The Veteran Closers Return

Eno Sarris

The White Sox almost lost on an infield pop-up on Tuesday night. What a terrible way to lose a game that would be. 99.1% of all infield flies are outs

Are there worse ways to lose? As upset as Hawk Harrelson was, it might actually get worse.

And since closers are usually on the mound for these things, it's not even off-topic, for once, to name our tiers after the worst endings in the history of baseball. It's not what you want out of your closer -- it's what you dread.

Tier 1: Elite (6) (AKA: The "Yankees 9, Mets 8; June 12, 2009" Tier.)

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

Obviously you know what's worse than almost losing a game on a dropped infield fly. And you might even remember the time it happened, because it was only four years ago that Luis Castillo dropped an infield fly that allowed two runs to score. Francisco Rodriguez got the loss, but he didn't deserve it. That game should have been over. This is not the last time the Mets will figure into this discussion, which is just *awesome* for this Mets fan.

Aroldis Chapman has four walks against four strikeouts in his last four outings, and he's blown a save. The iffy walk rate is back for what it's worth. And that might not be much. He still strikes everyone out and has a good first-pitch strike rate, a good reach rate, and a great swinging strike rate. That helps him get ahead, get them reaching and turning balls into strikes. He might even improve his walk rate going forward. A week ago, Jason Grilli blew a save on a Jay Bruce home run, and then came into a non-save situation on Sunday and gave up three runs. While there is some evidence that closers throw a bit harder and get more strikeouts in save situations, that's not something we fantasy owners can really do anything about. And the effect is fairly minor. Mariano Rivera isn't quite getting a strikeout per inning, and his WHIP right now would be the worst of his career. If he wasn't Mo, he might be down a tier. But he is. Even at his age.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Mariners 2, Athletics 1; April 19, 2004" Tier.)

Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

It's possible that this one is worse than an infield fly ball. The Athletics lost to the Mariners in 2004… on a balk. On a technicality that's often hard to understand with detailed instructions and a telestrator at hand. Justin Duchscherer got handed the loss, but everyone lost when the umpire called that one. Who did the players even pile on? Who got the shaving cream pie to the face? Did the fans clap, or shrug, and go home? 

Addison Reed got the blown save in the box score, but it was Gordon Beckham and The Dropped Pop Up That Angered Hawk Harrelson that really were the culprits. Reed hasn't walked a guy since the fifth of June. That's more like the elite control artist he was in the minors. Edward Mujica walked his second batter of the season Tuesday night. That's almost as stupefying, especially when you consider he throws his splitter 60+% of the time, and that pitch is hard to throw for strikes. Rafael Soriano is pushing his strikeout and whiff rates back to normal territories, and that might be because he's also recovered some velocity. Still, a velocity chart as erratic as this is not terribly exciting.

Casey Janssen's strikeout rate has fallen a bit, but his control-first approach seems to be holding. I wanted to know more about how he does what he does, so I asked him about it. His answers were impressive. I'd still pick a guy with raw stuff over him -- I'd rather depend on a guy that can get a whiff when he needs it -- but his brainiac approach seems to be working well.

Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Pirates 2, Mets 1, August 27, 1963" Tier.)

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets

Officially, two errors allowed two runs to score in the ninth. Officially. But the play-by-play was way less kind. Let Chris Jaffe take it away:

Then Manny Mota bopped a comebacker up the middle that got past the pitcher and through the middle infielders. Center fielder Duke Carmel fielded the ball - or at least he intended to. The ball clonked off his glove and went into right. Fortunately, the Mets had just inserted a defensive replacement in right: Joe Christopher. Unfortunately, they would've been better off with someone else there. Christopher's throw to third to head off the lead runner was badly off target and went somewhere between third and home.

Pitcher Galen Cisco went to retrieve it, but tripped over his own feet and did a lovely face plant on the ground. One run scored to tie the game, and the second chugged for home. Cisco got up and corralled the ball in time to make one last play at the plate to nab the would-be winning run. The throw was in time - but of course something had to go wrong: catcher Jesse Gonder caught it out of position. Instead of staying behind the plate, he had advanced upward. When he caught the throw, his back was to home, and when he did a 180 to tag Mota, he found out the hard way that he was five feet from home, and out of arm's distance to tag Mota. Pirates won, 2-1.


Jonathan Papelbon drops from the top of tier two to the top of tier three, and it's not just about his bad week. For one, his velocity, which was creeping upwards back to normal levels, dropped back down again. His strikeout rate in May and June had also climbed to almost one per inning, which amazingly rates as an accomplishment for him this year, but now he has had four strikeouts in his last seven outings. And he's blown four of his last five save opportunities. They've each gone differently -- a homer in New York, a string of hits in Washington, a bad walk in San Diego -- but the lack of velocity and strikeouts has to figure in. At this rate, Papelbon won't get traded to Detroit either, and that means his save opportunities won't get any better. He could be hurting. Mike Adams is out, though, so the replacement is not immediately obvious. It might be lefty Antonio Bastardo, who has gotten shots in the past, despite his left-handedness. Nobody else has the rates to do it, even if Justin De Fratus has some interesting assets (right-handedness, nice swinging strike rate, and good velocity). Still, it was Bastardo who got a save earlier this month when Papelbon and Adams were out.

