But maybe I forgot something. For a there to be change in a pen, there has to be struggle. Just because Huston Street is throwing 89 does not mean he’ll lose the job. He first has to start blowing up. Of course, velocity is linked directly to success on the mound (about .2 runs allowed per mph over 90), so it is important, but you really do have to wait for a bad stretch for Sergio Romo before you utter the words Santiago Casilla. Even if Casilla has more gas. Jairo Garcia, never forget.
And so maybe there will be a little movement in the rankings this week based on how these pitchers are doing and less on the velocity in the arms behind them. The best in-season predictor of success is strikeout rate minus walk rate, and though those rates are hardly stable right now (that takes about 150 batters faced and even Francisco Rodriguez falls short of half that number), we can try to use them. So here’s a table of the top 40 pitchers in saves, sorted by K%-BB%, with stats up to Tuesday night. (The average for a major league reliever this year is 12.5%.)
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Fun. Let’s name the tiers after interesting starters based on this same metric.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Stephen Strasburg” Tier.)
Stephen Strasburg has struck out nearly a third of the batters he’s seen this year, good for second best in the league now that Jose Fernandez is done. And he’s walking fewer batters than Max Scherzer, who is number one on the list by a hair. So why are his results so different? Bad luck on balls in play answers most of that question. Sure, his velocity is down some, but 94.3 mph on the fastball is still good for eighth among starters this year. If you’re selling, I’m buying.
Koji Uehara’s velocity is down, but it isn’t bothering his results much. Precise command and a splitter that looks exactly like the precisely commanded fastball is a wonderful combination to own. Kenley Jansen is still fire bequeathed from the baseball gods, but his walk rate is up and 43% of his balls in play are becoming hits. His career average is 27%, for reference. I’ll bet on the 230 innings of awesome over the 18 2/3 innings of so-so. Greg Holland actually tops Craig Kimbrel in strikeouts minus walks, but has one fewer save. I’ll take the strikeouts and the save if forced to choose.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Corey Kluber“ Tier.)
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Corey Kluber’s differential between walks and strikeouts is better than the one sported by Felix Hernandez, or at least that was true Tuesday night. And no, it’s not saying he’s the same quality, but it is saying that Kluber is more quality than people think. He has three off-speed pitches with whiff rates that are above average, and a batting average on balls in play that’s too high. Sure, his fastball isn’t great, but it’s not 87 or anything.
Aroldis Chapman gave up a homer to Chase Headley, sure. But he also struck out five in his first two innings AND IS AVERAGING 100.5 MPH ON HIS FASTBALL. Sorry, didn’t mean to yell, but I’ve never seen an average that high on FanGraphs. It should go down — no man should average triple digits for a season, that just seems unhealthy — but fastball velocity becomes stable quickly, as a stat. Maybe he’s just ready to blow everyone away this year.
Francisco Rodriguez! He got me! Too busy looking at his velocity (career-worst) and junk-throwing (throwing the change more than he ever has) and the fact that no team wanted him this offseason. Just figured something was wrong with him. But his strikeout minus walk rate is sixth-best among closers, and it lines up with work he’s done in the past. So here he is, back among the best closers of his generation, after three straight years where anyone in baseball could have had him for a song. Great baseball story.
Trevor Rosenthal! What are you doing? Where has your command gone? Your four-seamer was a ball 31% of the time last year, and that number is up to 38% this year. Your curve hasn’t gotten a single whiff this year. Your change-up is down from among the best in baseball last year (27%, average is 15%) to just good (20%). To some extent, velocity might matter, since you're down a whole mph. But you're still throwing 96 and getting the strikeouts you want to see from a closer. I’d point more to your first-strike rate, since it’s down below average this year for the first time, and strike one is the best way to avoid a walk. Let’s see if you can get strike one before we give up on you. Jason Motte is back in Triple-A, yes, but Tuesday’s blown save was your first official blown save of the season. Not time for a handcuff yet.
Read about the more volatile closer tiers on the next page.
Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Jesse Chavez” Tier.)
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
I once asked Corey Kluber if he might just use his cutter as a fastball when we were talking about struggling with a bad fastball. Kluber said he hadn’t thought of it. Jesse Chavez has thought of it — he’s doing it. It may be tough on a small dude to throw what’s basically a baby slider as his fastball, but if all you care about is this year, you gotta love it. The difference between his strikeout and walk rates is the same as Jordan Zimmermann’s. What are you waiting on before you believe in him?
