Potential risks, upside plays
Warning signs for Papelbon, Perez? Good things for Walden, Madson?
Change might be a-comin'. After all, we're talking about closers, where "change" might as well be included in the job description, and it has been, oh, 10 days since the last closer job changed hands.
Looking at this week's rankings, I can't help but sense a changing of the guard is on the horizon. For the most part, the closers currently ranked in the top 10 have remained that way for quite some time, as have those ranked between 11th and 20th. But this week, it certainly feels like the names in the latter group are the ones on the upswing, and have closed the gap between them and the former group.
It's all a matter of upside/downside, and the hints are there. So today, let's examine two of my current top 10 whose potential for a statistical -- and rankings -- collapse has recently increased, as well as two well outside the top 10 who have the skills -- and upside -- to potentially reach that group by year's end.
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox: Papelbon has been no stranger to questions during the past calendar year, having been rumored on the trading block for nearly that long, but difficult for the Red Sox to move due to his $12 million salary. He has again shown disconcerting signs of fading skills, as he did in 2010. He has been scored upon in six of his past 12 appearances, and has a 7.15 ERA and 1.59 WHIP.
Ultimately, when Papelbon is struggling, his command is shaky and he's serving up untimely home runs. As expected, during the 12-game slump, he has averaged 2.38 walks and 1.59 homers per nine; he had 3.76 and 0.94 numbers in 2010, when his ERA was a troubling 3.90. On top of the walks, though, there's this: A whopping 36 percent of Papelbon's pitches during his 12-game cold spell were judged "middle," merely vertically speaking, and 8.9 were in the middle of the strike zone (as in, middle both horizontally and vertically). From 2009 through May 7, 2011 (the day before his slump began), however, those numbers were 29.9 and 7.4. The former is a small sample size, yes, but that Papelbon is leaving pitches over the middle of the plate at a higher rate, even in a briefer mount of time, hints that his command could, once again, be wavering.
Potential benefactor: Daniel Bard. He outpitched Papelbon in 2010 and he has outpitched him the past three weeks as well, and at some point within the next calendar year the Red Sox are going to have to consider a switch. Bard throws harder and has become increasingly accurate; he has averaged 97.4 mph with his fastball during his career and has averaged 2.01 walks per nine so far this season, down from 4.01 per nine as a rookie in 2009.
Between the Red Sox's first-place standing and Papelbon's contract, a trade of the veteran, clearing the role for Bard, seems unlikely this season. But if Papelbon's struggles persist, a change wouldn't be unthinkable in 2011.
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians: It doesn't seem that many people have been concerned with Perez's diminished velocity this season, this columnist included, judging by his lofty ranking all season and generous projection a week ago. But after a loss Wednesday, and another strikeout-less outing, Perez's numbers warrant further discussion. Among pitchers with 20-plus innings this season, the Indians finisher has the 14th-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.08), and among closers, only the Texas Rangers' Neftali Feliz (0.86), who has battled injuries, has a lower ratio.
The drop is stark: Perez, who averaged 9.68 strikeouts per nine innings and 94.4 mph with his fastball from 2009-10, has seen those numbers slip dramatically this season, to 5.01 and 92.9. Nevertheless, his manager, Manny Acta, told the team's official website a few weeks ago that it didn't concern him.
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.
"How hard did [ex-Indians closer] Doug Jones throw when he saved the games over here?" said Acta. "[Perez] is healthy and he's doing a nice job for us. I've seen him throw 94 or 95 [mph] in different games. As long as he gets the saves and he's healthy, I'm fine with it."
The problem, however, is that Perez's peripherals show that he's walking a proverbial tightrope, his 3.36 FIP (fielder independent pitching score, on an ERA scale) and 4.93 xFIP (expected FIP) hinting that his current 2.70 ERA is a fluke. His line-drive rate has also soared to 24.1 percent, and he's continuing to serve up fly balls at a high rate (46.3 percent). Perez continues to get the job done -- he's 15-of-16 in save chances and 25th among relief pitcher eligibles on our Player Rater -- but the low strikeout rate is bothersome in fantasy and if you wanted to say he's been somewhat of a magician so far, you'd have a point.
Perez offered an explanation for his diminished velocity in early May: "I'm not worried about it at all. It's not far off from where I was at this same time last year. People seem to forget about the beginning of last season."
