How do I put this column together?
First, I depend on the five categories of the normal fantasy league to guide my rankings. So, yeah, Jim Johnson gets a ding because most years he'll cede about twenty strikeouts on the average closer, and twenty strikeouts are useful in almost any league. I'll look at some large-sample statistics that speak to the true talent of the players involved -- Mariano Rivera didn't look good at first, but he's been so good for so long that he deserved the benefit of the doubt. At this point in the season, I'm still looking at last year's numbers to an extent, because relievers have pitched maybe ten to twelve innings, and that's not a great sample.
On the other hand, I will look at per-pitch numbers, since they've probably thrown more than a hundred pitches by this point -- velocity, contact rate, and first strike rate. I use first strike rate because I found that it (along with reach and contact rates) predicted future walk rate better than current walk rate. I use velocity and whiff rate because a writer of mine found that velocity plus whiff rate predicted future strikeout rate better than current strikeout rate ($ link). Oh, and velocity has been shown to be more important to the ability of an aging reliever than it is to the older starting pitcher. And then I'll look at pitching mix -- sometimes the pitchers change their offerings and it's meaningful quickly.
I won't look at closer experience, because others have failed to find a link there. I won't look too much at walk rate, because the link isn't there -- plenty of closers have walked plenty of batters. I won't look at ERA, or even FIP. No link to saves specifically. I won't look at team record -- unimportant -- but I will look at how many runs a team scores, because I found a link there to save opportunities.
If I'm trying to predict a closer change, I will look at handedness. Managers prefer righty closers, as I found. Most importantly, I'll look at velocity and strikeout rate. ($ link) New closers have more gas and higher strikeout rates than the closers they replaced ($ link).
That's how I predicted that Junichi Tazawa would get the closer's role late Monday night, before his manager confirmed the choice.
So in his honor, I'll name the tiers after the things I find most important to the success of a closer.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Strikeout Rate" Tier.)
Joe Nathan is a good figurehead for this tier. He's only throwing 91ish this year, and that's down from 94 mph, and that would be worrisome if he wasn't showing a great strikeout backed by an elite whiff rate. I do mention walk rate sometimes, particularly in respect to the work by Nathan, but that's so I can speak to the quality of the pitcher and the likelihood they give your team a good WHIP. I mean, nobody really thinks that Aroldis Chapman's worse-than-average walk rate makes him a risky play, right? Craig Kimbrel has blown three saves since April 24th. For another closer, that might matter.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Velocity" Tier.)
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Sergio Romo is at the head of the velocity tier and has the worst velocity of the crew. He survives by being elite everywhere else. Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Betancourt are all missing velocity, but it hasn't yet meant much. Jason Grilli put on velocity in his mid thirties, and kept it this year, and that's a big part of why he's creeping up the rankings. Tom Wilhelmsen? Still throwing 96 mph gas with a hammer curve, and now his strikeout rate is finally normalizing to his career rate. He has nine strikeouts in his last eight outings -- but no Kimbrels yet.
Let's move Jim Johnson up. For the last 170+ innings going into this year, he had struck out just over five per nine and been a real problem in that department. This year, his strikeout rate is almost up to eight per nine, and that would only cost you about two strikeouts per nine innings on the average closer. Seriously -- last year, the average closer struck out ten per nine, so he's still no asset in the department. Johnson's whiff rate is not up, his velocity is down, and his pitching mix is unchanged, and yet he's striking out almost eight per nine. Color me slightly skeptical of this new strikeout rate, but if it's real, he can overcome the strikeout shortfall. Obviously he's got lots of leash.
Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "First Strike Percentage" Tier.)
Glen Perkins hasn't been perfect. And focusing too hard on walk rate or it's peripherals is not a great idea either. Perkins has had elite control over his career, and has an elite first-pitch strike rate this year. Expect him to end the year with closer to two walks per nine.
Addison Reed blew a save last week -- against the Royals, with two walks, a hit, and no strikeouts -- but in general, he's showing the strikeout rate we expected of him after he blew through the minor leagues. He also showed an elite walk rate in the minors and is now walking a batter every two innings. Well, voila, his first pitch strike rate is elite as well. All he needs is for batters to reach a little -- and they have in the past -- and they'll help turn some balls into strikes and push that walk rate down. I'm not worried about Addison Reed.
