Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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First Week Closer Armageddon

Wednesday, April 02, 2014


Like the rash of Tommy John surgeries that fell upon the starters in spring training, we had a stink bomb of change dropped on the bullpens around the league in the first couple games of the year. You may not be excited to hear it, but I’m holding on to a couple of relievers that ostensibly lost their jobs this week. The why is coming.

There’s been a lot of research on closers and what predicts closer changes. Here’s a list of the things that do NOT predict closer change, by the numbers:

 

Well that shuts down much of the closer analysis you’ll read on other sites. And, to be fair, I stray into this every once in a while. I mean, you hear managers talking about experience closing, it doesn’t seem crazy to think that it’s relevant. But it isn’t predictive, so it’s something I try to avoid.

Here’s the full list of things that I have seen linked to closer change:

 

Full stop.


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So, when you see me trying to find my way in the murky sea of iniquity that is predicting closer changes, this is my anchor, this is the thing I’ll fall back on. Well, that and the fact that managers prefer righty closers to lefties. You may want me to be more certain, or talk about things on the list above, or pick the guy that most people are picking. But nah. I might even go against what the manager said, because how many times have you heard the manager give a closer the kiss of death known as his vote of confidence right before giving him the hook?

(The tiers are named after starters that I liked as undervalued in each tier going into the season. Even the fifth tier guys are interesting to me, but you always have to make sure you don’t get too excited and drop a veteran for the shiny new toy, so ranking helps.)

 

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale” Tier.)

 

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

 

I can’t imagine what would happen in the first week that would change what you think about these pitchers. I guess Stephen Strasburg’s velocity being down a bit (he sat 93 instead of 96, but was that really a big deal?) could move the needle, but I’m still hopeful for a full healthy season and personal bests in innings pitched (and therefore wins and Ks ).

 

And these closers? They’re still great! The only news that might matter at all is that Brian Wilson is hurt, which might mean that J.P. Howell moves up closer to handcuff status despite his complete lack of fastball velocity. Paco Rodriguez is a lefty, after all. Maybe Chris Withrow’s big fastball is relevant in holds leagues.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole“ Tier.)

 

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics

 

Don’t ask me to tell you about the ways I love Gerrit Cole. Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of Sonny Gray live, interviewed him twice last year and came away impressed each time, and still chose to put my gentleman’s wager with Lawr Michaels on Gerrit Cole — Cole started throwing his secondary stuff more in the second half last year and his strikeout rate spiked. And he has a plus breaker along with a plus change and plus fastballs and plus command and yeah. I’ll stop now.

 

I love a lot of these guys, too, and I ended up shopping in this section. Glen Perkins, David Robertson, Joe Nathan, Trevor Rosenthal — these guys are in a mini-tier of guys that will give you double-digit strikeout rates, are fairly secure in their jobs, and (for the most part) on good teams that will give you good save opportunities. (And by good I mean they score runs, because that’s the only thing I found that was related to save opportunities on a team level.

 

Jim Johnson didn’t do well in his first try, but he’s always let balls into play. We knew that about him. He was still around 95 mph, at least. The walk and the hit batter were concerning, but he’s been good for a long time in that regard. Give the dude a bit of time, says the guy that’s been accused of being down on him for his bad strikeout rate all this time.

 

Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Marco Estrada and Andrew Cashner” Tier.)

 

Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

 

Like Gerrit Cole, Andrew Cashner made a big change last year and his strikeout rate surged. He ditched his regular slider for his knuckle slider (which was harder and faster) and the whiffs returned. Give that guy with that velocity and that command and a decent change a hard biting knuckle slider and you’ve got one of the best cheaper aces in baseball. Marco Estrada only throws about 91, and so he gives up homers, but he has excellent control, and his change-up had one of the best whiff rates in baseball last year. He’s good.

 

This tier might have seen some change except Addison Reed jumped right back on the horse Tuesday night and showed why the D-backs traded for him. 94 on the corners, a great slider that he can put where he wants… he’ll be fine.

 

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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