Yesterday, I had what purported to be a Pittsburgh-style sandwich -- sweet sausage, coleslaw, vinegar, cheese and fries on white bread. Of course, I had that sandwich in San Francisco, and I haven't hung out in Pittsburgh much (ever), so I can't comment on the authenticity of said sandwich. I can, however, comment on its deliciousness, which was bold and decisive.
Here comes the segue.
I love sandwiches, but anything with sausage in it gets a thumbs up. In a similar way, I love pitchers, but every pitcher is better with velocity. We can love pitcher's breakers, and we can love their finesse. We can love all the outlier Greg Maddux types, and we can wonder at the marvel that is Jered Weaver still winning games, sitting around 87. Jamie Moyer! Sergio Romo! We can love these guys, yes.
But we must remember that there is a direct, linear relationship between velocity and runs allowed. Each mile per hour on the radar gun is worth a fifth of a run in terms of run prevention -- we're talking runs allowed, not earned runs allowed, but the idea is similar -- and so there's no disputing the fact that velocity is really important across baseball. And among closers, velocity and the associated strikeouts are the only things that I've seen causally linked to closer change. So the radar gun really is important.
That said, pitchers start to lose velocity from the day they debut in the league. Take a look at that aging curve! There is no upward slope on velocity. Once you're born, you begin dying.
Not everyone loses velocity at the same... velocity, though. Let's take a look at the early fastball velocity changes among the top relievers. Fastball velocity usually takes about three appearances to stabilize, so we're not all the way there yet with all of these guys, but if your reliever is showing reduced gas, especially if it's over a mph, I'd worry. It probably means something. (There's less than a mph difference from April to July, when velocities peak.) Here are the most relevant relievers, sorted by velocity loss:
|Pitcher||SV||G||IP||K/9||BB/9||ERA||FIP||FBv 14||FBv 13||Diff|
Let's name the tiers after sausages!
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Bratwurst” Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
I'm German. Well, I'm German-Jamaican-American, but I haven't seen jerk chicken sausage yet. So bratwurst reigns supreme, especially if you've got dirty mustard and sauerkraut on it. Speaking of dirty, all of these guys. Take a look at that table above... Kenley Jansen has actually put on velocity! One of the very few. Perhaps his story -- a converted catcher with fewer miles on his arms than others -- means he's not your typical pitcher. None of these guys are typical, but the rest of the tier has lost velocity like most pitchers in baseball.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The “Sweet Sausage“ Tier.)
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Sweet sausage is so very good too. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, think -- on the most commercial level -- Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. And then pass me the plate so I can eat some more.
I was tempted to move up Trevor Rosenthal, but then he fell apart on the mound. Though I suppose two walks and two singles is not such a big deal, especially since he's gotten right back on the horse since. I still love him.
If you're worried about some of these guys in this tier, so am I. The list of closers you can really rely on is shrinking by the minute. Glen Perkins is down almost three miles per hour on his fastball, and that's not great. He can survive at 92+, but will he thrive? Will he still contribute double-digit strikeout rates? Sergio Romo being down is one thing -- he's been just below 90 for a while now, but Joe Nathan barely cracking 90 is bad news. What you have here, despite the list of questions, is a good group of relievers that don't really have anyone behind them pushing them for the job. They either have long track records or fresh contracts that speak to their leash. And, for the most part, they're on good teams that will hand them slightly above-average save chances.
Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Chicken Apple Sausage” Tier.)
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
To some extent, I'm a purist. So Chicken Apple sausage fails that test. But, it's sweet, it's slightly healthier, and it gets the job done. You could say the same about these guys.
Given the average strikeout rate of the top closers -- just look at all the double digits at the top of the table above -- it takes a lot to jump into the top ten at the position. Grant Balfour was exactly average last year, and that was before he lost two ticks on his fastball and was deemed damaged goods by at least one organization. Tommy Hunter won't strike out ten per nine, but at least it looks like there's no real competition for his job in that pen. Steve Cishek is good, but the Marlins won't give him many save chances, he's down below 90 right now on the gun, and he's never struck out ten per nine. Joakim Soria is showing a good strikeout rate now, and does have a great arsenal despite middling velocity, but there's really only been one year on his resume that featured an above-average strikeout rate for a closer.
No, if anyone moves out of this tier next, it's probably one of the top two. Ernesto Frieri has a long history of great strikeout rates, and this year he's pumping in first strikes. First strike rate is the best peripheral associate with walk rates, so that's great news. His velocity looks good, and his home park should suppress homers. Addison Reed's velocity has rebounded from a one-year dip, so he might finally fulfil the promise of his eye-popping minor league numbers. The weaker league helps every pitcher.
Tier 4: Question Marks (5) (AKA: The “Italian Spicy Sausage” Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
John Axford, Cleveland Indians
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
I'm not super keep on spicy sausages, and some Italian spicies get too hot to handle. Papelbon used to be like that. Now he's gone from 95 mph in 2011 to barely cracking 91 this season. His slider breaks like a slider but goes curve speed. He looks like he's in trouble. John Axford's velocity is down, too. And his control is lacking. Not only is he failing to get strike one at an average rate, but he's also not getting anyone to reach outside the zone at his current velocity. I'd have Cody Allen and Antonio Bastardo within arm's reach if I owned those two.
