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July 11, 2013
Welcome to another installment of The Bullpen Report. As a reminder, closers are rated in five tiers from best to worst. The tiers are a combination of my opinion of a pitcher’s ability, the likelihood that he will pick up saves, and his security in the job. For example, a pitcher in the third tier might have better skills than a pitcher in the second tier, but if the third tier pitcher is new to the job or has blown a couple of saves in the last week this factors into the ranking as well.
One of the most frequent questions I get is “why did you move this reliever down? His overall numbers and/or his recent numbers are great.” This question crops up a lot, specifically when it comes to why I might or might not rank a reliever in the first or second tier.
While I addressed this in a previous version of the column, there are two factors I am looking at when it comes to a reliever that impact his rating, and they probably need additional explanation.
1. Recent performance
I’m not merely looking at save conversions, but strikeout rates, ERA/WHIP, and frequency of usage/opportunities. All closers in the first and second tier are understood to have a great deal of job security; the difference in the rating ties into how well closers are performing in other categories.
2. Overall fantasy (Rotisserie) value
One reader wanted to know why I had moved Greg Holland down from the first tier to the second tier a couple of weeks ago. Holland has been terrific all year long, and definitely has a stranglehold on the job. He also ranked 12th overall in standard Rotisserie 5x5 earnings for closers at the time the last Bullpen Report went to press. This is very good, but not what I would consider elite. The rankings reflect Rotisserie value in addition to job security.
It is important to note that the first and second tiers are both populated with reliable relievers in terms of job security. However, we are looking for relievers that not only will provide security, but relievers who will provide elite Rotisserie earnings as well.
Tier 1 — Money in the Bank
I moved a few guys down into Tier 2, and I’ll talk about them below. Holland is the only pitcher who moves up a notch this week. His overall numbers are solid and he has had a strong last couple of weeks. The threat of Kelvim Herrera is in the rearview mirror.
Rivera blew a save against the Orioles and as a result hasn’t had the greatest numbers the last two weeks, but Rivera’s long term track record keeps him here until he blows three or four saves in a row.
Tier 2 — Solid and Reliable
Grilli has been the best reliever in baseball this year based on the raw numbers, but five earned runs in his last four innings pushes him down for now. Romo and Soriano also move down, Romo due to a shellacking on July 7 and Soriano due to a lack of shut-down outings (only two whiffs in his last eight innings entering Wednesday night’s action).
The relievers that move up all move up because they have all gained more of my trust. Uehara clearly isn’t the fill-in guy. He has pitched well and while there are rumors of a potential deal, I could see the Red Sox rolling with him all year. Rodney’s shakiness looks to be behind him. I have a hard time seeing him rising past this level, but no problem putting him here. Papelbon has been a little less shaky of late and could find himself back with the elites with another strong week. Balfour broke Dennis Eckersley’s consecutive-saves record for the Athletics this week. His dominance markers aren’t great, but he continues to get the job done.
Tier 3 — Yeah…You’re…Good
Benoit’s numbers have been terrific; he’s only this low because he’s still relatively new to the job and the Tigers could trade for a closer near the deadline. Veras moves up. He goes back and forth between shaky and okay; he could actually be higher but it’s not hard to see the Astros flipping him at the deadline.
A lot of the movement in this tier is due to the trade risk. Gregg and Janssen both move down for that reason. The Cubs have been aggressive already; if they can get something useful for Gregg I think he goes. I doubt that Jays would move Janssen, but if they do wind up selling, he is a nice target for a team looking for a strong set-up man. Johnson is the only pitcher here to move down due to performance. His shakiness of late combined with Tommy Hunter’s strong performances recently makes me wary of Johnson.
Tier 4 — Uninspiring Choices
Everyone here moves up from the bottom tier, but all of these relievers are weak and could easily fall again. Betancourt slides in for Rex Brothers seamlessly, but if the Rockies continue to slump, they’re sellers and Betancourt is a risk. Rodriguez also falls into the trade risk category. Bell flipped back in for J.J. Putz when Putz’s velocity was down, but Bell is still a shaky option. Keep an eye on the Bell/Putz situation. Perez is another weak option but Vinnie Pestano has been even worse. Perez should be safe. Street has had an okay couple of weeks, but on the year has been terrible. Wilhelmsen seems to have the job back, but will need a few good outings before he moves up into a higher circle of trust.
