Look for Strikeouts and Gas

Eno Sarris

Trying to get ahead of closer changes is almost impossible. Closer experience doesn't matter. ERA -- one-year or three-year -- doesn't matter. Even fielding-independent advanced pitching metrics don't matter. The list of things that don't matter is long. Trust me, I've got a research-backed list of the things that don't matter

But there are a few things that matter. Managers like righties over lefties in the role. They like velocity. And they like strikeout percentage. That's the short list of things that correlate well with closer changes.

You may think I'm a little obsessed with strikeout rate, that's fine. But, other than the fact that they are fascist -- a ball in play has so many possibilities, and the strikeout just one -- and they are a category in almost every version of the fantasy game, there's another reason to like strikeouts: They just might predict the next closer change.

So, in honor of the strikeout, we'll name each tier after the appropriate strikeout artist. Strikeouts might be on the rise, and there might be more of them every day, but the K still stands for king.

Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Nolan Ryan" Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

Had to be Nolan Ryan. 5,714 strikeouts, tops, by far. You think of strikeouts, and you think of The Express.

Think of rock-steady saves with WHIPs much better than Ryan ever managed, and you think of these guys. Even if Aroldis Chapman and Joe Nathan have seen their velocity drop a bit, there's not a worry in the group right now.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Tom Seaver" Tier.)

J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

Tom Seaver had a great career. He amassed 3,640 strikeouts, and ended up a mere 2,074 strikeouts short of Ryan. On a career scale, that's not terrible -- he is sixth overall all-timer -- but it's not quite the top of the top.

These guys are top but not quite top of the top, too. It's actually sort of hard to move a guy to the top of the tier, even. It's J.J. Putz this week. Despite his velocity going down, Putz has been great in the short term, with strikeouts in bunches. His walk rate is a little up, but he's had great control his whole life. Other than his health issues there's no real reason to put an asterisk on him. You could say the same about Rafael Soriano, but his knee has been a bit balky and he's given up a home run or two too many this year. Rafael Betancourt's velocity is down yet another year, but he should have excellent control (even if it took him until May 15th last year to walk his fourth batter), and his whiffs aren't down too far just yet.

Below those three, the questions are a bit more legitimate. Well, maybe Sergio Romo should join them, but he blew a save. And despite writing up Romo's approach against lefties in a positive manner for FanGraphs, I'm a little suspicious and wonder if he can truly finish off lefties all year with a front-door slider, sinker, and iffy changeup arsenal. He got Anthony Rizzo in a big spot last week, but at least one of the pitches was grooved to the big lefty first baseman.

Then you have the rest. Why is Tom Wilhelmsen, owner of a 95+ mph fastball and a hammer curve, not getting any whiffs or strikeouts right now? Every peripheral is in a bad place for Mariano Rivera. His velocity, whiff rate, strikeout rate, and ground-ball rate are all at career lows. They left a 38-year old Hiroki Kuroda out on the mound to finish out a close game the other day, and they were warming up Boone Logan in the pen. Fernando Rodney's walk rate is back up, but only to average, and he's still getting strike one. It's the lack of swinging strikes that might be more worrisome.

Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Pedro Martinez and Bob Feller" Tier.)

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets

Call this the short but sweet tier. Pedro Martinez is 13th on the all-time list (3,154 strikeouts), and Bob Feller is 21st (2,581 strikeouts), but what makes them special is that they are two of the three pitchers in the top 25 that didn't start 500 games. David Cone is the non-named third member of this group, which burned bright, but not as long as many others.

Jonathan Papelbon looked like he was at risk of having a short career, but now signs look a bit better. He's still down over a mile and a half on the gun, and his swinging strikes are still way down -- even below average for a late-inning reliever -- but all of those secondary metrics have moved in the right direction recently. And his control is still there. Along with Papelbon, Grant Balfour is still one of the best other shots to move up a tier, especially since he's one of the few guys who's showing better velocity right now, but his swinging strikes are not there.

Since he hasn't changed his pitching mix much, and hasn't added velocity, there aren't great reasons to believe in Jim Johnson's new strikeout rate. His swinging strike rate is the worst of his career, even. Just something that happens when you've pitched in seven games and have six strikeouts, randomly. What's news is that the Orioles are continuing to win close games. If he saves 45+ again, he'll be very valuable again. If not, he'll just be a few strikeouts short of the second tier.

It's a small sample, but Bobby Parnell always had the upside to do what he's doing now. He has good control -- no walks on the year -- and the gas (95+) to get whiffs. With the Mets looking to the future, it probably makes sense for them to let him get comfortable in the role.

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

Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Obviously Tommy John is known more for the surgery that extended his career than he his for the K, but he also struck out 2,245 batters over 700 games. It's not a great strikeout rate -- he's just a few strikeouts ahead of CC Sabathia, who has started 386 games. But he was there, and he did his job, for a long time, and that counts.

Huston Street is not throwing his fastball much at all, and it's slower than it's ever been. Along with the lack of whiffs and history, it's legit to worry about his health. Three home runs in four innings, for a Padres pitcher especially, makes you sit up and take notice. Not much to be done, though, unless you want to handcuff with Luke Gregerson. Sell-low closers don't have much trade value. He's still there, and he's doing his job, but it's fair to be worried.

Casey Janssen has long over-performed his velocity, so maybe it's not a big deal, but he's down to 89 now, down from close to 92 last year. That's not a closer's velocity, and it's not much separation from his 89 mph cutter and 73 mph curve ball. Throw in the shoulder surgery and the fact that Sergio Santos is striking people out left and right with 94+ mph gas -- and the research cited above -- and Santos looks like one of the better saves gambles on your wire… when healthy. He's off to the DL again with triceps soreness for now.