In the middle of the tier are a bunch of relievers I don't trust at all but who haven't yet shown how disasterful they can be. Fernando Rodney is ready to lose the zone at any minute, and he's lost more velocity than anyone on this list -- BUT! his velocity was up last night, so maybe he's just getting back on the horse. Huston Street can't crack 89 these days! Jose Veras went from his career-best first strike rate to his career-worst so far this year, and that's just cruel to his owners.
At the bottom of this tier are two that will make you scratch your head, perhaps. But these are the two guys that I've liked better than anyone in all of my drafts. I don't trust Casey Janssen, and shoulders can take all year to heal. Santos has more gas and Ks even with they're both healthy, and his slider has been excellent recently. Rex Brothers is a better pitcher than Latroy Hawkins. Wait until all those balls in play sink Hawkins, and you won't own the Rockies closer because he'll be on my team.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (6) (AKA: The “Chorizo” Tier.)
Matt Lindstrom (first chair), Nate Jones, (second chair) Chicago White Sox
Jonathan Broxton (first chair), Manny Parra (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Francisco Rodriguez (first chair), Jim Henderson, (second chair) Milwaukee Brewers
Chad Qualls (first chair), Josh Fields (second chair), Houston Astros
Shawn Kelley (first chair), Adam Warren (second chair), New York Yankees
Jose Valverde (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
I like sausage so much that I'll eat chorizo, particularly ground up in my eggs with tortilla and beans in the morning. But every once in a while you hit that crunchy bit and wonder what the heck is in chorizo, and it can get spicy, and grainy... just not my favorite.
Nobody on this list is my favorite. Well, I actually have loved Shawn Kelley in holds leagues all year, and have tons of shares of him because of it. But I believe the Yankees when they say Dave Robertson will only be out for a short while with the groin thing. And I love Nate Jones... when he's healthy. And with teams keeping their young reliever cheap by keeping them out of the closer's role, I'm unsure if maybe the White Sox will just Joe Borowski it up with Matt Lindstrom this year (Lindstrom is better than Joe Borowski, but you get my drift). I love Manny Parra, too, who has the weapons to overcome his left-handedness, but his manager said that after a few outings, it's Jonathan Broxton in the role. And I still have a place in my heart for Jim Henderson -- I know his velocity is down almost three ticks, but he's still got more velocity now than a sub-90 mph K-Rod, so if he can get the whiffs back, I like him better than the guy currently getting saves. Henderson was also over 95 in his last appearance, go get him.
So it's a little problematic that I like more of the second chair guys than first chair guys in this tier. I mean, you saw Jose Valverde load up the bases on Tuesday night. That's not going to last long, and it's not going to be Kyle Farnsworth at 91 mph. The Mets want to be competitive soon, so I think it'll be Gonzalez Germen or Jeurys Familia eventually. Familia was supposed to be the Closer of the Future, and has the gas, but he might be further away. Gonzalez Germen has the changeup with the most whiffs in baseball, a little more velocity than he had last year, and a good slider to boot. A few more good outings in the seventh and eighth may change things.
Okay, I like one incumbent here, sorta. Chad Qualls doesn't have the velocity, but not only do the Astros have no reason to make Josh Fields more expensive, but Josh Fields has many many issues. So I like Qualls a bit. Just not his team.
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Aroldis Chapman (face), Cincinnati Reds
Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros
Casey Janssen (shoulder, back), Toronto Blue Jays
David Robertson (groin), New York Yankees
I'm guessing the minimum for Robertson. Casey Janssen won't be back on Sunday, but he's throwing bullpens. Worth watching. Bobby Parnell is out for the year after having TJ surgery. Aroldis Chapman is playing catch! Great news.
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Okay I'll put Jim Henderson here, but I still like him a bit. And K-Rod couldn't get a deal and can't crack 91 these days. Just sayin'.
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The Steals Department
Obviously Dee Gordon and Emilio Bonifacio are super popular right now. And we haven't been big fans here, other than a few mentions. That's because these are two hopelessly flawed players. Neither takes a walk or has any power to speak of. Both are pretty terrible with the glove. They both strike out more than a slap hitter with speed should. Both have unsustainable batting averages on balls in play. If forced to choose one, I'll choose Bonifacio. He has slightly more patience, and is being asked to play center field, both things that he should be able to manage going forward. I'd rather have more complete players like Angel Pagan, Charlie Blackmon and Brad Miller on my team, even if it means fewer stolen bases. Those players are a little more likely to provide their real-life team with more complete value, and my fantasy team with five categories of goodness.
As for the deep leagues, it's hard for me to know how deep you guys want me to go. In 16-18 teamers, I still like Abraham Almonte. I don't think he'll continue to strike out this way, and he's got the starting job there in Seattle. I believe in Marcell Ozuna's bat more than the bat of Juan Lagares, who's glove I would take into my bed with me if I could. Lorenzo Cain is healthy! Why not own him while he's healthy? He's practically free! But when it comes to even deeper leagues, those where everyone is owned, you have to look for slight changes in depth charts. I love Aaron Hicks in OBP leagues, but now with Oswaldo Arcia headed to the DL, the really deep leaguers might be able to enjoy some Jason Bartlett out there in in the field. Jason Kubel probably shouldn't see a lot of time in the field these days. If Josh Hamilton's thumb is really hurt, J.B. Shuck and Colin Cowgill might share that outfield spot, and it's Shuck that is left-handed and has a bit of speed. Good luck!