Tier 5 — On the Bubble
The last time that Jim Johnson struggled, I thought that Darren O’Day might get the opportunity to close if Buck Showalter decided to make a change. As noted above, Tommy Hunter has likely replaced O’Day as the closer in waiting.
If you play in a holds league, you don’t need me to tell you that David Robertson is good. His 21 holds are good for second in the AL (only one behind the leader, Joel Peralta). Robertson gets glossed over in mixed formats because he’s behind the legendary Mariano Rivera, but he should be owned almost everywhere. If the Yankees don’t bring in an expensive import, D-Rob will be a fine replacement for Mo in 2014.
In the unlikely event Janssen gets moved, Steve Delabar is a potential candidate to close. The high walk rate makes me wary, and with Sergio Santos making noises about being potentially healthy, the club might move in that direction anyway. With Janssen unlikely to move, speculate in other bullpens. Delabar is a strikeout play whether he is closing or not.
For the most part, it has been a pretty successful transition from starting to relieving for Luke Hochevar. His high strand rate and low BABIP speak to some regression, but moving to the bullpen has allowed him to cut loose. Hochevar has increased his fastball velocity to 95 mph (up from 92.6 mph from last year) while increasing usage of his cutter and abandoning his slider/change. Two-pitch pitchers can thrive in the pen, and while keeping Hochevar rather than non-tendering him this winter didn’t make sense, the Royals have managed to get some good use out of him.
Scott Downs is another solid holds play. His overall numbers are kind of vanilla, and his strikeout rate doesn’t make him the best use of a roster spot in non-holds league, although he continues to be the logical next-in-line guy if Ernesto Frieri struggles.
Joakim Soria came off of the DL for the Rangers. He hasn’t pitched enough to draw any definitive conclusions, but since Texas has a deep pen, if you’re speculating, you’re probably speculating for 2014 and beyond. For stats (and not potential save opportunities), I like Jason Frasor better along with a cast of others. He has a reverse-platoon differential (he is a right-hander dominating left-handed batters) that he probably won’t sustain, but the high whiff rate makes him worth owning.
Jordan Walden has quietly reemerged as one of the best relievers in the big leagues regardless of role. Craig Kimbrel owners might want to stash Walden as insurance in leagues with deep reserve lists.
Carlos Torres has been terrific and in a weak pen like the Mets’, any live arm has to be viewed as a viable closer alternative. The signs are mixed as to whether or not Bobby Parnell will get moved, but Torres stands out from a weak crowd. His strand rate is way too high and his strikeout rate doesn’t speak to dominance, so be wary if you’re merely looking for middle-relief stats.
Antonio Bastardo picked up a save when Jon Papelbon needed a day off earlier this week. The rumor mill with Papelbon has quieted down, but that doesn’t mean things won’t change as the deadline gets closer. Bastardo is the first guy to grab in the Phillies bullpen if you’re speculating for saves.
Tyler Clippard racks up the holds and with Drew Storen struggling, he is the obvious choice to replace Soriano were an injury to occur. Clippard is the rare middle reliever who has held up for more than one to two seasons. He has plenty of value in every format with the exception of shallow mixed leagues.
Multiple reports out of Chicago have tabbed Blake Parker as Kevin Gregg’s likely replacement should Gregg get traded. Some have expressed cynicism that Parker could close, but the same cynicism met the team’s stance that Gregg was Carlos Marmol’s likely replacement. Dale Sveum has been a straight shooter about the pen all along; we can’t make assumptions based on what teams can or should do. Grab Parker and don’t go after anyone else unless you are in a very deep NL-only.
Mark Melancon is the Jesse Crain of the National League. He is the best non-closer in the circuit, and the best reliever in the National League this side of Jason Grilli. With Grilli having the year he is having, Melancon will remain entrenched in a set-up role.
J.P. Howell has quietly put up the best season of his career. Moving to the NL West from the AL East certainly helps, but Howell is getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground. I’m not sure if Howell’s low HR/FB or high infield-fly rates are sustainable, but if his overall fly-ball rate stays low, the regression won’t be a nightmare.
On the $ Values
Dollar values in the charts below represent my 2012 dollar valuations for 5x5 “only” Rotisserie-style formats using 2013 player statistics. These values use a Standings Gain Points (or SGP) model that is similar to the SGP model used in Baseball Prospectus’ Player Forecast Manager.
Closer Earnings to Date (through games of Tuesday, July 9, 2013)
Top Reliever Earnings, Non-Closers (through games of Tuesday, June 25, 2013)