Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Keeper Closer Rankings

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Keeping a closer is an iffy proposition from the get-go. The top closer ended up 34th on the FanGraphs player rater for this past year, and he was a handful of strikeouts short of a Kevin Correia or Jeremy Guthrie type starter. Personally, given pitcher injury rates (40% of all starters end up on the DL in a given season, and they stay on the DL longer than the average position player) and the way that closers are only valuable if they close (a starter is still a starter until he hits every rung from first to fifth, and even then, he often gets his way back into the rotation because of injury) -- I wouldn't keep a closer until I was keeping more than seven players. What if you kept Greg Holland, who ended up 44th, and the bad walk rate returned and Kelvin Herrera was throwing darts and droppers? That would be a wasted keeper.


So let's look at potential keeper closers, and name some players that might appear next to those closers in your keeper decisions. Because Freddie Freeman might have ended up 45th to Holland's 44th last year, but their respective volatility makes Freeman the easy pick for a keeper set.


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Alex Gordon" Tier.)


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


We know who Alex Gordon is. Most years. a good average, 20 home runs and double digit steals. He's going to be 30 next year, though, and a steal or two fewer and another year with a batting average under .270 might not be so exciting. Maybe you'll want a closer that can get you 100 strikeouts and might push 40+ saves if his team has a good year instead. The upside of hitting .300 with 30 homers is in Gordon's rear-view mirror at this point anyway.


When you're picking the nits among the top four -- some of you might actually have two of these guys -- you might want to consider health. Craig Kimbrel is going on 26, so he's still in his peak period. He throws a power curve, which is like a slider, and sliders have had some linkage to elbow woes in the past. Problem is, all of these pitchers feature a slider second... other than Kenley Jansen. You might want to pencil Jansen in as the guy who could be healthiest, longest. He's got the Mariano Rivera-like cutter and he could probably throw that every pitch, every day for the rest of his life. Complicating that matter is the fact that he's had heart problems in the past. On the other hand, his innings haven't really suffered for it, and he's got excellent numbers. It's Greg Holland that's the oldest of the group! He'll be 28 next month, and maybe that doesn't matter, but take a look at this chart that shows what happens to reliever velocity and effectiveness as they get older:




You see how velocity starts to plummet at 28? And how strikeout rate goes along with it? Remember this: 28 is when relievers start to go sour.


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


Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox


Jon Lester's overall numbers are not super exciting. A 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 7.5 strikeouts per nine are all okay. He's turning 30 next year and his velocity is generally on the downturn. He pitches in the American League, and often to great lineups. Then again, late in the season, his velocity ticked upwards and his strikeout rate went with it. There is something interesting about owning him in the latter half of a keep-eight set of players, maybe. Or you could take a closer.


Looks like the choices here are solid-but-old or fairly-solid-and-younger. Interestingly, the three veterans are all in their final contract years. That might actually mean something for their respective leashes next year. If any of the three teams struggles -- it doesn't seem likely now, but good teams have bad years -- they'll be the first to go. It's easy to trade a closer, and sometimes they bring back real assets. But that isn't a concern going into the season so much, as these three teams will plan on being good. Unless Koji Uehara has a meltdown in the postseason, those three teams will also plan on slotting those three pitchers in as closers.


The next three are good pitchers, all of them. Glen Perkins is the one that combines standout strikeouts with elite control, while Rex Brothers and Addison Reed each come up a bit short in one of those two categories. Turning 31 next season makes Perkins the oldest of the second trio, but he's the newest to relieving, and at 94.9 mph, he can lose a tick or two and still be effective.


So, if you own these guys, the question is: do you pick among the guys who average 36 years old and are established, and pitch for good teams, or do you go for the younger guys on worse teams in hopes that you have a guy you can keep longer?


Tier 3: Okay Options (6) (AKA: The "Brandon Belt" Tier.)


Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Grant Balfour, Free Agent
Steve Cishek, Florida Marlins
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays


Brandon Belt had a good year, really, even if he ended up 166th on the player rater. He hit 17 homers and stole five bases. He made adjustments and his team was happy to play him every day. On the other hand, his .351 batting average on balls in play, declining wheels, and worse-than-average strikeout rate make him a risk to lose batting average next season. And since he doesn't steal bases as much anymore, any drop in batting average makes him a risk overall. If he hits .270 next year with 15 homers and a steal or two, it won't be pretty for his owners in 5x5 roto leagues, particularly since he plays such a power-driven position. On-base percentage leagues are another matter.


So it makes sense to put him in with some other risky propositions at the closer spot. Trevor Rosenthal is the highest-upside, highest-risk option of the tier. His stuff is knee-buckling, his control is great, and he's the closer now in St. Louis. But Jason Motte returns next season, and that's not nothing. It might not turn out to be an obstacle to the Rosenthal steam train -- in terms of secondary/breaking stuff, Rosenthal is way out in front -- but it's enough to make him an iffy keeper option.


The next bunch are iffy in terms of team dynamics, age, *and* stuff. It may not seem that way with Sergio Romo, but start peeling away the peripherals, and you notice the risk. He'll be 31 next year and just showed the worst velocity and strikeout rates of his career this past season. He tried to soothe his career-long platoon split by throwing the changeup to lefties more than he ever had before, but it didn't quite work. He was still half as good against lefties than righties by most measures. That, along with what might be sub-87 mph fastballs next season, makes him an iffy choice at closer. How much longer can he make the elite control and great slider work? None of this mentions his bouts with elbow soreness, which, when paired with his slider usage, should raise an eyebrow.


You might remember Grant Balfour best for his shouting match with Victor Martinez, but at 36 next season, with strikeout rates and velocity that were both declining until this season's revival, he's nothing to shout about in terms of keepers. He was basically an average closer this year and a reasonable projection for him next year would shave a strikeout per nine off the top and push him over a three ERA, considering his age. Then add in the fact that he doesn't even have a team to play for next year, and there's considerable risk here.


Steve Cishek (28 next year), Casey Janssen (32) and Jim Henderson (31) are late bloomers with the occasional iffy month that are pitching for bad teams. There's not a lot to say, really. Henderson's walk rate and Cishek and Janssen's strike rates aren't great, but they could easily close all year and be good values. Cishek did that this year and was worth a little bit more than Michael Bourn. Closers don't pitch a lot of innings.


Tier 4: Maaaaybes (7) (AKA: The "Andrelton Simmons" Tier.)


Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners


Sure, Andrelton Simmons didn't have a great year. But he did hit 17 home runs and does have the package that could lead to a good batting average in the future. He also *probably* won't have Tommy John surgery next year, no matter how good his arm is.


I couldn't, in good conscience, put Huston Street on this list. Not with the way his velocity and strikeout rates have tanked as he's run into 30. But he'd sort of fit in the top three. All of those guys have pedigree (of some sort) in their favor, and all of them look like great bets to be hurt next season. Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano seemed hurt all season *this* year, and Jason Grilli was actually hurt. And nothing predicts future DL stints like past DL stints. I'd most likely pass on all of the thirty-somethings at the top of this list.


The younger guys at the bottom are more interesting to me, but they have risk of their own. Everyone says that David Robertson is the closer next year, but those are the Yankees. They could buy a closer. They could buy Grant Balfour if they were worried about Robertson. Too much at play there, and Robertson hasn't been anointed the closer by his manager yet, because, oh, they don't really have a manager yet. Danny Farquhar has a place in my heart, but so did Tom Wilhelmsen. The Mariners churn out relievers like the Padres used to, and if Farq stumbles, there will be another one to pick up the pieces. Ernesto Frieri should be miles higher on talent. But his team might be facing an overhaul. He might have a new manager. He might have a new GM. He might have a new team. And Bobby Parnell took a break and Vic Black looked great. It's not like Parnell has the strikeout rates that are worth taking a risk on.


And so you have a guide to keeping closers, hopefully. This offseason, I'll highlight some young relievers that might be useful in deep dynasties, or late in your drafts next year, too. And I'll be headed to the Arizona Fall League, too, so I'll spot some young players that might help there, too. In the meantime, have a great offseason and see you around.

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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