In discussing the state of closers with a colleague this week, he made an interesting observation: It actually seems somewhat safe to be a closer this season.
Consider this: Of the 30 big-league closer jobs, 22 are in the same hands they were Opening Day. One more changed hands briefly -- that being the Los Angeles Angels, who used Fernando Rodney to spell Brian Fuentes during the latter's disabled-list stint -- but even with that more than two-thirds of closers have retained their jobs.
Compare that to how things looked on the morning of June 17 last season, when 11 closer jobs had switched hands since Opening Day. Three lost jobs might not seem a substantial number to you, but the other thing to take from the 2009 season is that six more of those remaining jobs would change between this date and season's end. If there was any season that illustrated the turnover evident at closer in baseball, 2009 was it.
Does that mean this year's crop of finishers is bound to speed up its turnover rate in the coming weeks, or that this year's group is, simply put, more talented than last season's?
Even if you want to argue that, in what so far seems like the year of the pitcher, relievers are more suited to hold their current roles, one thing to be aware of is that it's actually starting pitchers who have been seemingly making the greater advances in 2010. The major league ERA for starters is 4.22 and for relievers it's 4.13. But look at their WHIPs: Starters are at 1.36 and relievers 1.40. Plus, compare the changes to their 2009 numbers: Starters had a 4.46 ERA, almost a quarter-run higher, while relievers had a 4.08 ERA, or one-twentieth of a run lower than this year.
Not that the major league's collective numbers should make any ironclad statements about the performances of a selective group of 30 role-specific pitchers, but it does get you thinking that maybe this year's slim turnover rate is a bit of a fluke.
Looking around the majors, plenty of current closers look like risks to lose their jobs at some point. Let's highlight next five closers likely to be demoted, in order of proximity.
The rules: It can't be a new-to-the-gig closer (sorry, no David Hernandez, one could say that's too obvious), and it can't be a closer who has already been demoted, even if for only a brief time (sorry, no Chad Qualls because, as some might say, that has already happened).
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Matt Lindstrom, Houston Astros: If there's any closer in imminent danger of losing his job, following the recent demotions of Trevor Hoffman and Qualls, it's Lindstrom. Command has never been Lindstrom's strong suit; he has a 3.3 walks per nine innings mark that actually represents an improvement upon last year's number (4.6), but only 42.8 percent of his pitches seen have been in the strike zone, per FanGraphs, which is 25th worst of 314 major leaguers with 20-plus innings this year. In addition, in his past seven outings he has allowed six free passes in seven innings, which helps explain his three blown saves during that span. The Astros did dish out $15 million for the next three seasons to Brandon Lyon during the winter, presumably because they believed he'd win their spring closer competition.
Sure enough Lyon has outpitched Lindstrom of late, with a 1.47 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 19 appearances since May 1. With another poor outing or two by Lindstrom, this swap might very well be the next in line.
David Aardsma, Seattle Mariners: The next three are actually toughies because their inclusion on this list is more from the angle of possible trades to different teams. In Aardsma's case, he's nearing the point where he's nearly as much a performance risk as a trade candidate. If you drafted him this season, you're probably wondering how a guy who was so untouchable, who had a 2.52 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in one season, could suddenly revert to 5.57/1.29 numbers the next. "Random fluctuation" might be a phrase people bandy about all too casually, but in Aardsma's case, it's a relevant statement.
Ultimately, Aardsma is a fly-ball pitcher with an inflated walk rate who is more susceptible to luck than an average player. While last year's 53.9 percent fly-ball rate and 4.3 walks per nine didn't hurt him, this season's 49.1 and 3.4 numbers in those categories have. For instance, his home run/fly ball rate last year was 4.2 percent; this year it's 10.7. Last year, his strand rate was 77.5 percent; this year it's 63.0 percent.
Maybe Aardsma will settle somewhere in the middle and retain his role, but he's also unfortunately being outpitched by setup man Brandon League, and this is a team looking to the future that might want to sell him off for future pieces.
Matt Capps, Washington Nationals: Another candidate to be traded before the July 31 deadline for deals that don't first require the player to clear waivers, Capps does have the benefit of the Nationals wanting him to close because his status in that role best enhances his trade appeal. He's earning $3.5 million this season, and a $3.5 million setup man who wasn't even capable of keeping his closer gig isn't going to be nearly as attractive as one who has 20-plus saves and was able to work through his issues. A knee injury could explain Capps' recent struggles, and perhaps if he bounces back long enough, the Nationals will deal him a month from now right in time for him to settle in as a setup man for a contender. Even if he stays in the nation's capital, though, the Nationals have two other deserving candidates to close: Tyler Clippard, who has been a sensation as a setup man this and last year, and Drew Storen, the clear future for the franchise in the ninth inning.
