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February 23, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Pick a Closer, Any Closer

by Alex Carnevale

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With front offices more and more cognizant that closers are made, not born, it's getting harder than ever to handicap a competition for that crucial roto-league role. It would be one thing if we could identify the best reliever on a given staff and point in that direction, but these days, smart franchises like the Tigers and Cardinals have increasingly resisted casting their best relievers in that role, and the Astros and Braves seem to following that model as well. I mean, the guy wrote a book about what a genius he is, so we can only hope he knows Bob Wickman's 1.04 ERA as a Brave was a fluke. (Also: he publishes said book hailing himself, and the Braves lose their first NL East title in 12 years. A-Rod, you have been warned.)

Measuring reliever performance is tricky, as ERA doesn't tell us much, and reliever peripherals are occasionally misleading. One of my favorite tools in evaluating past performance is WXRL, which takes into account the situation when the reliever enters the game.

As Keith Woolner noted in a 2005 mailbag,

WXRL is the change in expected runs due to the reliever's performance. As such, it matters very much the kinds of situations he comes to pitch in--and whether his good outings were in high or low leverage situations…WXRL is a way to assess past performance, usage, and game importance. But it is not independent of how and where a pitcher is used. A better measure for that would be Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP), which takes into account only how a pitcher performed, not the leverage of the situation, but does consider inherited and bequeathed runners fairly in doing so.

Adjusted Runs Prevented is originally a statistic developed by Michael Wolverton that measures the amount of runs prevented above the average reliever given the situation. Both stats give us an idea of how effective various relievers were last season. With WXRL in one hand and ARP in the other, let's try to handicap some of this year's closer battles. Also, I'm using translated walk and strikeout rates, leveling that basis of comparison.

(As a side note, if you'd like to play around with Adjusted Runs Prevented or WXRL, go to the sortable statistics. Select Pitcher Season from the drop-down menu, and then select WXRL and ARP. To show a quick leaderboard, go to Sorts and select 'ARP' and 'DESC.')

Arizona Diamondbacks:

ARP rank   Year    Pitcher               WXRL    ARP   BB/9  K/9
167        2006    Jorge Julio           1.163   2.0    4.4  11.1
92         2006    Brandon Lyon          1.636   6.3    2.2   6.0
142        2006    Brandon Medders       0.923   3.0    2.9   5.8
471        2006    Jose Valverde         0.910  -4.3    3.4  12.5

In 2005, Valverde put up a 2.906 WXRL and 18.4 ARP in 66.3 IP. These are very good numbers. A WXRL of over three is very impressive, and an ARP in the teens also represents plenty of production. That said, what went wrong in 2006? It's hard to see a change in his peripherals. With the Snakes a trendy NL West pick, GM Josh Byrnes might as well give Valverde every chance to stick in the role again. Considering how roughed up he got last year, he represents another buy-low candidate.

Atlanta Braves:

ARP rank   Year    Pitcher              WXRL    ARP  BB/9  K/9
10        2006     Rafael Soriano      3.189   23.2  3.0   8.8
43        2006     Mike Gonzalez       3.490   13.1  4.7  10.2
149       2006     Bob Wickman         0.779   -0.2  2.2   7.0

In 2006, the Braves posted a 1.243 WXRL as a bullpen, "good" for 27th in the majors. This became a major focus for John Schuerholz in the offseason, and he brought in two arms whose ARP numbers speak for themselves. Wickman stopped walking people after he came over to Atlanta, but in a nasty NL East, his tenure as closer may be brutish and short.