Nobody else in this tier has a guy behind them that satisfies the 'strikeouts and gas' rule as well. Kelvin Herrera has more gas than Greg Holland, but if you use a bigger sample, not more strikeouts. And the Royals say they are sticking with Holland for now, too. And Herrera just got blown up by the Bravos. Ernesto Frieri has more gas than Ryan Madson, and even if Madson finally looks closer to a return, Frieri has been great while he was out. Steve Cishek has nobody behind him, really, since A.J. Ramos is now pitching the seventh and Mike Dunn is a lefty.

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

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

Jim Henderson (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Andrew Bailey (first chair), Junichi Tazawa (second chair), Koji Uehara (third chair), Boston Red Sox
Joaquin Benoit (first chair), Phil Coke (second chair), Al Albuquerque (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Edward Mujica (first chair), Trevor Rosenthal (second chair), St. Louis Cardinals
Jose Veras (first chair), Rhiner Cruz (second chair), Hector Ambriz (third chair), Houston Astros
Shawn Camp (first chair), Carlos Marmol (second chair), Chicago Cubs

Pete Alexander had 2198 strikeouts! He also had the lowest strikeout rate of any pitcher with more than 5000 innings. He didn't even strike out four batters per nine. But he was there. He was there.

Jim Henderson just needs to hold on -- and John Axford needs to keep sucking -- in order to move up in the rankings. He's obviously got gas and strikeouts (more than Axford, even), but inertia is on Axford's side, probably. Is that paradoxical? Henderson is the closer now, but you have to think that Axford is the name that you think of as the Brewer's closer first. So inertia says he'll get back in the role once he's 'right.' Anyway, Axford threw a scoreless, one-hit, no strikeout, no walk seventh inning Tuesday night. Needs more information, but the prospect of a year-long closer with Henderson's strikeout rate means Hendo leaps to the top of the bottom tier.

Andrew Bailey is fine when he's healthy, and he's a must-own when Joel Hanrahan is not. Right now, it looks like The Hammer will just be out two weeks to rest his hammy, but if that turns into something worse, Bailey might crack double-digits in saves. Junichi Tazawa has a starter's arsenal and nice velocity in the pen, so if Bailey gets hurt while Hanrahan is hurt -- you know this is a possibility -- Tazawa might get a few saves, too.

We've listed Joaquin Benoit as the closer for the Tigers all year… and he doesn't have a save yet. That's okay, they only have two saves all year, and one was a three-inning Drew Smyly operation, and the other was a two-batter lefty-on-lefty matchup for LOOGY Phil Coke. Neither tells us more than the fact that manager Jim Leyland says Benoit is just about as much a closer as he has, and the fact that Benoit lacks the splits of his bullpen mates. There's a research idea right there -- does a lack of platoon splits predict a closer change?

The nominal closer in St. Louis also doesn't have a save. But Edward Mujica was warming in the right spots to suggest he is the closer, and his manager says he'll be tried in the role. You know who owns the best velocity and strikeout rates in that pen, though? Trevor Rosenthal. He's still my pick, even if I have to begrudgingly listen to the manager in this situation. It's his team, not mine.

And then you have the two worst pens in baseball. With Kyuji Fujikawa nursing his forearm for the second time this season -- this time on the disabled list -- the Cubs will probably turn to a platoon between Shawn Camp and LOOGY James Russell. But Camp blew a big one against the Giants the other day, Russell can't get righties out, and now the rumor is Carlos Marmol is back in play. Oof. Jose Veras is probably the closer in Houston… right? Rhiner Cruz has gas but no strikeouts (two in 8 2/3 innings). Until Josh Fields is healthy, there's no obvious sleeper in this pen.

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Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (hamstring), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (forearm), Chicago Cubs
Sergio Santos (triceps), Blue Jays

It looks like we have a reason for some of the struggles of Joel Hanrahan -- might have been his hammy. Two weeks might be all it takes. Kyuji Fujikawa actually sat during spring training for a forearm issue, so this is sort of an ongoing thing. He leaves the Cubs bullpen without a decent pitcher, really. Ryan Madson thinks May 1 will be his return date. That's also the date Jason Motte finds out if he'll have TJ surgery. Sergio Santos should be back in two weeks.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers

Is Carlos Marmol back? Will John Axford reclaim the throne? Both are seriously wild, but that hasn't stopped all those wild closers in the past.

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The Steals Department

The Marlins *said* that Chris Coghlan was supposed to platoon with Justin Ruggiano, it just hasn't worked out that way. Coghlan doesn't add much value with his bat, and his defense is no better than Ruggiano's, so it didn't make much sense, even if platoons are generally a good way to get value out of flawed players. Well, now Justin Ruggiano is starting against pitchers of both handedness, and that's good news for fantasy owners. Right now, it's tempting to say that Ruggiano cut his strikeout rate and might have a good batting average once his batting average on balls in play gets right, but the dude is still whiffing at his career rate. Expect more strikeouts even as more balls find grass, and basically about the same batting average he's showing now. That's fine, even at .250+, double-digit power and speed plays well in most leagues.

In deep leagues, there's something to be said for predictability. You know Craig Gentry will play against lefties, and you know that his .294/.367/.397 line against lefties -- even if it only comes in 204 career at bats -- will make him useful against southpaws. And after 445 career at-bats overall, the Rangers' center fielder has 35 stolen bases. That's legit speed that you can slot into your lineup a couple times a week. Deep leaguers with deep benches should think about him. Especially now that Julio Borbon is about to be traded out of town (Borbon might make an interesting pickup, depending on where he ends up, by the way) Gentry looks safe and useful, even if his ceiling is fairly low.