February 23, 2007
Pick a Closer, Any Closer
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.
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.')
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."