Commentary

Relief Efforts: Ayala proves it's just about saves

Updated: September 3, 2008, 3:37 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Don't be so surprised that only one pitcher enters Wednesday with more saves over the past week than Luis Ayala (Jose Valverde). It's not really a fluke, either, because that's how crazy saves are. It's about opportunity first, and ability pretty much second. The Mets are a good team, winning more games than they lose, so it actually makes plenty of sense sticking someone with a high ERA in the role and seeing him thrive.

What gets me is just how averse so many fantasy owners were to picking up Ayala, and how they simply assumed his ERA well in the 5s would prevent him from accruing saves. Silly people, didn't Joe Borowski teach us anything when he led the AL in saves a season ago, despite an ERA, like Ayala, on the wrong side of 5?

Put simply, I think ERA and WHIP are very deceiving statistics when it comes to closers. If you've read this column on a weekly basis, you know I do not target the supposed top save guys, because history shows us no matter dominant one is, it means very little for save totals. Pitchers can save a game only when given the chance, and as Antonio Alfonseca and many other underwhelming pitchers have shown us, anyone can save a game. Has Francisco Rodriguez been the best closer this season? No, not really. He has the most saves in easily the most chances, and because of this his fantasy rank is positively affected by them. Look at the peripherals; Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon have been superior.

Luis Ayala
AP Photo/Bill WaughIt hasn't always been pretty, but Luis Ayala is getting saves for the Mets.
People forget, but Ayala was once one of the top set-up men in the business, a reliable innings eater who averaged eight wins from 2003-05, with a consistently low ERA. He was, basically, the NL version of Juan Rincon. Then injuries and performance caught up to them, unfortunately, and Ayala's elbow exploded, causing him to miss 2006. He came back in 2007 and looked like himself. He has not, however, looked like himself this season. Neither has Rincon, for that matter.

Maybe it was all a ploy. The Nationals continued to use Ayala in high-leverage situations, despite his losing eight of nine decisions in four months and a 5.78 ERA. They correctly bypassed him for the closer role when Jon Rauch was dealt, choosing Joel Hanrahan, a fireballer who I think has a nice future in the role. Often, failed starting pitchers who throw really hard do thrive in one-inning, pressure-filled situations (see Joe Nathan, Eric Gagne). Do you really think the Mets targeted Ayala, or did the Nats give him away? I think the natural connection Mets GM Omar Minaya has with his old organization made a deal like this a natural. It's not the first time these teams dealt with each other.

Ayala is not pitching badly for his new team, but even if he does, save totals can mask that. He has allowed three earned runs in nine innings for the Mets, blown one save and permitted a few runs in another. He already has saves Monday and Tuesday this week, and he's not the type who needs a great deal of rest, so he might just keep saving games every day. The runs he allows mean virtually nothing to me. He's the closer now, and the only thing that can change this is either repeated poor pitching or the return of Billy Wagner. Certainly either of those is possible, but when you get to September, fantasy owners can't be choosy. If saves are out there, and you can rise in the standings, you must pounce. The latest update on Wagner is he threw off a mound Monday, and the team was waiting to see how his elbow responds. My response is, I don't expect to see him on a mound in a real game again in '08, so the fact that he's owned in 94 percent of ESPN standard leagues, and Ayala is in the 30s for ownership, seems odd.

I think Ayala is going to end up with double-digit saves this season, kind of easily, and he might be one of the top-five save guys for all of September. How's that for a bold statement? While his overall numbers are nothing to look at, if you need saves, you have to look here. This hasn't been so ugly, but while we're on the subject, ever so briefly, which pitchers had the ugliest seasons in the past five years yet deserved to be owned because of the saves? Believe it or not, Todd Jones didn't make the cut. Here are my top -- or is that bottom -- five, minimum 20 saves.

Shawn Chacon, 2004 Rockies: The king of ugly closer seasons, this guy saved 35 games with a 7.11 ERA! That's really tough to do. Chacon went 1-9, and his walk total of 52 matched his K's, so you can see the problem. Chacon was bad at Coors Field, but on the road the ERA was 6.19, so he wasn't exactly good there.

