Closer Changes At The Bottom

Eno Sarris

Gerrit Cole debuted last night, and it was pretty impressive. He was home and, and it was the Giants lineup (ducks), but he went past the sixth inning, struck out two and allowed two hits while hitting 99 on the radar gun. It was solid with glimpses of spectacular.

It wasn't quite Strasburgian, though. And that might be the standard for debuts in the Free Agency Era (since 1974). We all remember that game. I had a meetup at a local establishment -- first of many that I've hosted since -- and we watched Strasburg debut next to Giancarlo Stanton and we just marveled at greatness.

So let's do tiers based on starting pitcher debuts since 1974. We're looking for strikeouts, yes, but also how the team fared and how many runs and base runners the pitchers allowed.

It's basically what we're looking for in closers, just a little different.

Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "Stephen Strasburg" 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

Strasburg leads all post-1974 debuts in strikeouts, by two. 14 strikeouts and no walks in seven innings erases the two runs he gave up, especially since the team won. Delwyn Young hit a home run! So strange.

There's really no reason to move these guys around. Well, okay Jason Grilli moves up because his strikeout rate is better than the three behind him. But he's not quite Craig Kimbrel or anything. He does have three Kimbrels this year -- three strikeouts, no base runners in a save -- but he's not the guy who we named the stat after, not yet. Might be The Grilled Cheeses in a few years, but Grilli's age (36) suggests that he won't have the shelf life of the young Atlanta closer. (And I like Grilled Cheese, just saying.)

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

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

We could have taken Steve Woodard for the tier, since he struck out 12 and walked one and had a one-hitter through eight innings in his debut. We could have, but we know that he never got his seasonal ERA under four and never had a season like Matt Harvey is having now. Is that fair? Who knows. But Matt Harvey came out breathing fire in his debut, as he struck out 11 against three walks, no runs and three hits in five and a third. That'll do.

Addison Reed blew a save this week, but he's still got excellent walk and strikeout numbers and only two blown saves on the year. The White Sox, though, are not scoring any runs -- worst in the American League -- so Reed might not get much more than 30 saves this year. Still, he'll help everywhere else, and he has leash, since he's not the problem, and he's young, and even if the team looks to the future, they'll keep him around. You could actually say some of the same things (not the young stuff, the team stuff) about Jonathan Papelbon, since the Phillies are 11th in the National League in run scoring.

Grant Balfour has only struck out two (no walks) in his last six appearances, which is strange, but his overall numbers are still rock solid. Rafael Soriano's peripheral numbers are not rock solid -- his strikeout rate and velocity are at career lows. His whiff rate is still above average, though, so maybe he can right the ship. Drew Storen looks like the handcuff if you're getting nervous.

It's not time to grab Steve Delabar or anything -- he's got a terrible walk rate, and that could bite him in the butt -- but Casey Janssen isn't on the best of streaks. Maybe I got into his head when I asked him how a closer that barely cracks 90 and has a below-average whiff rate has such great numbers. He was gracious in the face of idiocy and explained to me that it's all about his command. You *can* see from his career walk rate (2.25 per nine) and this year's version (1.31 BB/9) that he can put the ball where he wants to. And it's tempting to totally believe in him when you hear him talk about finding the umpire's strike zone and placing the ball just another inch further. So we'll just call that blown save against Texas a blown save and nothing more, and leave him in this tier.

Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Johnny Cueto" Tier.)

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks

Remember Johnny Cueto? Dude had that crazy back turn in his delivery? Okay, it probably only *seems* like people forgot about him because of his injury-riddled season this year. Way back when in 2008, Cueto showed us what was to come by striking out ten, walking none, and allowing one hit and one run in seven innings. If not for the different strikeout rate, he might be second.