Boston Red Sox:

ARP rank   Year    Pitcher            WXRL   ARP  BB/9  K/9
478        2006    Craig Hansen     -0.679  -4.5   3.3  6.9
105        2006    Brendan Donnelly  1.121   5.2   3.8  6.8
223        2006    Mike Timlin       1.559   0.5   2.1  4.2
2          2006    Jonathan Papelbon 6.605  35.8   1.4  9.5
370        2006    Joel Pineiro      N/A     N/A   3.3  4.4
391        2006    Kyle Snyder       0.049  -0.6   2.6  8.2
508        2006    Julian Tavarez   -0.845  -8.0   3.6  5.1

Jon Papelbon had a tremendous season, one that was left unfinished due to shoulder problems. The only reliever to beat him out for the ARP title was the Jays' B.J. Ryan, with 39.6 adjusted runs prevented in almost four more innings. After the first few saves are blown, it will be tempting for Theo and Co. to drop Papelbon back into a role he seems especially suited for, but his health concerns mean he's unlikely to leave the rotation. That's a shame, because the other candidates don't impress. Giving Craig Hansen a chance to succeed in the role can't hurt, but Kyle Snyder would be an interesting choice, given that in the first inning of his starts, he held hitters to a .175/.250/.275 line. Whatever the choice, in this most fickle of sports towns, Pineiro isn't long for the job, and he'll probably be drafted earlier than you'll want to take him.

Chicago Cubs:

ARP rank  Year    Pitcher            WXRL  ARP    BB/9   K/9
17        2006    Bob Howry        2.169   19.0    1.3   8.2
82        2006    Scott Eyre       1.263    7.4    3.9  10.5
526       2006    Ryan Dempster   -1.261   -9.6    3.7   7.8
N/A       2006    Kerry Wood        N/A     N/A    3.1   5.8

Jim Hendry deserves credit for making two bullpen signings in 2005 free agency that aged relatively well. With that said, Eyre's 34 years old and Howry 32. Eyre's a lefty, and without Howry, the setup options look pretty ugly. The Cubs will be more inclined to get creative, and a productive Ryan Dempster would go a long way towards strengthening that bullpen. Look for him to get more chances than he necessarily deserves. With the likelihood that Wood won't be asked to pitch back-to-back games, getting Dempster right could result in a huge sleeper season with the Cubs a much-improved team.

Cincinnati Reds:

ARP rank   Year   Pitcher            WXRL   ARP    BB/9  K/9
61         2006   David Weathers     2.566  10.6   3.5   6.0
416        2006   Bill Bray          1.098  -1.3   2.6   6.6
49         2006   Todd Coffey        2.585  12.4   2.3   6.8

Coffey's act of running out to the mound never gets old with me--he's an inspiration. Despite looking like he's in his mid-fifties, he's only 25, and the best of this motley group last year. The prototypical example of a player who may be forced into a closing role, Coffey will also give you decent value as a middle reliever in the interim. The X-factor in Cincinnati is a strange front office, one that hails from Intangible, Ohio.

Detroit Tigers:

ARP rank Year    Pitcher            WXRL   ARP    BB/9  K/9
4        2006    Joel Zumaya        5.010  30.9    4.3  9.7
77       2006    Fernando Rodney    2.221   8.2    4.1  7.6
126      2006    Todd Jones         2.298   3.6    1.3  3.9

Zumaya slotting into that closer role may not be the slam-dunk many think. There's no question he's probably as suited for it as a young pitcher can be, what with his intimidating goatee and Guitar Hero skills, but there are rumblings he may get another chance to be a starter, and the Tiger bullpen already features two guys with closing experience. Moreover, the Vegas odds on a Zumaya arm injury are already at 3-2. Despite struggling after being overused, Rodney was Jim Leyland's sleeper pick for the All-Star team. A scenario in which Jones gets turfed and a bullpen-by-committee replaces him would not surprise me, either.

Cleveland Indians

ARP rank   Year    Pitcher            WXRL   ARP   BB/9  K/9
67         2006    Joe Borowski      2.822  10.0    3.9  7.4
374        2006    Fausto Carmona   -1.499  -0.2    3.5  6.5
470        2006    Fernando Cabrera  0.018  -4.2    4.6  9.6
378        2006    Tom Mastny        0.091  -0.3    4.5  7.2

With Keith Foulke and his bad 'tude out of the picture, they're going to have a hard time getting away from Borowski as closer, especially since the organization shuffled through them last season. Carmona will start games at Triple-A after an unpleasant bullpen run last year.