Derrick Turnbow, 2006 Brewers: Saved 24 games that season, but walks doomed him and made a repeat of 2005 (39 saves, 1.74 ERA) impossible. Turnbow ended up with a 6.87 ERA and nine losses. Jose Valverde wasn't very good either that season, saving 18 games with a 5.84 ERA.

Joe Borowski, 2007 Indians: Sported an ugly 5.07 ERA, but he was second in the majors with 45 saves. Only two other pitchers had double-digit saves with an ERA over 5 last season, and both Salomon Torres and Dan Wheeler have done well this season. On the other hand, Borowski's career might be finished.

Yhency Brazoban, 2005 Dodgers: His WHIP was 1.40, the ERA was 5.33 and he managed to lose 10 games. Even at Los Angeles, he got lit up badly. Eleven home runs didn't help.

Jose Mesa/Mike Williams, 2003 Pennsylvania teams: Mesa saved 24 games for the grateful Phillies fans, but his ERA was 6.52 and he lost seven games. Williams, meanwhile, started the season in Philly and was traded to Pittsburgh, where he had pitched a few years prior. For the Pirates in '03, Williams saved 25 games, but walked more than he struck out, and his ERA was 6.27.

And now, back to the normal categories you've come to expect from Relief Efforts each week.

Buying low

Reliever Rankings

The Rangers' Frank Francisco moves up a few spots in the ranks.
(previous ranking in parentheses)

1. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels (1)
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox (2)
3. Joe Nathan, Twins (3)
4. Mariano Rivera, Yankees (4)
5. Bobby Jenks, White Sox (5)
6. Joakim Soria, Royals (6)
7. Brad Lidge, Phillies (7)
8. Jose Valverde, Astros (9)
9. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays (8)
10. Kerry Wood, Cubs (10)
11. Brian Wilson, Giants (12)
12. Trevor Hoffman, Padres (13)
13. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers (14)
14. Francisco Cordero, Reds (15)
15. Brian Fuentes, Rockies (16)
16. J.J. Putz, Mariners (17)
17. Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks (18)
18. Salomon Torres, Brewers (20)
19. Brad Ziegler, Athletics (19)
20. Joel Hanrahan, Nationals (23)
21. Jensen Lewis, Indians (21)
22. Fernando Rodney, Tigers (22)
23. Chris Perez, Cardinals (27)
24. Luis Ayala, Mets (32)
25. Frank Francisco, Rangers (29)
26. Matt Capps, Pirates (25)
27. Mike Gonzalez, Braves (26)
28. Troy Percival, Rays (33)
29. Carlos Marmol, Cubs (30)
30. Matt Lindstrom, Marlins (NR)
31. Grant Balfour, Rays (31)
32. Dan Wheeler, Rays (24)
33. Jose Arredondo, Angels (35)
34. Jim Johnson, Orioles (28)
35. Billy Wagner, Mets (34)
36. Tony Pena, Diamondbacks (NR)
37. Justin Masterson, Red Sox (37)
38. Heath Bell, Padres (38)
39. Manuel Corpas, Rockies (40)
40. Joe Nelson, Marlins (NR)
Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers: Talk of a possible Takashi Saito return to the team this month might scare some Broxton owners off, but do you really think he's going to come back after missing a few months and resume closing? Who does he think he is, Troy Percival? (No, I'm not bitter that Percival keeps pushing Dan Wheeler out of the way for brief periods before he gets hurt again.) Broxton is striking everyone out, and he's going to close in 2009 and for years beyond that. In his past three games, covering three full innings, J-Brox struck out eight of the 10 men he faced, allowing only one baserunner via a Nick Hundley single up the middle. That's it. Broxton is a monster, and if you can still acquire him for the future, I would. He's a top-10 guy in the making, if not now.

