December 30, 2011
Closers in Waiting
Today’s closers are mostly one of two things: yesterday’s failed starting pitcher or yesterday’s middle reliever. Rarely is a pitcher drafted and developed purely for the closing role, as many of today’s closers were once starting pitchers in the minors that either failed to stay healthy long enough to develop as a starter or never showed an ability to throw an effective off-speed pitch. The greatest closer in the history of this game, Mariano Rivera, had but one save in his entire minor league career, and it came in his first professional outing in the Gulf Coast League in 1990. Lee Smith had 478 saves in his career but had just two in his first 58 games in the majors and only 17 in six seasons of minor league baseball before the Cubs promoted him in 1980 (and 15 of those came that same season in Wichita). Brad Lidge never saved a game in his minor league career but was shifted to a relief role in his fifth minor league season because he was only able to pitch in 23 games in his first four years and amass 99 innings of work in those games (all starts).
Looking at today’s projected closers, we see the list full of former middle relievers. Before becoming the Hammer of God, Rivera was working in middle relief behind John Wetteland. Jim Johnson is set to take over the job in Baltimore after working behind the inferior Kevin Gregg, and Sergio Santos went from shortstop to reliever to now closing in Toronto in just a few seasons. We also know that closers are bound to fail, with Rivera being the exception to the rule. In my many years of fantasy baseball, drafting Rivera’s set-up man has always been a wasted pick because that pitcher was never going to see saves. It is not that way for most others, and the fact that 47 different pitchers had at least five saves last season shows that saves can come from many different sources than just the 30 pitchers drafted as closers in March.
When looking for those other sources, there are many different paths that fantasy players take. I posed that question to my friends at RJBullpen (the former RotoJunkie).com and asked them to choose their preferred statistic to use when looking for saves:
Out of 37 votes received, 65 percent went with the strikeout-to-walk ratio with the strikeout rate coming in second place. Other points raised in the discussion were pitchers having short memories, guile, and fewer balls in play. As Tout Wars compatriot Todd Zola stated, he would take his chances with a guy that has an 8/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio because of the fewer balls in play than a guy with a 6/2 strikeout-to-walk rate.
There were 49 relief pitchers last season that had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.0 or greater. Sergio Romo was the best at an excellent 14.0, with Matt Thornton rounding out the group right at 3.0. The three best ratios belonged to Romo, Koji Uehara, and Rafael Betancourt, and that trio had nine saves last season with Betancourt picking up eight of those. Betancourt is now (finally) getting another shot at closing in Colorado after years of being one of the best middle relievers in baseball, skills-wise. Betancourt had never had more than four saves in a season before 2011 despite strong strikeout rates, low walk rates, and solid FIPs. Betancourt’s problem has been untimely homeruns and short hooks when he was given a chance to close in Cleveland.
If we were to combine tips and look at pitchers with strong strikeout-to-walk ratios and those that miss bats, we end up with several candidates that are worth rostering on skills alone. These are the pitchers from last season that were not their team’s full-time closer but had K/BB ratios of at least 2.0 and strikeout rates of at least 8.0 per nine innings (min 50 IP):
That table does not acknowledge team depth charts or look at any other issues the pitcher may have with drastic splits that slots them more as specialists than closers, but it is a starting point for your own research as you decide which middle relief targets to look at. Someone like O’Flaherty is not going to see any saves behind Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters (who could be a great closer himself), but someone like Rich Thompson has good skills in an Angels’ bullpen that is not completely settled. Before the Marlins signed Heath Bell, Steve Cishek should have been on some radars as he was producing excellent statistics behind the pitcher formerly known as Leo Nunez.
If we add in a filter to show us the relievers with high groundball rates (48 percent or higher), our list gets narrowed down quite a bit. Sean Marshall is right at the top of the list with a 60 percent groundball rate to go along with his strong strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last year’s surprise, Kyle Farnsworth, is just behind him but comes with the elbow concerns that popped up late last season. Janssen shows up again with his 54 percent groundball rate but now has to pitch behind Santos. Perkins is very interesting because he has the groundball rate, the strikeout rate, the strong strikeout-to-walk rate, and did not have any issues with splits last season. Yet, the Twins went out and brought Matt Capps back into the fold on a one-year deal. The language the team used when re-signing Capps pointed toward the closing role being his to lose, but Perkins deserves attention in that bullpen and could be one of those surprise sources for saves in 2012 if Capps struggles as badly as he did last season.
Marshall and Betancourt have seemingly inherited the closing roles in the National League this off-sesaon as by-products of trades, while Jim Johnson has appeared to earn his role in Baltimore as well. Trades have defined other roles, but with so many relievers providing five or more saves last season, rostering the relievers that have the skills to do the job before they actually get the job is a way to stay ahead of your competition.