- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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They are the few, the proud, the left-handed closers. You won't find many of them in major league baseball today, nor have they made a tremendous mark on the all-time saves list. Only three of the top 25 career saves leaders threw with the left hand (John Franco, Billy Wagner and Randy Myers) and seven of the top 50. Myers, Dave Righetti and Eddie Guardado are the only lefties to save 45 games in a season, a feat that has been accomplished 46 times overall. Managers just don't prefer lefties in the role, right?
Let's count the number of current closers who throw from the port side: Mike Gonzalez, George Sherrill, Brian Fuentes and Scott Downs. There are even fewer lefties I would call next in line for save chances, in most cases the team's top set-up man: John Grabow, Jeremy Affeldt and C.J. Wilson. I'm not counting Phil Coke of the Yankees. He's not exactly established as next in line. Nobody on the Yankees is.
So what is it about left-handers that makes them undesirable to close games, and how should fantasy owners view this information? In general, I don't think it's odd that there are more right-handers earning saves than left-handers. In the bit of research I did on the topic, varied studies showed that roughly 90 percent of the world's adult population is right-handed, so why would it be strange that a similar pecentage of those trusted to close baseball games in the majors also are right-handed?
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
Many of the best hitters in baseball bat left-handed, and that's why a disproportionate number of those who throw with the left hand are entrusted as situational pitchers, with their sole job being to go in and retire the other team's lefty hitters. Often times these pitchers are pigeonholed, and we might never know whether someone like John Grabow can retire Alfonso Soriano consistently. The Pirates will turn to Grabow to save games only if they must, since they have a right-handed closer who throws harder and has that "closer look" to him. That's what happens through the minors, generally -- managers see closer stuff in right-handers more often. It's a personal preference for some, and for others who have been in the sport for decades, they wouldn't think of it any other way.
When trying to figure out which pitchers in a bullpen could have saves in their future, I think the general mindset is to assume a right-hander has the edge. That doesn't mean Hideki Okajima can't close for Boston, just that if something were to befall Jonathan Papelbon, I don't think the team's main set-up guy would be next. I think Takashi Saito, Daniel Bard and probably Justin Masterson would vault over Okajima. So on the bullpen depth chart I hope you've found useful this season, where you see "next in line," it means for saves, not necessarily for the eighth-inning honors of setting up the closer.
Gonzalez, Sherrill, Fuentes and Downs weren't always closers, you know. They each throw hard and ended up in the role like most non-Papelbon closers do, by pitching really well at the right time. It really is all about the timing. How else can we explain Antonio Alfonseca picking up 129 career saves? It wasn't because he had extra fingers. The Marlins had a need, he filled it and those saves followed him around. Once he had the skill, managers figured he always had it.
That also could describe Sherrill, who kind of lucked into saves more than anything else. He picked up a few late in 2007, for no other reason than J.J. Putz was unavailable those days, and once he was dealt in the Orioles' heist for Erik Bedard, he had become a closer. He just happened to throw with his left hand.
Downs was a starting pitcher when the Blue Jays signed him as a free agent. Then he was a middle reliever, but one who didn't have an extreme split against lefty and righty hitters. Then B.J. Ryan started to fall apart, this guy threw hard and, with nobody else in the Toronto bullpen seizing the opportunity, Downs did.
Most lefties don't do a good job retiring right-handed hitters, so they become specialists, or LOOGYs, as in left-handed one-out guys. There is no shortage of these kinds of pitchers: Will Ohman, Trever Miller and Pedro Feliciano are some of the notable names. Dennys Reyes, now of the Cardinals, is another. Last season in Minnesota, he pitched in 75 games but threw only 46 1/3 innings. That's a LOOGY.
Of our current foursome of lefty closers, I think Gonzalez, Fuentes and Downs have staying power for this season, but none of them is a lock. Gonzalez and Fuentes have right-handers setting them up who are every bit as good as they are, throw harder and are having arguably better seasons (Rafael Soriano and Jose Arredondo). Downs could, in theory, lose the job to B.J. Ryan, although I doubt it. Sherrill is likely to get sent packing to a contender near the trade deadline, as he's a valuable commodity, being left-handed and able to close games. Of course, most teams in need of someone like him probably wouldn't have him close, but we'll see.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks' promotion of Daniel Schlereth to the majors recently got me thinking more about this topic, because the University of Arizona product was a first-round pick in June and has the stuff, poise and mentality to be a closer. It's hard to define, really, but sometimes you can just tell. Schlereth might not be up for long, as he can still be a bit wild at times -- he was Tuesday -- but I can see him being in Arizona's future plans for saves.
