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Watching Gerrit Cole dominate the Texas Rangers in Arlington was a complicated moment. Cole, bringer of heat and drop, had lost the strikeout punch over the last year and a half. It didn't make sense with all of his nastiness that he was below the league average in that category. So I asked him about it, and he admitted: the Pirates wanted him to focus on the fastball and the ground ball. Fastball command, and in particular, using the sinker to get ground balls, is the Pirate Way. Recently, though, Cole has been throwing his breaking stuff more, and it's meant more strikeouts.
Which should mean death to opposing lineups in post-season play. But now the Pirates are considering using him as a reliever, which seems a shame.
Still, the whole thing makes you think about the young pitchers that stepped forward this year. Matt Harvey would be atop the list if it wasn't for his elbow ligament. Shelby Miller, Jose Fernandez, Cole… the list of formerly untested pitchers that blew away the league this year is fairly long. So let's spotlight a few of them as we name our tiers. It might help you make some keeper decisions in the coming offseason. So our tiers are named after starters under the age of 25, and how they might fare next season.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Shelby Miller" Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
The debate here in the first tier is between Shelby Miller and Jose Fernandez. Both have great fastballs and feature a curve-ish type secondary pitch primarily. But Fernandez calls his a slurve, and appropriately, his platoon splits are more worrisome. Sliders have worse platoon splits than curves, and Fernandez sees his walk rate double against lefties. Miller is two years older, yes, but he'll also see a full season next year, while Jose Fernandez will be shackled to 160+20% or so. Miller will get more wins. If we compare their changeups, it's possible Fernandez has a better one, but really both of them get an incomplete. The nod then goes to the guy with the 'true' curveball, and the better team. Even if year three might favor the Cuban, it's all about next year.
How can you decide between these closers, though? Greg Holland actually leads all relievers in Wins Above Replacement, thanks to his excellent home run rate paired with almost 14 strikeouts against two walks per nine. But Craig Kimbrel is right there and has five more saves -- plus he's been doing it longer. Aroldis Chapman leads qualified relievers in strikeout rate, and Kenley Jansen is second in the league in second-half strikeout rate. Only one name really has a shot at this crew -- Koji Uehara, who leads the league in reliever WAR and has ten strikeouts per walk. Still, he's a bit homer-prone for the American League and Boston in particular.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Gerrit Cole" Tier.)
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Gerrit Cole might have some competition here from Julio Teheran. After all, the Braves' rookie strikes out a full batter more than the Bucs' freshman, and both have elite control. But Cole is the one with a great ground-ball rate, and he also has four miles per hour of gas in pocket. All pitchers lose velocity as they age, so it's comforting to have a pitcher with great velocity as he starts his career. Cole has been throwing his secondary stuff more often, as we mentioned, and the strikeouts are coming. And if we're talking about their worst pitches, this is what Cole's changeup looks like. Fire. (Matt Moore's changeup is better, but he's already having owies in his elbow, and has bad control.)
Uehara moves up to the top for reasons aforementioned. Mariano Rivera has blown two saves in a row, but he struck out three of the eight batters he saw in the last one and got the win. He's probably okay. Joe Nathan stopped walking people, if you were worried. Still waiting for Edward Mujica's first strikeout of September -- he's struck out five since the beginning of August -- but that's okay because he's walked ONE guy since June ended.
Tier 3: Okay Options (6) (AKA: The "Patrick Corbin" Tier.)
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
This might upset some people, to have Patrick Corbin so low. His ERA is under three and he's looked sexy all year. But that doesn't mean there aren't cracks in the foundation. For one, Corbin spent the most time at any level in the minor leagues in Double-A, where he had a combined 3.84 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. Those aren't great numbers. He's known for his ground-ball ways, but his grounder rate this year was only 29th-best in the league. He got lucky on batted balls and "should" have had an ERA in the mid-to-high threes. But, hey, that's still pretty good. And he's a young man pitching in the National League, against a poor offensive division for the most part. He's a good keeper, as long as you're keeping more than eight.
Here's something that sorta shows what I'm talking about with Jim Johnson. I know WAR isn't the best for relievers, but let's say Johnson gets to 50 saves, he won't be in elite company by the stat. In fact, he'll probably show the worst WAR among that crew -- and he'll also be third-worst in the group. Rod Beck and his one-win 51-save 1998 season will be sandwiched in between. He just doesn't do the things normal elite closers do. On the other hand, Casey Janssen must have heard us talking crap about him, because he has five strikeouts in his last four appearances and has generally been better with the K since the calendar turned from August. Here's something strange that happened when I checked his velocity charts: he's been all over the place. Maybe he's hiding an injury?
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question Marks (7) (AKA: The "Jarrod Parker" Tier.)