While it's true that Perez's velocity was down early in 2010 -- he averaged 93.7 mph in April of last year -- the numbers don't entirely support his claim. Through June 8 of the 2010 season, he had averaged 94.3 mph with his fastball. And if you're curious if it's improving, consider that Perez has averaged 93.8 mph with the pitch the past 30 days, but 93.4 mph in June so far. It's not a devastating drop, but it's something that bears watching, especially accounting for his peripherals.
Potential benefactor: Vinnie Pestano. He's a relative unknown, a 2006 20th-rounder who snuck onto the Opening Day roster thanks to a lights-out spring (1.13 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 13.50 K/9 in 9 G), and a reliever who has soared into a prominent setup role thanks to sparkling 1.80/1.00/12.60 numbers in those categories since May 1. Like Perez, Pestano is a former minor league closer who has translated his success into the big leagues, his low- to mid-90s fastball and slider helping him generate a 36.9 swing-and-miss rate, third best among relievers.
Pestano has been the strikeout artist and has the stronger peripherals of the Indians' two late-inning men, and in the event Perez eventually crumbles, he'd be a natural choice to step in, even if only as the leading man of an initial committee.
Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels: When you've got a fastball that averages 97.5 mph on the radar gun, you can't help but have people raving about your potential to close. That's why Walden was such a preseason sleeper, and how he so quickly overtook Fernando Rodney for the role early this season. It was a quick swap, albeit a deserved one, and when I look at Walden, I really see only one shortcoming: He either needs to improve his changeup, or if it's a major league-worthy pitch already, he needs to use it more.
Walden's fantasy owners probably recall the three blown saves he had in May, or fret about his 5.14 ERA since May 4, the date of his first blown save. But looking closer at his individual outings, there's reason to believe the skills are there, and that if the Angels are patient with him, the experience should quickly turn him into one of the premier closers in the league.
Consider that of Walden's five worst outings during that span (on May 4, 8, 11, 16 and 29) left-handed hitters managed .692/.722/.923 rates and walked in four of 16 plate appearances. The entire remainder of the year, however, lefties have managed .087/.176/.152 rates against him. I'm picking and choosing stats, yes, but among some of the lefties that had hits off him in those games were Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Morneau, Asdrubal Cabrera and Grady Sizemore, which represents some lofty competition. Considering Walden has thrown a changeup -- usually a preferred pitch by a right-hander against lefty hitters -- only 13 times all year (2.7 percent of the time), one can only wonder whether his improving that pitch to use against such elite hitters would make a world of difference.
That's not to say Walden can do that; it's not always easy to just develop a new pitch or improve an existing one. But even if he can't, the skills are there for him to be a top-20 fantasy closer, even if not a top-10 one. After all, Jonathan Broxton and Carlos Marmol are two other hard-throwing, fastball/slider closers who have thrived; Walden's skills really aren't much less.
Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies: It's a gut pick, and I readily admit that last week's projections had Madson saving 10 more games, Brad Lidge eight and Jose Contreras two. At the same time, I'll point out that in the April 28 "Relief Efforts" I noted that, "in terms of sheer talent, Madson would be a potential top-10 fantasy closer," and that in my chat on the same day, I said that "in no way would I be surprised if he thrives in the role, holds it and saves 30." I've long admired Madson's talent; the reason for the hedging in projections and ranking is that Lidge makes "closer money" ($11.5 million this year, to be exact) and is a "proven closer," and that the Phillies might lean on those when he returns.
Plus, there's this doozy from the preseason: "There's no question that we think that Ryan is a great fit for us, but Ryan has not proven to us he can be a closer in the major leagues," said Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Can that happen? That's possible. Can we necessarily rely on him? I don't think so."
Madson has been fine in the role since taking over in late April; he's a perfect 14-for-14 in save chances with a 2.25 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 9.45 K's-per-nine ratio in 20 appearances. And since his return from a broken toe 11 months ago, he has been one of the most effective relievers in all of baseball, with a 1.77 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.65 K's-per-nine and 4.67 K's-per-walk ratios in 73 appearances, remarkable statistics for a pitcher who calls cozy Citizens Bank Park his home.
On skills alone, Madson is instantly worth top-10 treatment, and I'll leave it to you to judge how relevant you consider the Lidge threat. Madson earns a No. 22 ranking this week, but if I'm his owner, I won't be trading him at beneath top-15 value. He's too valuable for the foreseeable future, meaning the two-plus weeks more Lidge should probably be out, potentially longer if Lidge's recent setback is deemed more significant, and perhaps the entire remainder of the year if the Phillies decide to stick with him, contracts be damned.
Remember, sometimes, teams gets these decisions right. (Even if it takes time.)
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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