It was a ho-hum week for closers. Nine tied for the most saves with two apiece. The most interesting to appear on the list are Steve Cishek and Luke Jackson. They’re both newly matriculated closers. And they probably only have a temporary grasp on the role. Kirby Yates leads the league with 16 saves followed by Shane Green (15), Kenley Jansen (13), Felipe Vazquez (12), and Brad Hand (11).
And now, shall we go to the tiers?
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Tier 1: The King (1)
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Diaz’s velocity is down. From his debut in 2016 through mid-April, Diaz has averaged over 97 mph with his fastball. In fact, his FanGraphs player page lists a very consistent 97.3 mph fastball in each of 2016 through 2018. Up through April 19, he was running a 97.4 mph fastball. Typical. In his eight most recent appearances, he’s failed to crack a 97 mph average in a single outing. He’s down to a 96.3 mph average over the span. Reductions in velocity can signal impending injury.
It’s way too early to panic. By the same token, when it is time to panic, it’ll already be too late to salvage the situation. If you’re sitting pretty in the saves category, consider selling high to a starved rival. If you need the saves yourself, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Despite the red flag, Diaz probably isn’t considerably more likely to hit the injured list than any other closer. They’re all an injury risk.
Tier 2: Nearly Elite (8)
Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
P Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics
Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals
Something feels wrong about rating Vazquez as the second-best closer. The best alternatives all have warts. Osuna has the elite stuff of a 14.00 K/9 reliever. For a second straight season, his actual strikeout rate is a sub-8.00 K/9. I can only conclude he’s intentionally pitching to contact. The outcomes remain elite, but I can’t in good faith bet on a .119 BABIP to hold. Nor should you. Chapman has a nasty habit of temporarily losing his job to his elite teammates. Hader is used in a way that renders him unavailable for some save opportunities. Thus, we’re left with Vazquez. While he struggled with a very mild case of the yips early last season, he’s run into no such issues in 2019. His fantasy owners should be very happy with 14.46 K/9 and 2.41 BB/9.
Yates has struck out the side in five of his last six appearances. We roster top closers to earn saves and rack up elite strikeout rates. Yates is delivering. As a splitter specialist, Yates should be considered slump-prone (see Jose Leclerc and Hector Neris as recent examples). He’s yet to allow a home run despite occasional bouts of homeritis in the past.
Tier 3: Reliable Relief Aces (3)
Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays
Hand has performed like a top closer – 12.74 K/9, 2.55 BB/9 and a 1.53 ERA. I’m very concerned about three things: 1.4 mph of missing velocity, a sharp increase in fly ball rate, and a past history of elevated home run to fly ball rates. Thus far, the fly balls aren’t leaving the park. With the summer approaching and juiced baseballs waiting to be squeeze, regression feels inevitable.
Doolittle and Giles offer similar stories. With Doolittle, recurring shoulder problems always eventually lead to a stint on the injured list. The Nationals are also struggling to bridge the gap between their starters and Doolittle. They may soon begin using him in more multi-inning appearances, increasing the injury risk. Giles tends to streak between hot and cold. He was icy for most of 2018. Now he’s hot. As with Hand, watch out for an influx of home runs.
Tier 4: Core Performers (6)
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox
Will Smith, San Francisco Giants
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox
Shane Greene, Detroit Tigers
When at his best, Neris can look an awful lot like Yates. The Phillies won’t make things easy. Pat Neshek earned the most recent save. Neris was available. Presumably, the three-run lead was deemed insufficiently close to warrant calling upon the closer.
As announced in last week’s headline, Barnes looks to have an increasingly firm grasp on the Red Sox closer role. Brasier will probably still earn a few odd saves. He could even recapture the job with some timely performances. Barnes’ ridiculous 17.13 K/9 and 2.08 BB/9 would place him among the top five closers if it was sustainable. He’s throwing nearly 60 percent curve balls this year.
Smith is missing a few strikeouts and swinging strikes this season. It might just be a small sample blip – his stuff and run prevention are nearly identical to last year. In any case, an eventual trade to a contender will probably wipe out his value as a closer.
Walks and Coors Field are Davis’ bane. He allowed three runs and took a loss over the last week. All of the runs were coughed up at home. Opponents have been helpless when he pitches on the road.
Tier 5: Red Flag Club (8)
Luke Jackson, Atlanta Braves
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Greg Holland, Arizona Diamondbacks
Mychal Givens, Baltimore Orioles
Chris Martin, Texas Rangers
Steve Cishek, Chicago Cubs
Robles has the upper hand on save opportunities for the moment. Buttrey is obviously the more skilled pitcher. These roles will probably flip sometime in the future. For now, plan for Robles to receive 75 percent of the saves.
Jackson’s success is dependent on a 68.6 percent ground ball rate. He’s never before shown this penchant for ground balls. He’s also whittled his fastball usage down to just one-third of offerings. The profile looks fragile to me. In deeper formats, I’d stash A.J. Minter. He was recently demoted for a recuperation stint in the minors.
When last we left Iglesias, he was trying to whine his way out of a job. He claimed his closer colleagues on other teams didn’t have to pitch in as many tied games. The self-centered, crybaby attitude wasn’t a good look. He rebounded from a slump – his second of the season – with three straight solid appearances. His 14.19 K/9 are offset by 1.83 HR/9.
Martin is an uninspiring mid-tier reliever. He’s good enough to use in fantasy leagues so long as he remains the Rangers closer. Expect about a strikeout per inning, a low walk rate, and something like a 3.60 ERA. Kelley will return soon, and Leclerc is showing signs of life too. This is a temporary role for Martin.
Cishek is also a temp closer. He’s usually used as a right-handed specialist who works in frequent, short bursts. Kyle Ryan could find his way to some saves if the opponent happens to have tough lefty sluggers up in the ninth inning. Strop and Morrow are expected to miss at least a month.