Healthy and Hurt in the Pen

Eno Sarris

It's Independence Day! And though the day maybe should be a reflection upon the birth of this country, the sacrifices of many made two centuries ago, and the vision of our forefathers, more often it's about the pool and the spread next to the grill. Cause it's the middle of the summer, and we were lucky enough this year that the fourth created the highly coveted four-day summer weekend, and dangit we will enjoy ourselves.

Americans are a lucky bunch. With just a slight recognition of that fact, and some appreciation for how you got what you have, it's (of course) okay to enjoy yourself tomorrow.

But not all of the activities that occupy a typical fourth of July are equal, at least not in the mind of this author. So we'll rank the closer tiers based on the different ways you might spend your time tomorrow. All in good, patriotic fun.

Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "Eating" Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

I'm about ready to house some tri-tip that's already marinating. Might have to go to the specialty sausage store too. Add in some corn bread, and maybe even -- gasp -- some grilled vegetables, and it'll be a day with a capital D. Oh whoops, it's a day with a capital d for everyone.

Nothing really to report here. It's a crowded tier, but all of these guys pitch for good teams, and have great leash. The guys that don't quite strike out one per inning have a little more leash, perhaps, and only miss the mark by a fraction of a strikeout. Sergio Romo does have a weakness against lefties, which isn't a surprise given he's a sinker/slider guy, and sliders have platoon splits, but he makes up for it with his impeccable control. *He hasn't walked a lefty all year.* So, yeah, his strikeout rate drops in half against lefties, but if you don't walk anyone, you can survive with a 6.5 K/9 against lefties. Aroldis Chapman has been a little extra wild recently -- five walks in his last five appearances -- but he still has five strikeouts in those appearances. It's just a Chapmanesque period.

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

Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Whether your soda comes in the adult or all-ages variety, it's important to stay hydrated. At least, that's what we'll tell ourselves as we enjoy our liquids, even as they probably serve to dehydrate us. It's a paradox worthy of the day.

You can be worried about Addison Reed, but I'm not. He's striking out just short of double digits per nine, he's got an elite walk rate, and both are supported by peripherals and minor league history. He has blown two of his last three save opportunities, but as we covered last week, one of those was on a dropped pop up for the third out. Not. His. Fault. The next one was, when he gave up three singles and a homer to Nick Swisher, with a wild pitch to boot. Happens, and there's no trend here.

I'm always receptive to good arguments. A reader went to bat for Glen Perkins the same week I contemplated moving him up a tier, and convinced me that I had made the wrong decision to leave him in the okay bin. He almost strikes out twice as many guys as the man he replaced in this tier, for one. Add in elite control, 95-mph gas, and you've got a rock steady closer. I didn't like that the Twins offense isn't a great one, since the only thing I've found that has any relationship with future save opportunities is run scoring -- but as the reader pointed out, the Royals are no better in that category. Perkins can manage forty saves with a two-ish ERA and will probably add more than 80 strikeouts this season. Jim Johnson may get ten more saves than Perkins, but he'll cede more than thirty strikeouts to Perkins most likely, and a full point of ERA to boot. There's a tier of difference there.

Casey Janssen's strikeout rate is falling, which is something that I have been worried about since he was named closer. He's been out-producing his velocity and swinging strikes for a couple years now, and though that seems like a long time, it's about half a season for a durable starter. He had six strikeouts in June, in eleven outings, and that's bad. His velocity was way down in his last outing but I think it's more that his approach -- while excellent -- doesn't necessarily mean lots of strikeouts. His numbers in June were probably just a blip on the radar. Probably.

Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Swimming" Tier.)

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets

Swimming on a hot day is fun. Standing by a pool on a moderately temperatured day is less fun. Sitting in a baby pool in tepid water on a sweltering day is even less fun, even if the baby is being real cute. So, enjoy the pool party, hopefully.

Kenley Jansen will probably continue his ascension through the ranks next week. His peripherals are just so excellent. But he can spend one week atop this tier after blowing a save. You never know what his manager will do, really. And the team is looking for bullpen help, which is actually unsurprising after blowing money on three-year deals to marginal relievers so many years in a row. And trying to find that help in Carlos Marmol… oh man. Got to laugh to keep from crying. All of it adds up to a tiny bit of uncertainty, even if the last blown save really was just two errors and a triple to Domonic Brown.

