Making sense of closer committees
White Sox still murky; closers step up for Braves, Rays, Nationals
Closer by committee.
It's a managerial strategy that's apparently growing in popularity this season, despite the lack of supporting historical evidence.
Yet it's an approach that maddens fantasy owners; there's nothing that displeases us more when we're trying to make sense of a particular bullpen.
But scour the saves from the committee-based bullpens we must; we'll often say on these pages that there are only 30 closer jobs at any given time, as in, only one man from each of the 30 teams can record a save in any given game, only half of the teams that play can notch that save and many of those win by such commanding margins that there is no chance at all. Let's face it, saves aren't abundant, and every one of them matters in virtually every fantasy league.
That's why, in spite of our complaints, we'll keep coming back to those muddled bullpens with our microscopes, hoping to find some sort of clarity.
Let's provide it, because the good news is that two of the teams that picked closer-by-committee approaches at the conclusion of spring training actually appear to have said clarity. Two others, unfortunately, have evidently transformed themselves into dreaded closer by committees.
Thought I'd start with the positives, didn't you? Tsk tsk, this is a saves column, and frustrating as the category can be, it's only natural I'd gravitate to the negative.
To think, two short weeks ago, the White Sox's bullpen seemed packed with exciting names. The two most prominent: Matt Thornton, who had eight saves as a part-time closer last season and a 2.70 ERA and 1.03 WHIP from 2008-10 that ranked him 12th and seventh among relievers with 150-plus innings, and Chris Sale, who was 4-for-4 in save chances last September and had a 1.93 ERA and 12.34 K's-per-nine ratio in his 21 appearances overall. Thanks to his experience and a 2.16 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in eight spring outings, Thornton grabbed the role breaking camp, vaulting himself into a 169.1 average draft position, 18th among relievers.
Unfortunately, things haven't gone nearly as well for either pitcher during the 2011 regular season, though to be fair, some of it has been out of their control.
Thornton blew three consecutive save chances, one each on April 6, 8 and 11, each against a different opponent. Two of those, however, could partly be attributed to dropped balls by left fielder Juan Pierre: A Pierre error allowed the tying run to score in Monday's 2-1, 10-inning loss, and another Pierre error (along with an Alexei Ramirez throwing error) led to a five-unearned-run nightmare on April 8. Sale, meanwhile, was pushed into a save opportunity by manager Ozzie Guillen during a day game on Wednesday, despite the left-hander having thrown 34 pitches in an appearance the night before.
Of course, both closer hopefuls are partly to blame for his struggles. Thornton's command has been spotty (at best) -- he has allowed four walks in 4 2/3 innings -- and his stuff simply lacks the oomph it had in any of the past three seasons. To that point, he has generated swinging strikes 5.7 percent of the time (compared to 12.2 in his career) and has surrendered a 36.0 percent line-drive rate (19.1 career). Whether that's a sign of an underlying problem is unclear, but there's merit to the thought that Thornton shouldn't be closing right now.
Sale, meanwhile, has a misleading 11.05 strikeouts-per-nine ratio; his 6.7 swing-and-miss percentage suggests he's not missing as many bats as you'd think. He's also serving up countless fly balls (45.8 percent), and in U.S. Cellular Field, that's going to put him at constant risk of an unexpected meltdown.
Thornton and Sale will probably continue to alternate save opportunities until one of them heats up -- remember that it often takes only back-to-back spotless saves for a closer to again become "the guy" -- but AL-only owners might want to take a look at Sergio Santos, the hottest hand in the White Sox bullpen. Santos, a converted shortstop, has followed up his 2.96-ERA rookie campaign with 7 2/3 scoreless frames of a 3.00 K-per-walk ratio, his command just a tad more polished than what it was in 2010. His mid-90s fastball and slider are sure to generate strikeouts, and it's not unthinkable he could garner the next save chance, string two together and emerge from nowhere as the White Sox's new closer.
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.
OK, let's switch back to the positives, shall we? Here's a bullpen that, initially advertised as a closer partnership, has since Opening Day shaped up as a clear one-closer system: It's rookie Craig Kimbrel's job.
That's not to take anything away from the performance of Jonny Venters, whom manager Fredi Gonzalez tabbed as his co-closer in March. Venters, a rookie standout in 2010, has kept up the impressive statistics as a sophomore, with a 1.50 ERA, allowing only a hit and a walk in six innings (0.33 WHIP) and generating ground balls 93.3 percent of the time. And while his three strikeouts (4.50 K's per nine) seems modest, Venters' 17.7 percent swing-and-miss rate shows that he's still missing bats with every bit the same regularity. He's as deserving of a closer job as any setup man, and still valuable from an ERA/WHIP/K's angle.