Yes I know Jim Johnson has 27 saves. He also isn't helping in ERA or WHIP this year, and now that Brandon League is out of a job, he has the worst strikeout rate among closers (other than Huston Street). Just compare him to Glen Perkins. You lose eight saves, but you gain 11 strikeouts, a full point of ERA, and a third of a point of WHIP. Those are all categories that count! And don't tell me that the value of a closer's ERA is lessened because he pitches less often -- both of our teams need three or four closers, and if your four closers have bad ERAs and mine don't, my team will have a better ERA, all other things equal.

Kenley Jansen has 56 strikeouts against six walks in 38 innings. Brandon League has 13 strikeouts against eight walks in 28.1 innings. These things were foreseeable. Why the Dodgers gave League that contract and the job is… well, it's almost like tripping over your own feet.

Until Sunday, Ernesto Frieri hadn't walked a batter since June fifth. He walked eight guys in April, nine guys in May, and two in June. If he continues to corral the ball, he'll move up. He has the elite strikeout rate to do so, even if his team isn't giving him a ton of save opportunities. That's an expensive lineup, they could easily get it together and start scoring some runs for him.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Astros 1, Mets 0, April 15, 1968" Tier.)

Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Jose Veras, Houston Astros
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks

The Mets again. And this time they lost on a balk and an error and some stupidity all wrapped up into a loss. What made it bad? This loss came in the 24th. People had to wait a really long time to see a single, a bunt, a balk and an error turn a tie game into a loss. That must have sucked. Thanks to the Mets for three of our worst endings of all time…  

Kevin Gregg's strikeout rate is starting to fall -- he has three strikeouts in his last five outings -- and that was fairly predictable. Despite bad walk rate peripherals, his walk rate is holding steady though. He could be the closer all year in Chicago and make this ranking look bad. On the other hand, his name is now coming up in trade talks, and he'd probably only close in Detroit if he gets traded.

I own Jose Veras in three or four leagues and am totally happy with his cheap production. His walk rate (best of his career) is a surprise, but this is the first year of his career that he's had an average first-strike rate. Perhaps he can keep it up! The pen around him is just terrible, and his team won't give him many chances, but if he can strike out guys in the double digits, and keep his walk rate down, he'll be a valuable piece despite his flaws. Basically, Steve Cishek is the same story, but the Marlins took so long between save chances that it looked like he had lost his job. Maybe he had. But nobody stepped forward to take the job, and now he's settled down. He also has his flaws -- sometimes he's wild, his strikeout rate is only average for a closer, and the aforementioned team stuff -- but he's useful, and nobody's going to take the job from him. That's enough for him to climb out of the bottom tier. He's walked one guy in June, against 11 strikeouts, in ten innings. That'll do.

Fernando Rodney had a Kimbrel on Sunday. Seriously. Three strikeouts, no base runners. He's still walking the lineup most of the time, and I still own Jake McGee in a few of my deepest leagues, but I'm no longer sure they'll make a switch. It's kind of crazy to see those walk rate numbers next to a closer, but in my research, walk rate hasn't been a good predictor of closer changes anyway. 

Huston Street had been putting up zeroes, for the most part, since he returned from the disabled list, but that masks all that's wrong with the closer. For one, he's only struck out two guys in six innings since he's returned. He's given up three home runs. His velocity is down even further -- he's not even cracking ninety these days. When he got smoked by the Dodgers on Sunday, it was almost inevitable. He doesn't look healthy. Luke Gregerson and Dale Thayer are absolutely ownable, with Gregerson (despite his somewhat erratic fill-in job for Street) a nose ahead.

Heath Bell turned into a pumpkin overnight. Suddenly he's giving up two homers per nine innings! A homer per game for five straight outings will do that to you. He says he's found something wrong with his delivery and can fix it, but it probably doesn't matter. J.J. Putz is almost done with his rehab. It might actually matter -- if Putz goes down again, maybe it's David Hernandez that gets the call next time.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "AL 7, NL 7 July 9, 2002" Tier.)

Joaquin Benoit (first chair),  Drew Smyly (second chair), Jose Valverde (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Tom Wilhelmsen (first chair), Yoervis Medina (second chair), Oliver Perez (third chair), Seattle Mariners
Jim Henderson (first chair), Francisco Rodriguez (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Koji Uehara (first chair), Junichi Tazawa (second chair), Andrew Bailey (third chair), Boston Red Sox
Vinnie Pestano (first chair), Joe Smith (second chair), Cody Allen (third chair), Cleveland Indians
Rex Brothers (first chair), Wilton Lopez (second chair), Colorado Rockies

You know what's worse than ending in a tie? ENDING A GAME THAT DIDN'T MATTER IN A TIE.

