Brad Johnson

Saves and Steals

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Return of the Closers

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Welcome back. Thanks to the All-Star Break, it's been two weeks since we last got together. A lot has happened in that time including a big trade and an ever-so-slight change to the column. You may notice there are now six reliever tiers. After I added an eleventh name to Tier 2, I decided it was time to split up the party. Let's run through a refresher on what the tiers mean to me.

 

Tier 1: The most unassailable relievers in baseball. Their jobs are extremely secure and they provide excellent four category fantasy production.

 

Tier 2: Previously, the second tier was reserved for guys who were almost elite but lacked some special quality. Maybe they were injury prone, possessed a merely good strikeout rate, or had a hint of internal competition. Now that I've split this tier, the new Tier 2 is for nearly elite pitchers. They currently possess similar numbers to the elites, but there is a tickle of concern related to them.

 

Tier 3: The new third tier features above average relievers who won't hurt you in any category but might not dominate in any one way.

 

Tier 4: Previously the third tier, our new Tier 4 contains pitchers with job security and merely adequate statistical expectations.

 

Tier 5: There's something wrong or weird about each of these guys. You can use them with caution.

 

Tier 6: These guys are nominally closers, but you'll want to be careful letting them anywhere near your ratios.

 

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Tier 1: Elite (5)

 

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

 

Our top tier hasn't been very busy since our last discussion. Kimbrel, Holland, and Jansen all pitched well in every appearance, although Kimbrel had an unusual two walk outing in his most recent outing.

 

Chapman is up to two strikeouts per inning which translates to 53.5 percent of batters. His 2.40 ERA is good, but his 0.51 FIP and 0.71 xFIP are even better. It seems like Chapman is unhittable, but he took the loss against the Yankees on July 20.

 

Jansen and Uehara swapped places on this list due to Uehara's recent trouble with the long ball. Back on July 10, he took the blown save when he allowed a two run home run. He's pitched well in two appearances since then. If the home run problem continues, it still won't be a major cause for concern. He might get demoted to our new Tier 2, but those are still very good pitchers.

 

Tier 2: Nearly Elite (4)

 

David Robertson, New York Yankees

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics

Huston Street, Los Angeles Angels

 

Robertson has continued to pitch spectacularly. I considered moving him up to Tier 1, but a promotion to the top of this tier should do for now. His 43.5 percent strikeout rate is truly elite. The home run problem he was showing earlier in the season hasn't reared its head since June 1. Since he often pitches at Yankee Stadium, a slightly elevated home run rate isn't surprising. Dellin Betances would rank at the bottom of this tier if he were a closer.

 

Doolittle issued his third walk in his latest outing, which is about the most interesting thing he's done in the last two weeks. He's received very little work since scuffling in late June into early July. It wouldn't surprise me if the Athletics dipped into the closer trade market even though Doolittle's been great.

 

Well it finally happened, Street has a new home. The Angels weren't exactly struggling with Joe Smith and Jason Grilli manning the late innings, but they decided to increase their depth. Street has appeared just twice in the last two weeks, and only once with his new club.

 

Tier 3: Rock Steady (7)

Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

Joaquin Benoit, San Diego Padres

 

Soria blew his second save of the season yesterday while allowing three hits. Save opportunities have been few and far between for the Rangers, which could eventually convince me to tumble Soria down the list. Generally speaking, I try to provide these rankings based on pitcher quality and leave it up to you to manage the volume of saves you desire.

 

Now the Marlins are talking about trading away Cishek. It has nothing to do with the three meltdowns he experienced over the last calendar month. Instead, the issue for the Marlins is his cost. He's earning $3.8 million this season and is arbitration eligible another three times. Closers can get pricey through arbitration, so the Fish probably want a return on Cishek before he either busts or costs too much to warrant a prospect. If the Marlins do move Cishek, A.J. Ramos is probably next in line. Due to his high walk rate, I would place him in Tier 5.

 

Rodriguez has quietly developed a home run problem. He's allowed five deep flies over the last 40 days. The damage has been quiet since only two of them resulted in a loss. While a 20 percent HR/FB ratio strikes me as unusually high, he's had similar problems since 2012. Jim Henderson is nearing a return, and he's pitched well on his rehab assignment.

 

Since taking over the column, I've said one thing about Fernando Rodney – watch the walk rate. Well he's handed out five free passes in his last three appearances, which is cause for concern. Rodney owners won't find it funny, but his latest outing against the Angels featured a premature “arrow” and a blown save loss. To be fair, he was attempting a two inning save, and it was only the second time he attempted more than one inning in an outing this season.

 

Trading Street must have been easy for the Padres since they have Benoit to slot immediately into the ninth inning. He's had three rocky outings in the last two weeks, but there's no need to panic just yet. Teams are also interested in trading for Benoit, and the Padres definitely need to consider the option. Dale Thayer and Kevin Quackenbush have stepped into the setup roles. Alex Torres has struggled with walks or else he'd be in the picture too.

 

Tier 4: The Mid-Tier (5)

 

Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

 

There's been talk of the Pirates acquiring a closer to push Melancon back to the eighth inning, but it certainly hasn't been due to anything he's done. He's pitched well recently and throughout the season. The issue could be depth. I'm sure the club would prefer Tony Watson in the seventh inning, and I doubt they have any trust for Ernesto Frieri.

 

Even though he allowed three runs and a home run on July 18, Britton earns the readjustment to our new Tier 4. He's pitched well all season with a strong whiff rate and otherworldly ground ball rate. He hasn't struck out a ton of batters by virtue of ending counts early. His HR/FB ratio is high, but considering that only 11 percent of balls in play have been flies, it's not a big deal.