Rafael Soriano's velocity is up and down and that's a little worrisome. Inconsistent velocity, when paired with inconsistent command and inconsistent release points late in games has been shown to be injury markers. The good news is that Soriano is trending up in all three of those facets of his game. With the better recent velocity, his strikeout rate has been up a bit in June, but he's still striking out only seven batters per nine. He's going to drop here because his line looks way too much like Jim Johnson's with fewer saves and fewer ground balls.

Ernesto Frieri is a fine pitcher. Maybe he deserves better. After all, he did strike out more than twice as many batters as Jim Johnson last year. (I'm sorry, Jim Johnson is okay, too, he's in this tier, but I feel I need to make this point as often as possible, considering the pro-Johnson feedback I get. That sounds dirtier than it is.) But Frieri is not great in two of the three most important facets of the game for a pitcher. His walk rate -- over one every two innings -- is terrible, and he gives up almost a home run and a quarter every nine innings. That's just what an extreme fly ball pitcher with a funky delivery will do. It *probably* doesn't matter that Ryan Madson is throwing again.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Fireworks" Tier.)

Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Jose Veras, Houston Astros
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

Maybe I'll be alone on this one, but see one set of fireworks, and you've pretty much seen them all. No? When was the last time you were like, whoa, THOSE were some crazy fireworks. None of those guys will wow you either.

I wanted to move Kevin Gregg up after talking to him in the clubhouse last night, but I just couldn't. He did convince me that his new walk rate might survive regression -- he pointed out that he has a wider base this year, and that he's pitching exclusively from the stretch, and that those two things have simplified his delivery -- but that doesn't address the matter of his future uniform. Since the Cubs started their trade season early, much of the talk in the clubhouse was speculation on who was next to go. If Gregg heads to a contender, he won't necessarily close. and that's enough to keep him in this tier even if his walk rate stays in the general vicinity it's in right now.

For different reasons, I'm starting to believe in Jose Veras' new walk rate. For the first time in his career, Veras is getting strike one at a league-average rate. He's improved in that category over 10% over his career rates! Getting strike one is the most important walk rate peripheral, and he has an above-average whiff rate that'll help turn some balls into strikes via the swinging strike, too. He'll also struggle to save thirty games on that team, so his ceiling is low.

From one of my AL-LABR closers to the other -- Joaquin Benoit was my favorite in that bullpen all year. He's just the best overall pitcher in that pen that doesn't use his left arm (managers prefer righties twice as much as they 'should' given the pitching population). 94 mph gas, good control, great swinging strikes, and this year he's kept the homers down… what's not to like again? Well, the dude is turning 36 soon, and his manager is concerned about his ability to close in back-to-backs. Well, Benoit has managed it six times this year without blowing up. And even if he needs some help from Drew Smyly on days where he can't throw, he's the best bet. On the roster now at least.

There isn't a great reason to worry about Koji Uehara -- other than the fact that Junichi Tazawa has more velocity than him, and I've seen research that link velocity and strikeout rate to close changes -- because he's got excellent walk and strikeout rates. He'll give up some home runs though, since he throws 89 and is an extreme fly ball guy. And if he gives up a few home runs in a row, the team might look to make another change. Andrew Bailey's fastball got straight, but otherwise his secondary stuff is still working. If he can put some bend back into his fastball, Bailey will get the role back when a few homers leave the yard. In the meantime, though, this is a good team with a good closer.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Parade" Tier.)

Rafael Betancourt (first chair), Rex Brothers (second chair), Colorado Rockies
Chris Perez (first chair), Vinnie Pestano (second chair), Cleveland Indians
Huston Street (first chair), Luke Gregerson (second chair), San Diego Padres
Jim Henderson (first chair), Francisco Rodriguez (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Tom Wilhelmsen (first chair), Carter Capps (second chair), Yoervis Medina (third chair), Seattle Mariners
Heath Bell (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks

If you're a long-time reader of Saves and Steals, you might know of my opinion about parades. They are putrid. Oh, I get dragged out to them from time to time, and once my one-year-old is older, I suppose I'll have to go with him. His excitement will probably be enough for me to have a decent time. But if it were up to me I'd never go near them. It feels like a bunch of people forced to be in one tiny place because the know someone that will walk by in the parade. I'm going to stand in one place until I can't feel my legs in order to see a majorette? Or waive at a retired ballplayer? Or eat funnel cake? As much as I like funnel cake, no. Not going to do the porta-potty, standing in line, headache and sunburn thing for funnel cake alone. The music's terrible, the whole thing feels pointless, and yes, even though championship parades are slightly better, I feel the same way about those. 