Here are some other left-handers who, along with Schlereth, are not in any current closer discussions but could have futures saving games. Maybe these guys will follow in the immortal footsteps of overhyped Bill Bray and never get saves, but why not wonder?
J.P. Howell, Rays: He clearly is the best relief pitcher on the Tampa staff this season but still gets bypassed for saves by a much older, inferior lefty. More on this below, but the point is, Howell could get his chance and thrive with it.
Matt Thornton, White Sox: He finally blossomed last season with a career-best strikeout rate and sub-1.00 WHIP, but with more games than innings pitched, Ozzie Guillen can get more from him. Octavio Dotel isn't a lock for saves should something happen to Bobby Jenks.
Jose Mijares, Twins: Joe Nathan signed a contract extension last season that has a club option for 2012, so he could be around a while, but Mijares already is next in line. As long as conditioning isn't an issue, he should remain effective.
Tony Sipp, Indians: Darkhorse guy in Cleveland because none of the right-handers have that closer look to them. Rafael Betancourt is hurt, Jensen Lewis is average and there's nobody else behind Kerry Wood, who we know isn't durable. Sipp has strikeout stuff.
Alex Hinshaw, Giants: Currently at Triple-A Fresno because he can't stop walking people, Hinshaw has tremendous stuff but has lacked command this season. His walk numbers remind me of what Craig Hansen is doing. Regardless, Hinshaw isn't a specialist, and Brian Wilson isn't Dennis Eckersley.
Now on to the normal stuff from a normal Relief Efforts.
Randy Choate, Rays: Well, this is just a strange situation. We named plenty of Tampa Bay relief pitchers who could end up with saves, but who knew Choate would come up from the minors and vault ahead of everyone? He is a 33-year-old journeyman lefty who didn't even pitch in the majors in 2008. His lifetime ERA was 4.62, and he had nary a career save. And he hadn't pitched regularly in the bigs since 2004. He wasn't closing at Triple-A Durham, either. What was Joe Maddon thinking? Well, he was thinking Dan Wheeler is his guy, but Wheeler can be prone to allowing home runs.
In Choate's first weekend save, he was called on to retire Joe Mauer with a man on base and a two-run lead, and he did it. The next day, Grant Balfour relieved David Price and got eight outs, but Choate was called on to get switch-hitter Alexi Casilla and lefty Denard Span. He did. I wouldn't run out and get Choate, but realize Maddon probably is going to play matchups quite a bit, so he could get the occasional save. For that reason, I had to rank him, but you'll notice he's not the first Rays reliever on the list. I really think Howell could take this job and run with it, with Wheeler and Choate doing the righty-lefty thing in the eighth inning, but I doubt Maddon suddenly will change the hierarchy.
Frank Francisco, Rangers: He's back and in an odd way -- his terrific season finally got noticed when he allowed his first run. It happened in his 18th appearance, when Adam Kennedy homered in the ninth inning to give the Athletics a 5-4 lead that the next guy in this section would hold. It's good Francisco allowed a run, really. The pressure that comes with perfection has got to be tough. I've seen enough good from Francisco since he came off the DL to move him up.
Andrew Bailey, Athletics: There's been no official announcement on this situation, but judging from how Brad Ziegler has been used and how Bailey has been used, it's pretty clear what's going on. Still, I won't give Bailey a great rank until I see more closer-like usage, which might not be possible, given the way Oakland has been playing. Either way, the fact is he's owned in too few ESPN standard leagues (21.5 percent). He is on pace for 118 strikeouts and has four wins, and that first number is showing no signs of being a fluke.
Chad Qualls, Diamondbacks: A strange usage pattern for Qualls last week should have been our hint, but nobody wants to presume a healthy pitcher with little track record of problems is having a physical problem. When Tony Pena was summoned for a save Monday, the news was made public that Qualls has a sore forearm. Qualls blew a save on May 25 and closed out the Braves on May 28 but hasn't pitched since. Could a DL stint be coming? The Diamondbacks say he just needs a bit of rest, but we've seen this act before. Pena becomes a strong add in deep leagues, just in case. I don't think Daniel Schlereth will get a chance to close as a rookie, but hey, it is a rookie manager in charge, so anything goes.