I am worried about Fernando Rodney, and on the precipice of dropping him down a tier. He never had good control, and that was enough to tank him on the keeper closer rankings last year and on rankings going into the season. Right now, he's helped by the fact that Jake McGee is struggling, and few people are banging the door down for Joel Peralta. But the control is gone once again, even though he went back to the first base side of the rubber, and his walk rate peripherals are not happy. His first-pitch strike rate is below average, his reach rate is below average, and his swinging strike rate is below average. This is a trifecta of uh-oh. I suppose Joel Peralta is an interesting saves pickup.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Team Quality" Tier.)
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Edward Mujica has eight saves. Greg Holland has seven. So does Huston Street. Brandon League has eight saves. Are their teams all roughly the same quality? I would offer: no. Trying to suss out save opportunities on a monthly level is folly. Actually, trying to predict saves totals at all is a waste of time.
Jason Motte finally had his surgery, so he's not a threat to Edward Mujica anymore. Trevor Rosenthal is still there, throwing gas and striking batters out in the eighth, and he's still the obvious next in line -- yes, even with Carlos Martinez in town, since the usage of these guys still matters. Since Rosenthal has the eighth, he'll get the ninth if Mujica goes down. But it might take injury at this point, because Mujica is showing the best whiff rate of his career, his trademarked elite-level control, and he's still getting ground balls by the bushel with that split finger. There is one thing worth pointing out -- for the first time ever, Mujica is throwing the split finger more than any of his other pitches combined. He's throwing the splitter 63% of the time… if batters decide they can time that pitch, things might go badly for him.
Greg Holland is doing vintage Greg Holland things, and Kelvin Herrera is blowing up every other appearance, so Holland looks safer each day. His first pitch strike rate is well below average, but at least he's getting batters to reach and whiff by the buckets. With his strikeout rate, he's still got the best upside of this tier, and probably the worst downside. Bobby Parnell's manager says he keeps the job even with Frank Francisco back in the bigs. He's fine. It's the rest of the tier that's really worrisome.
Ernesto Frieri is looking like Fernando Rodney out there. He almost recorded a reverse Kimbrel last week -- three walks, no strikeouts -- but he got the save anyway. Still, in his last ten outings, he has ten walks against 14 strikeouts and that's a lot of tums for his manager. If Ryan Madson looks good after rehab, you never know what will happen there. Though his velocity is still down, some of Huston Street's outings have been better than others recently. His strikeout rate is worrisome, and it's backed by a below-average whiff rate. Luke Gregerson deserves to be owned. Steve Cishek is still walking too many people, but there's only A.J. Ramos and the lefty Mike Dunn behind him so he has some leash. Brandon League drops to the bottom of tier because his bad strikeout rate is now terrible (one every two innings), his whiff rate is now average, and his ground ball rate can only take him so far. He's converting saves 'ugly' right now, but Kenley Jansen is still breathing fire behind him.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Current Saves Total" Tier.)
Jim Henderson (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Carlos Marmol (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Junichi Tazawa (first chair), Joel Hanrahan (second chair), Boston Red Sox
David Hernandez (first chair), Heath Bell (second chair), Matt Reynolds (third chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
Jose Valverde (first chair), Joaquin Benoit (second chair), Bruce Rondon (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Jose Veras (first chair), Rhiner Cruz (second chair), Hector Ambriz (third chair), Houston Astros
Jason Grilli is leading the league in saves. I'll give you decent odds in a gummy bear wager that he won't be leading the league in saves at the end of the year.
Jim Henderson is leading the Brewers in saves. This might actually happen all year. The team keeps talking about running John Axford back out there, but he's blown two games in the past week from the eighth inning and hasn't quite got the confidence of his manager back. Another week, another blowup from Axford, and we'll move Henderson out of this tier.
