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May 24, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Save Opps

by Craig Brown

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Bobby Jenks isn’t having a good year as the closer for the Chicago White Sox.  Yes, he has 20 strikeouts in 15 innings, but he’s become frustratingly hittable—opponents are blistering him for a line of .323/.389/.492 and he owns a 1.87 WHIP.  Since White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen made the announcement back on May 11th that he would use his ninth inning pitcher based on the match-ups presented, alternative closer Matt Thornton has gotten into exactly two games and faced a grand total of three batters.  The Sox were being careful as Thornton reported a sore elbow after closing out a game (and picking up the save) on May 15.  It’s not as if the Sox are flush with save opportunities—there have been only two in their last 10 games.

Thornton, like Jenks, is getting a ton of punch-outs—he’s whiffed 26 in 17 innings this year which follows back to back seasons of a strikeout rate better than 10.0 K/9.  Unlike Jenks, hitters aren’t touching him at all.  Thornton is limiting the opposition to a slash line of .155/.222/.241 with a WHIP of 0.77.

Quite a difference, although you have to wonder if their manager truly sees it that way.  Both Jenks and Thornton have virtually identical Leverage Indexes—Jenks owns a 1.85 LEV, while Thornton checks in at 1.81.  

There haven’t been a ton of left-handed closers, but there’s no reason to think Thornton couldn’t serve with distinction.  Certainly, he excels at getting left-handed batters out, but he does equally well against hitters from the right side as shown by his splits covering 2008 to 2010:

Vs RHB - .215/.272/.372, 23.9% K, 6.9% BB
Vs LHB - .185/.248/.265, 39.6% K, 7% BB

Thornton has been the most productive reliever on the South Side this year with a 0.765 WXRL.  Jenks currently owns a -0.25 WXRL and J.J. Putz —Guillen’s reliever with the third highest Leverage Index at 1.14—checks in with a -0.791 WXRL—last in the Chicago bullpen.  All three relievers own identical strand rates of 71.4%.

Reports say Thornton has “fully recovered from the soreness in his elbow.”  With Jenks (and Putz) being featured in trade rumors, now is the time to jump on the Thornton train.  He’s currently owned in 17% of ESPN leagues.  If anything, he’ll pick you up a few cheap saves here and there while helping you maintain your ERA and WHIP.  If you’re really mining for saves in a deep league, take a look at Sergio Santos as a dark horse.  Santos is second on the team with a 0.744 WXRL and has been just as unhittable as Thornton.  If Guillen decides to stay with a closer by committee and Jenks does in fact get dealt, Santos could benefit as the right side of a two-headed ninth inning monster.

While the White Sox have some better options in their bullpen than their current closer, that's not necessarily the case in Arizona where the struggling Chad Qualls picked up a pair of one-out saves last week before being called upon for a full inning of work to protect a three-run lead on Saturday.  That gave him three relatively easy saves in as many appearances.  At any rate, it’s a welcome change of pace because Qualls has already blown three save opportunities on the year and owns a 6.32 ERA and 1.85 WHIP.  

With a 3.60 SO/BB ratio, Qualls still has his control and is punching out hitters at the best rate of his career (10.3 K/9), but is getting pounded for a .348 BA against.  Opponents own a .449 BABIP against Qualls through his first 16 innings of work.  Certainly, that number has to drop.  In the meantime, his -1.212 WXRL is the second-worst in the Arizona bullpen.  We’ll get to the worst in a moment.

Collectively, Arizona relievers have a 7.61 ERA and 1.78 WHIP while allowing a league-high 52% of all inherited runners to score.  Not good.  Aaron Heilman has been their most consistent reliever and leads the team with a 0.131 WXRL.  With a 3.44 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, he’s the only member of the bullpen to have an ERA less than 4.90 and a WHIP under 1.5.  After a rough patch in mid-April where he let a pair of leads slip away in the seventh inning, Heilman has been solid, throwing 11 innings and allowing just one run on six hits while striking out 12.  

With a Leverage Index of 1.91, Juan Gutierrez has been the reliever under the most pressure for the Diamondbacks.  Owning an 8.83 ERA and a 1.5 WHIP, he’s folded more often than not. Gutierrez filled the void for Arizona last year, picking up nine saves when Qualls went down with a knee injury and entered this season as the set-up man with an eye on the full-time closer role.  Gutierrez has allowed only 18 hits in 17 innings this year, but seven of those hits have left the yard.  Four of them have come with men on base and two of them were walk-offs.  That can’t help the confidence.  Overall, his -1.311 WXRL is the worst among all Diamondback relievers.

This month, Gutierrez has twice entered the game at the beginning of an inning with the score tied.  Both times he left with his team trailing.  Once, he entered with two runners on and was asked to protect a three-run lead.  He coughed up a three-run home run.   Whatever he had last summer, he's lost it.  Heilman figures to be next in line, but it appears the Diamondbacks will do everything in their power to build confidence in Qualls. Besides, once his elevated BABIP normalizes, he's their best option anyway.

Until then, the Arizona situation is a mess of epic proportions.  It’s advisable to stay far away.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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