Octavio Dotel, Pittsburgh Pirates: This can't possibly end well. Dotel has endured his share of struggles this season, with a 5.84 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, not that it should be all that shocking considering he's an extreme fly-ball pitcher with questionable command. He has a 56.5 percent fly-ball rate and 5.5 walks per nine to date, numbers that put him at huge risk for a blow-up in any outing. The Pirates brought him in during the winter presumably to bridge the gap until Evan Meek was ready to take over the ninth-inning chores, and Meek's 0.72 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 31 appearances suggest he's about ready now. Expect the Pirates to feverishly shop Dotel for the next month to a team that will be more likely to use him in the middle innings than the ninth. If they're unsuccessful, expect the Pirates to give Meek a look in August or September at Dotel's expense.
Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox: Manager Ozzie Guillen has already hinted once this season that Jenks' role isn't entirely secure. While the closer's five saves, 1.17 WHIP and .214 BAA in eight appearances in June give him a little more job security, another cold spell is always a possibility. After all, Jenks already has 12 walks, only five short of his highest number in any of the past four seasons, despite having pitched fewer than half as many innings as in any of those years. Meanwhile, the White Sox have a former closer in the midst of a massive hot streak in J.J. Putz, who hasn't been scored upon in any of his past 11 appearances while limiting opposing hitters to a .146 average. If Jenks hits another rough spell, Guillen might be quick to turn things over to Putz.
Middle reliever spotlight: Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves
Venters' spring numbers left a bit to be desired -- he had a 5.40 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 10 appearances -- and he was returned to Gwinnett to begin the year. Called upon April 17, Venters finally found his niche coming out of the bullpen. Through his first 24 career appearances, he has a 1.55 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 9.9 strikeouts per nine, but, perhaps more importantly, he lacks any significant split between right- and left-handed hitters, limiting lefties to .135/.289/.189 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates and righties to .219/.342/.250 numbers.
While Venters' sinking fastball has been advertised as his best pitch -- the Braves' official website noted that it, in particular, caught manager Bobby Cox's eye during the spring -- it's actually his slider that has been most filthy in his new role. According to Inside Edge, he has thrown it 86 times and failed to surrender a single hit with it all year, limiting opponents to a .053 well-hit average. Venters tends to rely on the slider heavily versus left-handers, completely neutralizing them, while a sinking fastball has been a successful offering against righties.
Asking Venters to keep up this tremendous pace is a lot, but NL-only owners might find some value in him since he's hardly your typical lefty middle reliever. Eighteen of his 24 outings were of an inning or more, and 18 were of four batters or more, meaning he's eating up plenty of innings to make his ERA and WHIP count. Even if it's just a hot streak until opposing hitters get a better feel for his arsenal, this is one well worth riding.
Upgrade your roster
One of the challenges of this particular section is that the "drop" picks tend to be pitchers who, despite no longer being closers, might still be helpful contributors in terms of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, things that fantasy owners in deeper leagues tend to underrate. Contreras is a great example; he has a 1.29 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 15 K's in 14 innings in 16 appearances since May 1, numbers that would help at least in NL-only formats. Still, when it comes to relievers, fantasy value in the vast majority of leagues tends to be driven by performance in the saves category, and the bottom line is that Brad Lidge, right now, is the Phillies' go-to guy in the ninth.
Heilman, meanwhile, was declared the Diamondbacks' new closer by manager A.J. Hinch on Tuesday. Hinch said he has demoted the struggling Qualls from the role, at least on a short-term basis. It's a decision that makes sense; Heilman leads Diamondbacks relievers by a substantial margin in terms of ERA (2.83), and he has a 1.42 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 18 appearances since May 1. Qualls, meanwhile, has an 8.10 ERA and 2.25 WHIP in 17 appearances since that date.
How does Heilman shape up for the long haul? There's no guarantee he'll be able to hold down the closer role, his 23 blown saves since 2006 hinting that he hasn't necessarily been the best at holding leads even in the setup role he has occupied for the bulk of his career. But there's also no guarantee he won't. He did have a 3.27 ERA and 1.13 WHIP during his three best years with the New York Mets from 2005 to 07, and this season he's apparently relying heavily on his changeup as he did during those years. To that point, Inside Edge notes that he has limited opponents to .200/.259/.240 rates with the changeup this season, which compares favorably to the .199/.229/.348 numbers he had with it in 2007.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.