First Half Closer Rankings

Eno Sarris
July 17, 2013

The All-Star game is a strange time, stuck in purgatory. There's very little 'now.'

You get to look backward. Your fantasy season is stuck without new input, so you can peruse what you've done and give your team a physical. It's a great time for trading for that reason. Everyone's staring a hole into their lineups, trying to decide how to get better.

You get to look forward. The end-game looms, and you've got your second-half sleeper articles galore. Every anticipated move is seen through the lens of which category you might be able to dominate, and which you'll have to leave by the wayside.

But now? It can be a silly game, half-played by stars trying to avoid injury, announced by national voices telling us stories we have heard a million times about the players we love. Every once in a while, though, the game transcends. So we'll name the tiers after remarkable all-star games of the past.

And, since you're looking backwards right now anyway, we'll pair these tiers with a look at some retroactive rankings. To that end, I asked my friend Zach Sanders to run the top 50 players in the saves category through his auction value calculator. The resulting ranking looks backwards while these tiers hope to look forwards, but this exercise also helps us correctly value a pitcher's contribution in each category against a replacement level set by the pitching population. We might even move a pitcher or two based on the results, or at least have to defend a ranking. You can find the full backward-looking ranking at the end of this piece. The tiered ranks are still forward-looking, as they always have been.

Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "1934" Tier.)

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

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx made up the meat of this lineup, but it wasn't something they did that made this all-star game remarkable -- it was what was done to them. Carl Hubbell struck out all three of them in a row. Then he struck out Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in the next inning. Five straight Hall of Famers.

The top five relievers for the season so far are Joe Nathan, Jason Grilli, Craig Kimbrel, Edward Mujica and Greg Holland. I've talked some about why Edward Mujica is down a few spots in my forward-looking rankings from where his production to date would land him, and it mostly surrounds the fact that I don't trust a closer that throws more than half of his pitches with the split-finger grip. That pitch has the worst strike rates in baseball because it's so hard to throw in the zone. (Jeff Samardzija talks about that fact a bit here.) Mujica is surviving/thriving because he's getting batters to swing at *two-thirds* of the split-fingers he throws. That's only up ten percent over his career levels, but it's still kind of absurd. Then again, the ball rate on Mujica's splitter is 29%, which is much better than, say, Samardzija shows (41%). But is his ball rate so low because batters swing at the pitch so often? I'm suspicious. It's just so rare.

The reason MVP Mariano Rivera is on this list above his ranking is obvious. He has more leash than anyone in baseball. He could seriously implode and the Yanks would give him a couple days off. Mo's ninth on the first-half value list anyway.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "1955" Tier.)

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox

Stan Musial won the game in the fifteenth, with a home run, which is fun. Ted Williams walked 'em off too, in the 1941 season -- also the season he hit .406. Which do you like better? Might be a choice between youth and age. Musial was 34 and in his twelfth all-star game. Williams was 22.

The second five on the rankings to date are, in order: Bobby Parnell, Aroldis Chapman, Glen Perkins, Mariano Rivera, and Grant Balfour. It's weird to see Bobby Parnell so high on the list, but it should also be obvious why he's not this high on the rest-of-season rankings. For one, there's some trade risk for a team that's rebuilding. And for two, his lower strikeout rate and reliance on the ground ball (and complete lack of a single home run against) suggest that he might have some regression risk in his future. The rest of the list looks mighty familiar, and obviously Kenley Jansen will start adding saves to his repertoire.

Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "1971" Tier.)

Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

In 1971, 25-year-old Reggie Jackson hit a homer. Not just any homer. Maybe the biggest homer in all-star game history, it almost left the stadium. That's probably more than 'okay,' but the all-star game has higher standards. It didn't win the game or anything.

After the top ten, you start getting some interesting names that don't line up so well any more. Sure, Jim Johnson. Addison Reed and Jonathan Papelbon, numbers 12, 13, and 14 on the first half production list, are in this tier. But Sergio Romo is only number 15! That's probably because of his meager saves total (21), and the fact that's he's pitched fewer innings than anyone other than Mariano Rivera in the top 20. That might not change -- the Giants like to baby his elbow, perhaps because he throws more sliders than anyone -- and it doesn't *look* like the Giants will be winning a ton more games in the future. Perhaps Romo should drop out of the top tier?