Florida Marlins:

ARP rank   Year    Pitcher            WXRL   ARP     BB/9  K/9
59         2006    Taylor Tankersley  2.133  10.7     5.6  9.1
165        2006    Logan Kensing     -0.093   2.2     4.3  9.7
150        2006    Ricky Nolasco      0.435   2.8     2.2  5.7
520        2006    Randy Messenger   -0.763  -9.0     3.2  5.9
94         2006    Kevin Gregg       -0.011   5.2     2.2  7.5

The Marlins have shown a willingness to throw people into the closer's role, and there's no veteran with overwhelming experience left on the roster. Long-term, Tankersley's performance augurs the best potential in the role. The WXRL and ARP speak louder than the high BB/9 rate, especially in a young pitcher. Nolasco didn't acquit himself terribly as a starter.

Houston Astros:

ARP rank  Year    Pitcher          WXRL    ARP     BB/9  K/9
39        2006    Trever Miller    1.648   14.0     1.7  9.5
19        2006    Chad Qualls      2.933   18.8     2.2  5.3
51        2006    Dan Wheeler      3.880   12.1     2.5  8.1
22        2006    Russ Springer    0.621   17.2     1.8  6.7
506       2006    Brad Lidge       0.806   -7.9     3.8 11.9

Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls have been the best relievers in Houston for two years running. If Lidge can reestablish his closer value, the Astros should consider moving him, but there's a good chance he'd be moving to a situation where he would still have that role. Because of that, he may be a buy-low candidate. Looking at these numbers, you'd have to say the Houston bullpen has been underrated in terms of the role it has played in this team's success.

Kansas City Royals:

ARP rank   Year    Pitcher          WXRL   ARP     BB/9  K/9
531        2006    Octavio Dotel   -0.432  -11.7    9.5  5.8
100        2006    Joe Nelson       1.782    5.7    4.4  8.7

Dotel threw all of ten innings, and he wasn't exactly a world-beater. The Royals expect more of him, and there may be some value there with an improved offense. If you are desperately following the Royals' closer situation, you're in dire straits, so this would probably be the time to ask yourself, "What would Buddy Bell do?" Get your WWBBD pendant while supplies last.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

ARP rank   Year   Pitcher             WXRL   ARP    BB/9  K/9
13         2006   Salomon Torres     4.624  20.8    3.1   6.6
104        2006   Matt Capps         0.743   5.3    0.7   6.0

Torres was far better than his 3.28 ERA suggests. If they didn't deal Mike Gonzalez last year, Torres likely has the job for the season. His 1.91 ERA on no days' rest certainly helps his candidacy this year. Capps' peripherals suggest he's primed for a nice season, and may be the closer-in-waiting.

St. Louis Cardinals:

ARP rank  Year    Pitcher             WXRL    ARP    BB/9  K/9
38        2006    Brad Thompson       0.723  14.4     2.7  4.7
118       2006    Jason Isringhausen  1.064   4.3     5.5  7.5
25        2006    Adam Wainwright     2.837  16.9     2.0  8.2
56        2006    Braden Looper       1.594  10.9     1.9  4.7

Wainwright's headed to the rotation, and Looper might follow his lead after a useful 2006 highlighted by his leading a "Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose" chant after the NLCS victory over the Mets. Isringhausen's red band is all you need to know about this situation, and we certainly know Wainwright can handle the role.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays:

ARP rank  Year   Pitcher         WXRL    ARP    BB/9  K/9
373       2006   Seth McClung    0.264   -0.2    5.7  5.0
593       2006   Chad Orvella   -0.772  -15.1    7.2  6.0
120       2006   Shawn Camp      0.755    4.1    2.0  6.1

Quoth their ostensible closer, Seth McClung: "Hopefully we get three outs before I give up a run."

Alex Carnevale is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Alex by clicking here. You can also find his Football Outsiders work here.

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