Yes, Kevin Gregg looks like the closer in Chicago for now. His manager even handed him the role officially. We'll wait to move him up, at least another week. Because Kyuji Fujikawa is rehabbing, and Gregg has too many peripherals that should make his owners nervous. His batting average on balls in play right now is insanely low, he's stranding 100% of his base-runners (that number is 70% across baseball), he's showing the worst velocity of his career, but somehow the best strikeout rate, his first pitch strike rate is worse than his career number, which is worse than the league average, nobody is reaching on his pitches, and his swinging strike rate is worse than average. Yes, he's throwing the splitter more and that might help. But virtually every peripheral behind his ERA and WHIP is screaming for regression. With Fujikawa there, I wouldn't get too comfy with Gregg. He's been losing his job as a closer for about five years now.
Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara had both been pitching high-leverage innings heading up to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey's double demise, and they both had good strikeout rates. Since Uehara had been pitching the eighth and has eye-popping numbers, the consensus went with him. Since I'd seen the research on fastball velocity, I went with Tazawa. Then his manager even mentioned his fastball when he anointed him the interim closer. Hanrahan might be okay in a month, or he might not -- he said he'd never had that feeling before. Andrew Bailey is made of glass. Tazawa should be owned. He has a three-plus-pitch arsenal, good control, and a 94 mph fastball in the pen.
The newest situation is in Arizona. Closer J.J. Putz left his appearance with elbow stiffness, and we're going to try and get out ahead of this even if the team has not put him on the DL yet. Because if you look at his numbers this year, they look exactly like the numbers he was putting up in New York before he went down with elbow issues. We've been pointing out how Putz has excellent control except in years where he's hurt and voila his control sucks this year. Maybe we're being premature, but David Hernandez should be owned. Putz is frail -- he's averaged under fifty innings for five years straight now -- and Hernandez has the gas and strikeout rate to step in and do the job fine. His walk rate could be better, but his first pitch strike rate is above-average, and he just needs to get batters to reach a little more. Matt Reynolds is interesting, but his 89 mph fastball, plus the fact that he only has two holds on the year, suggests to me that he'll just step into the eighth inning if Putz goes down. Heath Bell got the save last night, but that was because Hernandez had already pitched. Bell is probably ahead of the lefty Reynolds, though. That one is harder to figure out, since they both have saves and Bell has more gas even in his old age.
Joses Valverde and Veras each got a save last week, and they continue to be two of the shakiest capital C closers. The Astros will probably let Veras do this all year -- although Hector Ambriz has been better recently, and has the eighth inning to himself right now -- but the Tigers are probably still looking for a better solution there.
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Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Kyuji Fujikawa (forearm), Chicago Cubs
Sergio Santos (elbow), Blue Jays
Andrew Bailey (biceps), Red Sox
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Red Sox
Jason Motte finally had the Tommy John. Ryan Madson's comeback from the same is taking forever, but he'll face live hitters Thursday. Kyuji Fujikawa had a rehab appearance rained out, but he's still going to be back soon. Sergio Santos should start his rehab assignment next week. We're waiting on an MRI for Andrew Bailey -- Godot, in other words -- and Joel Hanrahan has a strained forearm, which could mean anything from Tommy John to a month-plus off.
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Carlos Marmol actually got a hold the other day! John Axford, not so much.
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The Steals Department
We'll highlight two very flawed middle infielders this week. Dee Gordon is tiny. He has no power. His patience is lacking. His glove has holes in it. Dee Gordon is tiny. Dee Gordon is also really fast, and if he gets just a little lucky with balls in play -- and his feet can create a little luck for him -- he should have a passable batting average and plus speed at the shortstop position. The major league batting average is .251 right now, and Gordon can beat that by ten or twenty points. He could also steal ten bases while Hanley Ramirez is out, and considering that Ramirez should be playing third base, and the Dodgers can't find a third baseman that can hit a lick other than Juan Uribe, there's daylight there for Gordon to carve out an everyday role even when Ramirez is back. He could even take over second base from Mark Ellis.
Our deep league choice -- and yeah, the second paragraph is always for the deep leaguers, I wouldn't have suggested Jordan Schafer in anything but the deepest of leagues -- is Brian Dozier in Minnesota. His numbers don't look pretty, but at least his defense at second base is. That should give him some leash. If he gets a little luckier with the balls in play, and cuts the strikeout rate down (he has an above-average contact rate), he could hit .250 and steal 10-15 bags. Hey, he's practically available in all leagues, and he's slightly better than a warm body. (I love deep leagues.)
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