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With a week left in the year, let's turn our eyes to a position that we have ignored all season here at Saves and Steals. Honestly, to our detriment. They should get more attention next year, because plenty of you play with rules that favor them in some way or another.
I'm talking about setup men.
This will have some double use in the last week of the season -- if saves and saves alone are all you need, you may want to acquire one or two of these setup men anyway. Anything can happen this time of the year, and teams more assured of the postseason might give their closers the night off on an important night for your fantasy team. In assessing each tier, you'll get more than five names to consider in that effort. Even if the last group consists of names you'll want to avoid in most leagues.
In any case, here's to you, master of the Hold. Without you, there wouldn't even be a save chance to talk about.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Trevor Rosenthal" Tier.)
Apologies to Tyler Clippard and David Robertson, who could both be closers, and should be again in the future, but Trevor Rosenthal is the lights-out non-closer of the season. By throwing 97 with a wicked change and a good curveball, he's avoided home runs, walks, platoon splits -- you name it. He strikes out a batter and a half every nine innings. Yeah, his last outing wasn't great, but he's only given up more than one run four times all season. You can forgive him for it, since his ERA does. What he does have in common with the other two relievers is that they are all the unquestioned setup men, and they all get the ball in close games.
Craig Kimbrel blew a save! Well, he's done it four times this season, so it's not the only time this has happened. He walked two players! That's happened four times, too. He gave up three runs! That hasn't happened all year. There have been some velocity dips this season -- more than previous seasons -- but he looks generally the same over the second half. And while he's had control problems before, three walks in two straight appearances isn't a trend. He's still awesome.
Koji Uehara gave up a run and the Red Sox lost the game. It was the first run he'd given up in thirty innings, but that's not the most impressive part of the streak he'd been on. Going into that game, Uehara had retired 37 straight batters. He was within splitter distance of the record -- 45 batters -- but he fell short. Sam Miller on Baseball Prospectus has an excellent piece about how Uehara does it -- one of the keys is throwing the split for strikes, which is rare -- but the guy is a machine with an insane 12 strikeouts for every walk. That's elite, even if he throws 89.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Sean Doolittle" Tier.)
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Sean Doolittle is the kind of guy that could net you a few saves down the list. And that's why, along with Jake McGee and Tony Watson, we're going to give the lefties their own tier. Watson doesn't have the strikeout totals of the other two, but all three of them have a good chance of netting a save. All it takes is an exhausting pennant-race game and a few well-placed lefties in the lineup in the ninth inning. And if you're worried that Doolittle and McGee rely on one pitch a bit much, don't -- they know how to make it work for them by using deception, gas and great command.
Jim Johnson is forever between tiers two and three for me, and frankly I'm tired of talking about him. But I ran the numbers on the average closer this year, taking the top thirty-five by saves (all closers with more than ten saves). The average closer this year has 29 saves, an ERA of 2.70, and a strikeout rate of 9.6 per nine. Jim Johnson fails on two of the three measures of an average closer. And while he adds nineteen saves, he fails fairly spectacularly on the strikeout measure, with only Huston Street (old and broken much of the year), Tom Wilhelmsen (deposed), Edward Mujica (special case), Brandon League (deposed) and Brad Ziegler (special case) below him in strikeouts per nine. If I had a team of three Average Closers, and you had a team of three Jim Johnsons, you'd have almost 60 more saves then me, but I'd have 50 more strikeouts than you. Once you start to look at my ERA and WHIP, you understand why Jim Johnson is almost a liability. These things matter, you can't just say that a closer's contribution doesn't matter, because it should be measured against other closers' contributions. That said, he's survived, his team is giving him chances, and saves are saves. So he's Rock Steady on the year as a whole. (And yet sometimes only okay.)
Tier 3: Okay Options (9) (AKA: The "Junichi Tazawa" Tier.)
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Maybe Junichi Tazawa is a bit low on this list, but some don't trust him because of his fly-ball rate, and in the wrong park, that can hurt. Also, he doesn't have a long track record of success behind him. In the same way, Tommy Hunter has been excellent after his move to the pen, with gas and, over the last three months, strikeouts. Luke Hochevar has been great all year, but there are some good late-inning arms in that pen. The holds might get spread around, and won't necessarily reside in one place. Really, this tier just tells you how many excellent relievers there are. Because this is the overflow bin of excellence.
Right there, ahead of a group of okay closers on bad teams, is a new (better) closer on a bad team. We loved Danny Farquhar from the moment Tom Wilhelmsen began to falter, and he's showing us why recently. His bad luck on the batted ball has evened out, his control is settling down, and his strikeouts are shining. Farquhar used to sling it from a three-quarter-type release, and 91 with a slider wasn't making it happen. The Mariners made him go over the top in 2012, and he burst onto the scene this year with 95 mph fastball, that same slider, and now a curveball that is making batters look silly. Given the fact that Wilhelmsen hasn't really righted the ship this year, and that Farquhar is under team control for just as long, it's Farquhar that will zoom up the keeper rankings when we publish them after the season ends. He's why Farquhar/d is a dirty word.
I wanted to look into moving Rex Brothers up and Casey Janssen down, since Brothers has more strikeouts and is now firmly in the role, but something interesting happened when I compared their stats since late July, which is when Brothers started getting regular saves chances. Casey Janssen and Rex Brothers have the exact same number of saves since then. And while Brothers has 28 strikeouts to Janssen's 21, he also has 13 walks to Janssen's 6. And, of course, his ERA and WHIP are higher. So, really this is an argument for moving Brothers up. And Ernesto Frieri, who, over the same time frame, has one save less and more strikeouts, and has actually tamed his walk rate.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question Marks (7) (AKA: The "Luke Gregerson" Tier.)
