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March 5, 2007

Positional Health Reports

Closers

by Will Carroll

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There's a lot of red here. On a percentage basis, it would appear that it's harder to be a closer or even a reliever than it is a starter, yet there remains a giant gap in our knowledge. There's no evidence, no study, and barely even any anecdotal evidence that says that starting is harder than relieving from a physical standpoint, or vice versa. In fact, many are now suggesting that the abilities to do both may be so individuated and changing that it will be nearly impossible to discover any meaningful generalizations.

What we're chasing here is a better measure of fatigue. Keith Woolner, Rany Jazayerli, and before them, Craig Wright have all sought statistical models that proxy fatigue somehow. As good a counting stat as PAP is--and Keith's essay in Baseball Prospectus 2007 brings it even further, proving something I discussed in last year's pitching development article--it's not going to beat an EMG test. If you can figure out how to get someone to pitch with all those wires (and get a team to loan you their pitchers), you'll be ahead of the game. Until then, we're really just guessing. We're seeing players that failed as starters, trying to wishcast vague psychological models to ascribe that always-elusive 'makeup,' and letting inconsistency, inefficiency, and volatility decide the end of games.

Normal risk is Green light, elevated risk is Yellow light, and high risk is Red light. Very rarely, a near-impervious player crops up; he gets a Blue light. For more on the system, please check out the introduction.

Joel Pineiro Yellow light: When I ran these at the start of February, the idea was that Joel Piniero would be the closer. Now, no one in Boston seems quite so sure. Signed due to something Allard Baird saw in him during an exile to the bullpen, Piniero has never been able to stay healthy as a starter. Moving someone to the pen seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition--a pitcher either takes to it like a duck to water or continues to break down. Given that, this yellow is actually something of a positive for Piniero.

Mariano Rivera Red light: The failing of the system is that a DL stint is a DL stint is a DL stint to where it's concerned. Rivera will get tired at some point, maybe have some shoulder or elbow tenderness, and then Joe Torre will let Scott Proctor or Kyle Farnsworth close for a week, which will remind everyone just how good Rivera is. The DL stint is nearly inevitable, a yearly ritual almost. It barely impacts Rivera's value.

B.J. Ryan Yellow light: To a man, pitching coaches hate Ryan's delivery; he was rushed through the minors because the Reds were convinced his arm would blow up. He's good enough that until it does, you throw him out there and hope that when it does, you have a backup. He's a perfect metaphor for the current Blue Jays team.

Dan Miceli Yellow light: Like Pineiro above, Miceli's here because someone has to be listed for the Devil Rays. Miceli's as good (or as bad) as any of the other candidates. There's an interesting dynamic for some of the lesser relievers--they don't figure to keep the job long enough to get hurt.

Bobby Jenks Yellow light: Jenks' shoulder is a longstanding problem, so this should come as no surprise. It is also a rehab problem, something the White Sox do better than almost anyone in the game. Since it's a rehab question, I asked Stephania Bell from Rotowire what she thought, since no one knows rehab better than her. She says: "Jenks indicated that when his mechanics were poor, the back of his shoulder 'tightened up.' Even with good range of motion at rest, research has shown that during an episode of pitching, the rotator cuff can tighten so much that a thrower will actually lose a significant amount of range. Of course, proper mechanics plays a role. When the elbow drops, the demands on the shoulder change, and it becomes more susceptible to fatigue, and ultimately injury. Guillen will be monitoring him closely, as he should, because if Jenks pushes through fatigue and/or poor mechanics, he could be setting himself up for a bigger problem."

Chad Cordero Yellow light: Cordero has been consistent, but young. That's hardly his fault--his birthday can't be changed--but let's acknowledge the risk here. Being that he's likely trade bait, his cross-body throwing motion and the injury nexus are two things that potential acquirers should be aware of.

Octavio Dotel Red light: Dotel's Tommy John experience hasn't been typical. He had to find a doctor willing to do it after being told repeatedly that he should rehab it first. Then, once he had it, he hasn't come back as quickly as most. Dotel's never really been succesful in the closer's role, and the pain he's had in his repaired elbow doesn't make it likely that he'll do any better in Kansas City.

Joe Borowski Red light: When I say that you can find closers on the street, I mean it. The Cubs were scouting Bobby Hill in the independent Atlantic League, and found Borowski as a side benefit. I couldn't find stats on whether he was the best closer in the league or if there's been anyone signed since, but there is usable "replacement level" talent available. Which makes you wonder why someone like Cleveland would give him money.

Todd Jones Yellow light: Jones was thought to be a placeholder for Joel Zumaya, but Zumaya gets so amped up that he actually blew out blood vessels in his eyeballs last season. Jones isn't pretty when he does what he does, nor is he a classic flame-belching fireman. He's just effective, one of those ordinary relievers that has the X factor that allows them to succeed on the razor's edge where others fail.

