Velocity and strikeout rate. Those are the only things/ I’ve found have any predictive value on potential closer changes, and I’ve linked to them a thousand times here and elsewhere.
But maybe I forgot something. For a there to be change in a pen, there has to be struggle. Just because Huston Street is throwing 89 does not mean he’ll lose the job. He first has to start blowing up. Of course, velocity is linked directly to success on the mound (about .2 runs allowed per mph over 90), so it is important, but you really do have to wait for a bad stretch for Sergio Romo before you utter the words Santiago Casilla. Even if Casilla has more gas. Jairo Garcia, never forget.
And so maybe there will be a little movement in the rankings this week based on how these pitchers are doing and less on the velocity in the arms behind them. The best in-season predictor of success is strikeout rate minus walk rate, and though those rates are hardly stable right now (that takes about 150 batters faced and even Francisco Rodriguez falls short of half that number), we can try to use them. So here’s a table of the top 40 pitchers in saves, sorted by K%-BB%, with stats up to Tuesday night. (The average for a major league reliever this year is 12.5%.)
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Fun. Let’s name the tiers after interesting starters based on this same metric.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Stephen Strasburg” Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Stephen Strasburg has struck out nearly a third of the batters he’s seen this year, good for second best in the league now that Jose Fernandez is done. And he’s walking fewer batters than Max Scherzer, who is number one on the list by a hair. So why are his results so different? Bad luck on balls in play answers most of that question. Sure, his velocity is down some, but 94.3 mph on the fastball is still good for eighth among starters this year. If you’re selling, I’m buying.
Koji Uehara’s velocity is down, but it isn’t bothering his results much. Precise command and a splitter that looks exactly like the precisely commanded fastball is a wonderful combination to own. Kenley Jansen is still fire bequeathed from the baseball gods, but his walk rate is up and 43% of his balls in play are becoming hits. His career average is 27%, for reference. I’ll bet on the 230 innings of awesome over the 18 2/3 innings of so-so. Greg Holland actually tops Craig Kimbrel in strikeouts minus walks, but has one fewer save. I’ll take the strikeouts and the save if forced to choose.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Corey Kluber“ Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Corey Kluber’s differential between walks and strikeouts is better than the one sported by Felix Hernandez, or at least that was true Tuesday night. And no, it’s not saying he’s the same quality, but it is saying that Kluber is more quality than people think. He has three off-speed pitches with whiff rates that are above average, and a batting average on balls in play that’s too high. Sure, his fastball isn’t great, but it’s not 87 or anything.
Aroldis Chapman gave up a homer to Chase Headley, sure. But he also struck out five in his first two innings AND IS AVERAGING 100.5 MPH ON HIS FASTBALL. Sorry, didn’t mean to yell, but I’ve never seen an average that high on FanGraphs. It should go down — no man should average triple digits for a season, that just seems unhealthy — but fastball velocity becomes stable quickly, as a stat. Maybe he’s just ready to blow everyone away this year.
Glen Perkins and David Robertson are shaping up to be two of the best bad-team closers in recent history. I’ll just leave that one there for someone to get mad at.
Francisco Rodriguez! He got me! Too busy looking at his velocity (career-worst) and junk-throwing (throwing the change more than he ever has) and the fact that no team wanted him this offseason. Just figured something was wrong with him. But his strikeout minus walk rate is sixth-best among closers, and it lines up with work he’s done in the past. So here he is, back among the best closers of his generation, after three straight years where anyone in baseball could have had him for a song. Great baseball story.
Trevor Rosenthal! What are you doing? Where has your command gone? Your four-seamer was a ball 31% of the time last year, and that number is up to 38% this year. Your curve hasn’t gotten a single whiff this year. Your change-up is down from among the best in baseball last year (27%, average is 15%) to just good (20%). To some extent, velocity might matter, since you're down a whole mph. But you're still throwing 96 and getting the strikeouts you want to see from a closer. I’d point more to your first-strike rate, since it’s down below average this year for the first time, and strike one is the best way to avoid a walk. Let’s see if you can get strike one before we give up on you. Jason Motte is back in Triple-A, yes, but Tuesday’s blown save was your first official blown save of the season. Not time for a handcuff yet.
Read about the more volatile closer tiers on the next page.