Like the rash of Tommy John surgeries that fell upon the starters in spring training, we had a stink bomb of change dropped on the bullpens around the league in the first couple games of the year. You may not be excited to hear it, but I’m holding on to a couple of relievers that ostensibly lost their jobs this week. The why is coming.
There’s been a lot of research on closers and what predicts closer changes. Here’s a list of the things that do NOT predict closer change, by the numbers:
Well that shuts down much of the closer analysis you’ll read on other sites. And, to be fair, I stray into this every once in a while. I mean, you hear managers talking about experience closing, it doesn’t seem crazy to think that it’s relevant. But it isn’t predictive, so it’s something I try to avoid.
Here’s the full list of things that I have seen linked to closer change:
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So, when you see me trying to find my way in the murky sea of iniquity that is predicting closer changes, this is my anchor, this is the thing I’ll fall back on. Well, that and the fact that managers prefer righty closers to lefties. You may want me to be more certain, or talk about things on the list above, or pick the guy that most people are picking. But nah. I might even go against what the manager said, because how many times have you heard the manager give a closer the kiss of death known as his vote of confidence right before giving him the hook?
(The tiers are named after starters that I liked as undervalued in each tier going into the season. Even the fifth tier guys are interesting to me, but you always have to make sure you don’t get too excited and drop a veteran for the shiny new toy, so ranking helps.)
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale” Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
I can’t imagine what would happen in the first week that would change what you think about these pitchers. I guess Stephen Strasburg’s velocity being down a bit (he sat 93 instead of 96, but was that really a big deal?) could move the needle, but I’m still hopeful for a full healthy season and personal bests in innings pitched (and therefore wins and Ks ).
And these closers? They’re still great! The only news that might matter at all is that Brian Wilson is hurt, which might mean that J.P. Howell moves up closer to handcuff status despite his complete lack of fastball velocity. Paco Rodriguez is a lefty, after all. Maybe Chris Withrow’s big fastball is relevant in holds leagues.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole“ Tier.)
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics
Don’t ask me to tell you about the ways I love Gerrit Cole. Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of Sonny Gray live, interviewed him twice last year and came away impressed each time, and still chose to put my gentleman’s wager with Lawr Michaels on Gerrit Cole — Cole started throwing his secondary stuff more in the second half last year and his strikeout rate spiked. And he has a plus breaker along with a plus change and plus fastballs and plus command and yeah. I’ll stop now.
I love a lot of these guys, too, and I ended up shopping in this section. Glen Perkins, David Robertson, Joe Nathan, Trevor Rosenthal — these guys are in a mini-tier of guys that will give you double-digit strikeout rates, are fairly secure in their jobs, and (for the most part) on good teams that will give you good save opportunities. (And by good I mean they score runs, because that’s the only thing I found that was related to save opportunities on a team level.)
Jim Johnson didn’t do well in his first try, but he’s always let balls into play. We knew that about him. He was still around 95 mph, at least. The walk and the hit batter were concerning, but he’s been good for a long time in that regard. Give the dude a bit of time, says the guy that’s been accused of being down on him for his bad strikeout rate all this time.
Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Marco Estrada and Andrew Cashner” Tier.)
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Like Gerrit Cole, Andrew Cashner made a big change last year and his strikeout rate surged. He ditched his regular slider for his knuckle slider (which was harder and faster) and the whiffs returned. Give that guy with that velocity and that command and a decent change a hard biting knuckle slider and you’ve got one of the best cheaper aces in baseball. Marco Estrada only throws about 91, and so he gives up homers, but he has excellent control, and his change-up had one of the best whiff rates in baseball last year. He’s good.
This tier might have seen some change except Addison Reed jumped right back on the horse Tuesday night and showed why the D-backs traded for him. 94 on the corners, a great slider that he can put where he wants… he’ll be fine.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question Marks (5) (AKA: The “Dan Straily and Alex Wood” Tier.)
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
John Axford, Cleveland Indians
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs
Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
These starters -- Dan Straily and Alex Wood -- might actually be free agents in some of your leagues, but they shouldn’t be. They both have complete arsenals that that should be immune to platoon splits, and they both pitch in good home environments. Long-term, there might be questions about their ability to stay healthy (Wood’s delivery looks like a toddler melting down on the mound) or withstand the velocity loss that comes with age (Straily’s fastball is more 92 than 94 these days).
There is some good news in this tier. Joakim Soria looked good in getting the win Tuesday night. Fernando Rodney didn’t walk a man in his Seattle debut. Sergio Santos — who we loved here last week and called one of the best setup man pickups in ball — struck out three and was successful in his first save chance.
But, for many of the guys that moved into this tier, it was more a matter of context rather than good work on their behalf. After all, Huston Street didn’t crack 90 in his first outing. The Cubs and Rockies haven’t given their guys save chances yet, so we haven’t had a chance to test our assertion about Rex Brothers being the guy. And though Tommy Hunter got the save, he gave up a hit and had a man in scoring position in a tight game, and it didn’t look like dominance. He moves up mostly because there’s no good contender in that pen. Sure, Ryan Webb is decent, and if they went to a strict platoon closer, Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz could do a ROOGY/LOOGY thing and only face same-handed hitters. But, even with Hunter’s problems against lefties, there no more complete option in that pen. He’s a tier above the newly-minted closers other than Sergio Santos, who has the gas and strikeouts to keep the job even when/if Casey Janssen returns.
