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Saves and Steals

Who's the Closer Now?

by Eno Sarris
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

Last week, it was all about how the prospect pitchers were such bad bets. But hitters are always a better bet — usually about 5-10% better than that.  Who knows why, go ask your cat.


But we’ve already talked about position player prospects, for the most part.


So let’s talk about position player prospects that have already played in the big leagues. You know the term. Post-hype sleepers. Now we’re talking about guys with track records in the majors, but maybe not the biggest sample, maybe not quite big enough to write them off just yet. Maybe they’re still young enough to be pre-peak (about 25-26 instead of the 27-28 we used to think). Maybe they’ve been both good and bad and we’re waiting to see which one wins out in the end. Maybe it’s their last chance to be called a young player.


Those are the tiers: young guys that maybe still have a chance. Post Hype Sleepers if you have to put a name on them.

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Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Jurickson Profar” Tier.)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox


The hype doesn’t get much larger than being labeled the number one prospect. Perhaps the fall isn’t so complete in all leagues, and Profar is owned in your league. If not, this is your last chance to pick up a shortstop-eligible player with upside to contribute in every category. Sure, he’s been caught too often on the base paths in his first 341 plate appearances. And he hasn’t taken off enough to believe that he’ll be a big stolen base guy. And, despite good contact skills, he’s just about average in terms of strikeouts. These flaws exist. And yet, he makes contact, has speed, and has more power than he’s shown in the big leagues. He’s worth a roster spot in most leagues, particularly if you’re weak up the middle.


No pitcher has ever struck out more than 45% of the batters he’s faced… hold on, no pitcher other than Craig Kimbrel. And now he’s doing it again. How can anyone else be number one with that being the case? Greg Holland has improved his control to the point that he’s now a positive in that category. Kenley Jansen is throwing harder than ever and striking everyone out. But Kimbrel is still King.


Koji Uehara, though, I’m a little worried about Koji Uehara. He’s been a little more hittable this year, sure, but it’s this graph that worries me more. His velocity is down. Definitively. And this is coming off a year in which he logged 20 more innings than his career MLB high. His last two fastballs in his last outing went 85 and 86 respectively. It’s not enough to drop him a tier given that he’s still striking people out with great command, but it’s something to remember. Given Edward Mujica is dealing with an oblique, if things got hectic suddenly, it could be Junichi Tazawa closing. Tazawa has the ability to strike more batters out than he has so far, and he also has more velocity than the other two.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Wil Myers“ Tier.)


Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals


Myers never topped Baseball America’s prospect lists, but the number four overall prospect had plenty of wind beneath his wings coming into the 2013 season. The Rays took the cautious (or financially sound) approach with Myers and gave him a half-season of work, in which his good batted ball luck made him look like a better player than he perhaps was. Because Myers has always struck out a bit much, and isn’t destined for great batting averages. The thing is, he’s probably undervalued right now. Myers has shown great power all through his career, and at 23, is pre-peak for power no matter what age you define as peak. Power doesn’t stabilize quickly — imagine if he had a three-homer game tomorrow, all of his power numbers would look a ton better, and quickly — so just be happy that he’s improved his strikeout rate and decided to hit a few more fly balls this year. The power should come.


For some reason, Trevor Rosenthal is still getting whiffs on his pitches, but he’s not getting batters to reach. Reaching turns balls into strikes, and that’s the main cause for Rosenthal’s bad walk rate. I’ll bet on the swinging strikes and the 96 mph fastball, and the fact that he’s never really shown command problems in the past. That said, Glen Perkins is pushing his already-elite command into more ridiculous territory. Strikeouts minus walks are the best in-season predictor for pitchers, and Perkins has the fourth-best number in that category (Kimbrel and Holland are first and second). Closers are averaging strikeouts on 27% of the batters they face — a 9.9 K/9 — and Perkins is comfortably above that while showing pristine ratios. There’s a case for him to be elite, but we’ll have to watch the Twins some too.


Strikeouts minus walks is a better tool than strikeouts divided by walks because strikeouts are more important than walks. Consider the extreme case of a guy that could strike out three batters per nine and walk one compared to a pitcher with nine strikeouts per nine and three walks. For that reason, plus the fact that Sergio Romo hasn’t had an average strikeout percentage for a closer for 75 innings now, we’ll move David Robertson ahead of Romo. Tiers matter more than placing, but Robertson is young and has struck out more batters since the beginning of the 2012 season, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him or his leash. I’m happy that Romo is throwing that change-up and that it’s a decent pitch, but as with any pitcher that doesn’t crack 90, I’m suspicious when there’s a drop in strikeout rate.


That said, it’s a little early to put stock in these strikeout numbers. It usually takes about 125 batters faced to really ‘believe’ a strikeout rate change.  Addison Reed’s strikeout rate is up, but he’s only faced 71 batters. I’ll refer to these numbers because it’s what we have to judge guys, but the only number that’s rock solid right now is velocity. (And since velocity is linked to closer change, that’s why you’ll hear about velocity here a lot.) Addison Reed’s velocity is up a tick.