You shouldn't forget the closers in this tier, either. Greg Holland was about to move up to the second tier since he's actually improved his walk rate from last year and looks like a great closer. But then take a look at his first-pitch strikes and see that he's one of the worst in the league. That number explains half the variance in walk rate, so if he's not getting strike one even 50% of the time, he's shooting himself in the foot. League average is over 60%! A few more walks and the WHIP goes up closer to last year's number, and with the Royals struggling to win games, he's not a lock for much more than 30-35 saves either. Similarly, you can believe in Glen Perkins' numbers, but can you believe in his team. Ernesto Frieri, too, with the Ryan Madson asterisk.

Tom Wilhelmsen is officially worrying me. He still has an above-average whiff rate, but his strikeout rate is terrible for a closer. Jim-Johnson-esque. And there have been times when Wilhelmsen has lost fastball control -- when he first came to camp with the Mariners, they weren't sure he'd be able to manage his heater enough to contribute at all. So his rising walk rate is a little worrisome too. He's been scored on in three of his last five starts, and his clean slate save in June didn't have a strikeout in it. Carter Capps has the same velocity, way more strikeouts, and for once his bad WHIP has nothing to do with his control. He's been unlucky when it comes to homers and balls in play, and if those regress to league levels, Capps should easy show himself to be the better pitcher. It's not a red alert yet, but it's worth watching.

Jim Johnson doesn't drop because he got scored upon this week. Jim Johnson drops because there's no one number that you can point to as the cause of his troubles. This might just be who he is. His batting average on balls in play (.308) is a bit high, but not that bad. His ground-ball rate is at a three-year low, and though he has his strikeouts up over seven again (he's only managed that feat twice in his career), that's still a terrible strikeout rate for a closer. Maybe a little bit better luck on the bouncing ball will help his ERA sneak under four, but he doesn't really have a lot going for him other than saves totals, which is only one category.

Heath Bell is fine, but J.J. Putz is getting healthier and might be back by the end of the month. Enjoy -- and bank -- the free saves you got. Doubt he has much trade value.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (5) (AKA: The "Zach Duke" Tier.)

Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Jose Veras, Houston Astros
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

Zach Duke! He was left-handed! He seemed exciting! He threw seven innings in his debut and struck out nine batters! He gave up three runs and six base runners in seven innings, and his team lost, but still. Those were heady times for Duke. In his second start, Duke struck out eight against one walk. He never struck out more than seven again since and has been on a long slide to the bullpen. But those were the days.

This is a bit of a those were the days tier. I mean, Jose Valverde? Kevin Gregg? Fernando Rodney?

Bobby Parnell is atop the heap just because he has leash and gas. Of course, he's blown two saves in the past week, but I fully expect others in the tier to join in the fun shortly. The Tigers have enough punch to give their closer more save opportunities, which could be an argument for pushing Jose Valverde up higher in the rankings. But I just can't hang my hat on a guy whose velocity is at a nine-year low, and who's putting up a career-best walk rate without any peripherals to support the change. And then there is the matter of his two home runs allowed per nine innings, which is terrible, but probably unsustainable. Maybe if the homers calm down, and he still doesn't walk anyone, Valverde can move up.

Kevin Gregg has never shown a strikeout rate like this, and yet his whiff rate (average) fits right in. Kevin Gregg hasn't shown a walk rate like this since 2006 and yet his first pitch strike rate is terrible. He's probably unopposed in that bullpen, but the numbers will get worse, and Chicago probably won't give him a ton of save opportunities, and really couldn't you say the same thing about Jose Veras.

Fernando Rodney still has gas and a great changeup, even if his control disappeared. That was pretty obviously going to happen anyway. But a walk rate over seven screams for change even if he hasn't technically blown a save since the 25th of May. With every scoreless outing, Jake McGee lowers his season ERA and makes it easier for Rays management to sell the switch. Joel Peralta doesn't seem to have the trust of the team in that role. McGee is a lefty, and lefties don't usually close, and his that overall ERA isn't great, but there's no reason for him to give up home runs like this, and he has 96 mph gas. He's worth looking at in deeper leagues already.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Todd Van Poppel" Tier.)

