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Closing With Flair


The weather is starting to heat up, so the homers are starting to fly. And I, for one, love the showmanship of the bat flip. Some of y'all will feel the bat flip is too new school and shows the pitcher up, but I dunno, that pitcher gave up the home run. And baseball has very little panache or flair. It's not football, where players celebrate after every other play. So maybe we can have a little fun.

So we'll rank the tiers by the better bat flips out there. With video.

(Aren't you at least a little glad that this column is not about performance enhancing drugs?)

Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "Tatsunori Hara, In Japan" Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

Who? You ask. This guy. This guy. This guy with the two-handed, over-the-head huck of a bat flip. Huck yeah.

And all these guys are deserving of their elite status. Mariano Rivera is the only one that's not striking out more than a batter per inning, so there was the thought that he could drop. But Mo is still getting whiffs, and he got two strikeouts last night to push his overall rate into the 8+ K/9 range that he's used to. If he does that once more, he has excellent control and more leash than anyone in baseball, and close to a strikeout per inning. He's still elite.

So instead of dropping someone out, we're going to make room in the elite tier for two more entrants. Is that wise? Who knows. An elite tier with six people in it seems a little less elite, a little too crowded. But maybe someone will make up our minds for us and drop out next week. Maybe Mariano won't strike anyone out next week and his overall fantasy line will suffer to the point that he drops. Maybe someone will get hurt. Maybe you already think Mariano is coasting.

We just can't get around how excellent Sergio Romo and Jason Grilli have been. They took a while to get where they are for a reason -- Romo doesn't crack 91 on the gun some games, and Grilli put on velocity in his late thirties, strangely --  but they've now been who they are for more than 80 innings, and have survived the jump into closerdom. (It's almost like some sort of mythical mindset has nothing to do with it.) They didn't have the track record closing that some of these other guys did, and caution is the best way to avoid one-hit wonders, but they check all the boxes now, and have for long enough.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Prince Fielder, In Disgust" Tier.)

Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners

Prince Fielder cares not for your silly pitch. Or your silly tiers. Seriously, he's disgusted.

And since two guys moved up, let's move another two guys into this tier. There was some bellyaching about the ranking of Casey Janssen and Edward Mujica over the past couple weeks, so maybe some will be happy with this new ranking, but all they did was move up two spots overall. And though they are looking steady, it's not like they don't have asterisks. Janssen doesn't even crack 90 on the gun, and finesse in the ninth inning doesn't always work. Then again, he doesn't have much competition and it's working for now. Mujica's asterisk? He throws the split-finger at the same rate that most people throw a fastball. The reason that most people throw a fastball 60% of the time is that it's the easiest pitch to command. The split-finger has terrible strike rates and is notoriously hard to throw for strikes. If people stop swinging at it, he's left with a meh fastball. So I'm nervous. Never heard anyone compare a split-finger to a knuckleball or call it a gimmick pitch? I have.

Tom Wilhelmsen has had a tough week. He blew a save on the first, and then gave up a run on the third. He has three blown saves in the last two weeks. He has seven walks against two strikeouts in in his last five appearances. It's worrisome. Especially since Carter Capps has found the plate behind him. Right now, Capps is the better pitcher, with equal velocity and almost six strikeouts per walk. But Wilhelmsen has slowly been pushing his strikeout rate back to where it should be, and they need Capps setting up, too, so it's not yet time to turn this situation into a problem. It might be a situation though.

Hey look at this:

View photo


That's the velocity chart from on Jonathan Papelbon. Looks like he's getting right. Dude's strikeout rate is slowly creeping back to where it needs to be, too. If he gets all the way right, he'll could make the elite tier *really* crowded.

Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Edwin Encarnacion, Trying to Be Helpful" Tier.)

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles

Here, here says Edwin Encarnacion. Here's this bat. Do with it what you will.

If Glen Perkins or Greg Holland were on teams that were better (i.e. scored more), they'd move up faster. Especially Perkins, who has an elite-level strikeout rate, an elite-level walk rate, and a three-year track record. He does have 12 saves, but with that team as it's constituted, it's hard to see much more than 30 saves on the back of his 2013 baseball card. Still, if Wilhelmsen continues to falter, or Janssen or Mujica start to show signs, there are two ready arms at the top of this tier.

Ernesto Frieri and Andrew Bailey are excellent pitchers! They are! Of course, there are Frieri's walks, but Ryan Madson isn't around to make those a big deal. And Andrew Bailey is made of glass, and remember Junichi Tazawa's name, but he's in there now, and he's got a starter's arsenal and great control. They're okay, at the very least. And if they somehow stay in one piece or don't walk the lineup, they'll be fine.

Jim Johnson is getting back on track, but there are people in this tier that get two strikeouts to every one he manages. It's going to be hard for him to move up, especially with his career-worst ground-ball rate. That's his best skill! Four straight clean slates is a way to get it started, though.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (5) (AKA: The "Cody Ross, In Spring Training" Tier.)

Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Jose Veras, Houston Astros

It's a meh bat flip, no panache. And it's in Spring Training.

These are meh relievers. They've all blown saves -- well, except Kevin Gregg, and he's blown plenty of saves in recent history. They all have warts -- especially Jose Valverde and Kevin Gregg. But as we've adjusted all the tiers upwards, they make sense here. They're all the closers for their teams, and without the interim title.

What are the warts on Gregg and Valverde? Well, Gregg's strikeout rate is already starting to fall -- he's showing career-worst velocity and hasn't struck out a batter per inning since 2009 -- and his walk rate should start to embiggen. After all, his first strike rate is terrible and his career rate is over four per nine. Oh and he hasn't given up a homer this year, despite giving up more than a homer per nine innings over the last four years. Jose Valverde is also showing career-worst velocity, and though he's upped the strikeout and whiff rates this year, they aren't quite respectable for a closer, and his walk rate should start to creep north. He's also giving up almost a homer and a half per nine innings.