This tier is marked by flaws. Luke Gregerson's flaws are more team-oriented, while Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones combine to reduce each other's effectiveness on a team that doesn't give many holds chances to boot, and Yoervis Medina could walk the lineup even if he was handed the ball in a big spot and the Mariners had a chance to win. But! Any one of these guys could luck themselves into a save if the bullpen was taxed. And they can all get you some strikeouts in a pinch. So… not bad.
This is an awkward tier at the end of the season, that's why it's been decimated. Because, really, are there questions marks at this stage in the season? Will any of these guys really be replaced? The answer is no. But there's reason enough to leave these guys here. Only Fernando Rodney has managed an average strikeout rate for a closer in this foursome, and his walk rate is almost twice the walk rate of that same average closer. Chris Perez returned to doing everything worse than an average closer, which is what he's done in his career every year but one. Huston Street looked old and broken much of the year, and Jonathan Papelbon's ERA and WHIP are hiding the fact that he's lost a lot of gas, a ton of whiffs, and in every way but walk rate seems like a different pitcher than the one that came before. Just look at his chart and say, nah, he's fine.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (6) (AKA: The "Josh Zeid" Tier.)
Mark Melancon (first chair), Jason Grilli (second chair), Pittsburgh Pirates
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
LaTroy Hawkins (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Blake Parker (third chair), Chicago Cubs
Josh Fields (first chair), Josh Zeid (second chair), Houston Astros
The Astros bullpen has cost their team almost six wins above replacement this year. No other team's unit has cost their team as much as one win. This is a legendarily bad bullpen, even if six wins don't matter to the Astros this year. Zeid may not be this bad in the future -- he gets a double-digit swinging strike rate on 93-94 gas with two breaking pitches -- but right now he can't strike anyone out, and his control has never been good. And Zeid had homer issues in the minor leagues, so those homers are no surprise. Matt Belisle is a good pitcher most of the time, but he plays for an iffy team in a bad park and isn't getting strikeouts right now. AJ Ramos might even be the Marlins' closer next year. Right now, he's walking a batter per innings… for the Marlins.
There might not be a change in this group over the last week, which is too bad because people still need saves. Perhaps the best saves sleeper on this list is Jason Grilli. He hasn't quite been lights out for a stretch yet, but he does have a little more gas than Melancon, and was so great early in the season. Then again, his velocity since he's come back doesn't inspire confidence and he just blew a save this week. M&M is probably safe, and if you look past leash considerations, is really a good closer. Doesn't get the whiffs of an average closer, but he's close, and he gets more grounders than anyone not named Brad Ziegler. (As an aside, I talked to Ziegler for an upcoming piece, and he credits his change up for his improved work against lefties this year, and that's absolutely an answer you can believe, even if he still struggles with his control against lefty batters.)
Maybe instead look to Chicago. We've been talking about how mediocre Kevin Gregg is for about four years, and yet Pedro Strop has no saves. Strop still has the whiff rate and velocity of a closer, and he's still the guy the Cubs own next year, so they have incentive to throw him out there for a saves chance. You're probably better off with Strop than Josh Zeid, for instance, for the aforementioned Zeid flaws. Gonzalez Germen turned it around after a bad stretch took him out of the saves chances discussion, but his team doesn't have as much of a reason to put Germen in a saves opportunity: Bobby Parnell is out for the season, but he'll be a Met next season, most likely.
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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Rafael Betancourt (elbow), Colorado Rockies
Bobby Parnell (neck), New York Mets
Done for the year!
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jose Veras, Detroit Tigers
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks
Kevin Gregg is going to survive the season. Congratulations to Kevin Gregg.
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The Steals Department
By stolen bases allowed per inning, Chris Iannetta might be the worst regular catcher in the league. So if you're streaming for steals, consider the Seattle Mariners this weekend. Brad Miller isn't playing that well right now, but he makes much more contact than Nick Franklin, and has some speed. He's your best mixed league pickup on the Mariners. Deep leaguers should look at Abraham Almonte, who is getting more playing time than Franklin Gutierrez even. If both of them are gone in your league, you might be out of luck. Michael Saunders against a right-hander could steal you a base, though.
If you look at stolen bases by a tandem allowed per inning, it's the Tampa Bay Rays crew that's bottom of the pile. The Rays get Baltimore this weekend. Nate McLouth -- only against righties -- is your mixed league pickup, as he's still getting regular playing time, still striking out less than he has in the past, and still has some speed. I bet he swipes one or two this weekend. As always, things get dicier with deep league pickups, but Brian Roberts is playing almost every day, and he used to be able to pilfer bags. Danny Valencia is playing against lefties, but his seasonal high in stolen bases is… two.
Nick Hundley and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the other two catchers that almost give up a stolen base per game. Boston gets Toronto and the Padres get the Dodgers, though, and it's not obvious that your wire will produce gems. Toronto is more likely to: Rajai Davis is usually kicking around in most mixed leagues, and even if he's a better start against lefties, he does make the most of his opportunities on base (as meager as they might be). Anthony Gose is playing regularly, so he's your deep league stolen base streamer. If he's gone, you're looking at hoping that Colby Rasmus decides to finally steal a base -- or maybe, more likely, Munenori Kawasaki surprises. With all the injuries, Kawasaki is actually playing. The Dodgers don't have a lot of team speed, and what they do have is likely owned. If Carl Crawford isn't available, mixed leaguers might want to just look the other way. Deep leaguers might have a legitimate Billy Hamilton type situation in Dee Gordon, though. Dee has seven plate appearances in the last two weeks… and three steals. He's a decent deep league play.
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