With his new strikeout rate and second-best whiff rate of his career, Soria not only scores in the top five of our strikeouts minus walks metric, he also is threatening to move out of this tier. I’d hate to make the Rodriguez mistake again, but his career-low velocity matters, and the fact that he hasn’t given up a single home run seems unlikely to continue. As Arlington heats up, we’ll see how well Soria does. Joe Nathan, at this point, is a below-average closer in every facet of the game save one: his team scores runs, and I’ve shown that to be linked to save opportunities.
Addison Reed is doing the strikeouts minus walks thing right, so there’s no worry there. And for the season, he’s gained a tick on his fastball, so that’s good. But look at his last outing. He dipped almost two miles per hour in one of the most drastic single-game drops of his career. Maybe we shouldn’t worry, he still averaged 92.4 on the fastball against the Nationals Monday night. But he also gave up two home runs and hasn’t been taking to the desert in that department. He’s an extreme fly ball guy, and there is a risk that the homers will matter. I still like him, but he has to drop to reflect that risk.
Fernando Rodney could have one foot in the next tier, maybe. He certainly didn’t have a good night Tuesday night. A David DeJesus homer tied it, and then Rodney struck out Evan Longoria and got Ben Zobrist to foul out. Everything was fine until James Loney, Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce all singled in a row. He even walked Yunel Escobar before he was relieved by Danny Farquhar, his ostensible handcuff. By strikeouts minus walks, Rodney is still in the top twenty, but sitting between Bryan Shaw and Jose Valverde and Joe Smith isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house. That 1.71 WHIP isn’t helping, and it’s probably causing his team some Tums moments, but a couple clean slates could still fix things.
Tier 4: Question Marks (5) (AKA: The “Dallas Keuchel” Tier.)Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Lindstrom, Chicago White Sox
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Don’t call me a Johnny Come Lately. I’ve been pimping Dallas Keuchel since before the season. He switched from a curve to a slider, and that gave him a slider, a change, and a sinker — all that a lefty throwing in the low nineties needs to get guys on both sides of the plate out. His ground-ball rate is excellent, and his differential is on par with C.J. Wilson and Gio Gonzalez. Giddyap.
Casey Janssen is back! He hasn’t gotten a single whiff yet, and he has out-performed his whiff rates for two or three years now (by being a self-avowed strike-thrower), but he’s back! The rest of the bullpen showed its warts while he was gone, so he’s more secure. And his velocity is right where it was before the injury. Just remember that past injury begets future injury and Janssen was injured everywhere from his shoulder to his back to his abdomen over the past six months.
We believed in Ernesto Frieri here. He had the gas and the strikeouts to take the job back from Joe Smith, and all it took was some vomit in the bullpen. Frieri will always give up homers and make his owners nervous, but Mike Scioscia has tested the alternatives, and came back to Frieri, just like he did last year.
LaTroy Hawkins: now sporting the second-worst strikeout rate among the 748 closer-seasons since 1990. And a below-average ground-ball rate. Look at him hanging out with Matt Lindstrom, John Axford, Anthony Bass and Grant Balfour at the bottom of the strikeouts-minus walks leaderboard. With Balfour’s velocity down two ticks from last year, you should probably keep an eye on Joel Peralta. He’s tied for the team lead in holds, and giving him saves won’t make him expensive for next year. Jake McGee would get rewarded in arbitration, and the team owns him for three more years. They’d probably like to keep those years cheap, especially if it’s not going to happen for them this year. Strange way for Balfour to keep his job.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Tim Lincecum” Tier.)
Sean Doolittle (first chair), Jim Johnson (second chair), Oakland Athletics
Bryan Shaw (first chair), Cody Allen (second chair), John Axford (third chair), Cleveland Indians
Kyle Farnsworth (first chair), Jeurys Familia (second chair), Jenrry Mejia (third chair), New York Mets
Hector Rondon (first chair), Neil Ramirez (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Anthony Bass (first chair), Chad Qualls (second chair), Houston Astros
Nothing is as simple as it seems. Tim Lincecum is right there with Dallas Keuchel when it comes to strikeouts minus walks. But Tim Lincecum is giving up copious home runs. You could say that should normalize, but Tim Lincecum has been giving up copious home runs for three years now. And that coincides with the same time frame in which he lost velocity on his fastball. What’s happened — and this is from watching the games — is that his fastball command was never good, but now the fastball only zips along at 89-90. So when he makes mistakes, they leave the park. This past start was a great one, but it was at home against an offense that strikes out a ton. And the next one (Miami) might work out. But that won’t change the underlying problem, which will come back to bite him some time this season.