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Jarrod Parker has a beautiful changeup. I've always felt that way. He throws 92, and he has good control. He's not a fly ball guy. So why the hate? Despite an above-average swinging strike rate, Parker just can't seem to strike batters out at a league-average rate. He's almost 400 innings into this career and has fewer than seven strikeouts per nine. In fact, his peripherals seem to suggest an ERA over four is in the cards. His home park will help to calm things down, but he's not going to be a great road start if this is how his peripherals are going to look going forward. Chris Tillman might be even worse -- his swinging strike rate is below average, he doesn't get ground balls, his control is meh, and his home park isn't great for pitchers. Wait. Maybe Tillman should be here.
I considered moving Rex Brothers up to the next tier, but it's not like he's getting many more save opportunities than Addison Reed, for example. Both of them have one save in the last two weeks. Both have two opportunities. And while Reed has excellent control, Rex Brothers has walked four in the last three outings (two innings) against two strikeouts. And that's a risk with Brothers, who has struggled with control his whole career. On the whole, Danny Farquhar has been excellent with his new velocity, but moving him after he blew a save against Houston, of all teams, seems like poor timing. Really, it's Ernesto Frieri that is closest to ascending. He's walked two guys since the beginning of August, and that's progress for him. He might have even put himself in the mix to continue closing next year. And while Jonathan Papelbon's velocity chart screams injury, it's Huston Street's that looks like he's gotten healthy. Strange days.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (6) (AKA: The "Jeff Locke" Tier.)
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
Mark Melancon (first chair), Jason Grilli (second chair), Pittsburgh Pirates
LaTroy Hawkins (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Blake Parker (third chair), Chicago Cubs
Josh Fields (first chair), Chia-Jen Lo (second chair), Kevin Chapman (third chair), Houston Astros
Jeff Locke doesn't do anything right by the peripherals. His swinging strike rate is below-average. His walk rate is the worst in the league among qualified starters. Well, okay, his ground-ball rate is above-average. But he's gotten lucky on home runs, too. Everything about his peripherals screams "four ERA and a bad WHIP" while he's just shown the bad WHIP so far this season. This guy won't be drafting that guy next season, is what I'm saying.
Brad Ziegler has developed a platoon-busting changeup, and I talked about it with him some last week. He thinks it's the main reason his platoon splits have ironed out a bit this year. J.J. Putz is dealing with a hole in his finger, and even if he comes back, has Ziegler given the team a reason to make the change? Both guys are with the team next year, too. Putz might not be worth waiting around for.
Jason Grilli is back, and his velocity is creeping up on where it used to be. But it's not there yet. And both the player and the manager are saying that he's not ready yet. On the other hand, grilled cheese was so good all year, and the team is headed to the postseason one way or the other, so the team is likely to put Grilli back in. But will it be this week or a few days before the season ends? Mark Melancon owners want to know, and I don't have an answer. I might hold him for another week, but if saves aren't that important to you, maybe it's time to move on to streaming starting pitchers instead. It's not like either pitcher was exceptionally sharp Tuesday night.
Gonzalez Germen was supposed to get some saves. Instead, nobody did.
Pedro Strop was supposed to get some saves. Instead, he got holds. He's still one of the last great saves speculation pickups out there. Despite his terrible walk rate. Just because the Cubs have to think about next year.
The Astros have a closer! Maybe! Probably! Josh Fields has 93+ mph velocity and good enough swinging strikes to be the closer, and his walk rate is better than Strop's. If the homers stop leaving the yard, he might even survive until next season. In the meantime, he's just your standard worst closer in the league.
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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Rafael Betancourt (elbow), Colorado Rockies
Bobby Parnell (neck), New York Mets
Bobby Parnell got the surgery. That makes everyone.
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jose Veras, Detroit Tigers
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks
Still waiting on Kevin Gregg. Did Chia-Jen Lo actually own the role long enough to be considered Deposed? I think not.
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The Steals Department
Taking a look at the streaming situation this week, it looks like the Angels, Red Sox and Twins are the teams to target. Let's break this up into deep and shallow league speed streamers, shall we.
Probably the best speed-only shallow-league streamer is Jonathan Villar, who finishes the weekend against the Angels and Chris Iannetta, who is not good at throwing out base runners. Unfortunately, Villar is not good at making contact. Robbie Grossman is a better hitter, but a worse base-stealer, depending on your needs. The Yankees boast the ageless wonder Ichiro Suzuki, and if Brett Gardner is not on your wire, it's the future Hall of Famer that can give you the best combination of batting average and steals. (Villar is probably a true-talent .220 hitter.) The Twins head to the Rays late in the week and Brian Dozier may not be a great asset in batting average -- he hits too many pop-ups to have a good batting average on balls in play -- but he does have power and speed, and the Rays can't throw base runners out.
Deep leaguers are always screwed at this point in the season, when the wire is barren. If you can take a leap of faith on Jackie Bradley Jr., and hope that he takes most of the playing time with Jacoby Ellsbury in a boot, then you might have your best option. Alex Presley is getting some burn in the Twinkies' center field, and he has some speed. Otherwise you're stuck trying to figure out that Houston outfield. Maybe you take a chance on Brandon Barnes against a lefty, or L.J. Hoes, who is better all around. Good luck hunting.