Number 15 on the list so far should be a surprise. And one that will change the rankings. Because 15th on the list is Koji Uehara! Even with only eight saves, Uehara's minuscule ERA (1.7), great WHIP (.76), and 60(!) strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings has him ranked higher than we have him rest of season. With Casey Janssen looking human (and looking for his strikeouts) and Steve Delabar looking awesome, let's switch Janssen (number 23 in value to-date) with Uehara to better reflect the value of their overall skillets. There's still some risk with Andrew Bailey in the pen, but Uehara has given great value so far, and should continue to be an excellent reliever, saves or no.

16-19 on the list contain more interesting names: Kenley Jansen (low saves total and all), Rafael Soriano, Ernesto Frieri… and Drew Smyly. Drew Smyly! Four wins, two saves, and great ERA and WHIP will do a lot for you. Those looking for rates and ratios help should consider him. With Joaquin Benoit being a little shaky in back-to-backs, Smyly should get some saves against lefty-heavy lineups.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The "1970" Tier.)

Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Jose Veras, Houston Astros
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians

This game came to an apocryphal ending at the end of the 12th, maybe you know about it. Pete Rose, chugging around third? Ray Fosse lying in wait? Everyone's seen the moment of impact, and everyone has an opinion about the morality of the play. Now that the games 'count,' we even have new way of looking at it. Does it stand out? Yes. Was it enjoyable? Depends on whom you ask.

Fernando Rodney is #20 on the list to date, and he comes in at #19 for the rest of the season. There's some risk he'll lose his job, but he's made it through the worst of times, and his team doesn't seem to like to spend resources on the closer position. So it's him or McGee, and right now there isn't a huge reason to make the switch.

From 21 to 26 it goes Steve Cishek, Mark Melancon (with two saves!), Casey Janssen, Joaquin Benoit, Kevin Gregg and Jose Veras. Gregg and Benoit could be higher on the list based on what they've done in the past, but both are extremely risky going forward. Gregg because he could be traded into a setup role, and Benoit because he could be replaced via trade (one rumor has Tim Lincecum involved!).

Rafael Betancourt is actually 33rd on the list, but we're hoping (with this ranking) that he's healthy and can put up Betancourt-ian numbers from here on out. Chris Perez, with his 1.35 WHIP and 13 saves, is actually 38th on the list! Perez, I'm a little more worried about. His velocity is still down from earlier in the season, and he has the worst zone percentage of his career. Both of those things are injury predictors, plus… he was just injured. I wouldn't be surprised if he goes down again.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (4) (AKA: The "2002" Tier.)

Tom Wilhelmsen (first chair), Carter Capps (second chair), Yoervis Medina (third chair), Seattle Mariners
J.J. Putz (first chair), Heath Bell (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
Huston Street (first chair), Luke Gregerson (second chair), San Diego Padres
Jim Henderson (first chair), Francisco Rodriguez (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers

The tie. Of course, the only real video of the game is Torii Hunter's great leaping catch of a Barry Bonds liner, and then Bonds picking Hunter up -- a great moment worth reliving -- but the game is not something MLB has been proud of. They even wiped it off the historical scoreboard in CitiField this year. But we will always remember. 

The production to-date list of course starts to include some middle relievers with low saves totals when you get down here. The reality is that not every closer is helpful. If they get you a handful of saves with a terrible ERA and WHIP and not many strikeouts, they could be hurting you in four of five categories. That's how Tom Wilhelmsen has mostly been his team's closer all year, has 19 saves, and is only ranked #32 among the top 50 in saves so far this season. He's been showing better control of his curve recently, and his leash seems fine, but between him and Jose Veras lie Tommy Hunter (interesting name if Jim Johnson implodes again), Aaron Loup, Jim Henderson, Cody Allen and Rex Brothers. You could have been better off with a setup guy! Going forward, though, I have confidence he'll be better.

Because Francisco Rodriguez only has 22 2/3 innings to Jim Henderson 33 and 2/3, and because they have similar saves totals, K-Rod ends up 37th on the list, and Henderson is 29th. Henderson is ahead of K-Rod here, not because of the to-date rankings, but because Rodriguez is one of the most heavily-scouted players ahead of the trade deadline, and the Brewers have absolutely no reason to keep him. See the top 40 ranked below the rest of this article if you'd like to see how ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate can undo a decent saves total.

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


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

Ryan Madson is ready to start his rehab assignment! Any day now. Sergio Santos wants to be activated. Any day now. These things could matter. They probably won't, but they could.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox

Andrew Bailey is now on the list. He's really the only one that could come off of it. Doesn't this list seem short?

