Bullpen Returns and Declines

Eno Sarris
April 23, 2014

Albert Pujols is the newest member of the 500 home run club, and the first to hit 499 and 500 in the same game. I have no idea why that matters, it’s just something we have to hear every time we hear about Albert Pujols joining the 500 home run club.

But! Not all members of that club are equal. It’s not the immediate pass into the Hall of Fame that it used to be, and it didn’t create the same baseball-wide buzz that it used to. You can blame steroids, but then we’ll take that conversation and put it in the corner because I don’t feel like having it. (Sorry, steroids conversation, don’t look at me like that, but it’s just not the time. Maybe later. Go play with your toys.)

So let’s name the tiers after members of the club, all while avoiding *that* conversation.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Babe Ruth” Tier.)

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

Apologies to Barry Bonds, the other contender for this title, but there’s something to be said for having the career homer title for 40 years. There’s a reason people comment on pieces with ‘first.’ Wait, is there? Maybe there isn’t. But people do remember who did it first when it comes to career homer titles and joining the 500 homer club, if not commenting on a blog post.

Craig Kimbrel is still the best contender among current relievers for the Mariano Rivera Award for Most Babe Ruthian of Relievers. But the last couple of weeks have shown just how mortal every pitcher is. A shoulder issue felled him for a week or so, and then even after he came back, his fastball command has been shaky. For what it’s worth — and not much, because in-season injury prediction is really hard — the best indicators of hidden injury are loss of velocity, declining zone percentage, and unstable release points. Kimbrel has the velocity loss, but his zone percentage is right where it used to be. His curveball release point is drifting a bit, look at the two charts below. The one on the left is from his first appearance and the one on the right is from his last one. There’s some risk here, but it’s not worth selling low. Wait for a couple dominant starts before you trade him away.

Koji Uehara also missed a week with shoulder issues — and, really, shoulder issues are career-killers if they lead to surgery, so they’re worth talking about — and isn’t the sturdiest or youngest fellow, but he’s been fine since he returned. Kenley Jansen zooms to the top with four appearances in six days, including a Kimbrel (three strikeouts, no base runners in a save). Guess he’s harnessed that new velocity.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The “Ken Griffey, Jr.“ Tier.)

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
David Robertson, New York Yankees

The Natural with his gracious smile hid a more complicated personality, but Griffey hit 630 homers and did it without a whiff of — wait, I told this conversation to stay in the corner. This is annoying. Let’s just say he was an icon of his time, in a good way. Maybe Willie Mays should be here, but what can I say? I’m a child of the 1980s and Willie Mays was just a dude that came and waived to the crowd before Giants games by that time.

Jason Grilli still has the double-digit strikeout rates and the good control and the 93+ mph gas, but two blown saves in a row in the past week do raise an eyebrow. Then again, how much can you fault him for giving up a home run to Ryan Braun? Homer issues have cropped up from time to time over Grilli’s career, but since there are no real indicators that something is wrong yet — walk rate does not become stable in eight innings — there’s no real reason to worry yet.

Oh, look — there’s Sergio Romo. He cares naught for your theories on fastball velocity. And he’s throwing the change-up more than ever! Might mean something for his work against lefties.

Trevor Rosenthal made it interesting with two straight walks to the Mets on Tuesday night. He’s walked a batter or two too much so far this year. Better news is that his velocity is up and that he made it out of the inning and looks like he’s still the closer. Carlos Martinez features a sinker and slider to Rosenthal’s fastball and change-up and curve — it’s Rosenthal’s combo that can get lefties and righties out, and he owns the velocity and strikeouts that usually predict who will close. There’s enough smoke to drop him in the tier some, but not enough to move him down to the third tier.

David Robertson is back, and if his groin is healthy, he’ll be a great closer, most likely. Three innings of poor play on a pulled groin are not enough to take away from the 300+ innings of double-digit strikeout rates, or the 200 innings with great control paired with double-digit strikeout rates. Some of his best velocity, however, that is something you can take away from a small sample. Per-pitch numbers are always close to five times ahead of per-plate-appearance numbers, considering your average major leaguer sees more than four pitches in a plate appearance.

Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.

Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Reggie Jackson” Tier.)

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers

Owner of quite the nickname, Mr. October was one of the original Flashy Dudes. Add in the conflicts with Yankee management, all the brash self-love, and the iconic moments, and you’ve got a really great player. Who came up almost 100 wins above replacement short of Barry Bonds. (70+ WAR usually is enough to get you in the Hall, so basically Barry Bonds is almost three Hall of Famers, but I know I know, back in the corner.)

Steve Cishek is killing it. 33 straight save chances converted, no runs allowed, nine strikeouts against two walks and three hits in seven innings… it’s all there. The team’s even giving him chances. But I hesitate to move him up. His career strikeout rate is below-average for a closer, his team isn’t very good, and he still has the chance of being traded. Still, he’s one of the mid-table relievers that’s closest to jumping up a tier.

