Cycling Through the Closers

Eno Sarris

Trout hit for the cycle last night, perhaps you heard. Like a fish riding a bicycle, it was a fairly rare feat. Well, about as rare as the no-hitter, since it's happened fewer than 300 times in MLB history.

Which means there are rarer things! Let's name the tiers after rarities. Because these days, it seems like the closer you own all year without any hiccups or doubt is a real rare gem.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Back-to-Back No-Nos" Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

Johnny Vander Meer is the only man to ever manage this feat. In 1938. Baseball averages about two per season, and in 1938 one man did it twice. Pretty awesome.

All the guys on this list are pretty awesome, even if Aroldis Chapman did eat 13 Cuban pastries in one setting and then blow a save last week. That was a pretty bizarre game anyway: Delmon Young walked (!), then Cliff Lee ran for him (!), then Cliff Lee was caught stealing (!), then Erik Kratz tied the game with a bomb off Chapman (!), and then Freddy Galvis (!) won the game with a home run (!) and Chapman blew the save (!). Sometimes things happen (!!!).

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Grand Slam on First Major League Pitch" Tier.)

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies

Kevin Kouzmanoff is the only man to ever do this. But it's not quite as meaningful as the back-to-back no-nos. It requires a lot of luck for a rookie making his debut to get a pitch with the bases loaded -- and then jack it out. Kouzmanoff had a little help from Edinson Volquez that day, too.

Yeah Tom Wilhelmsen blew a save Monday. And yeah it was his fault. But not because of a pitch he threw. He just blew the coverage. After dropping the ball while covering first base and letting the Indians back into the game, he recovered and let Charlie Furbush finish blowing the game for the Mariners. What a tough series they had in Cleveland. At least fantasy managers probably noticed that it's Carter Capps that's now the clear-cut 8th-inning guy and Wilhelmsen handcuff. Not that he really needs one, but that's nice to know.

Jason Grilli almost blew a save. I'm not so worried, he's still got excellent velocity and peripherals. Jim Johnson blew a few saves. I won't drop him in the rankings yet, but it's worth noticing that Darren O'Day is probably next in line -- O'Day was used in the eighth, and that's usually the best sign. But velocity goes to Pedro Strop, who throws about eight miles per hour faster than O'Day. Then again, Strop is walking about two batters every three innings, and that's probably why he's not pitching the eighth inning. Johnson just had a bad couple of days, although that can happen when you allow too many balls into play.

What do we do about ranking Rafael Betancourt? His peripherals suggested he could be hurt, but now it's "just" a sore groin. He's undergoing an MRI today, and the results will either mean he misses a couple days, and should stay in this tier probably, or he's out for two weeks, and should drop. Rex Brothers has the velocity and strikeout rate, and the usage pattern favors him, too. He's next in line.

Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Perfect Game" Tier.)

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

23 perfect games. And Phillip Humber has one. Seriously.

Look at the low-velocity leaders of the tier! They both have excellent control overall, but I'm still a little nervous about moving them up further in the rankings. Neither has an above-average strikeout rate among closers, for one. And Casey Janssen doesn't crack 90 on the gun, while Edward Mujica is throwing the split finger a whopping 64% of the time. That pitch doesn't have a great strike percentage -- if batters decide to look fastball and not swing at the split-finger… let's just say there's some danger there, as awesome as everything looks right now. Three hits in his last ten outings! No walks! Maybe I'm crazy to be worried at all.

Glen Perkins blew a save yesterday, but it doesn't seem like a big deal. It was a game-tying solo job to Evan Gattis. Just a lousy home run in a tight spot. He had two strikeouts and no walks otherwise. But he does move down a bit in the tier because his low-scoring team doesn't look like they're going to provide him a ton of save opportunities.

Chris Perez deserves a dirty look. He would have blown two games in the Seattle series if his teammates hadn't picked him up. It's worth noticing that his whiff rate is back down to worse than his career rate, his control is wonky once again, and now he's giving up more than two home runs per nine innings. His ERA and WHIP looking fine, but there's some nastiness under the hood. Career-low fastball velocity probably doesn't help. Vinnie Pestano's numbers aren't quite what they used to be when we started touting him over Perez (man it's been a long time), but he's probably next in line still.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Cycle and the No-Hitter" Tier.)

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks
Huston Street, San Diego Padres

Hey, they've both happened about 300 times. Not quite a yawn, but in the context of this list… congratulations to Mike Trout, that was a great feat.

Jim Henderson's story is great too, but very different than the wunderkind's. The 30-year-old found control late in his career and had a great (old) rookie season last year. Now he's refined that control even further, and his fastball is still leaving his hand at close to 95 miles per hour. John Axford has been pitching better recently, but with Hendo pitching the way he is, there's no reason to make a change.

On strikeouts and talent, Ernesto Frieri could be a tier ahead. He's got a double-digit strikeout rate, his team should give him saves, and he's not old or broken or old and broken like the trio behind him in the tier. That said, he's walking more than two for every three innings he pitches, and Ryan Madson is going to report to rehab this week. You have to think his old-school manager is a little nervous with all the walks.

Andrew Bailey is back, but his manager won't use him on back-to-backs right away, so maybe we can Junichi Tazawa that first save he deserves. How useful it was to call that Tazawa would be closer! He got one opportunity and blew it. He's still next in line -- the Koji Uehra save came after Tazawa threw a lot of pitches in a back-to-back -- and he might still get enough opportunities to make him useful in deep leagues. Bailey jumps a tier for his re-introduction because he has more leash than your average 'new' closer.

