Commentary

Warning signs for closers?

Performance against first batter of a relief outing could go a long way

Updated: July 28, 2011, 2:10 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

With Tristan H. Cockcroft enjoying a well-earned week off, a call to the bullpen needed to be made. Luckily, yours truly was there to pick up the phone and so I'm here to provide some relief efforts of my very own this fine Thursday.

Relief Efforts

When it comes to major league bullpens, managers don't like uncertainty. They want to have that one go-to guy to answer the call anytime a victory hangs in the balance, and they don't want to have any second thoughts about the decision. As long as the skipper feels "his guy" is doing a good job, he keeps his job, even if the entire stadium starts to feel sick to their stomach the moment the first notes of a less-than-dominant closer's entrance music emerges from the stadium PA system.

Trying to guess what's going on inside a manager's head is virtually impossible. We can make educated guesses by what we see in the highlights and read in the box scores, but at the end of the day, no matter how many blown saves Carlos Marmol racks up, if Mike Quade decides that all Marmol needs is a few days off to get his head on straight, then there's nothing that Sean Marshall owners can do but shake their heads in disbelief.

As a way of trying to play mind-reader, I've found that there is one statistic that may do the trick. I call it FBA: the combined batting average of the first hitter that a reliever faces upon entering a game. After all, the quickest way for the boo birds in the stands to gain momentum and for the manager to start to question the status quo is a closer consistently struggling out of the gate. FBA might well be a window into this thought process, and a forecaster of change.

So let's take a look at the current slate of closers around the league and see if there's any unexpected Jonathan Broxton-sized collapses on the horizon, and if so, who might be affected.

Group 1: Security blankets

Here are the 10 guys who have an FBA under .200, and as such, should be able to maintain a stranglehold on their respective closer jobs for the rest of the season, even if they experience a few bumps in the road.

Certain names, like Mariano Rivera, Andrew Bailey and Craig Kimbrel, should not be surprising to see here. In the case of John Axford, his solid FBA might be a reason that even with the acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets -- with a .262 FBA of his own -- Ron Roenicke has decided to stick with "his guy."

Although anything can certainly happen, the Axford example should be a reason for owners of Fernando Salas and Sergio Santos to perhaps be a little less pessimistic now that Octavio Dotel (St. Louis) and Jason Frasor (Chicago White Sox) are joining those respective bullpens.

FBA may also go toward explaining why Jordan Walden continues to get the ball from Mike Scioscia, even though no other closer has blown as many saves so far in 2011.

Group 2: Only as good as today

This next group of pitchers each has an FBA in the "neutral zone" between .200 and .250. In this range, and with lurking competition, their jobs are only going to be as safe as their team's win-loss record.

Typically, potential trades come from this neck of the woods, since there are trusted (though clearly at varying levels) alternatives to be found on the current staff. (As an aside, Drew Storen may be in Group 1, but his name has also emerged as a possible bargaining chip for Denard Span and others. Perhaps that would not be the case, save for Tyler Clippard's impressive .122 FBA?)

Certainly, a World Series ring and a crowd-pleasing beard can build up enough equity to overcome a bumpy July such as Brian Wilson's 3.72 ERA and 1.66 WHIP. So, while nobody is saying that either Detroit, Boston or San Francisco is actively looking to pull the trigger on a deal or to remove pitchers like Jose Valverde, Jonathan Papelbon or Brian Wilson from their current jobs, perhaps their managers might not be completely close-minded to the possibility of change if their divisional leads start to slip away.

Group 3: Only game in town

This next trio also rests in the FBA neutral zone, only the next-in-line candidates have not done much to make a lasting impression. We've already discussed Carlos Marmol, and there's been talk that the Texas Rangers may be in the mix for Heath Bell. That's more of an indictment of Darren Oliver and the rest of the bullpen than it is of Neftali Feliz, but we wouldn't be surprised if eventually, it's Bell who gets the ball in the ninth, should that deal come about.

Without a ton of optimism from the potential closers on these rosters, deadline deals might be a little less likely from this group, but it would not be surprising to see these closers, like with Marmol recently, get a "few days off" to clear their heads before their skippers return to what they probably feel is "the lesser of two evils."

Group 4: In flux

This group consists of the jobs that are up in the air due to injuries, or (in the case of the Mets) an opening due to the previous closer being sent elsewhere. If you asked me my opinion of which pitcher will eventually win out in each of these battles, in every case, it's the option in Column A.

Joe Nathan is the only one with a higher FBA than his rival, but given that since his return from the disabled list on June 25 his FBA is only .154, we're not surprised that he's wrested the job from Matt Capps' nefarious clutches with Ron Gardenhire's full blessing.

Group 5: Danger, Will Robinson!

Here are the pitchers who simply have not been doing the job, at least not on the psychological level. This is where we expect to see a changing of the guard at some point over the next two months.

Obviously, Bell is already one foot out the door in San Diego. Francisco Cordero and Kevin Gregg have nine blown saves between them and the clock is clearly ticking, especially in Cincinnati, where Aroldis Chapman has been close to perfect since coming off the disabled list. Javy Guerra might have already been pulled from his position, if not for Kenley Jansen's irregular heartbeat, but once he rejoins the team (possibly as early as Friday) it may well be time.

And then there's 2011 All-Star Chris Perez. After an 0-2 record with a 6.75 ERA to start this month, since July 20 Perez has been watching as Vinny Pestano and Tony Sipp (.167 FBA) have been getting the relief opportunities.

He finally got the ball again in the ninth inning on Wednesday, quickly allowing the Los Angeles Angels to get an insurance run in an eventual 3-1 loss (Ervin Santana's no-hitter). As the Indians' current 5-11 slide continues, one has to wonder just how many more times Manny Acta will turn to Perez.

Certainly, FBA is not an absolute measure of job security, but in the past it has served well to help identify pitchers who may be causing their managers to reach for the bottle of antacids, even when they do manage to keep the floodgates from opening.

If you're looking for the next source of untapped saves, look no further than the vultures circling above the walking dead of Group 5.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.

ALSO SEE