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

The Steals Department

Melky Cabrera is back! He homered in rehab. He might steal you four or five bases going forward, it looks like. Not quite the heady days of yore for him. We've talked about Eric Young here before, but he's really looking like a mixed leaguer now, starting most days and stealing bags aplenty. Leonys Martin has his flaws -- he doesn't walk enough, his batted ball luck will likely turn south a bit in the future, and he doesn't play against lefties -- but he looks like he can hit .275 and steal 30 bases, which is something that should be owned in all mixed leagues with daily lineup changes. He might even hit 10 homers this year as the balls start to leap out in the August Texas sun. He's available in more leagues than he should be.

Somewhere in between the deep leagues and the mixed leagues sits Brian Dozier. He's showing more pop this year, which means that his low batting average on balls in play -- though almost exactly the same as the one he showed last year -- makes even less sense. Here's a guy that has an ideal batted ball distribution, average power, and above-average speed, and only 27% of his balls in play are landing for hits, while that number is 30% across the league. If he somehow managed to be league average in that category, he'd hit .250 or so, with double-digit power, and the ability to steal 15+ bases. That works in some MI slots. The only asterisk is that he's always shown a bad batting average on balls in play, and he's been caught six times against his eight steals. He might not get a lot of green lights if that continues.

Deep leaguers might consider getting out in front of some possible deadline changes. If Alfonso Soriano moves, Julio Borbon could get more playing time, or perhaps they call up prospect Brett Jackson again. Jackson strikes out too much, but he does have power and speed. Alejandro De Aza is surprisingly 29! The White Sox control his rights for two years, but that's too close to post-peak to count on him to get much better. Jordan Danks also strikes out too much, but he might be next in line if De Aza leaves town, and he has some speed. The Marlins' Christian Yelich has speed, and impressed people at the Futures Game with his sweet lefty swing. Not to be a broken record, but he strikes out too much too. All three of these young outfielders could give you some power and speed if batting average is no longer a concern, though.

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

2013 First Half Reliever Rankings

Joe Nathan 39.2 1 30 1.36 0.76 42
Jason Grilli 40.2   29 1.99 0.86 63
Edward Mujica 41 2 26 2.2 0.73 34
Craig Kimbrel 35.1 2 26 1.53 0.99 54
Greg Holland 35 2 22 1.8 0.91 60
Bobby Parnell 43 5 17 2.3 0.91 38
Aroldis Chapman 38.2 3 21 2.79 1.11 64
Glen Perkins 34.2 1 21 1.82 0.81 47
Mariano Rivera 34.1 1 30 1.83 1.25 32
Grant Balfour 38.2   25 1.63 1.03 41
Jim Johnson 43.2 2 33 3.71 1.28 36
Addison Reed 41 4 24 3.95 1.07 42
Jonathan Papelbon 38.2 2 20 2.33 0.91 34
Sergio Romo 34.2 3 21 2.86 1.04 38
Koji Uehara 42.1 2 8 1.7 0.76 60
Kenley Jansen 46.1 3 9 2.33 0.97 65
Rafael Soriano 40 1 25 2.25 1.18 29
Ernesto Frieri 40.2   22 2.88 1.16 61
Drew Smyly 56.2 4 2 1.91 0.97 58
Fernando Rodney 40.1 3 22 3.79 1.34 56
Steve Cishek 41.2 3 17 3.24 1.08 41
Mark Melancon 44.1 2 2 0.81 0.79 46
Casey Janssen 29.1 2 18 2.76 0.89 26
Joaquin Benoit 38.1 2 8 1.64 1.04 50
Kevin Gregg 33.1 2 17 2.97 1.17 35
Jose Veras 39.1   18 3.2 1.07 42
Tommy Hunter 52.1 3 2 2.41 0.9 39
Aaron Loup 46.1 4 2 1.94 0.97 33
Jim Henderson 33.2 3 10 2.41 1.16 35
Cody Allen 39.2 4 2 2.27 1.11 52
Rex Brothers 39.2 2 4 0.91 1.13 41
Tom Wilhelmsen 41   19 3.95 1.15 31
Rafael Betancourt 25.2 2 15 3.16 1.21 24
Brad Ziegler 44.1 4 3 2.44 1.04 24
Luke Gregerson 40 4 3 2.93 1.03 36
Oliver Perez 36 2 2 1.75 1.17 50
Francisco Rodriguez 22.2 1 9 1.19 1.06 25
Chris Perez 26.2 2 13 3.04 1.35 26
Andrew Bailey 28.2 3 8 3.77 1.22 39
Tony Watson 45.2 2 2 3.35 0.94 36