Aroldis Chapman! Back this weekend! I’m not worried that he had a bad outing in Triple-A.


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


Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Will Middlebrooks Tier.)


Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

Huston Street, San Diego Padres


When Will Middlebrooks debuted, he hit .288 with 15 homers in half a season and everyone started drooling. But he struck out too much and that came to bite him in his second and third attempts at the league. The good news right now is that he’s improved his contact rate and that’s in a decent sample. It’s believable that he might actually improve his strikeout rate this year as he gets more at-bats. The power is for real, so if it comes with a better strikeout rate, there’s still a chance for a .260 batting average with 25-homer pace. Not superstar stuff, but we’re in the okay tier right now.


Francisco Rodriguez and Steve Cishek both are showing good numbers despite career-worst velocities. Their surprising teams are also surging and giving their closers more work than expected. To me, this creates the perfect sell-high situation. Even if they keep their jobs, they’re not likely to keep these ratios and this saves pace.


Joe Nathan’s velocity is down, but he still sits over 91 and doesn’t have much competition in that pen. Fernando Rodney is still striking everyone out and walking the rest. At some point, 42% of his balls in play won’t be hits (30% is league average). So maybe Danny Farquhar isn’t that close to saves. But watch for blowups. All the peripherals say Jonathan Papelbon should be in trouble — his velocity is down on all pitches, his strikeout rate is terrible for a closer, he’s got no ground-ball rate — but he’s making it work. If he struck out more guys, I might even move him up.


Huston Street moves up because it’s hard to ignore the resurgence in swinging strikes, strikeouts and walks. But it’s also hard to ignore that he hasn’t topped 60 innings in five years, and that he’s still sitting below 90. He’ll probably be really good until he’s hurt again.


Tier 4: Question Marks (5) (AKA: The “Derek Norris” Tier.)


Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Lindstrom, Chicago White Sox


Did you know that Derek Norris was the Nationals second-best prospect for a couple years, and ranked as high as #38 on Baseball America’s top 100? He’s had a lot of swing and miss in his game, but over the last two years, he’s actually cut his swinging strike below the league average, and his strikeout rate has gone with it. He’s getting lucky on balls in play right now, and he’s a right-handed member of a platoon, so he’s a deep leaguer… for now. He’s also getting chances against more righties and hitting the ball with authority. For what it’s worth, I’m also happy about Travis D’Arnaud’s plate appearance, don’t believe he’ll hit .200 all year, and think power is coming. And he’s actually a starter.


Tommy Hunter drops a tier. He doesn’t have a history of good strikeout rates for a closer, his swinging strike rate is below average, and he’s always had homer issues. A few poorly-timed homers might cost him his job. But who’s pushing him for that job? Zach Britton is next by how he’s being used, and though the team has used a grounder-heavy guy in the past, the fact that he’s a lefty on top of the grounders has to be of some concern. Sinkers and sliders have the worst platoon splits and more than 2/3 of baseball bats right-handed. Hunter is safe-ish for now.


Grant Balfour is walking more guys than he’s striking out and his velocity is down two mile per hour over last year. It’s still hard to put him down below a part-time guy. He is below a guy that is sporting a strikeout rate of about a guy every three innings. LaTroy Hawkins’ strikeout rate is so bad that of the 748 times a guy that saved more than ten games since 1990, only two closers (Dan Kolb in Milwaukee in 2004 and Joe Grahe in 1992 in Anaheim) showed a worse rate. Woof. If he can’t push it up closer to five over the next 50 or so batters faced, I see no way he stays in the role all year. The park he’s in inflates the hit rate on balls in play more than home runs, and he allows so many balls into play. (Matt Lindstrom is also a problem here.)


Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Danny Duffy” Tier.)


Brett Cecil (first chair), Aaron Loup (second chair), Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri (first chair), Joe Smith (second chair), Los Angeles Angels
Hector Rondon(first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Chad Qualls (first chair), Anthony Bass (second chair), Houston Astros


Duffy was once the 68-th best prospect by Baseball America. He never really found the plate, and then this year looked great in the pen. But it’s still only about gas with him, and even now he’s got a bad walk rate. Pick him up in a deeper league, but don’t depend on Duffy. He could walk the lineup again. Anybody that can average 94 and start gets a writeup, but not full approval.


Maybe John Axford has lost this job already. Maybe not, though. He blew a save for Corey Kluber’s excellent game. And then, pitching for the third time in three days, he gave up a homer in the tenth inning to lose another game. He’s having his customary troubles with the strike zone and the home run. But his team would rather keep Cody Allen cheap, so they’re going to give Axford another chance or two, I’d guess. That motivation probably puts Bryan Shaw ahead of Allen despite the high probability that Allen is a better pitcher.