Is that one shining dot of hope for Huston Street? (I'm betting he's still broken.)

Speaking of still broken, we have two returnees in the tier. And though they should move up as soon as they prove they are healthy, they have not proven that to me yet. Check out the velocity Chris Perez has shown since he returned, know that fastball velocity stabilizes quickly upon return from the DL, notice that his manager has mentioned his rust, and remember that Chris Perez had a hurting shoulder, otherwise known as the pitcher killer. You still feel good about him? Rafael Betancourt's velocity has been down all year and it's back up a bit now, so that's good news. His walk rate is not good news, and his zone percentage -- one of the injury prediction factors -- was way down right before he went on the DL, but maybe he fixed what was ailing in his groin. I'm generally more positive Betancourt will begin zooming up the tiers, and he says he feels much better, so in at least that subjective way he's better off than Perez.

These two situations -- in Milwaukee and Seattle -- are tough to suss, and I'm trying to read the tea leaves. To me, Tom Wilhelmsen is still the best pitcher in that Seattle pen. He's working on his command, and though it's not quite there yet, Carter Capps and Yoervis Medina are worse off in that category. Oliver Perez is decent, but he's a lefty and should not pitch to righties with the game on the line. Once Wilhelmsen gets command of that power curve, he's the one with the best platoon splits. And he pitched the ninth last, albeit in a laugher. In Milwaukee, Francisco Rodriguez continues to laugh at my analysis, but I'll leave Jim Henderson in the role because I have to pick one. Henderson has gotten saves during this Rodriguez run, and he's under team control next year. To me, it looks like the Brewers are pumping up K-Rod's trade value. He's not going to help them next year and this team isn't in contention.

The Diamondbacks are in contention in a crowded NL West, and now it looks like they rushed their old closer back to the bigs because their new closer was falling apart. Now they have a portly gopherballer in the closer role and an injured Putz demoted to setup. I have my own reasons for thinking Putz is still hurt but even his manager says he's rebuilding the strength in his arm. When he went down, Putz suffered a strain in his elbow. A strain is a tear, so we're just talking about severity now. I thought he would have surgery eventually, and still do, but I hate playing doctor. Guess you just have to own both guys right now. At least Bell has put three homer-less outings between himself and that terrible stretch. And it came after he said he spotted a problem in his delivery.

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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

Still think we'll see Putz here again. Ryan Madson is throwing at 70%! Whoo-hoo!

The Deposed

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

Calling Andrew Bailey… Andrew Bailey to the deposed line …

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The Steals Department

We've talked about Rajai Davis a couple times already, but it's worth pointing out that he's still available in more than two-thirds of leagues on many fantasy platforms, and he's playing more than just against lefties. Similarly, we've sung the praises of Leonys Martin before, but he's starting to percolate. You'll want both of these guys in daily leagues, since they don't play quite every day, but they can be valuable in matchup play. Available even more often those two, but with less speed upside, is Michael Brantley. He's remarkable this year in that he's showing one of his best success rates on the base paths. That could mean more of a green light in the future. And with steals down across the league, 20 steals and 10 homers is probably borderline utility spot worthy in deeper mixed leagues. At least for people that need the speed and can slot Brantley in against right-handers exclusively.

Deep leaguers looking for speed on the MI now that Everth Cabrera is about to steal recent Steals Department tout Pedro Ciriaco's playing time back might want to look to Colorado. DJ LeMahieu doesn't have a ton of skills, but he can take a walk, he plays better defense than Josh Rutledge, and he can steal a base. He could even hit .300 with his combination of contact and legs. With the state of the Yankee offense these days, it looks like Zoilo Almonte is going to get some burn out there. In a full season, he has 20/20 type upside, and he's not striking out much right now. He could be a sneaky good deep league play.

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