Stable Times In Closerland

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For all the turmoil of 2021, our closer tiers have remained remarkably stable. In part, this is due to most of the top arms remaining healthy. Brad Hand led the way last week. He locked down four saves, bringing his season total to 16 total. He also earned a win. Will Smith, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon were the only others to reach the three save threshold. Keep an eye on Hand and Smith. Appearing five times in a week is not a sustainable usage pattern.

Now, shall we go to the tiers?

Closer Tiers

Tier 1: The Elite (5)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

Chapman slides back into the second spot after blasting away my concerns about his velocity with 100-mph heaters last Wednesday and Saturday. The moral of the story regarding these elite pitchers is that they’re tightly compressed. It’s possible to make a case that any of the first four are the best in the league. Therefore, my ordering of them is sensitive to any tiny blips on the radar. Sometimes they’re signal, sometimes – as with Chapman - they’re noise.

Diaz is the exception. He bounces between the first and second tiers. He had an ugly appearance on Friday. The Nationals strung together a couple hits and a walk to deliver a walkoff loss. Diaz failed to record an out.

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Tier 2: Nearly Elite (5)

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Will Smith, Atlanta Braves
Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels

Jansen is shoving. Although he had walk issues through May 5, he’s proven nigh untouchable by hitters. In 29.2 innings, he’s allowed nine hits. Nine! I’m trained to consider this a highly improbable outcome, meaning we should expect him to surrender 20-some hits over his next 30 innings. It could also be that a winter spent improving his velocity and pitch design has, in fact, rendered him untouchable.

I’ve promoted Smith to the second tier for two reasons. First, his peripherals support the assignment to this tier. An elite closer offers four above-average categories. A nearly elite closer has four average categories with at least two that are above average. For Smith, he’s piling up saves with 11.74 K/9, a 3.82 ERA, and a 1.08 WHIP. While the ERA isn’t exactly incredible, it’s passable enough when taken in context with the other categories. The other thing holding him back was a potential job-share with Chris Martin. That plan seems to be on the back burner.

After another rough week, I considered demoting Iglesias. The thing is, he still meets my rough criteria for nearly elite performance. While his 4.30 ERA is bothersome, ERA estimators suggest it should be closer to a 2.50 ERA. Meanwhile, his passable 1.13 WHIP is also a tad unlucky. A 13.19 K/9 is second only to Barnes in this tier. I recommend buying low. I also recommend grabbing Mike Mayers – just in case.

Tier 3: Core Performers (7)

Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Ian Kennedy, Texas Rangers

Hand would have jumped to the second tier too, but he’s having some issues with strikeouts backed by his worst swinging strike rate (7.8% SwStr%) since he was a part-time starter in 2015. Still, there are things to like. His velocity is up near his career peak. He’s also upped his ground ball rate.

Melancon had what I like to call a regression game last Thursday. The Reds got to him for four runs in two-thirds of an inning. He also coughed up a home run to Austin Barnes Tuesday night.

Both Clase and Karinchak picked up a save and a hold in the last week. Clase is five innings into a reliever perfect game. Karinchak struggled with walks, issuing five in his 3.1 innings. He also allowed a two-run home run on Saturday. Either relief ace would rank in the second tier if not sharing the job.

With Rafael Dolis back on the injured list, Romano has cemented his role as the Blue Jays closer. He has traits of a higher-ranked reliever including 11.72 K/9 and a 56.1 percent ground ball rate. He’s had some issues with home runs and walks in the past, and I’m also not confident about him holding the role all season. Even now, I expect Tyler Chatwood to glean the odd save. Toronto seems like they might still bring Romano into big spots earlier in games.

Kennedy and the next guy (below) are a natural dividing point between the third and fourth tier. While Kennedy is liable to be traded in the coming weeks, he has sufficient strikeout and run prevention ability to rate here. There’s also a decent chance he’ll continue to close post-trade.

Tier 4: Upside (7)

Richard Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Kendall Graveman, Seattle Mariners
Yimi Garcia, Miami Marlins
Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, J.P. Feyereisen, Tampa Bay Rays
Tyler Rogers, Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
Taylor Rogers, Hansel Robles, Minnesota Twins
Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies

In comparison to Kennedy, I’d be stunned if Rodriguez closes for whoever acquires him. He’s a classic “good” middle reliever, the kind who can be used as a closer in a pinch but is better-suited to medium leverage situations.

Although he’s not quite back to his pre-COVID velocity, Graveman is creeping in the right direction. He threw three innings this week, picking up a save in the process. The only hit he allowed was a solo home run. If he can build upon these recent outings, he’ll return to the third tier next week.

What a dreadful week for the Rays bullpen. Fairbanks was tagged with three losses. Castillo and Feyereisen were also handed one loss apiece. Castillo is the only one available to relieve today. Despite the meltdowns, both Castillo and Fairbanks remain solid high leverage options.

Rogers (Tyler) set up for McGee last Friday, the Giants only save of the week. We received more information about the Twins duumvirate. Robles set up for Rogers (Taylor) on Saturday. The previous day, Rogers pitched before Robles in a tied game. I don’t really understand why Robles is in the picture. Due to poor command, he’s a roughly 4.00 ERA pitcher.

Since late-May, Garcia has allowed seven runs (six earned) with 7.36 K/9 and 4.91 BB/9 in nine appearances (7.1 innings). These sorts of performances can lead to role changes. Unfortunately, the next guy in line, Dylan Floro, has surrendered five runs with 7.04 K/9 and 5.86 BB/9 over his last 7.2 innings.