Given his stuff, Bobby Parnell should strike out more people. But he doesn't, and so blown saves like he had Tuesday night are going to happen from time to time. He's still only given up multiple runs twice this season, and has blown three saves. And it's not like the team has another option. That's basically the same situation with Jose Veras. Just that instead of not striking out enough people, Veras' problem is the walk rate. Right now, though, it's actually the best of his career, and so is his first-strike rate. He could stick all season, especially since his handcuff, Hector Ambriz, is not exciting, not at all.

Fernando Rodney has kept the slate clean for five appearances and has maybe doused the fire that was raging in late May. He's obviously not last year's version of Rodney -- who was that guy anyway -- but he's capable of "closing ugly," since he's done it at different stops in his career. You still think that the Rays will find a new guy at some point, but that point seems farther off in the future than it did a week ago.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Yasiel Puig, In Batting Practice" Tier.)

Vinnie Pestano (first chair), Joe Smith (second chair), Cody Allen (third chair), Cleveland Indians
Rex Brothers (first chair), Wilton Lopez (second chair), Colorado Rockies
Luke Gregerson (first chair), Dale Thayer (second chair), San Diego Padres
Brandon League (first chair), Kenley Jansen (second chair), Los Angeles Dodgers
Francisco Rodriguez (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Mike Dunn (first chair), A.J. Ramos (second chair), Steve Cishek (third chair), Miami Marlins

Well it's a heck of a flip, but it was in batting practice. Say what you will about showing up the pitcher in game play, but dropping the bat after a drive off the 50 mph fastball coming from your coach's hand? Craptacular! And I say this as a fan of flair.

With Chris Perez in trouble for marijuana possession, and possessing a sore shoulder as well, Vinnie Pestano becomes more interesting. We liked him for the role over the funky Smith, and he's taken to it. In fact, his velocity has improved some since he had health issues of his own. He's back to 92/93, which is where he was early in the season. That's great news for his owners.

Rex Brothers has no velocity problems. I mean, it's down two miles per hour since last year, but he still throws 93-94 most days, and his stuff is really good. Then again, he's dropped below a strikeout per inning this year, and he's still walking more than four per nine. Not to mention that Rafael Betancourt thinks he just needs the minimum to rest his groin and will be back shortly.

For about three weeks we've been predicting that Huston Street would go on the DL. So hopefully you own Luke Gregerson already. A strained calf might only mean two weeks, but it's a virtual guarantee that Huston Street will hit the trainer's table again. It's what he does. If you're interested in how Luke Gregerson avoids platoon splits while throwing the slider just as much as his fastball, I spoke to the reliever this season about just that thing.

Does anyone have any idea who the closer is in Florida? Steve Cishek pitched the tenth in a tie game, Mike Dunn got the ninth. Mike Dunn got the eighth and ninth in a tie game and blew it open. Chad Qualls is starting to creep into the mix. Our favorite, A.J. Ramos, only has one hold since the middle of May and hasn't been great. Maybe Qualls should be second in line. Chad Qualls has been terrible about as much as he's been usable over the course of his career.

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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Sergio Santos (elbow), Toronto Blue Jays
Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
J.J. Putz (elbow), Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Perez (shoulder), Cleveland Indians
Jim Henderson (hamstring), Milwaukee Brewers
Huston Street (calf), San Diego Padres
Rafael Betancourt (groin), Colorado Rockies

This list is just getting ridiculously long. The first three are done for the year, though. The next three are about 50/50 propositions to be of any use this year. Shoulders are scary, but supposedly Chris Perez is "feeling good." The last three have leg issues and have all made it sound like they'll take the minimum to get right.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals

Will one of the injured join the crew? Steve Cishek is a week away from being listed here.

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The Steals Department

If the Yasiel Puig train has pulled out of your station -- and yes, he does have speed to go with that monster power -- you may still have options, mostly because people are starting to jettison their slow starters. Maybe Rickie Weeks has arrived on one of your waiver lists. He's striking out a bit more than he usually does, but that's never been a strength of his, and he's had stretches like this before. He still gets on base by the walk, and still has power and speed. There will be some noise about Scooter Gannett coming up to steal time from him, but Weeks walks, slugs and steals more than the rookie. The only reason the Brewers would go with the new guy is because he makes more contact, but even there, he's no elite dude. I'd go with the veteran there. Jayson Werth is back, too. It's too bad he was out for a hamstring injury and he's been stealing fewer and fewer bases every year, but he can still steal you six to ten bases over the rest of the year, and since that comes with power, that's fine. And since the league's batting average is now down to the .250s, he doesn't hurt your batting average as badly.

Somewhere between the deep and shallow leagues is Anthony Rendon. He's up, and Danny Espinosa is hurt, and it looks like Rendon will get a shot at second base. Rendon can strike out less than he did in his first cup of coffee, and so he can show a better batting average. Then again, he's not much for the speed, as he stole six bases in less than half a season in 2012. Maybe Mike Aviles and his 15-stolen-base pace can help you out with Asdrubal Cabrera hurting. David Lough in Kansas City stole 27 bases last year and is getting some burn against righties in Kansas City -- he's a decent player, actually, and we know that Jeff Francoeur isn't. You know what, though? If all this brouhaha about Biogenesis goes down, the Brewers might go with Logan Schafer. Dude could steal 20 in a full season, has some power, and makes enough contact to have a good batting average. And Craig Gentry in Texas might get more burn if Nelson Cruz goes down too. Hey, we tried to avoid that whole thing.

Thanks to Scott Lewis at Getting Blanked and Carson Cistulli at FanGraphs for a couple of the GIFs above.

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