I can't hold my suspicions against Heath Bell much longer. His strikeout and walk rates are once again Heath-Bell-ian, and though his swinging strike rate is not quite vintage, and his velocity is at a career-low, it's not like David Hernandez is beating down the door. I'm not sure how much farther up the list Bell will go -- see the flaws above -- but his resurgence is another notch in Kevin Tower's notchful belt of reliever reclamation projects.

Huston Street's peripherals still suggest he's broken somehow. I'd be nervous.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Mutliple Golden Sombreros Tier.)

Fernando Rodney (first chair), Joel Peralta (second chair), Tampa Bay Rays
Kenley Jansen (first chair), Brandon League (second chair), Los Angeles Dodgers
Jose Valverde (first chair), Joaquin Benoit (second chair), Bruce Rondon (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Steve Cishek (first chair), A.J. Ramos (second chair), Mike Dunn (third chair), Miami Marlins
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Kyuji Fujikawa  (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Jose Veras (first chair), Hector Ambriz (second chair), Houston Astros

Once again, we're in the low 300s for players that have struck out more than four times in one nine-inning game twice in their careers. But since it's a bad thing, it makes sense for them to lead this tier. Amazingly, it's not Dave Kingman atop this list. Bo Jackson had 17 such games and wow. Just another way Bo Jackson can make you shake your head.

I was prepared to put Joel Peralta in the first chair this week, but he's gotten two holds since he got his save, and he struggled in one of them. He's still getting his whiffs, and his overall rates, ratios and velocities look normal, and he's the eighth-inning guy most nights, but this team hasn't ever trusted him in the ninth for an extended period of time. Jake McGee has more velocity, but had struggled until a recent stretch of better control, and is a lefty. This is a murky situation, but Peralta is worth a speculative (cheap) add if you're looking for saves and aren't dropping anyone of note. Saves and Steals readers saw this one coming a mile away.

There was some grumbling that Kenley Jansen should have debuted on a higher tier -- and I do love him, so I heard it loud and clear -- but his last week serves as a reminder why I tend to have new closers debut in the bottom tier. Those last two appearances resulted in losses, and one of them even featured two home runs. It looks like Brandon League is back in the role, but we'll see. Because I like Kenley Jansen's stuff more, I'll leave him in the lead spot as we read the tea leaves. But League should be owned in saves leagues.

I still don't trust Jose Valverde. His walk rate is bad, his swinging strike rate is bad, and all of his luck statistics are through-the-roof good. His velocity is down again off his career worst, and his manager has already told him to get lost in a big moment. Is Brian Wilson healthy yet?

The Marlins went to a bullpen by committee and nobody noticed. But the tree in that empty forest, Steve Cishek, is still worth owning. Those of you in deeper dynasty leagues should look at A.J. Ramos. His velocity is only a tick worse than Mike Dunn's, he's being used in the eighth in close games, and he's not a lefty like Dunn. He's got four or five pitches, decent control, and gets whiffs. He's an interesting young reliever, and even those in deeper redrafts should be looking at him right now.

Still don't believe in Kevin Gregg. Despite his nice strikeout and walk rates right now, it's only 11 innings, and the peripherals don't support those numbers. His swinging strike rate, velocity, first-strike rate, and reach rate are all sub-par. I've found these peripherals to be the best correlated with strikeout and walk rates in my research, and none of them support what he's doing right now. It's nice that he's added a splitter, but Kyuji Fujikawa has one too, and his peripherals are better across the board.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Santos (elbow), Toronto Blue Jays
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
J.J. Putz (elbow), Arizona Diamondbacks

Ryan Madson is going to hit rehab this week. Everyone else save J.J. Putz is done for the year. I think J.J. Putz will be done for the year eventually. I am not a doctor. Rafael Betancourt might be here next week.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals

Mitchell Boggs is back in the bigs but his problems remain. John Axford has been pitching well again, but the guy in front of him has been better.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Steals Department

Need steals in a shallow league? How about this dude named Mike Trout? Just kidding. He's a bum anyway. Assuming Brett Gardner is not available -- he does have forty-steal upside, he's proven that -- you might want to look into a platoon guy if you're in a daily league. Leonys Martin only faces righties, but he's percolating a little (.344 batting average over the past two weeks), and more importantly, he's starting to steal bases (five steals over the same time frame). He's a strange player because he's strong and fast, but he may not be really quick and skilled in a baseball fashion. He'll show average power, but once you correct for his platoon play, he might not hit more than ten home runs. He'll steal some bases, but once again, probably not more than 20. Then again, .280/10/20 is a really decent filler guy. Put him on your bench and slot him in when Andre Ethier is facing a lefty, or when your starters aren't playing. He'll help you tread water.

Here's the deep league part of The Steals Department, where we hold our nose and pick up a flawed player for stats we need. It looks like Pedro Florimon has taken the shortstop role in Minnesota for his own, and he has some wheels. He's stolen 10-20 bases every year -- once you combine the levels -- and he's nabbed six this year without a caught stealing. He's even bettered his contact rate, so he could actually hit as high as .260 in the batting average department. He probably won't hit more than five or six home runs on the year, but see the first sentence. He might actually steal 20 bags this year, and he's a warm body. He's even walking a little more than usual, so the runs total could be less than odious.

What to Read Next