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March 16, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Closers

by Marc Normandin

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Now that we've finished with the starting pitchers and the positional players, it's time to rank the closers. There are a few teams that haven't finalized their closer role yet, and in those cases I took the candidate that is most likely to secure the job, rather than listing all of them. The number of saves a closer might get was obviously a big factor, but just as with starting pitchers, ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts have a great deal of influence on the rankings. Luckily, there seems to be a good number of closers this year who are capable of helping you on all fronts, based on PECOTA's projections.


Rank Name                Team       W   SV   SO  WHIP   ERA  Beta
 1.  Francisco Rodriguez Mets       5   45   74  1.21  2.74  0.71
 2.  Jonathan Papelbon   Red Sox    5   33   67  1.01  2.49  0.86
 3.  Carlos Marmol       Cubs       4    6   86  1.23  3.42  0.82
 4.  Joe Nathan          Twins      4   31   64  1.08  2.54  0.82
 5.  Mariano Rivera      Yankees    5   36   64  1.03  2.42  0.85
 6.  Brad Lidge          Phillies   4   25   71  1.34  3.49  0.80
 7.  Jonathan Broxton    Dodgers    5   13   85  1.17  2.83  0.82
 8.  Joakim Soria        Royals     4   32   60  1.19  3.11  0.70
 9.  Jose Valverde       Astros     3   25   62  1.25  3.56  0.90
10.  Frank Francisco     Rangers    3    6   66  1.30  3.84  0.85

While being the reigning king of saves has something to do with his top ranking, Francisco Rodriguez is here more because PECOTA still likes him to strike out plenty of hitters while posting a great ERA; the move to the weaker National League should help out his rate stats as well. Jonathan Papelbon had fewer strikeouts last year, instead using ground balls to close out games. While that strategy hurts his K rate a bit, his ERA and WHIP still look great, and he'll pick up plenty of saves to boot.

PECOTA doesn't forecast many saves for Marmol, but he's the ninth-inning man out in Chicago. There's a very good chance that if he lasts at the position all year he'll rank #1 in both K and K/9 among closers. His ERA forecast is a little high for my tastes; I think he will be able to dominate once again and keep runners off base. If the Cubs end up slotting Kevin Gregg into the closer role, then Marmol's ranking obviously takes a hit, but he's still worth a spot on your bench for the punchouts and the great rate stats.

Joe Nathan is another pitcher who has lost a few strikeouts along the way, but made up for it with an increased ground-ball rate. He's one of the few consistently dependable closers out there. Mariano Rivera made up for his poor (by his own standards) 2007 season by slashing his walk rate to well under one per nine. He's been very stingy the past three years on that front, but it's unrealistic to expect a repeat of last year's insane peripherals. Even without those numbers, he's still easily a top five closer.

PECOTA loves Lidge, even with the somewhat high ERA. His projected K/9 is 10.7, third best among these first six pitchers. I like him to be better than that though; his 2008 season had him post the lowest HR/FB ratio of his career, while also having his highest pop-up rate. Home runs have been an issue for him, so if he can eliminate them as he did last year, he'll be very dangerous to the opposition. If you don't think Lidge will be able to keep it up, move along down the list to Jonathan Broxton, whose forecast essentially mirrors what I believe Lidge is capable of.

Joakim Soria doesn't get much love toiling out of the bullpen for the Royals, but he's a great fantasy closer with quality strikeout rates and solid peripherals. PECOTA is very sure that this is what we'll see from Soria this year, assigning him a Beta score of 0.70, one of the lowest on any of these lists that we've done. While I wish Valverde would not give up so many homers, his punchout rates make him an attractive pick at closer; PECOTA thinks he can hit 9.8 per nine, and considering he's never been that low in his career, it shouldn't be a problem. His velocity was about two miles per hour higher last year than it was the three seasons prior, so strikeouts are the last thing I'm worried about with Valverde.

Frank Francisco would be more appealing if he didn't pitch in Texas, but someone has to close there. His fastball averaged a tick faster last year than in previous seasons, and that, along with more fastball usage and fewer curveballs, propelled his strikeout rate from solid to spectacular. PECOTA thinks the change is real, and has Francisco averaging well over a strikeout per nine.


