Commentary

Best, worst September closers

Updated: September 2, 2010, 7:12 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

When it comes to sample sizes, you can't get much smaller than those of relievers.

A quick, easy way to demonstrate that: We've been discussing September splits all this week in our rankings columns, Hit Parade and 60 Feet, 6 Inches being the other two, and among pitchers who haven't made a single start -- only relief appearances -- after Sept. 1 from 2005 through 2009, the leader in innings pitched during that span has only 65 1/3. (By the way, he's Joe Nathan. Among active pitchers, Rafael Betancourt leads the way with 63 2/3).

The leader in total innings pitched -- be it starts or relief appearances -- has 206 1/3, or more than three times as much by comparison.

Jose Valverde
Scott W. Grau/Icon SMIJose Valverde does his best Mariano Rivera impression, at least in September.

So when you're considering a reliever's September history, understand the size of the samples you're examining, and to take that a step forward, remember the context with which those statistics were accrued. For instance, many closers' final-month numbers are impacted by the importance of the games in which they pitched; obviously the pressures are higher on pitchers in tight pennant races, while closers for also-rans sometimes divvy up the save opportunities more in September. A lofty save total might simply mean the closer's team either finished strong in a season or two, or that his team actually contended those years.

That said, just as in the other five months of the year, there's little rhyme or reason to how saves pile up, and there are no better examples than these two:

Mariano Rivera had 31 saves in 33 chances (93.9 percent success rate), a 1.54 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP after Sept. 1 the past five seasons combined. With the exception of 2008, his New York Yankees made the postseason every year and were locked in a couple of intense September battles in those seasons.

News flash: This Mariano Rivera kid is pretty good.

Jose Valverde, meanwhile, had 32 saves in 34 chances (94.1 percent success rate), a 1.35 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP after Sept. 1 the past five seasons combined, meaning he was at least as productive as Rivera during that time span. Except there's one difference: Only once did any of Valverde's teams during those five seasons make the playoffs -- the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007 -- and in all of the others they finished at least five games out of a playoff spot.

That's as much a demonstration that in September, just like in any of the other five months, predicting closer success can be a crapshoot to a certain degree, as certain relievers, just like any other players at any other positions, are more cut out to work the often pressure-packed September portion of the schedule. So keep in mind as we stroll through the Septembers of seasons past -- five seasons past (2005-09), just like in the previous two columns this week -- that while there are useful tidbits to be had in the numbers, they shouldn't completely drive your decision-making.

Don't forget that you also can see full charts of September studs and duds at column's end.

September studs

Juan Gutierrez and Aaron Heilman, Arizona Diamondbacks: This has been an utterly hopeless bullpen all season, but in a surprising revelation, both of the Diamondbacks' closer hopefuls have had decent September track records in recent years. Last season, Gutierrez had seven saves in as many chances, a 3.55 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in 11 appearances after Sept. 1. He also has converted five consecutive save chances this year, has saves on back-to-back days (Tuesday and Wednesday) and has a 1.64 ERA in his past 12 games. Heilman, meanwhile, has a 3.04 ERA and 1.13 WHIP after Sept. 1 in his career, both of those numbers easily his best of any month. He also has a 3.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 19 games since the All-Star break, which suggests he might not be completely done contributing.

Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee Brewers: "Mr. 600" might very well have his tenure as closer shut down as soon as he reaches that milestone -- which will occur the next time he notches a save -- but two things that support his chances at remaining a closer (or co-closer) in September are that he has a 3.26 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 32 appearances since his mid-May demotion from that job, as well as "co-closer" John Axford's paces of 61 appearances and 69 1/3 innings (adding his minor league stats to his big league paces), which could lead the Brewers to begin easing off his workload. If the Brewers go in that direction, granting Hoffman one last hurrah as a closer, they're picking the right time to do it: His lifetime 2.14 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in September represent his best ratios of any month, and since 2005, only three other pitchers have more saves than his 37 after Sept. 1. You never know; perhaps he'll strive to go out on a high note.

Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals: No pitcher in baseball with at least 30 innings pitched from Sept. 1 forward the past five seasons had a lower ERA than his 0.51, which demonstrates the sheer dominance Soria has exhibited in the regular season's final months. Royals games annually don't matter after this date, but Soria has allowed just two runs in 32 appearances in the month of September, and look at the years individually: In 2008, he had nine saves, 10 1/3 shutout innings and a 0.68 WHIP. In 2009, he had 10 saves, 13 2/3 shutout innings and 21 strikeouts. If you're looking for an example of a closer who can matter even when his team's games are meaningless, Soria is your man.

September duds

Heath Bell, San Diego Padres: This might be only his second season as a closer, but in that role last September, he wasn't nearly as dominant as he was the other five months of the season. Bell had 10 saves, most of any month, but also three blown saves, most of any month. His ERA was 4.50, his WHIP 1.31, that one his highest in any month. And if you tack on his 2008 numbers, he has a 5.34 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 28 appearances after Sept. 1. Of course, there's a primary difference between 2008 and 2009, and this season: Bell's Padres are contenders, so there are higher stakes in the save opportunities he's handed. He'll be a key cog for the team as it looks to maintain its National League West lead, but understand there's a risk that he might be a pitcher who wears down in the final month.

Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox: He has battled various bumps and bruises and has had his job security threatened on multiple occasions this season, and his ERA (4.65) and WHIP (1.41) currently stand as his worst numbers in any of his six career big league campaigns. Heck, if J.J. Putz or Matt Thornton were healthy, Jenks wouldn't be a strong bet finishing the season in the closer's role. His September track record doesn't support his prospects at a bounce-back in the final month, either; he's just 17-for-25 (68 percent) in save chances with a 4.58 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 48 career appearances after Sept. 1.

Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles Angels: One of the newer closers to the market, Rodney is getting another crack at the job at the worst time of year, at least judging by his track record. In both 2008 and 2009, he had a WHIP north of 2.00 while making double-digit appearances each year, and for his career he has a 5.18 ERA, a 1.71 WHIP and 54 walks in 81 2/3 innings after Sept. 1. He's also not nearly as sharp with his command lately as he was when he briefly held this job in April; he has a 4.19 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 3.26 walks-per-nine ratio in 20 appearances since the All-Star break. Be careful not to expect miracles.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Koji Uehara, Baltimore Orioles.
Drop: Brian Fuentes, Minnesota Twins.

Uehara has been featured in each of the past two Relief Efforts, and if you haven't gotten the message yet -- his availability in more than 70 percent of ESPN leagues suggests many of you haven't -- it's prime time to scoop him up. Although he has yet to earn the official label of "unquestioned closer" from new manager Buck Showalter, it's clear the role is his, especially after the right-hander converted five consecutive save chances, including an impressive five-out save versus the rival Boston Red Sox this past Tuesday.

Uehara has thrived since the Orioles permanently shifted him to the bullpen. Since rejoining the team on June 29, he has a 1.80 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP and 26 K's in 25 innings, ranking him as one of the most effective relievers, regardless of performance in the saves category. And addressing that saves category, if you're worried about his closing for a bad team, consider this: Since Aug. 21, only one other closer has more saves than him, and it's another closer on a bad team, Brandon Lyon of the Houston Astros (6). Yes, that's picking and choosing sample sizes again, but it does show that even with these types, you often can catch lightning in a bottle.

Fuentes, meanwhile, has officially lost his closer role, as has often been suggested he might in past editions of this column this season. However, it happened as a product of a trade, not poor performance, although his trade to the Minnesota Twins had the same result. The Twins surely recognize his primary value: He's a lefty-killer, having limited left-handed batters to .128/.205/.154 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates this season, and at this stage of his career might be best deployed as more of a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) than a full-inning or inning-plus option.

Sure enough, in his Twins debut, Fuentes got the call to face a tough lefty, Russell Branyan, and struck him out for his 24th save. On the stat sheet, that might hint that he's as good a candidate to close as Matt Capps, but understand the circumstances. Most likely, Fuentes will get the call when and if he's needed situationally, much in the sense Matt Thornton has been by the Chicago White Sox the past several seasons. Fuentes is probably next in line -- ahead of Jon Rauch -- if Capps can't handle the job, but don't expect too many more "Dirty Fuentes" (what the Fantasy Focus baseball podcast calls the ugly-appearance-that-still-nets-a-save), if any.

Best and worst September/October relievers

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.

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