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This may prove to be a volatile time in Closerland. With the new grip enhancement edict in full force, relievers are going to run into some trouble. It’s not only starting pitchers who benefit from the added spin and command of grip aids. Closers are among the pitchers who rip the highest-spin fastballs and breaking balls. Their gaudy strikeout totals are built upon these abilities. Some will prove to be less effective in the new regime. Others will have the same raw stuff but shakier command. A few will continue on unscathed. The least affected will likely be splitter specialists. It’s a rare pitch-type that performs better when it has less spin. Splitter users are more likely to eschew products like Spider Tack altogether.
Switching gears, Mark Melancon built upon his league lead by adding three more saves in the last week. His season total stands at 25 saves, four ahead of second-place Liam Hendriks. Speaking of Hendriks, he and Matt Barnes also recorded a trio of saves this week. Both were also handed a loss.
Now, shall we go to the tiers?
Tier 1: The Elite (5)
Hader blew his reliever no-hitter in the “eighth” inning. His string of hit-less appearances ended on Tuesday night. He’s now allowed a whopping 12 hits and 12 walks in 32.2 innings. Chapman hasn’t pitched since last Wednesday when he issued two walks, three hits, and two runs. The Yankees offense was kind enough to turn it into a win.
As alluded to in the intro, Hendriks pitched four times. His loss was the result of a solo home run. He also allowed a run on Tuesday night, albeit without giving up a hit. He hit a batter, walked another, uncorked a wild pitch, and surrendered an RBI groundout.
Kimbrel bested Hader. He’s thrown 9.1 consecutive no-hit innings. Overall, he’s held opponents to 10 hits and 10 walks in 30.1 innings. Incredibly, he’s outperformed Hader by the narrowest of margins.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. On Saturday, Diaz began his appearance by hitting a batter, walking another, firing a wild pitch, and then… this time the run scored on a sac fly. It was a nearly perfect mirror of Hendriks’ loss. The Mets managed to come back against Hector Neris (more on him in a moment), salvaging a victory for Diaz.
Tier 2: Nearly Elite (5)
As I’ve explained a few times, the tiers correspond roughly to the number of positive categories a pitcher projects to offer. The “nearly elite” must offer at least three helpful stats and/or upside for all four. This is why Melancon will never rank in this tier – barring a sudden shift in approach.
Jansen has pitched on back-to-back days which usually means he’ll take multiple days off to recover. Blake Treinen should be next in line tonight.
Barnes has performed like an elite pitcher to date, but I worry about various types of regression. For instance, he typically allows more walks and home runs than he has this season. If either or both issues return, he’ll no longer provide a positive ERA or WHIP.
Iglesias had a rebound week. He faced 13 batters without allowing a baserunner. He also recorded 10 strikeouts.
Tier 3: Core Performers (6)
Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians
Ian Kennedy, Texas Rangers
Melancon is the pitcher about which I receive the most feedback. After all, he leads the league in saves yet I consistently rank him outside the Top 10 closers. As referenced earlier, the tiers have loose criteria for qualifying. This is also a prospective column – I only care about what happened insofar as it informs what to expect. In Melancon’s case, I expect a 3.75 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 8.00 K/9. Damningly, he’s not the best reliever in his own bullpen so we can’t even bank on saves production. Drew Pomeranz, Emilio Pagan, and Austin Adams all have straightforward claims of superiority over Melancon. A slump, even a brief one, could send him the way of Alex Colome. That’s not to say he’s a bad closer – I’ve ranked him 11th-best this week!
Hand has been abused over the last three days. He faced three batters on Sunday, five on Monday, and another four on Tuesday. It suffices to say, he’ll be unavailable tonight. As to who will close, that’s something of a mystery. Austin Voth has fallen into the setup role, but he’s been used three of the last four days. Southpaw Sam Clay is getting leverage work too, but he threw nearly 50 pitches between Monday and Tuesday. Perhaps Wander Suero gets the call?
The Indians barely found any work for Clase and Karinchak. The latter reliever recorded the Indians only save of the week. Reyes allowed an unimportant run last Wednesday. He’s maintained his mystifying success. He even strung together two straight appearances without a walk – the first time he’s done so since mid-May.
The Rangers can’t be too enthused about the recent trade between the Blue Jays and Marlins. Toronto received Adam Cimber, a useful role-reliever with similar run prevention skills to Kennedy. Cimber has to be carefully managed whereas Kennedy is more of an all-purpose tool, but Cimber also comes with multiple seasons of club control. Kennedy will be a free agent at season’s end. There’s a strong case to be made that Cimber is a more valuable asset. The Rangers may have to await a truly desperate trade partner if they’re to get anything more than a lotto ticket. Kennedy has worked three of the last four days. In his most recent outing, he allowed two solo home runs. Luckily, he was protecting a three-run lead.
Tier 4: Upside (7)
Kendall Graveman, Seattle Mariners
Richard Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Yimi Garcia, Miami Marlins
Diego Castillo, J.P. Feyereisen, Pete Fairbanks, Tampa Bay Rays
Tyler Rogers, Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
Hansel Robles, Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Graveman appears to have recovered his pre-COVID velocity. I’d like to see some evidence he can handle his normal workload too. He only pitched once in the last week. Assuming success next week, he’ll rank somewhere around Romano.
The Rays had a rough week with Castillo locking down the only save. Fairbanks appears to be in a slump. I wonder if Collin McHugh might switch from long relief to a high leverage role. He’s been their best pitcher.
Rogers set up for McGee on Saturday. He filled a similar role on Sunday. Rogers was called on to protect a ninth-inning lead. McGee then worked the 10th and allowed the bonus runner to score on a sac fly. I still expect Rogers to land more than half of the save opportunities.