Rank Name                Team       W   SV   SO  WHIP   ERA  Beta
11.  Francisco Cordero   Reds       3   17   58  1.38  4.03  0.83
12.  Brian Fuentes       Angels     4   23   61  1.24  3.53  0.82
13.  Heath Bell          Padres     3    4   56  1.27  3.24  0.86
14.  George Sherrill     Orioles    3   21   53  1.36  3.91  0.77
15.  Brian Wilson        Giants     3   25   54  1.41  3.92  0.87
16.  Mike Gonzalez       Braves     2   10   41  1.34  3.69  0.82
17.  Kerry Wood          Indians    4   19   55  1.30  3.68  0.81
18.  B.J. Ryan           Jays       3   19   48  1.32  3.68  0.81
19.  Bobby Jenks         White Sox  3   18   41  1.30  3.61  0.84
20.  Matt Capps          Pirates    3   16   45  1.16  3.44  0.93

Francisco Cordero should have had an ERA about a half-run higher than his actual figure last season, but I still think this projection is a little rough on him. I'd feel safer if his walk rate were to return to the level he's posted in the recent past, because 4.5 unintentional passes per nine is not a good thing, especially when your strikeout rate is no longer three times that. Brian Fuentes is leaving Colorado, which should make him a better pitcher. PECOTA doesn't buy the increase in strikeouts though, which may have something to do with the fact that he's moving to the AL.

Once Heath Bell regained his velocity last year, things went smoothly. With Trevor Hoffman out of town, Bell is the closer, and he should rack up the strikeouts while easily beating that saves projection. George Sherrill's most appealing trait is his whiff rate, as you're not drafting him for his ERA. PECOTA thinks his bases-on-balls issue from 2008 was overblown, as you can tell by his forecasted WHIP, so he's worth a shot. He's definitely not an elite-level closer though (the end of that line was with Bell, if you're being generous about what constitutes "elite"), even if his K/9 lets him fake it now and then.

Brian Wilson is going to get saves as the Giants' closer, but how he does it may not always be pretty. Still, he shouldn't hurt your stats, he's just not going to help as much as the guys in front of him. This is the point in the draft where it starts to become a good idea to take chances or just wait on closers in case you've missed the boat on the best picks for the position.

Mike Gonzalez, Kerry Wood, and B.J. Ryan all have one thing in common, and that's injury risk. If you could guarantee all three of them would be healthy for the duration of the 2009 season, then you'd see the list of elite-level closers grow by three. It's hard enough to get me to draft a closer rather than a full-time player though, so getting me to draft a closer who may not even pitch all year is near impossible, unless it's very late in the draft. If you don't share the same caution about closers, feel free to bump them up in your personal rankings, because I certainly hope these three will stay healthy and productive.

Bobby Jenks is one of those guys who you draft because you need someone to give you saves without hurting your numbers. He's not going to add anything on a strikeout level (especially if your league uses K/9) but he has become stingier with the free passes the last two seasons, and he is capable of posting a solid ERA. His FIP from last year has much in common with his PECOTA forecast, which makes believing in his 2008 ERA that much more difficult. Matt Capps strikes me as that one-pitch closer who doesn't survive very long in the role. His superb control is at the heart of his success, but I worry about his WHIP and ERA taking a hit when his BABIP regresses; he was at .272 last year, despite giving up a ton of liners. If he's that hittable again in '09, banking on a BABIP that far below expectations is a bad idea. He's still worth a shot thanks to the chance that he might do it again though-you have to love the small sample-size problems with relievers when you can exploit them in fantasy.


Rank Name                Team       W   SV   SO  WHIP   ERA  Beta
21.  Brandon Lyon        Tigers     3   12   35  1.37  4.27  0.92
22.  Chad Qualls         D'backs    4    6   53  1.31  3.54  0.84
23.  Brad Ziegler        A's        2    5   25  1.43  3.96  0.95
24.  Chris Perez         Cardinals  2    5   42  1.35  3.63  1.15
25.  Huston Street       Rockies    3   10   55  1.27  3.88  0.91
26.  Joel Hanrahan       Nats       2    3   47  1.44  4.28  1.18
27.  Trevor Hoffman      Brewers    3   19   36  1.16  3.41  0.73
28.  Matt Lindstrom      Marlins    2    3   38  1.44  4.08  0.99
29.  Troy Percival       Rays       2    9   30  1.38  4.71  1.01
30.  Miguel Batista      Mariners   4    1   46  1.66  5.36  1.08