He leads a long list of situations in which we might not even know who the closer is right now. On May 4th, Terry Collins said that Kyle Farnsworth was still his closer. On May 5th, Farnsworth pitched the eighth inning because the other possible closer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, imploded with two walks and two hits without getting an out. Later in the ninth inning, the other possible closer, Gonzalez Germen, gave up a walk and a fluky hit off his heel and lost the game. Germen might be the best pitcher there, but this team might want to keep him cheap and Farnsworth looks cromulent enough to make it through one more year as a closer.


Jim Johnson might be the closer in Oakland, maybe. He was making a good case for it, at least, with eight straight scoreless outings before Tuesday night. And even Tuesday night, an error made the four runs he gave up unearned. But Johnson earned those runs by allowing two hits and two walks. The walks were most concerning, because he’s traditionally had great control. Maybe it was just a blip. We do know the guys behind him failed to take the reins.


No idea who’s the closer in Toronto. First up after Sergio Santos walked his way out of the role was Brett Cecil. Cecil has a great strikeout rate and was a college closer if that sort of thing matters to you. But he doesn’t sit higher than 91.5, and is currently sporting a bad walk rate of his own. Aaron Loup got the last save chance, but he’s a lefty with a bad strikeout rate, and has no more gas. The money is on Cecil as a short-term replacement until Janssen returns (soon?). Long-term, Santos’ stuff could still find him getting saves chances, provided he can find the plate soon.


I guess Ernesto Frieri is the closer in Anaheim, maybe. He got a save chance because Joe Smith was throwing up in the bullpen, but his manager had been dropping hints it would happen for a while. Then Frieri pitched in a tie game in the ninth inning, and then he gave up a first-pitch homer on a grooved pitch to Brian Roberts. Joe Smith’s strikeout rate over the last three years would put him 27th among the top 32 in saves this year, and his velocity would be the worst. Danny Farquhar pointed out to me that Smith has multiple arm slots, too, which is probably why his control is average — he blows up from time to time and has excellent control the rest of the time. Those are the days he loses his arm slot. I’m still betting on Frieri. Check what his manager said after this last outing: “Manager Mike Scioscia said he doesn’t view this as a setback to the rehabilitation of Frieri’s role. “He’s been throwing the ball so well,” Scioscia said. “Ernie made some great pitches. The one mistake he made, unfortunately we didn’t get back.””


We liked Hector Rondon last week, so we’ll continue to like him now. But nobody can say for sure who’s the closer in Houston. Chad Qualls and Anthony Bass are to share the meager save opportunities that come out of Houston, is what the manager says. Qualls is showing the better strikeout rate, but he’s never been about a strikeout rate like this, and he’s only faced a quarter of the guys that he needs to before we really believe this strikeout rate. Bass has the gas, badumching, but they haven’t turned into strikeouts yet. I’m guessing they will, slowly, because in the pen, his fastball is playing up and his slider is within a whiff of being average. Take your pick, really.


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Casey Janssen (shoulder, back, abdomen), Toronto Blue Jays
Jason Grilli (oblique), Pittsburgh Pirates
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros
Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets


Casey Janssen is already on his rehab appearance with Double-A. He’ll be back within a week, it looks like, and might close right away, considering the mess that’s happened while he was gone. Jason Grilli hasn’t thrown off a mound and we might be talking late May for his return. Jesse Crain might actually come back around the same time, and given what’s going on in Houston, he could close when he returns, too.


The Deposed


Jim Henderson
Jose Veras
Josh Fields


Glad I didn’t put Ernesto Frieri on here. Fields earns it with no idea of where the ball is going.


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The Steals Department


Somewhere between deep leagues and shallow leagues lives Marcus Semien. I wrote up the technical reasons here, but basically because of his decent swinging strike rate, I think Marcus Semien will strikeout less in the future. He has power, speed, and is useful at many positions. There is some worry about his ability to stick in the big leagues, but he survived Gordon Beckham’s return, and his team has said they want him to get a full year of work in the big leagues. The long-term plan seems to be to see if Beckham can revive some trade value, move him, and then install Semien at second. But with Matt Davidson striking out almost 40% of the time in the minor leagues, there’s no real reason to worry about Semien’s playing time. With the upside to hit .240 with power and speed, he’s not really a great bet for twelve-team leagues, but in anything deeper, he should be owned.


Deep leagues have probably noticed that Sam Fuld took the job in Minny. He could steal ten to fifteen bags if given the rest of the season. Byron Buxton just started swinging the bat and there’s no chance he’s up before July 1 anyway. J.B. Shuck is still playing regularly in Anaheim, and he has a similar skill set. Chris Getz — I know, Chris Getz — is playing in Toronto regularly, and Ryan Goins isn’t goins to keep him from playing time very long. Oh man that was terrible. Craig Gentry usually plays against lefties, but Coco Crisp gets hurt regularly and Josh Reddick has a heel thing, so he’s actually own able in deep leagues.