Eric Gagne Red light: There's no secret here: Gagne is as risky as they come, but there's a few things in his favor. He's a year out from nerve surgery on his pitching arm, he's throwing, and he has pitching coach Mark Connor and trainer Jamie Reed watching him. For every positive, there's the chance that a guy with this much history of arm trouble never comes back. Watch for the return of his changeup--even more than his fastball, that's the key to knowing if he can be good again, let alone great.

J.J. Putz Red light: Putz just barely tips over the red line, by a single percentage point. Still, red is red and Putz is risky… unless he isn't. He's increased his workload every year and few relievers stay effective in that fourth year; call it the Scott Sullivan rule. Putz is new to the closer's role, but that didn't factor here. What did is the harsh adjustment the team gets. Last year was a huge turnaround for a team that likes to re-enact the climactic woodchipper scene in Fargo using its rookie pitchers. If that wasn't a fluke, then Seattle learned something and that's perhaps the most important factor in this team having a future.

Francisco Rodriguez Red light: Every year, I look at Rodriguez throw and predict his arm is going to physically detach at some point. So far, I've been wrong. So far.

Bob Wickman Red light: Here's one of the truest tests of makeup. Wickman doesn't have great stuff, and looks like me. Yet here he is, a closer again despite John Schuerholz shoring up the bullpen with real arms. Wickman's come back from various shoulder and elbow problems to remain effective, so even with Bobby Cox's twitchy bullpen trigger finger, Wickman figures to be that guy you sigh and take in the twentieth round of your fantasy draft.

Billy Wagner Green light: Wagner's added some kind of splitter this spring, and that's a plus. He's always been durable up to the point where his elbow snapped, and figures to be durable up to the point where he suddenly wears out and his cuff goes. Any sort of quality changeup should help stave that off.

Tom Gordon Red light: Do we really appreciate just how good Tom Gordon's curve is? Not just was, but is. Gordon's pitch is so good that even when he was hurt, even when he started or relieved, even when all his other pitches were average at best, and even when everyone in the stadium knew it was coming, it was still that good. Gordon's follow-through is what makes that pitch, and also why he's had so many arm problems. He's essentially on the Mariano Rivera plan now, sure to have one stay on the DL per season.

Francisco Cordero Green light: Cordero means "lamb" in Spanish. At times in Texas, Cordero looked like a sacrificial lamb, but what really seems to have happened is that he lost his strong pitching coach, Orel Hershiser, and got completely out of whack. When he was traded to another strong-willed coach, Mike Maddux, he got things back together quickly.

Ryan Dempster Red light: Something I've never understood about the Cubs is that when they do something well, they seem to think that it was a fluke. They found Joe Borowski and Dempster on the street and scrapheap, respectively, yet felt the need to lock Dempster up. Why not save the money and do it again? Dempster's arm problems cropped up again last year, and he'll have Kerry Wood pushing for his job this season. Dusty Baker lost faith in Dempster at the end of last season, but the arrival of Lou Piniella gives Dempster another chance for saves.

Jason Isringhausen Red light: Isringhausen is coming back from hip surgery, but don't think he's another Bo Jackson just yet. It wasn't nearly that serious; Izzy had his hip scraped down rather than replaced. Things have looked good so far in camp, and the move of Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright to the rotation tell you that the Cards are sure that their closer will be ready. He could be a major draft day steal.

Brad Lidge Red light: I can't tell you what's going on in his head, but I am worried about what's going on in his elbow. Lidge's come-and-go control smells like the beginnings of elbow trouble, and his recent mechanical adjustments didn't help. A new pitching coach, Dave Wallace, is tasked with fixing Lidge. That's going to be a tall order.

David Weathers Red light: Weathers is going to share the closing duties with Mike Stanton, so the red rating is a bit off. I don't have a way to indicate that Weathers is just a platoon guy here, so it's looking for him to get the ball way more than he probably is. He's still decidedly risky, but he's still a cheap way to pick up 20 saves.

Jose Valverde Red light: Valverde throws really hard for a guy with as many shoulder problems as he's had. The Arizona bullpen last year was mostly like Valverde--guys that had the talent but not the health. It's not nearly so volatile this year, even though Valverde could well be.

Armando Benitez Red light: After coming back from a devastating hamstring tear, Benitez never got his mechanics back in whack. He's ended up with bad knees and a tender elbow, making him a dangerous quantity to rely on at closer. The Giants really don't have other options, so even with his health problems, he'll close. The interesting thing will be if Bruce Bochy can keep him in working order.

Brian Fuentes Blue light: How is it that a closer in Colorado gets a blue? He just takes the ball, and while he doesn't have overpowering stuff or even a plus breaking ball, he just goes out there and essentially plays the odds. His slider works on lefties, and he'll spot his stuff against righties. When people say a closer isn't special, Fuentes is proof that being present is more than halfway there.

Also Green light:

Chris Ray
Huston Street
Joe Nathan
Taylor Tankersley
Salomon Torres
Trevor Hoffman
Takashi Saito

Related Content:  Elbow,  Year Of The Injury,  The Call-up,  The Atlantic

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