Closer Change in Arizona Again

Eno Sarris

It's no big deal or anything, but scoring (and rules) in baseball can be a funny thing. Like last night in the game in San Francisco. In an inning that featured a throw into center field and a poor throw at the plate, Dillon Gee gave up two earned runs. With the team throwing the ball around like a little league team, the runs were still earned. Take those two away, and Gee is on his way to slowly whittling down that ERA. Add em in, and he's still got that bad ERA. I guess it can happen when you put balls in play, but that's a subjective scoring decision that meant a difference in a few people's lives.

The funny thing is, baseball has all sorts of silly rules. Like the save rule, are you kidding me? Why three runs? Why are those three outs deemed so important when the three-four-five hitters might have come up in the eighth?

It goes on. So we'll name the tiers after the sillier rules and stats in baseball. This should be fun.

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

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

So we track when a batter makes contact in the field of play (most of the time, since you can get an RBI on a foul-out) and the ball is either cleanly fielded or not fielded at all, and it's not a double play, and there's a player on base and that player scores? We track that? And we hand out awards based on who does this a lot? Cool.

On July fourth, Craig Kimbrel gave up his first run in a month. He promptly started another scoreless run. If only he had more than one Kimbrel (three strikeouts, no base runners) this season we could really call him elite. (Joking.)

Mariano Rivera blew a save. Adam Jones hit a home run. These things happen. He's still got tons of leash, great rates and ratios (even if his strikeout rate is only about average for a late-game closer). "On pace for" stats are terrible, but he's still on pace to blow fewer saves than he did in 2011. Ageless wonder. Jason Grilli doesn't have the same leash or background, but with 61 strikeouts in fewer than 40 innings, we'll ignore a few bad games this month.

Old man Joe Nathan looks a little out of place here, but he's got a better strikeout rate than Rivera, hasn't walked a guy in nine appearances, is on a great team, and has blown only one save all year. He belongs.

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

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

Yeah we fetishize contact with runners on, and we also love this idea that getting the last three outs of a game are the most important. They often aren't. The correlation between saves and winning percentage is pretty low, too. Sure, if you have a good bullpen, it helps to win games. But sometimes that means having a great setup guy. If saves weren't already ridiculous enough, check out Edward Mujica's one-batter save last night: the team was four runs ahead, but the bases were loaded. Strange rule.

Grant Balfour is breaking Oakland consecutive games saved records once held by Dennis Eckersley. He's no Dennis Eckersley, but he's rock steady.

Do we have to start thinking about Greg Holland as an elite guy? The Royals' offense is improving, and he's thrown 20 strikeouts since his last walk. That includes two Kimbrels. He's really figured things out, and the only thing holding him back is his team. Still, with 22 saves… if he cracks 40 and continues to show this level of control, he'll overtake someone in that top tier.

It's not enough to really worry, but it is worth pointing out: Edward Mujica has a below-average strikeout rate for a closer. He's had 14 appearances without a K, and six of his last ten. That lines up with a bit of a shaky patch for him in late June and early July, and also with his career rates. He's also giving up his share of home runs like he always does, and throwing more than 50% split-fingers, which nobody does. It's like his fastball is his changeup, really. Anyway, he's had a great season, but he's not elite, and he allows more balls into play than your typical closer -- that could hurt him eventually.

Jansen replaces Janssen here, and that's what happens when you have *more than twice as many strikeouts* as the guy ahead of you in the rankings. He only has one more walk to boot. It's nice what Janssen has done, but these rankings are rest-of-season rankings. There's really no reason to doubt Kenley Jansen at this point -- other than the state of his team -- and his ratios are pristine.

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

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles

We're not talking about team wins here. Obviously those are important. You play to win the game. But pitcher wins? Those can be incredible. Pitch five innings! (Don't worry about what happens if no pitcher pitches five innings, we'll just give it to the reliever that happened to pitch when they scored a run to go ahead.) Have your teammates score enough runs to be ahead! (Don't worry about how many runs you gave up, at all, if your team is ahead.) Give all the credit for the win to one player! (Don't worry about the other 24 players and the coaching staff.)

Casey Janssen hasn't recorded a strikeout since June 22nd. He's struck out six in 11 June and July innings, and that's a bad rate. He was always a bit of a risk as a closer who barely cracks 90 and relies on control, but his owners are locked in and it probably doesn't matter that Sergio Santos is ready to come back after the All-Star break. He drops a tier just to reflect the fact that he's always been risky for strikeouts and isn't giving his owners that category right now.

Jonathan Papelbon will stay in the tier but drop some to reflect the trade risk. Detroit was the old rumor, Boston is the new one. He'd probably close in Detroit, but it's no lock that he would in Boston. If homers, strikeouts and walks are the things most under a player's control, Papelbon beats Koji Uehara in two categories, but not by much -- and he cedes the most important one (strikeouts) to the incumbent. Also, Boston's bullpen is fine, they don't need Papelbon as much as some other contenders. Still, there's a tiny bit of risk here. If he does go, it's Antonio Bastardo who's going to take the job, most likely. He's gotten the opportunities when Papelbon had to sit -- like last night.

Rafael Soriano's velocity continues to trend upwards but he only has one strikeout in his last six appearances. If he was having trouble finding the zone, we might worry about his health, especially since he's had elbow woes in the past, but other than the reduced strikeout rate, there's not yet a reason to worry about the state of his arm. Here's a weird thing: he's cut his slider usage in half. Research I've done suggests that sliders are rough on the arm.  Hmmmm….