David Aardsma, Mariners: This is what we were scared of -- the potential for a lot of walks. Aardsma threw 12 of 33 pitches for strikes in a nightmare blown save at Anaheim over the weekend, giving up three runs, walking four and retiring only two hitters. The fact he was pitching for the third consecutive day and fourth time in five days is hardly the point. The Mariners need this guy to pitch a lot, but maybe the innings are catching up to him. I don't think Brandon Morrow is any closer to saves, incidentally, but I dropped Aardsma just a bit because one ugly outing easily could lead to more when you have a journeyman out there.
Rafael Betancourt, Indians: By the way, does anyone remember just how good this fella was in 2007? Betancourt boasted a 1.48 ERA that season, walking nine hitters against 80 strikeouts, with a 0.756 WHIP. And still he got only three saves, as Joe Borowski did the ninth-inning work. Anyway, Betancourt was awful last season but worked his way back into a set-up role for Kerry Wood until Sunday, when his right groin popped after his third pitch to Mark Teixeira, the first batter he was supposed to face. Oddly enough, you won't find the outing on Betancourt's game log, because Matt Herges relieved him and allowed a double. It's like Betancourt didn't pitch, but he did, although he didn't finish the plate appearance. Now he's on the DL, and I think Herges becomes next in line for saves instead of Jensen Lewis. The well-traveled Herges has allowed seven hits in 16 innings. I don't think he'll remain as good as his 3.87 career ERA suggests, but someone has to be next in case Wood gets hurt. Down the line, I think it will be Sipp, but not yet.
Comings, goings and random thoughts
Just when you were ready to stick a fork in Brad Lidge, he went out and saved all three games against the Nationals over the weekend. And then manager Charlie Manuel pressed his luck and used him Monday night in San Diego. No, I can't say I would have done the same thing, but maybe Lidge needed more work. I'm assuming his balky knee feels better, but I didn't springboard him back into the top 10 just yet. By the way, J.C. Romero will return Wednesday, which should ease the overwork concerns with Lidge and Ryan Madson.
The Reds demoted struggling Jared Burton to Triple-A Louisville, then brought him back the next day when Edinson Volquez had to go back on the DL a day after his recall. Can't remember the last time I saw that. Not that Burton is close to getting saves, but he owned right-handed hitters a season ago and had promise. I am expecting Nick Masset, who is doing fine work in deep middle relief, to eventually push David Weathers in the set-up role to Francisco Cordero.
Brewers feel-good story Mark DiFelice is dealing with a sore elbow, which is a shame and a sign his terrific stats might be looking not so terrific soon. DiFelice has a 1.16 ERA and four walks allowed against 23 strikeouts, but look for him to get some rest. Trevor Hoffman still hasn't permitted a run in 15 innings, and Carlos Villanueva has allowed only one baserunner in his past six outings, reestablishing himself. Jorge Julio blew a game Monday and got released, while David Riske is having season-ending elbow surgery. The Brewers really need DiFelice to be all right.
A few days after Mets manager Jerry Manuel praised Bobby Parnell for his set-up work saving the baserunners J.J. Putz placed there, Putz had one of those ugly blowup outings that make you wonder whether his elbow is again a problem. I got numerous e-mails from Mets fans saying Putz isn't next in line for saves if something should happen to Francisco Rodriguez. They were wrong, but after Putz allowed six runs in two days and got only one out, that might have changed.
Jesse Carlson leads the Blue Jays in holds, with nearly a third of the team total, but Brandon League seems to be emerging as Cito Gaston's go-to guy now after Carlson had a rough May. This is significant, since the Jays have been overly right-handed late in games since Jeremy Accardo was the closer in 2007. I think Scott Downs is safe, but League might be next in line now.
Finally, we close with a pair of right-handers in the Beltway area leaving the active roster. Washington placed Kip Wells on the DL with a muscle strain in his side. Joel Hanrahan had become the closer, but nobody can take away the two saves Wells earned in May. In Baltimore, Chris Ray had a brutal May and finally got demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, admitting the move would be good for him and telling reporters he needed it. Ah, honesty. I forgot what it sounded like coming from ballplayers.
Eric Karabell is a senior fantasy writer for ESPN.com. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He twice has been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Karabell by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell looks at why so few lefties occupy closer roles and speculates what other southpaws might be in contention for saves.