And ending a game in a tie seems preferable to the work that Jim Leyland has to do right now. He's angry about it too, asking reporters what they would do about the situation. He's probably sending signals to his General Manager (or even voicemails), but for now, it's the best pitcher in the pen that's the closer. The problem with going with Joaquin Benoit all year is that he supposedly isn't good in back-to-back situations. Well, he's done it four times this season and been fine. And if he doesn't get every single save opportunity, but is the closer most of the time the rest of the year, he'll move out of this tier. With 37 strikeouts and nine walks in 31 1/3 innings, he's the best option they have… on the roster right now. Doesn't mean they won't go get a guy. Drew Smyly is interesting, but as a lefty, he's half as likely as a righty to get the job, and his multiple-inning usage suggests that he's either still got one foot in the starting rotation, or he's needed as a bridge to the pen.

We kept Tom Wilhelmsen in the first chair to represent the fact that we still like him best going forward. Carter Capps fell apart at the wrong time, Yoervis Medina has the same flaws as Capps (control, platoon splits), and Oliver Perez is a lefty whose walk and homer rates are much worse against righties than lefties. The team sounds like they want the bartender to close, too, since they are calling it a 'break' and not a change. Wilhelmsen says it's control of his curveball that's lacking, and he looks like he's right. According to, he's throwing balls with the curve 47% of the time now, up from 40% before this season. That's significant. The last time out, though, Wilhelmsen got a Kimbrel without the save, so maybe he's righting the ship. A couple more outings like that and he'll be officially back in the role. He shouldn't be dropped.

Francisco Rodriguez got his 300th save. Jim Henderson should get the next save, and the rest of them, since he's on a rebuilding team and is actually under team control next season. It wasn't worth putting Rodriguez in the first chair for those two saves.

Andrew Bailey's velocity chart was actually a harbinger of doom, maybe. He was still getting the whiffs, so I thought he might be okay, but this chart is not good. Junichi Tazawa has more gas than Koji Uehara, and that's why I gave him the nod last time, but it looks like it's Uehara this time. Supposedly he can't go back-to-back either, but he's done it four times this year. He'll give up a few too many homers though, and he's actually showing the worst walk rate of his career, so this isn't set in stone. The team had to do something when Bailey gave up four homers in six outings and blew four opportunities to close out the game. Baiey's getting whiffs, but they aren't coming from his four seamer or curve, and he can't get the curve over for strikes (54% balls). He's still the best option when he's right, so he doesn't seem droppable just yet.

Rafael Betancourt is back into the closer role Friday, but Chris Perez may not be so lucky. He did pitch better in his last rehab start, and has pronounced himself ready. Both temporary closers here at the bottom of the list are probably out of a job soon, but it's Vinnie Pestano that's a nose ahead.

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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
J.J. Putz (elbow), Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Perez (shoulder), Cleveland Indians
Rafael Betancourt (groin), Colorado Rockies

Looks like Chris Perez, Rafael Betancourt and J.J. Putz might all be back this weekend. Adjust your life and rosters accordingly.

The Deposed

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

Is Tom Wilhelmsen supposed to be here? Or will he avoid the shame?

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The Steals Department

Peter Bourjos is dealing with a thumb injury, and before that it was a hamstring injury that kept him out a month-plus. But his strikeout rate is down, and if that holds, he could put up one of the better batting averages of his career, even when the batted ball luck calms down. He's slapping the ball on the ground more than he ever has, but that might allow him to take advantage of his speed, and he wasn't going to hit many more than ten homers in a full season anyway. You can expect a batting average over .265, a handful of home runs, and then the stolen bases. He only stole three last year, but before that he was a consistent performer in the category. Call him a 25 stolen base guy, true talent. If that's not exciting, it should be. There will probably be half as many 30-steal guys this year as there were last year, and that makes the 25-steal guy the new 30-steal guy. He's probably a better own -- if he stays healthy -- than Denard Span (who has had his own health issues), for what it's worth.

Lorenzo Cain is still the starter in Kansas City. But he has his flaws. He strikes out too much, he doesn't walk enough, he should be showing more power, and he gets caught a bit much on the base paths. Jarrod Dyson also doesn't walk enough, but he strikes out less, and is a burner on the basepaths. He's started two straight games in Kansas City since he came back from the disabled list, and that alone makes him interesting in deep leagues. Last year he stole 30 bases in basically a half-season of plate appearances (330), so once he gets on base, he's going. He could be a one-category find even in a part-time role.