Joe Nathan didn’t close out the Tigers win on Tuesday night, but it’s not because a change was made. Phil Coke allowed three runs in the ninth inning to make the game close, and, well, let manager Brad Ausmus explain: “We got Joba up because he can heat up quicker (than Nathan). If I did it over, I’d tell Joe to be ready in case it turned into a save situation (which it did when Dunn homered). But because Joba had been up, he could get ready at quicker pace.” You can still take away from this that Joe Nathan is old — that explains the categories that are among his career worsts (fastball velocity, strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, walk rate, homer rate), and also the fact that it takes him a while to get warm. But this pen doesn’t really have better options. He has great leash, but with career-worst numbers, he may not be a top-half closer this year.

The next group has plenty of things going for them — all of them save Tommy Hunter have pedigree and are considered closers without question — but they also have lots of fodder for doubt. Rafael Soriano’s declining velocity, Fernando Rodney’s walk rate, Tommy Hunter’s hitability and weaknesses against lefties, Jonathan Papelbon’s declining everything… these are real things. And yet, they keep chugging, and there’s not really a great option behind many of them. In fact, you could consider acquiring these closers. Soriano is throwing a ton of sliders and right now has the best swinging strike rate of his career — and that’s over 124 pitches, which is more important than eight innings. Papelbon could make 91+ work — after all, he has a similar arsenal to Koji Uehara, who doesn’t throw any harder. Hunter really doesn’t have anyone behind him, and Rodney has been closing for a while despite his bad walk rate. Trading for closers sucks, but if you trade for these guys, at least you can point to the question marks to get the price down.

Joakim Soria’s velocity is down a tick, but for him it might matter less than some. With an average change and an above-average slider and slow curve, he has three non-fastball weapons with which he can go to work. He moves up partially because his team scores a lot of runs and that’s the only thing I’ve seen reliably correlated with saves chances (and even that relationship is mild at best). But also more because Alexi Ogando’s strikeout rate isn’t knocking down the door behind him. Should Ogando stop walking guys, it might get more interesting, and yes, a week ago his manager said he would get saves chances, but a lot can happen in a week. Like Soria picking up four straight saves and facing only one more batter than the minimum.

Tier 4: Question Marks (6) (AKA: The “Albert Pujols” Tier.)

Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
John Axford, Cleveland Indians
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Matt Lindstrom, Chicago White Sox
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

Let’s not forget how awesome Albert is just because it looks like it takes him three minutes to get to first base. He combined single-digit strikeout rates with league-leading power and great patience to be a perennial MVP candidate. He used to be fleet of foot even, stealing 30 bases in 2009 and 2010 combined. That seems like a long time ago, but at least he’s still making a lot of contact and hitting for power, even if he has to take the occasional 15-day break. The question is how much time he has left. Sure, he’s signed until 2021, but that doesn’t mean much. He was barely above replacement last year, and his numbers have taken a nose dive since 2010. He’s in the question mark tier because we don’t know what will happen.

Ernesto Frieri had a very Ernesto Frieri outing the last time he saved a game. He walked a guy, he gave up a homer, and then he struck out three guys to get the save. That, and the fact that his only competitor is an unknown with walk issues in Michael Kohn, means he’s got some leash. But his swinging strike rate is declining. Weirdly, it’s because he’s throwing his junk more. He has a deceptive fastball that gets tons of whiffs, so throwing it 86% of the time — like he did between 2012 and 2013 — is not such a bad idea. His change-up is also bad (0% whiffs this year, 15% is average), so throwing it more — as he has in 2014 — hasn’t worked.

Sergio Santos has command issues, but he won’t walk this many all year. By definition, because if he walked this many for much longer, something would give. When Casey Janssen gets healthy, my guess is he gets the role back. But if Santos rights the command issues, he has the gas and wicked stuff to take the role back. I’ll take Santos’ save total over Janssen’s, especially with the five-save head start.

Jim Henderson had a nigh-Kimbrel — three strikeouts, no walks or hits — but he wasn’t in a save situation, so it doesn’t count. The good news for his owners is that he was pitching in a tie game. The bad news is that it was the first time he was used in a close game in a while, and also his first clean outing in a while. Every year, there’s a closer or two that finishes the year as a closer despite living in the fourth and fifth tiers all season long. Call them the Joe Borowski type. Given the usage of Jim Henderson — he was the closer on Tuesday if the team had gotten the lead — maybe Matt Lindstrom is slightly ahead in the race for that coveted title. Even if he’s matched his three-per-nine walk rate with a three-per-nine strikeout rate. -- Facebook comments aren't working for me, so let me re-iterate why I don't like Rodriguez more than this: The only thing I've seen reliably correlated with closer change is velocity and strikeout rate. K-rod isn't cracking 90 mph right now consistently. His strikeout rate is doing well because he's throwing the change more than ever, but that worries me too. It's 11 innings pitched. He was on the scrap heap all winter, so it's not like teams think he's great. He'll move up if he keeps doing it. Also, these rankings are forward looking, not backwards looking.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Sammy Sosa” Tier.)