The Twins Rogers brother last notched a save on June 19. Robles has two saves since then including one in the last week. Bard blew a save at Coors Field on Saturday via a Willy Adames two-run homer. Such is the price of business when rostering a nearly-free Rockies closer.
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Tier 5: Mess Hall (7)
Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman, Oakland Athletics
Greg Holland, Josh Staumont, Kansas City Royals
Paul Fry, Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers
Amir Garrett, Brad Brach, Sean Doolittle, Cincinnati Reds
Joakim Soria, Arizona Diamondbacks
Neris seems to be having his annual slump. Since June 10, he’s allowed eight runs (six earned), six hits, five walks, and two homers in six innings. Bet on him to recover his job in short order. We’ve seen this pattern repeat with Neris in every season since 2017. Meanwhile, Alvarado has walk issues (7.42 BB/9) which limit his capacity as a closer. Bradley is terrible this year. He’s handing out free passes like candy and isn’t inducing any whiffs.
The Athletics didn’t produce a save. Trivino seems to be a preferred choice to pitch after Diekman. Don’t overlook Sergio Romo. He’s on a hot streak and has a longer history of late-inning success than Trivino. Romo also had the first crack at closing after Trevor Rosenthal hit the skids.
Holland seems to have regained his chair in Kansas City. I expect his time upon the lumpy cushions of the closer’s throne to be brief. Staumont’s last appearance came in the sixth inning protecting a tied game (he failed to do so). Holland is probably unavailable tonight after facing eight batters yesterday.
Fry has twice-flopped in the last 12 days. Sulser, meanwhile, is pitching well and has the Orioles most recent save. Hunter Harvey and Tanner Scott are in the picture too. My impression is that Fry would get most save opportunities under normal conditions. Since they get so little from their starting pitchers, they sometimes have to take a creative tact with their relievers.
Cisnero, a decent middle reliever, is the chosen replacement to Michael Fulmer. Expect modest but acceptable production for however long Fulmer is absent. Soto could nab the stray save too.
The Reds lost both Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims to elbow issues this week. Garrett has been pressed back into late-inning duties. Brach has emerged as their most consistent middle reliever. The former Orioles closer locked down a save last Friday. Garrett was on hand to close the door on Sunday. Doolittle, Art Warren, and Heath Hembree can’t be ignored either. Cincy has interesting pitchers in the minors who could make the leap. They’re trailing by around seven games in the NL Central and NL Wild Card races – just far enough out of the picture that there isn’t pressure on them to try someone dangerous like Hunter Greene.
Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland Athletics (thoracic outlet syndrome)
Julian Merryweather, Toronto Blue Jays (oblique)
Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers (neck strain)
Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds (elbow)
Lucas Sims, Cincinnati Reds (elbow)
Neck strains are relatively uncommon as a public diagnosis. Usually, neck discomfort in a pitch indicates a shoulder issue. There’s no way to know how long Fulmer might need on the sidelines. It could be days or months. The Reds hope both Antone and Sims can rest up and return in a month. Both pitchers have already dealt with elbow discomfort in the last half-year. These multiple strains tend to be a slippery slope to Tommy John surgery.
Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins
Alex Colome, Minnesota Twins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners
Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
Stefan Crichton, Arizona Diamondbacks
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Another week, another uninspiring performance from the league’s thieves. Kyle Schwarber’s out there dropping bombs on a daily basis. Hardly anyone can be bothered to take off for second base. Straw and Berti are basically utility steals for fantasy managers. Even in deep, daily formats, they’re best used as bench bats who you activate to cover for gaps in your lineup.
Since a two-hit game in mid-May, Straw is batting .331/.404/.417 while demonstrating a command of the strike zone. His all-field approach and low-angle contact supports the .388 BABIP he’s posted over this hot streak. The Astros have given him a few starts at the top of the order in recent weeks.
Berti is getting more action thanks to injuries. He’ll now have to share utility work with Joe Panik. The Marlins have used Berti as their eighth hitter most days, though he did bat sixth on Tuesday night. Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come.
Steven Duggar – last week’s Speed Spotlight – was among those with two steals.
This week’s spotlight shines on a player who could create his own opportunities despite league average speed. Jake Fraley lacks standout speed. What he does possess is an aggressive mindset on the bases backed by a disciplined approach at the plate. This season, he’s running a .241/.427/.446 batting line. His Muncy-ian 23.6 percent walk rate and 25.5 percent strikeout rate hint at considerable upside.
Fraley benefits from his selectivity. Unlike most hitters who refuse to swing at pitches out of the zone, the 26-year-old outfield has league average swing rates at pitches in the zone. This means, he’s working counts without giving away juicy strikes. The Mariners tried Fraley as their second hitter about a week ago before demoting him back to the bottom of the lineup. If we want more than a handful of steals from him, that top-of-the-order role is paramount. His on base skills recommend him for the job. There’s just one glaring problem – poor quality of contact.
With an 83.1-mph average exit velocity, Fraley produces some of the softest contact in the league. Among qualified hitters, David Fletcher is the only player with more soft contact. The next worst is Kevin Newman at 85.5-mph. Fraley isn’t doomed by his soft contact. He is capable of laying into it. Last season, he blasted one ball at 112.2-mph. He has a long history of healthy slugging percentages in the minors. Even his current .205 isolated slugging (SLG minus AVG) is above average.
Fraley is seemingly an adjustment away from unlocking his high ceiling. Individually, he has valuable attributes such as patience, targeted aggression (at the plate and on the bases), and raw pop. The next step will be to develop more consistent quality of contact. He looks like a potential late-bloomer.