Selling high

Brad Ziegler, Athletics: Yeah, it took him a month to give up a run, but when I watch him pitch now, I see base hits and a lack of strikeouts. Hitters haven't entirely figured him out, but with four walks and one strikeout in his past four appearances, he's clearly not missing bats. Ziegler remains the Oakland closer, but I don't see this lasting the rest of September, not with Joey Devine missing bats and avoiding hits and runs, plus a rejuvenated Huston Street looking good. Devine hasn't allowed a hit in his past eight innings, and Street's last six innings have featured no hits, one walk and nine strikeouts. It's a great story, this Ziegler fella coming out of nowhere, but there are others better-suited to close.

Who's next?

Dennis Sarfate, Orioles: I'm going to stick with this angle until I see the Orioles do something, because it seems obvious to me. Chris Ray has been shut down. George Sherrill will be shut down, and now comes word that supposed incumbent Jim Johnson, who has had such a nice season, will have an MRI on his shoulder this week. That can't be a good sign. The Orioles, incredibly, have three saves as a team since the All-Star break, and none in a month, so maybe nobody cares who gets named closer, but Sarfate has that stuff, whatever that is, and someone has to close. Could be Rocky Cherry, Randor Bierd or even Jamie Walker, but if I were choosing, I'd see what Sarfate can do.

Holding on

LaTroy Hawkins, Astros: Don't laugh, don't question my sanity, the fact is that Hawkins is not pitching for a playoff contender and is not in the spotlight, and as we've seen in the past, he can be a very effective reliever. Just not a closer, and just not a Yankee. In the past week, nobody has more holds than Hawkins, as he leapfrogged Doug Brocail for the prime spot in front of saves hog Jose Valverde. Man, doesn't Valverde always seem to get a lot of saves? Anyway, Hawkins isn't faking it, either. In his past 10 outings, he threw 8 2/3 innings, allowing two hits and one walk, no runs, and striking out 11. Hard to believe, but Hawkins also has two wins and six holds in that span, making him one of the most valuable relief pitchers in fantasy. I came thisclose to putting him in the rankings to the right. Maybe next week.

Briefly

Time for a K-Rod update! The Angels' about-to-be record-setting closer enters Wednesday with 54 saves, oh-so close to the 57 he needs to catch Bobby Thigpen. There's been talk that Rodriguez could be handled a bit differently once he sets the mark, so be aware in fantasy. And just throwing one stat out there: He has 68 strikeouts, and his lowest total since coming into the league is 90. … The Indians have brought up Jonathan Meloan, but I can't see Jensen Lewis losing save opportunities. Meloan did fine for Triple-A Buffalo, just walking a few too many hitters. By the way, Masa Kobayashi is nowhere near saves after his awful August. Drop him. … Kevin Gregg has been shut down with knee problems, and Matt Lindstrom figures to move into the closer role. Lindstrom has not pitched well of late, but seeing Joe Nelson pitch the sixth and seventh in the 16-14 game with the Braves could mean Arthur Rhodes is next. … Troy Percival is back, and he'll be Tampa's closer until the next time his knee or some other body part gets hurt. Probably this week. … Salomon Torres might have received a save chance on Monday if Eric Gagne hadn't been summoned for the eighth inning, up 2-1. Don't expect Gagne to pitch in a high-leverage spot anytime soon. … Jon Rauch pitched the sixth inning his last time out, followed by Chad Qualls and Tony Pena. Brandon Lyon is still spotty, but it appears the similarly struggling Rauch has fallen on the depth chart. … J.J. Putz has struggled a bit lately, and frankly I'm not sure I'll completely trust him for 2009, not yet. Roy Corcoran picked up a few saves in the past week, though this shouldn't continue. Also, Brandon Morrow is a starter now, scheduled for his big league debut in that role this week. Own him for this reason. … I've said numerous times Morrow is the next Joba Chamberlain. Of course, now Chamberlain is back in the bullpen for the final three weeks, though probably not in the eighth inning right away. He's a starter next season. … Fernando Rodney appears to be back to his old ways of walking people, but he still has a firm grip on the closer role. Todd Jones is done for the year, apparently.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sportswriter of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

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