Luke Gregerson (first chair), Jim Johnson (second chair), Oakland Athletics
Kyle Farnsworth (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Pedro Strop (first chair), Hector Rondon (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Jonathan Broxton (first chair), J.J. Hoover (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Josh Fields (first chair), Anthony Bass (second chair), Houston Astros

I’m not really having that conversation, I promise. I had wanted to put Rafael Palmeiro here, but it was the whifftastic Sosa that had the lowest WAR total among the 500 homer guys. Then again, he played fewer games than anyone other than Mark McGwire (another contender for this spot), Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Frank Thomas. Guess he gets some points for hitting 600 in fewer games, but with the lowest walk rate in the club and scratch defense, he just wasn’t a great all-around player.

The overall line for Luke Gregerson still looks okay, and his team is just the kind of forward-thinking team that might try a lefty/righty platoon closer (with Sean Doolittle) all year. But Gregerson’s command of his many sliders was off on Tuesday night, and he left two-strike breaking balls over the middle of the plate. There’s no reason for that, and so there’s some reason for worry. Jim Johnson was warming, but that also means that Jim Johnson wasn’t used in a close game in the eighth inning either. So it’s hard to say that Jim Johnson is on the way back, except that he’s had two wins and a hold recently and has been less hittable. Consider Johnson a decent bet to get his job back, and one of the better speculative adds if he’s on your wire. Gregerson is Romo-like, but there are very few Romos in the world.

Kyle Farnsworth is throwing his four-seamer 94 mph, so it’s tempting to say he’s back. But he throws his sinker about as often as his four-seamer, and the sinker is only 91 right now. The slider is getting whiffs, but it’s not turning into strikeouts. And now he was seen clutching his forearm in his last start. The 38-year-old is a risk, but his team probably would rather keep Gonzalez Germen cheap. That’s why they were seen watching Joel Hanrahan throw. Germen is a decent add for ratios, but he’s behind other speculative adds for saves.

Who is the closer on the North Side? They’re not winning enough games to tell us, really. The last save belongs to Hector Rondon, on the 11th. We’ll move Pedro Strop ahead of Rondon on the shakiest of evidence: in their last close-ish win, a 5-1 victory over the D-Backs, Rondon pitched the eighth and Strop pitched the ninth. Well, okay, Strop has more strikeouts and gas, so maybe there’s more reason to like him than one game’s usage.

And we know who the closer in Houston is, finally! It’s Josh Fields, the guy that’s had the Closer of the Future handle for some time now. It’s strange, though — on a per-pitch basis, none of his pitches have good peripherals. If you consider his cutter a fastball and not a baby slider, then it’s a good pitch (14% whiffs), but his change gets no whiffs and his curve is below-average too. A 95 mph cutter might be enough, but don’t forget about setup man Anthony Bass. He’s got a 95 mph fastball of his own, and his slider is average, and his change is okay. He has the potential to strike more batters out than he’s showed so far in his first 11 innings.

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Aroldis Chapman (face), Cincinnati Reds
Casey Janssen (shoulder, back, abdomen), Toronto Blue Jays
Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Casey Janssen’s everything hurts. Now it’s his abdomen. They shut him down last week, but the closer claims he’s not in pain. Strange. He hopes to throw a bullpen session this week! And he plans to “listen to his body more.” Everything we need for a pop song, really.

The Deposed

Jim Henderson
Jose Veras

The Kimbrel gives him a glimmer of hope of getting his job back, actually. And the velocity is back up! Jim Johnson could be here, but the guys that replaced him are not doing a good job. Jose Veras was supposed to get traded midway through the season but boy did his new team give up on him quickly.

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The Steals Department

Maybe it’s time to look to your shortstop position for a change that could help your speed. It looks like this will be one of the good years for Alcides Escobar, whose batting average depends almost entirely upon what happens with balls in play. If you’re holding on to Brad Miller in ten-teamers or shallow twelve-reamers, it might be time to let go. He’s reaching too much and swinging less at pitches down the middle, and those stats are close to becoming reliable. With Escobar enjoying the love of the batted ball gods, he could hit over .270 for the year, with 30+ steals, and that could be worth more than Miller, even if Miller recovers to hit .250 with 15 homers and 8-10 steals. And if Escobar is gone, consider old man Jimmy Rollins. He won’t hit for a good batting average, but he’s a better bet for a .250/15/20 season than Miller right now. 

There’s news in Red Sox nation and it could push a player from the deepest of leagues to slightly less-deep rosters: Daniel Nava was sent down, meaning that Jackie Bradley, Jr has cemented his status as the starting center fielder Bradley should cut the strikeout rate into the mid-twenties and show a .250+ batting average with time, and he has the talent to steal 15-20 bases if the Sawx let him run. Not quite a twelve-teamer in standard leagues just yet, but if you have five outfielders and a large bench, he might be worth a look. The deeper you go, the worse it gets, of course. Scooter Gennett gone? He could steal 15 and looks like he’s cementing the second base job in Milwaukee. No? Abraham Almonte is striking out too much but he has the glove to hold on to his job and steal 20+. No? Chris Denorfia isn’t quite an every day starter, but he’s needed and is good for 10+ a year. No? Brennan Boesch looks like he’s starting with Kole Calhoun out, and he could steal three or four bases in the next month. No? Um. Might as well take your pick of the wrong-side platoon guys like Brandon Barnes or Craig Gentry.