But Kimbrel has matched Venters' performance so far, and kudos to Gonzalez for investing so much stock in such a young and inexperienced arm. (I admit I was fooled; I believed Gonzalez would stick with experience and was apparently wrong.) No one has ever doubted Kimbrel's stuff; it's his command issues that have always been the question. Through four appearances, however, he has issued only one free pass in four frames, and while his 44.6 percent ratio of pitches in the strike zone -- 51st out of 175 relievers (29th percentile) -- hints he's not yet super-sharp, his 27.8 percent swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone (53rd percentile) shows that he's still adept at fooling hitters with his filthy offerings.
Kimbrel is the future of the Braves' bullpen, and three consecutive converted, spotless save opportunities should give him a bit of leeway in the role right now. They might not all be this easy, but in as little as two weeks, his value has soared to where he might make a run at top-10 fantasy closer status.
Well, they finally won a game! Three, in fact, with two of those generating save chances. And when the Rays got a lead to their closer in the ninth inning, their finisher of choice was none other than Kyle Farnsworth!
As absurd as it might sound, Farnsworth might yet emerge from what was initially described as a three-headed closer by committee -- Joel Peralta and Jake McGee the other two-thirds -- despite a 12-year track record (entering this one) of a 4.39 ERA and 1.39 WHIP that surely has fantasy owners saying, "Yeah, right, Farnsworth can't possibly keep the job. He never has before!"
However, it's Farnsworth's apparent maturation the past couple seasons, coinciding with the addition of a cutter to his arsenal, that makes him a more trustworthy option than in the past. Cutter in hand, Farnsworth slashed his ERA from 4.58 in 2009 to 3.34 last season, and 2.08 through his first five appearances of 2011. His WHIP, too, has dropped, from 1.53 in 2009 to 1.16 to 0.69 (though those 2011 ratios, naturally, are far smaller sample sizes). Farnsworth has also morphed from an extreme fly-baller -- 51.1 percent rate as recently as 2007, and 40.3 career -- into one who has a 42.6 percent ground-ball compared to 35.9 percent fly-ball rate since the beginning of 2009. The cutter has also helped his prospects against left-handed hitters in particular; they have .264/.340/.390 rates against him since 2009.
In other words, Farnsworth might be here to stay as Rays closer, and the best news is he's available in nearly 90 percent of ESPN leagues (89.9, to be exact). McGee might be the future of the Rays' bullpen, and ready to take over the job later in the year, and Peralta could factor into the mix if Farnsworth transforms back into his old, erratic self. But there's something to be said for experience, and for a pitcher who has reinvented himself. It's probably time to actually believe in Farnsworth.
It's a bullpen that's as perplexing as ever, as Sean Burnett has converted all three of the Nationals' (ninth-inning) save chances, yet manager Jim Riggleman continues to stress that it's a closer partnership between Burnett and Drew Storen.
On performance alone, Burnett has done plenty to cement himself as the Nationals' go-to guy. In addition to beginning the year with a 1.35 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 3-for-3 performance in saves, the veteran southpaw has a 2.54 ERA and 1.11 WHIP since the beginning of 2009, and strong enough numbers against both righties and lefties that he can be trusted anytime regardless of opponent. Heck, Burnett might be an even more reliable pitcher against righties; they have but .188/.279/.263 rates against him since the start of the 2009 season.
Storen, meanwhile, is the clear future of this team in the ninth inning, and he has gotten off to nearly as impressive a start to 2011. Through six appearances he has a 1.35 ERA and 0.90 WHIP, and Riggleman's backing of him as a viable closer candidate means that continued excellence from the young right-hander will inevitably lead to his overtaking Burnett for the role.
The question, then, is when will it happen?
That's what's less clear. Burnett has done nothing to warrant being demoted into a setup role, so this might be a pick-the-hot-hand arrangement until one heats up while the other cools, something that could take a month or more. If you're forecasting merely second-half saves from the Washington bullpen, the smart pick is Storen, and probably for the vast majority -- if not all -- of them.
If you're forecasting saves between now and, say, Memorial Day, it's a vastly different story. Other than Riggleman's backing, Storen hasn't done enough to warrant our trust in the sort term, so Burnett is probably the favorite. Handcuffing the two, unfortunately, is mandatory.
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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