Rex Brothers (first chair), Wilton Lopez (second chair), Colorado Rockies
Vinnie Pestano (first chair), Joe Smith (second chair), Cody Allen (third chair), Cleveland Indians
Luke Gregerson (first chair), Dale Thayer (second chair), San Diego Padres
Kenley Jansen (first chair), Brandon League (second chair), Los Angeles Dodgers
Jim Henderson (first chair), Francisco Rodriguez (second chair), John Axford (third chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Steve Cishek  (first chair), Mike Dunn (second chair), Miami Marlins

At this point, it's a little unfair to heap more on poor old Todd Van Poppel. He was supposed to be the future, and he failed fairly spectacularly. And there were seeds of that failure in his debut: He failed to get out of the fourth, and though he struck out nine, he gave up six runs on seven hits and a home run. He continued to give up too many home runs over the rest of his career, though there were two usable years in Chicago.

And I suppose that these guys have their uses, too. Sometimes, it's just for a short time. It looks like that's the case with Vinnie Pestano and Rex Brothers, but it's worth pointing out that Rafael Betancourt is old (38) and still receiving treatment on his groin, and Chris Perez has a problem with his shoulder, which is never ever a good thing. Given that Rex Brothers is younger and seemingly groomed for this role, I'd rather have him by a nose.

We'll take it slowly with Kenley Jansen in the rankings, but run don't walk to pick him up. If he doesn't struggle randomly in his first two attempts to save a game, he may keep the role this year. He should keep the role this year. The Dodgers should never have signed Brandon League. They didn't know his already low strikeout total would disappear. They should have known the ground-baller was ill-suited for closing work. Can't let the ball get into play, never know what will happen when it hits the dirt.

Jim Henderson returned to the end of that bullpen and promptly blew the save. Interesting to see John Axford in the seventh right before him, getting a hold, Axford has been much better recently. Francisco Rodriguez is supposedly a co-closer, on his way to 300 saves, but he's got 298. He's not better than Henderson. Oh and look! Miami won a game and it was Steve Cishek getting the call. Who knows if Mike Dunn was ever really the closer. That might just be one of those pens to avoid completely in mixed leagues. Some saves aren't worth the trouble.

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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
J.J. Putz (elbow), Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Perez (shoulder), Cleveland Indians
Huston Street (calf), San Diego Padres
Rafael Betancourt (groin), Colorado Rockies

Rafael Betancourt got platelets injected into his groin. This is my dream job. J.J. Putz threw a bullpen and is on his way back, and Huston Street begins a rehab assignment today. Chris Perez is done hanging out with his dog and ail be back in the Indians pen next week, supposedly. Ryan Madson is still throwing on flat ground.

The Deposed

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

Steve Cishek: forever on the cusp. Brandon League: we'll take a chance here.

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The Steals Department

Is Matt Joyce on your wire? He doesn't have a ton of speed, but he has stolen six in seven tries this year, and should end the season with double-digits in the category. Sometimes you can add speed by picking up players that won't take away in the category. Just remember that he's best suited for a platoon role, or as a bench outfielder in mixed leagues -- he's not great against lefties. Michael Brantley supposedly has more speed, but less power. Always a tradeoff. And Brantley only has five steals on the year. His career high in the big leagues is 13. I'd take the guy with 20-homer power and hope he can steal enough to make him worthwhile.

Rajai Davis played center field yesterday, and the Blue Jays could have used Colby Rasmus there. That means something! I could mean more playing time for Davis, who has been limited to playing against lefties in the corner outfield. If center is available to him, he could get more PT, and we know what he does with PT: SBs and almost nothing else. As long as he's not hurt, Gregor Blanco also deserves more credit. He stole 26 bases last year and could easily do it again, and with the league batting about .253 these days, his batting average doesn't hurt that much. And that's a MASH unit in San Francisco that needs him to play.

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