Matt Lindstrom (first chair), Nate Jones, (second chair) Chicago White Sox
Francisco Rodriguez (first chair), Jim Henderson, (second chair) Milwaukee Brewers
J.J. Hoover (first chair), Manny Parra (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Chad Qualls (first chair), Josh Fields (second chair), Houston Astros
Jose Valverde (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Now we come to the disappointments. Well, I love Jenrry Mejia and Tyler Skaggs some. They both have big honking asterisks, though — Mejia has never managed more than 109 innings and Skaggs was down to 89 mph with bad control last year. But! Mejia ditched his curve for a slider and now has three excellent pitches, velocity, and enough command to make almost a strikeout per inning and 50% ground balls work. In a half season. Skaggs? He cleaned up his mechanics and is back up to 93, but still with iffy command. I like these guys still.
And I still like Nate Jones and Jim Henderson. In fact, I opted to keep them in a couple leagues with short benches rather than swap them out with Matt Lindstrom and Francisco Rodriguez. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but in the long run I think their velocity and strikeouts will win over the blah veterans that took the jobs in front of them.
I know Francisco Rodriguez was once great, but his velocity is down and he’s throwing a lot of junk these days to keep his strikeout rate high. He’s a homer risk. Jim Henderson’s velocity is down, yes, and his mechanics are off, and his team has moved him out of the role for now. But at 93.5, he’s only a tick off his 95 mph velocity last year. Between April and August, pitchers gain almost a full tick on average, so it’s possible he could sit near 94 for the year. All pitchers lose gas, but he’s still got more than Rodriguez.
Matt Lindstrom does throw 95 still, and his slider is good enough. But it’s not great, and he’s chosen to get grounders rather than strikeouts. Nate Jones throws harder, gets more strikeouts, and gets the same amount of grounders. There’s one way this makes sense — the team wants to keep Nate Jones out of saves in order to keep him cheap in arbitration — but I’m not comfortable enough with that type of analysis to put it in the toolbox. There’s no way it’s predictive, and you get into mind circles with it — did the White Sox learn from Addison Reed that they didn’t want their young closer getting expensive quickly, or did the White Sox show with Addison Reed that they didn’t mind having a younger closer in arbitration? I’ll stick with the fact that Lindstrom doesn’t strike out enough guys to be a great closer, and he doesn’t have a Jim Johnson-esque ground-ball rate. Nate Jones is a better pitcher, in all likelihood. If you can find a way to own both Jones and Lindstrom for a bit, that might be the best idea.
J.J. Hoover and Chad Qualls are supposedly in committees but I don’t believe in their competition much. They’ll lose their jobs eventually, but probably to someone on their team’s disabled list. Matt Albers throws hard, and so does Josh Fields, but a healthy Qualls will have more strikeouts than Albers and more grounders and command than both. With Fields’ homeritis and command issues, I’m not rostering him in a mixed league right now.
And then we come to the Big Potato, Papa Grande, Jose Valverde. When he was throwing 95 it didn’t matter that he had bad control. And though the split finger still gets good whiffs, people are swinging at it less often now that they only have to gear up for 92-93 on his fastball. And since he can’t get ahead to get in pitcher’s counts to throw the splitter, and you can’t throw the splitter for strikes… He was a minor league signing two years in a row. This probably won’t end well. Jeurys Familia has a big fastball and a great breaker, but his command needs to improve. If Bobby Parnell is out a while, I expect the team to turn to Gonzalez Germen, who has a 93 mph fastball, a plus slider, and the change up that got the most whiffs per swing in baseball last year. Take a look, it’s elite. I doubt Bobby Parnell’s slightly torn ligament will heal itself in two weeks, but because I like Germen and don’t love Valverde, I’m putting Valverde below some non-closers in Jones and Henderson.
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Aroldis Chapman (face), Cincinnati Reds
Bobby Parnell (shoulder), New York Mets
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros
Casey Janssen (shoulder, back), Toronto Blue Jays
Hah. Had Bobby Parnell here already, so he was comfortable. He should get comfortable. I doubt a partial tear will heal itself in the next few weeks. I am not a doctor. Apparently the Casey Janssen shoulder thing is not the Casey Janssen Spring Shoulder Thing, so it’s something new. It’s more in his back and side. Is that better or worse? I say worse. He’s got two potential problems now.
I’m not putting Nate Jones and Jim Henderson on here. Deal with it. It’s too early.
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The Steals Department
I probably should have talked about Rajai Davis last week, but honestly, his platoon splits make him difficult to own in mixed leagues. If he was a lefty that couldn’t hit lefties, that’s one thing, but he’s a righty. And against righties, he’s hit .258/.297/.353 for his career. If he could play center, maybe that would be all right. But he can’t. And so his team will probably look for a platoon partner somewhere, and you should too if you want to roster him. He also doesn’t have any power. Instead of the no-power approach, you might be able to put a guy on the bench that has some power and some speed, and improve your speed incrementally in that way. Dustin Ackley has some breakout potential and could go 15/15 this year with a decent batting average. Other pickups in this vein are Will Venable (use only against righties), Jimmy Rollins (if you can stomach the bad batting average), Junior Lake (ditto), and Chris Young (mega ditto). Junior Lake may get a full write-up someday, because he’s so confounding. Terrible routes in the outfield, but still finds his way to the ball. Terrible approach at the plate, and yet has some skills there.
Deeper leaguers, there has to be help out there for you. Mostly, in deep leagues, I sort by plate appearances on my wire. Playing time is opportunity, and opportunity is half the battle. Abraham Almonte has ten plate appearances, and looks like the starting center fielder for the Mariners. Deeper? Chris Denorfia is going to get plenty of playing time this year and might steal ten and hit ten. Deeper? Jordy Mercer is going to play for the Pirates and steal a few bags. Deeper? Marcus Semien is starting now with Gordon Beckham hurt, and he has power and speed. And even when Beckham returns, something will change on that middle infield to give him the opportunity at some point. Deeper? We need more games so we can see how benches will sort themselves out!