikeouts for every walk. That's elite, even if he throws 89.


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


Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles


Sean Doolittle is the kind of guy that could net you a few saves down the list. And that's why, along with Jake McGee and Tony Watson, we're going to give the lefties their own tier. Watson doesn't have the strikeout totals of the other two, but all three of them have a good chance of netting a save. All it takes is an exhausting pennant-race game and a few well-placed lefties in the lineup in the ninth inning. And if you're worried that Doolittle and McGee rely on one pitch a bit much, don't -- they know how to make it work for them by using deception, gas and great command


Jim Johnson is forever between tiers two and three for me, and frankly I'm tired of talking about him. But I ran the numbers on the average closer this year, taking the top thirty-five by saves (all closers with more than ten saves). The average closer this year has 29 saves, an ERA of 2.70, and a strikeout rate of 9.6 per nine. Jim Johnson fails on two of the three measures of an average closer. And while he adds nineteen saves, he fails fairly spectacularly on the strikeout measure, with only Huston Street (old and broken much of the year), Tom Wilhelmsen (deposed), Edward Mujica (special case), Brandon League (deposed) and Brad Ziegler (special case) below him in strikeouts per nine. If I had a team of three Average Closers, and you had a team of three Jim Johnsons, you'd have almost 60 more saves then me, but I'd have 50 more strikeouts than you. Once you start to look at my ERA and WHIP, you understand why Jim Johnson is almost a liability. These things matter, you can't just say that a closer's contribution doesn't matter, because it should be measured against other closers' contributions. That said, he's survived, his team is giving him chances, and saves are saves. So he's Rock Steady on the year as a whole. (And yet sometimes only okay.)


Tier 3: Okay Options (9) (AKA: The "Junichi Tazawa" Tier.)


Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels


Maybe Junichi Tazawa is a bit low on this list, but some don't trust him because of his fly-ball rate, and in the wrong park, that can hurt. Also, he doesn't have a long track record of success behind him. In the same way, Tommy Hunter has been excellent after his move to the pen, with gas and, over the last three months, strikeouts. Luke Hochevar has been great all year, but there are some good late-inning arms in that pen. The holds might get spread around, and won't necessarily reside in one place. Really, this tier just tells you how many excellent relievers there are. Because this is the overflow bin of excellence.


Right there, ahead of a group of okay closers on bad teams, is a new (better) closer on a bad team. We loved Danny Farquhar from the moment  Tom Wilhelmsen began to falter, and he's showing us why recently. His bad luck on the batted ball has evened out, his control is settling down, and his strikeouts are shining. Farquhar used to sling it from a three-quarter-type release, and 91 with a slider wasn't making it happen. The Mariners made him go over the top in 2012, and he burst onto the scene this year with 95 mph fastball, that same slider, and now a curveball that is making batters look silly. Given the fact that Wilhelmsen hasn't really righted the ship this year, and that Farquhar is under team control for just as long, it's Farquhar that will zoom up the keeper rankings when we publish them after the season ends. He's why Farquhar/d is a dirty word.


I wanted to look into moving Rex Brothers up and Casey Janssen down, since Brothers has more strikeouts and is now firmly in the role, but something interesting happened when I compared their stats since late July, which is when Brothers started getting regular saves chances. Casey Janssen and Rex Brothers have the exact same number of saves since then. And while Brothers has 28 strikeouts to Janssen's 21, he also has 13 walks to Janssen's 6. And, of course, his ERA and WHIP are higher. So, really this is an argument for moving Brothers up. And Ernesto Frieri, who, over the same time frame, has one save less and more strikeouts, and has actually tamed his walk rate.


Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.

continue story »
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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