 

Janssen's last two outings were a bit ugly, but he's completely secure in his role. If he continues to allow runs in the ninth, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil are next in line. Cecil relieved Janssen for the one out save yesterday. It could be a sign that the Jays will turn to Cecil if Janssen allows a few base runners.

 

The good news for Rosenthal is that he hasn't walked a batter in four outings. The bad news is he took the loss in his most recent turn. I've had my doubts about Pat Neshek, and I still do, but he's picking up wins and holds all over the place. If Rosenthal has another couple meltdowns, we could see Neshek encroaching on his territory. For now, his great strikeout rate keeps him here.

 

Papelbon allowed his first home run of the season against the Giants. Buster Posey did the honors. It was Papelbon's third blown save of the season. I doubt the outing will affect his trade value. The Phillies still need to find somebody to take on part of his salary. The complicating component is his vesting option. Rookie Ken Giles has been fantastic in 16 innings. I can't help but notice his strong walk rate, which is several times better than any rate he's posted in the minors.

 

Tier 5: Questions (4)

 

Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

Chad Qualls, Houston Astros

Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets

 

After blowing saves on three straight Tuesdays, Reed has notched four straight clean outings. He's walked a couple batters over the four innings, which is the only downside. His problem remains untimely hits and home runs, so I wouldn't worry about the walks. He has the stuff to rank a tier higher, it's just that his results weren't lining up.

 

Hector Rondon hasn't seen game action since July 11. He picked up the vulture win and a blown save in that one. Rondon's hold on the closer job has to be shaky. Neil Ramirez is the most obvious competition. Pedro Strop's also around, but he's not stingy enough to serve as a closer. Interestingly Kyuji Fujikawa is progressing in his rehab from Tommy John surgery. Fujikawa is a smart option for the Cubs since he could help lower the arbitration costs of Rondon and Ramirez.

 

Tier 5: Roller Coasters (5)

 

LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies

Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, San Francisco Giants

Jake McGee, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger, Kirby Yates, Tampa Bay Rays

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers

Zach Putnam, Jacob Petricka Chicago White Sox

 

Hawkins continues to pick up the occasional save without providing any other useful statistics. I don't think he's going anywhere.

 

Casilla's tenure as the Giants closer has been fine thus far. The worrisome part is his penchant for balls in play. Top closers usually strike out a ton of guys, but Casilla is pitching like a poor man's Britton. A 58 percent ground ball rate is good, but he's liable to run into future trouble if he doesn't improve his 20 percent strikeout rate. With that said, he's locked into the job until he scuffles or the Giants trade for a bonafide fireman.

 

Joel Peralta temporarily leaves the closer carousel in Tampa. In an effort to make our lives more difficult, Joe Maddon has added Kirby Yates to the mix. He picked up the save on July 20. McGee still gets the most chances, and he's the best pitcher of the bunch. As such, he's the guy to own. I also like Boxberger, but I don't care for Yates' high fly ball rate.

 

Nathan has mostly pitched well throughout this month. July 19 is the exception – he allowed three runs and took the loss. I understand why the Tigers don't know what to do. His peripherals are decent, even if they aren't quite good enough to close. He hasn't been bad enough to release, but he doesn't really fit in another role. They're talking like they don't need to acquire a closer on the trade market. Personally, I think passing on a stable ninth inning man is a mistake.

 

Petricka and Putnam continue to duel for save opportunities. Meanwhile, deposed “closer” Ronald Belisario remains the best reliever in the White Sox bullpen.

 

*****************************

 

Injured

 

Matt Lindstrom (ankle), Chicago White Sox

Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets

Joel Peralta (ill), Tampa Bay Rays

Jim Henderson (shoulder), Milwaukee Brewers

Kyuji Fujikawa (TJS), Chicago Cubs

 

Peralta isn't exactly a closer, but he's out of the mix in Tampa Bay for a couple weeks. He believes he contracted the Chikungunya virus, which strikes me as unlikely. Statistically, it's more likely he caught a summer flu, but what do I know.

 

Henderson wasn't originally on this list because he was officially deposed. Now that he's looking healthy and Rodriguez is coughing up homer after homer, we may soon see him back in closer discussions.

 

Fujikawa was left off the list because he started the year on the disabled list. However, I think he might end up in the mix for saves, so he's worth mentioning here. His rehab assignment is progressing, and he could be back with the club by early August.

 

The Deposed

 

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers

Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs

Josh Fields, Houston Astros

John Axford, Cleveland Indians

Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics

Jason Grilli, Anaheim Angels

Ernesto Frieri, Pittsburgh Pirates

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants

Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays

Ronald Belisario, Chicago White Sox

Joe Smith, Los Angeles Angels

 

Smith pitched well as the Angels closer, but they opted to push him back to the eighth inning by acquiring Street.

 

*****************************

 

The Steals Department

 

Emilio Bonifacio is back on the field. His return pushed fellow stolen base threat Arismendy Alcantara out to center field. The Cubs also have Chris Coghlan drawing plenty of reps. It looks like Chicago is the place to go for cheap stolen bases.

 

The Twins have been using Sam Fuld prominently, and he's on one of his little hot streaks. The sabermetrician in me says to ignore hot streaks, but sometimes you have to roll the dice if you need to buff a counting stat like steals.

 

Rounding things out, Lorenzo Cain has been stealing more frequently of late. B.J. Upton and Denard Span are two more guys who should be easy to acquire. If you're looking to make a trade, the owner of Jimmy Rollins might see him as a sell high candidate. I called for a bounce back season for a healthy Rollins, so his current production is right in line with my expectations. Sometimes owners sell short in their haste to dump a sell-high candidate.

 



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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