Tier 5: Mess Hall (6)

Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman, Oakland Athletics
Josh Staumont, Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds
Paul Fry, Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
Joakim Soria, Arizona Diamondbacks

With a shaky supporting cast, recent injury, and lack of successful track record, it’s not yet certain Fulmer will stick as a passable closer. To date, he’s performed similarly to Ian Kennedy. He’s ripping 90-mph sliders – basically high-movement cutters. During the 2017 campaign, his last good season as a starter, he featured a similar caliber power-slider.

Trivino seems to have a tightening grasp on the Athletics job. Diekman came in to set up for him twice this week. On Tuesday, Trivino had to bail out Diekman by getting the last out of the eighth inning. Then the A’s piled on four more runs in the top of the ninth so Trivino wasn’t needed for the save after all.

Holland has picked up the Royals two most-recent saves. Staumont hasn’t appeared in a week, leading me to believe he’s battling an injury or mechanic issue that club believes they can resolve off the field. I doubt he’s suddenly out of the late-innings picture even though I do think he’s demonstrably worse than Scott Barlow. So is Holland for that matter.

Amir Garret has two of the three most recent Reds saves. I think that’s a reflection of him being the last man standing. Cincinnati has taken to using their best arms first and hoping the offense carries them beyond the need for a closer. It’s a sabermetrically wise approach that nonetheless creates a ton of stress and frustration – both in a very real sense and for fantasy managers. By design, Sims seems like he’ll get roughly half of the opportunities with Antone taking the bulk of the rest.

Everyone in the Orioles bullpen ran into hiccups this week. Since the club failed to record a single save, we’re left with limited information. Fry allowed four runs on Saturday, but he got a nonsense hold for his efforts. Tyler Wells was dealt the loss.

The Diamondbacks designated Stephen Crichton for assignment today. It was a stunning move, but only because he was nominally their closer – an indication that he was one of the best of their nine relievers. Once you take into account his 6.04 ERA and lousy peripherals, the move becomes understandable. Soria is the best of those remaining.

Injured

Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland Athletics (thoracic outlet syndrome)
Julian Merryweather, Toronto Blue Jays (oblique)

Deposed

Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins
Alex Colome, Minnesota Twins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners
Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
Stefan Crichton, Arizona Diamondbacks

Steals Department

Weekly Leaderboard

Trevor Story, 4 SB (13 SB total)
Whit Merrifield, 3 SB (20 SB total)
Ozzie Albies 3 SB (9 SB total)

Story’s power and battling line haven’t supported the fringe first-round draft price he required. Fortunately, he’s continued to run at a 30-steal pace. With a possible mid-season trade in play, this could be a dud season for Story. Historically, star-caliber Rockies play well at sea level too. It’s usually the fringier types who struggle with the transition.

Merrifield leads the league by a five-steal margin over Ronald Acuna, Trea Turner, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. It’s been a down season for the 32-year-old. He’s hitting a modest .273/.324/.408. Power has never been Merrifield’s strength. It’s a tad concerning to see his BABIP trend from around .350 in 2018-2019 to .294 in 2020-2021.

Albies has overinvested in fly ball contact for his age 24 season. It’s cutting down on his batting average which in turn means he’s getting fewer opportunities to steal bases. Still, he rates as a steady 20/20 threat. It’s possible he’ll stumble on an elite approach, although I’m inclined to think his plate discipline needs to improve for that to happen.

Speed Spotlight

Over the years, the Giants have perhaps produced more fairy tales than any other franchise. Steven Duggar nearly starred in one of his own back in 2018 and 2019. This season, he’s back on the roster and hitting more than ever before. The 27-year-old center fielder has produced a .316/.380/.573 line built upon an unsustainable .463 BABIP. He strikes out in over one-third of his plate appearances. Despite those two glaring sources of impending regression, he’s also a decent buy candidate.

Duggar is doing three things right. First, his speed and outfield instincts help him to contribute on both sides of the ball. While the club has no shortage of passable outfielders, Duggar is the only one who isn’t stretched in center field. His 84th percentile sprint speed is supported by even better reads. In other words, he gets a good jump on the ball.

Playing good defense will help him to remain in the lineup when strikeouts get the better of him. So too will hitting for above average power. Duggar has adjusted his swing to produce ideal launch angles. It’s also a tight launch angle – he’s yet to pop up this season. Perhaps his sky-high BABIP isn’t entirely outlandish. Since he’s hitting so many line drives, he safely projects for one of the high BABIPs in the league – somewhere in the .330 to .360 BABIP range.

Duggar starts most days against right-handed pitchers. Beware, he’s a substitution risk against left-handed relievers. If he continues to produce, manager Gabe Kapler will find it challenging to keep him out of the lineup. There’s even potential for his strikeout rate to precipitously decline. Although a patient hitter, he isn’t passive. His 10.8 percent swinging strike rate is roughly league average. That implies closer to a 24 percent strikeout rate.

The best-case scenario has Duggar emerging as a most-days starter with a .350 BABIP and 24 percent strikeout rate. That implies something in the neighborhood of a .275/.350/.450 batting line. He should also deliver paces of at least 15 home runs and 15 steals per 600 plate appearances. Of course, the likelier outcome is he remains a platoon bat who regresses to his .240/.310/.380 projection. I'm tentatively chasing the upside.