Brandon Lyon posted his best strikeout and walk rates in years, but he also reverted to giving up home runs, which cut into his value. His 3.84 FIP was far better than his actual ERA of 4.70, but it's still not enough to bump him up higher than this, especially as he's moving to the more difficult league and is just one year removed from a below-average strikeout rate. Chad Qualls is a good fit for the D'backs thanks to his ground-ball tendencies. It's strange though that he couldn't keep the ball in the park as well in Houston as he had in Arizona last year. If he keeps the strikeout rate up where it's been the past two years, he's probably deserving of a higher rank than this, but I worry about seeing his homer rate jump back up, especially in that bandbox of a home park.

Brad Ziegler was a great story in 2008, coming up and stringing together 39 scoreless innings to begin his career. PECOTA doesn't think he can come anywhere near that level of success again-this makes sense; his peripherals give him an FIP of 3.72 last year, well above his actual ERA of 1.06. While he may keep runners from scoring, he has a below-average strikeout rate and will have to rely on his fielders if he's to maintain that elite-level ERA. I like Ziegler a lot, but moreso in real life than in fantasy baseball. Chris Perez is one of the many Cardinals' relievers vying for the closer's job, but he's the one who you hope will keep it if you're a fantasy player. He's going to give you strikeouts, but he needs to lower his walk rate to be a more effective pitcher. In addition, it would be nice if we knew for sure that the Cardinals were planning on keeping him in this role for the long haul; it would be lame to draft Perez early only to see the keys handed to Ryan Franklin in June.

Huston Street is leaving the comfort of Oakland for every pitcher's nightmare out in Colorado. While he's been a very good fantasy closer during his years in the majors, he's also a fly-ball pitcher in Denver, so you may want to think about severing your loyalties to him. He may be able to succeed-many pitchers have, especially relievers-but banking on that with an early draft pick when there are so many other options available would be silly.

Joel Hanrahan is not well loved by PECOTA for 2009, as everything except for his strikeout rate seems rather ordinary and unexciting. His Beta is also high, meaning that his forecast is volatile, so if you think there's a reason to like him more than PECOTA does right now, PECOTA is telling you that you may be on to something.

Trevor Hoffman has left the comfort of Petco Park, and is now in Milwaukee. He gave up 1.6 homers per nine last year, despite pitching in a park that should be sponsored by the Dead Ball Era rather than your pet's grocery store. He gave up liners at a significantly lower rate than he has since that data began to be tracked back in 2002, which most likely means we'll see that and his BABIP shoot back up in '09. While the increase in his K rate is promising, it's going to be hard for him to avoid getting into trouble if he keeps throwing pitches in the zone that the opposition sends flying into the stands.

Matt Lindstrom would be ranked higher if not for a few issues. First, he walked 3.5 batters per nine last season (not counting his intentional passes), but struck out just 6.8 per nine. Neither of those figures stands out much, and while he is stingy with the home runs, he's not exactly unhittable, as you can see by his 2008 WHIP of 1.45 and his forecasted WHIP above. There's also the Jose Ceda issue; Ceda was acquired this offseason in the Kevin Gregg deal with the Cubs, and with the Marlins' tendency to throw live, young arms into their bullpen to see what comes of it, Lindstrom could be challenged for the job at some point.

When my options are down to Troy Percival and Miguel Batista for starting closers, I think it's time to punt saves and draft a closer-in-waiting who will put up great numbers, or maybe just wait until someone is promoted to the role when a closer explodes or is injured. I can't bring myself to draft either of them; Percival posted an ERA of 4.53 last year, which may seem high until you realize that his FIP was 5.87. These things happen when you give up 1.8 home runs per nine after filling the bases with 5.3 walks per nine. If he had not posted a .181 BABIP last year, then his line would have looked even uglier than it is. As for Batista, he should be a better reliever than a starter, but he's in an organization that is trying to get a feel for its useful parts; if he struggles in the role, I can see the new front office trying out someone else to see who fits as they attempt to rebuild the roster and see just what it is they've inherited.

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