Commentary

Which closers are in trouble?

Updated: June 30, 2010, 11:38 AM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

As the old saying goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Those words of wisdom are all well and good, but when you're talking about major league relievers, particularly closers, there may not be any second chances if they don't perform right out of the gate. When a pitcher is summoned from the bullpen with two outs and the bases loaded, and the game hanging in the balance, there's really no room for error -- one mistake is all it takes. Not only that, but since any runners a pitcher inherits don't count against him, when you look at a reliever's ERA, it doesn't always tell the whole story.

In terms of fantasy, saves are clearly the rarest commodity. There is generally only one go-to guy at a time on each major league team, which severely limits the potential sources of saves at any given moment in the season. It's not like home runs or stolen bases, where any hitter, even a role player, can possibly add to your team totals at any given time. If you don't have Joakim Soria, there's no other Kansas City Royals pitcher who is going to be able to help you catch the teams ahead of you in saves, unless Soria gets hurt.

The biggest factor in whether or not a manager will voluntarily change closers midseason comes down to his confidence level with his current closer, combined with whether or not he has anyone on his team he feels can do a better job. Identifying which pitchers have fallen out of favor with their skippers and are likely to be removed from their perch in the bullpen hierarchy -- and then grabbing the heir apparent before anyone else in your league does -- is the key to a fantasy team's success. But what should you be looking for? Is there anything remotely resembling a clear tipoff that a closer's days might be numbered?

To answer that, let's take a look at Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader in major league history. Since he became the San Diego Padres' closer in the strike-shortened 1994 season, he has been as consistent as they come, with the lone exception being the 2003 season in which he was recovering from surgery. One statistical category, in particular, stands out in my eyes as a reason for his success. It's the batting average of the first batter he faces upon entering the game, or FBA for short.

Now I am not saying there is a direct correlation between saves and FBA. However, it's clear that Hoffman's .333 FBA this season was a huge reason that Ken Macha lost enough confidence in the veteran to turn to unproven John Axford. It's all about perception, and an FBA higher than .250 is going to give the appearance, right or wrong, that a closer simply isn't being as dominant as he should be. Once those doubts start to creep in, it's only a matter of time before managers start to look around for someone else to hand the ball to in pressure situations.

Using FBA as a kind of mind-reading tool, I've divided the current crop of closers into the categories below as a guide to who might be in for a bit of a change in relief responsibilities. Stats are through Friday, June 25.

Category 1: Completely safe

With an FBA under .175, it should take quite a bit for any of these pitchers to lose their jobs in the near future. Yes, even for Kerry Wood, though of course his name has been mentioned in trade talks.

Category 2: Danger zone

With an FBA of .240 or higher and a closer-in-waiting perhaps giving their managers a better alternative, these pitchers may find themselves pulled from the role, or perhaps put on the trading block.

Category 3: Looking over their shoulders

It's not that these guys have been awful, but there are definitely other options of approximate quality for their managers to call upon at the drop of a hat. Aaron Heilman is new to the role, and Huston Street is back from injury, hoping to reclaim his job.

Category 4: Only ports in a storm

A lot of blown saves may have rubbed fans the wrong way, but a quick look at the FBAs shows that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the bullpen. These closers should continue to end games, as there's no real alternative to be found.

Category 5: Living on reputation

This trio has certainly done the job successfully in the past, so their managers might not have lost confidence in them yet, especially since the potential replacements have not been so stellar in their own right. However, with FBAs higher than .200, there's work to be done to prevent any buildup of tarnish.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.