Tommy Hunter is striking guys out at a career-high pace and is still coming up more than a strikeout per nine short of the average closer. He used to have pin-point command, and that could return, but right now, it’s just average. He was never really about grounders. And with a fastball/curve combo, he’s been vulnerable to platoon splits. For his career, lefties slug .503 off him (righties .409). This year, two of the three homers he’s given up have been to lefties. More damning might be that he just hasn’t gone through a full inning this year without giving up a hit or a walk. And he’s been scored upon in four straight. The last one came in a blown save loss to the Tigers — but maybe he can be forgiven for allowing Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez to homer off him. There still isn’t a great option behind him, not a traditional closer at least. Darren O’Day is a submariner with no velocity and terrible platoon splits. Zach Britton is a lefty (and managers prefer righties) who relies on the grounder to get the out. The bet here is that Hunter keeps the job after a bump in the road. It’s not like his manager is giving us any clues.
In Cleveland, John Axford’s control finally bit him in the butt and they’re in a committee. If money doesn’t matter, Cody Allen’s velocity and strikeouts and general awesomeness will win out. If money matters, John Axford’s one-year contract says he will win out. If they want to play the middle ground, Bryan Shaw is closer to free agency. He also got the last save, and these things matter. Shaw doesn’t throw that hard (91.4), but he sits in the top twenty in K-BB%, and given how great he was last year, it’s believable.
In New York, it’s a crapshoot. Kyle Farnsworth is nominally the closer, but his manager says he has no idea who’s getting the next save. Jeurys Familia got a shout-out in Terry Collins’ ramblings, and he finished Tuesday night’s blowout. Familia does have the gas to close, and some wicked movement on his pitches. But the movement is so hard to harness — he threw a fastball to Yangervis Solarte that started out off the plate inside and ended up off the plate outside. Despite the lower velocity, I’ll take Jenrry Mejia, who is suddenly in the pen and part of the conversation. Mejia has three great pitches and more control than Familia. He’s got the strikeouts. Familia has the gas. Farnsworth has the last save. Good luck.
Look at Sean Doolittle, fifth-best in strikeouts minus walks. No walks this year! Look at Jim Johnson, walking everyone and ranking just above Kyle Farnsworth in K-BB%. Look at Luke Gregerson, who doesn’t have the gas and hasn’t been given the closing role often over his career. Look at this mess. Doolittle should do it on talent, and he’s under contract for the rest of his arbitration years, so money is no concern. He’s a great pickup, actually, despite the fact that some beat writers think Doolittle is too valuable in other roles.
Doolittle is so valuable coming in with runners on base in earlier innings he probably won't be fulltime closer. Yet.
— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) May 13, 2014
As badly as Anthony Bass fares in K-BB%, I’m not sure his goose is cooked. He’s got velocity and he’s had more strikeouts in the past. Sadly, if you want Houston saves you have to own him and Chad Qualls, which makes them both near irrelevant in mixed leagues.
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Jason Grilli will throw a simulated game today, so he could be close. If I put Sergio Santos here for his injury, I don’t have to put him below. And look at his K-BB, it's pretty good based on all the strikeouts he gets.
Let’s give it a week before we put John Axford here, he’s got such a great mustache.
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The Steals Department
I’m seeing Dexter Fowler and B.J. Upton on too many waiver wires not to comment. Even outside of Coors, Fowler has the skills to hit .250+ with 15 homers and 20 steals. At 28 years old, he’s not far from his peak, and he’s making more contact this year. He’s at the very least mixed-league worthy when he goes up against a lefty as a righty — that’s his natural side, and he’s had more success from that side. Upton will do less for your batting average, but he’s been stealing bases more often and getting on base more this year. He could hit .230 with 15+ homers and 20+ steals. These guys are decent plug-and-play ways to get a shot at more counting stats, especially if you can use them against lefties more often.
Grant Green doesn’t have a lot of speed, but he has some. He doesn’t have a lot of patience, either. And pop is an open question. But he’s been up for 25 plate appearances in Anaheim and has taken off for second twice, and he’s playing semi regularly in left field and at third base. If he can play third well enough, he can stick on the roster once Josh Hamilton returns. There’s a chance here for a non-crummy batting average and a handful of homers and steals.