Not only does Jim Johnson hurt you in terms of strikeouts -- only Rafael Soriano and Tom Wilhelmsen have a worse strikeout rate in the top 20 in saves this year -- but the lack of strikeouts means he allows more balls into play. Those can bounce any which way, and right now Johnson is having the second-worst luck of his career on batted balls. Add a five-year worst in walk rate, and you get what's going on this year. The saves are nice, but nothing else is, and with two blown saves since late June, the whispers about Tommy Hunter (or a trade) are coming out again.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Errors" Tier.)

Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Jose Veras, Houston Astros
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies

I understand the impetus with errors. We want to track good defense. We want to penalize bad defense. And so this stat is not as ridiculous as the others. But the stat creates rules that are very difficult, and very subjective, to enforce. Think about the slightly high throw that brings the first baseman to the tips of his toes (and sometimes off the bag). Think about the outfield dive, and the landing that jarred the ball loose. Think about the ball arriving to a glove, at the same time as a player. There are so many moments in baseball where it's incredibly hard to assign blame. And yet we do, and it impacts the statistics we keep, from pitcher wins to players' batting averages.

Fernando Rodney moves to the top of this tier! I'm as surprised as you, and I still own Jake McGee in a couple places. He only has five walks since the beginning of June, and if that doesn't sound impressive, he had four walks in one game in May. He hasn't blown a save since May either, and he seems to have survived the rocky stint. Even better is the knowledge that the Rays aren't likely to trade for a closer or trade their closer -- that's just not their style -- and that makes him safer than he's seemed most of this year. He's not going to help your WHIP, but he will get the Ks and SVs.

This is actually a decent little tier. In some ways, you could argue for many of these guys to be in the tier above. Koji Uehara has an elite combo of strikeout and walk rates. Joaquin Benoit has conquered his homeritis this season, apparently, and is back to being great. Steve Cishek found his control again, and Jose Veras found his control for the first time, on the back of a great first-strike rate. But that doesn't mean they don't have their question marks. Benoit could be replaced via trade, since it doesn't seem like his manager trusts him. Veras is on a bad team and has a looong history of bad control. Cishek is on a bad team. Uehara is on a team that has made three or four closer changes, depending on how you count them, and still owns the incumbent closer on the roster. Rodney is Rodney. I'd say those question marks are larger than those above. Kevin Gregg probably won't close... even in Detroit? He seems very likely to be traded, too.

Rafael Betancourt, though, is just moving through. His velocity is up a tick since he returned, but he has to prove that the wonky control -- worst of his career -- was a result of that groin situation, and not something in his arm or related to age. At least, he has to prove that to keep moving up. For now, he just has to show he's healthy to move up another tier.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Balk" Tier.)

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

Balks are useful. It would be very difficult to steal bases if the pitcher could halt his deliver at any time and throw to any base. I understand that we want some separation between throwing home and throwing to first. But even well-versed analysts and commentators have a hard time spotting balks and completely explaining the rule. But here we are, doomed to this nebulous cycle of pointing, yelling and then confused hand-wringing. DID HE BALK? I DON'T KNOW.

Chris Perez doesn't move up because I'm not convinced he's healthy. His fastball velocity is not back to where it was before he went down with shoulder issues and his walk rate is the second-worst of his career. He's better than this if he's healthy.

I'm convinced Huston Street is not healthy. He may say one thing, but his velocity is up and down and his whiff and strikeout rates have fallen off the map. He's had three straight clean appearances, but only one strikeout. Keep Luke Gregerson close (and even Dale Thayer in deeper leagues).

Can the Brewers trade Francisco Rodriguez already? He's not going to help them next year, and they need to get out in front of the trade market on this one. Scouts are already attending Brewers games, ready to pick the carcass. With two wild cards, true sellers are harder to find these days.

It's tempting to put J.J. Putz ahead of Heath Bell, as we have with Jim Henderson, to remind people that that's the most likely outcome. Since Putz lost his role, he's thrown 2 1/3 perfect innings and Heath Bell has pitched once and blown the save with a home run. In those outings, Putz has also shown improved velocity, velocity that lines up with his work early this season at least, if not the velocity he showed last year. Three clean outings aren't quite enough in my book, but with the way Heath Bell has looked, that might be all it takes. You know what, let's put Putz first.

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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

Ryan Madson is ready to start his rehab assignment! Big news. Might not matter to the closer's role in Anaheim, but it's big news for him. It's taken some time. Sergio Santos wants to come back after the break.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers

Andrew Bailey?

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The Steals Department

Last week, we reminded you that we've talked about Rajai Davis some, so this week, we'll remind you about Eric Young. And the reason for that, in particular, is that he might be moving from deep league consideration to mixed league worthiness. He's playing every day now, taking walks, getting hits, and most importantly, stealing bases. He stole a base in five straight games before last night. He's the left fielder, at least with Lucas Duda out, and there's probably a role for him once Duda returns, even. If the newly-returned Adam Eaton has more of a chance to have a role all year, with similar speed, and therefore has a higher ceiling, Eric Young has a higher floor: he's been here before, shown he can do it, and is producing now.

The outfield in Houston is a work in progress. Like a Jackson Pollock in progress. Looks like they're just throwing people against the wall and seeing who will stick. Right now, it looks like Brandon Barnes is the center fielder, most nights. And Jimmy Paredes is getting decent run, too. But Paredes is striking out too much and not running enough, while Barnes is playing good defense and has nine stolen bases on the season. (He strikes out too much too, but at least his balls in play are missing gloves.) The problem with Barnes is that the righty is decent against lefties but fairly terrible against righties. Justin Maxwell finally passed his concussion tests, and he might push Barnes into a platoon with Paredes in right. Maxwell is the most own able of the crew, but if you need steals in an AL-only type of league, they're all interesting. And super, super flawed.

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