Brad Johnson

Saves and Steals

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Unlikely Relief Studs

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Before diving into the closers, let's take some time to review a few surprising relief studs. The guys I've picked out are non-closers who weren't on anybody's target list entering the season. They've pitched well thus far, and we'll discuss how likely they are to continue dominating.

 

Andrew Miller, Boston Red Sox – Once a key component in the trade that sent Miguel Cabrera to Detroit, Miller struggled as a starter through parts of five major league seasons. The Sox finally gave up and converted him to the bullpen. His strikeout rate quietly spiked as a reliever, although a high walk rate made him a dangerous play. This season, a healthier walk rate has led to a setup role. The strikeouts are real; it's unclear if the same can be said about the walks. He did hit a couple batters the other day, so keep an eye on his control.

 

Zach Duke, Milwaukee Brewers – The 31-year-old Dukes was a good find by the Brewers' staff. Most fantasy owners will remember him as a mediocre Pirates starter. He's been bouncing around the league for three seasons, but he appears to be back for good as a reliever. He's still a soft-tossing lefty, but now he's punching out one-third of batters faced and walking just four percent. The strikeout rate smells high, but the walk rate seems reasonable. Even with regression, he should be a useful reliever for improving your ratios.

 

Pat Neshek, St. Louis Cardinals – Neshek was a fan favorite with Twins fans. Who doesn't like a pitcher with a low ERA and a high quantity of funk. The now 33-year-old is in the midst of his finest season. If Rosenthal went down today, Neshek may be the man to earn saves. There are couple warning signs to watch. His BABIP is very low at .178. Despite a tendency to fly balls, he's allowed very few home runs. Those two areas of probable regression will probably push his ERA over the rest of the season above 3.00. If his walk and strikeout rates also decline – and they could – he'll be nothing more than a generic middle reliever. There's very little margin of error with Neshek.

 

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians – I love relievers with starting pitcher eligibility. I try to cram as many bullpen studs onto my rosters as possible for the excellent rates they provide. Carrasco's time as a starter has masked his strong performance in the 'pen, which includes about a strikeout per inning and a low walk rate. We don't have enough data on Carrasco the reliever to do any real analysis. He does have better velocity since making the switch. He's working his way up the Indians depth chart and could be a closer sometime down the line.

 

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Tier 1: Elite (5)

 

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

 

All five of our top tier closers blew a save this week, proving their mortality in the process. However, there's no reason to shake up the rankings. These are the go to guys.

 

It's a little surprising to see Kimbrel with four blown saves halfway through the season. He's had a few extra walks this year, which is hurting his overall performance. Holland also blew a save and allowed a run in a separate outing. There's nothing wrong with him, these things happen.

 

Chapman had three appearances over the last week. If you only look at two of them, he faced seven batters and struck out seven. Those two outings were sandwiched around a four run clunker in which he took the loss. It was only the third time this season he's allowed runs.

 

Uehara had the roughest week among the Tier 1 quintet. Last Wednesday, he allowed a solo home run in a game he later won. He appeared for one batter three days later – a hit. Then he allowed two solo home runs the next day. It was his first blown save of the year, but he ended up with the win in that one too. Three home runs in three innings is a little concerning. If you want to speculate, Edward Mujica might be next in line. Miller and Junichi Tazawa are better fantasy plays if they get a share of the role.

 

Jansen had an eventful week with four save opportunities. He blew the first one and took the loss. He bounced back with three damage-free outings. His ERA and WHIP have been a huge disappointment, but all the signs point to dominant performance going forward.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (9)

 

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics

David Robertson, New York Yankees

Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

Huston Street, San Diego Padres

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

 

Perkins joined the reliever mayhem with a blown save vulture win. His 3.34 ERA has hurt his value, but a 1.95 FIP hints at better days to come. We care about future here.

 

The Doolittle watch continues. We're now at 50 strikeouts against one walk. Mike Petriello of FanGraphs looked at the very unique way Doolittle racks up outs. 

 

Robertson is making a case to leapfrog Perkins and Doolittle. He may even be deserving of a spot in the top tier. His 44 percent strikeout rate compares favorably to anybody not named Chapman. His walk rate is tolerable, if non-elite. The only thing holding him back this season is his home run rate. It's never been a problem in the past, so we should expect regression to the mean.

 

After a 10 day layoff, Soria came out of the 'pen yesterday for a two batter appearance. There's nothing wrong with Soria, the Rangers just haven't had any save opportunities.

 

With another two uneventful outings in the rear view, Street is now sitting pretty with a 0.96 ERA. The Padres are expected to sell hard on veterans this trade season, Street being one of them. Joaquin Benoit's ERA is above 1.00 – it's 1.42 actually. He'll make a perfectly adequate closer for the Pads. Benoit is also rumored to be on the trade block.

 

Allen took the loss last Saturday when he entered to protect a tied game. Otherwise, he made two appearances in non-save situations. He's “the guy.”

 

Soriano is one of the least interesting closers of the season, but uninteresting can be a good trait. He appeared five times in the last week, picked up four saves, and allowed just one base runner. Last week, we discussed a possible decline for setup man Tyler Clippard. Well, Clippard also made five appearances, allowed just two base runners, and recorded his first save of the season. It seems like he's still second in line despite Drew Storen's excellent season.

 

Tier 3: The Mid-Tier (6)

 

Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants

Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

 

Rodney has the numbers of a Tier 2 pitcher. He's here for a simple reason – I don't trust him. That mistrust has been earned over a career of inconsistency. I own several shares of Rodney, so there's nothing wrong with using him. I keep an eye on his walk rate. Hopefully, I can pick up if and when his command starts to falter.

 

After his meltdowns against Colorado, Romo tossed two no-run outings against the Diamondbacks. He allowed three base runners across the pair of innings, so they were far from stress free. If he struggles again, it's probably either Santiago Casilla or Jean Machi who move into the role. I think Machi would be better, but Casilla has the “experience.”

 

Reed blew another save – his third of the season. He didn't allow a home run, which is good news. He did allow his first walk since May 5th. Then he walked another batter. Brad Ziegler is the guy in the wings. J.J. Putz was designated for assignment.

 

Papelbon and Rosenthal had uneventful weeks. They combined for a total of five clean appearances. Walks are the thing to watch for with Rosenthal, while Papelbon's wart is declining stuff.

 


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Brad Johnson is a baseball writer for Rotoworld, FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, MLBTradeRumors and The Fake Baseball. He can be found on Twitter @BaseballATeam.
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