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Who closes for Rockies in September?

9/1/2011

It's the age-old debate: Who should a team pick to close: the hot hand with recent success, or the one with the extensive track record who is being paid "closer money"?

Such is the debate a mile above sea level, as the Colorado Rockies are the latest team to put fantasy plans in flux, the squad facing the question of whether $22.5 million man Huston Street or red-hot Rafael Betancourt deserves the ninth-inning gig, now that Street has returned from a triceps injury.

Street's candidacy has obvious reasons: Besides his "closer contract," he has 178 lifetime saves, 10th-most among active players and the most of anyone aged 28 or younger, and at the time of his final appearance before landing on the disabled list, which was Aug. 8, he had the eighth-most saves in the majors (29).

Betancourt's candidacy, while less obvious, makes complete sense: Since that Aug. 8 pre-DL appearance by Street, Betancourt is 4-for-5 in save chances with a 1.13 ERA and .080 batting average allowed in eight appearances. In fact, since the All-Star break, Betancourt has an 0.47 ERA and .095 BAA in 21 outings. In addition, while Street ranked among the major league leaders in saves before getting hurt, his performance had declined substantially in the later weeks; he had a 7.20 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 10 appearances from July 15-Aug. 8 and had actually served up eight home runs in 34 innings from May 5-Aug. 8.

Rockies manager Jim Tracy recently made his short-term plans clear: "I'm not going to pull the plug on Betancourt right now," he told The Denver Post on Saturday.

That's in stark contrast to Tracy's spring 2010 comments when, knowing that Street was headed to the DL to begin last season, he said, "[Betancourt] has been signed up here to be a setup man. He is unbelievable with that."

It proves that performance can earn the more productive reliever saves, a la Ryan Madson in Philadelphia, and if we knew that Betancourt was guaranteed saves through season's end, his value wouldn't be far off of Madson's. This is a reliever who has a 3.17 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 11.47 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 164 games during his Rockies career, the primary difference between the two being that Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park has leaned much more toward neutral in park factors this and last season than Colorado's Coors Field.

Here's why the Betancourt-Street debate is so compelling: Sticking with this week's theme of historical September standouts, both relievers have outstanding final-month track records, so the eventual victor stands to have a healthy amount of fantasy value in the coming weeks.

Betancourt has a 2.21 ERA and 10.50 K's-per-nine ratio in his career in September, and in five of the past six seasons has managed double-digit innings of a sub-2.00 ERA. As a Rockies player, he has a 1.71 ERA, 0.53 WHIP and 11.62 K's-per-nine ratio in 29 September appearances, significant in that you might expect such stellar numbers impossible from a pitcher who calls Coors his home.

Street, meanwhile, has eight wins, 26 saves, a 2.63 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 64 career regular-season appearances from Sept. 1 forward, and during his Rockies career he's 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 10.64 K's-per-nine ratio in the month.

So who's the right Rockies pitcher to invest in?

Betancourt has done nothing to warrant a demotion to his former setup role, but the Rockies do pay Street to close and probably believe their bullpen is deeper with Betancourt in the eighth and Street in the ninth. This has all the makings of a "closer tuneup in the middle frames" strategy, and Street has yet to fire on all cylinders, having afforded opponents a .364 BAA, one walk in three innings and a mere 17.4 percent miss rate on all swings; his pre-DL numbers in those categories were .267, 1.41 walks per nine and 27.4 percent.

In other words, this is as obvious a handcuff situation as they come, as Rockies saves are every bit as valuable as most any team's, and the two candidates are proved to be reliable when healthy. The team's remaining schedule is also especially favorable for their pitchers; they have a three-game series at San Diego's Petco Park this weekend, then finish the season with games against the San Francisco Giants (four at Coors, Sept. 15-18; three at AT&T Park, Sept. 26-28), San Diego Padres (three at Coors, Sept. 19-21) and Houston Astros (four at Minute Maid Park, Sept. 22-25).

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.

Taking a guess at the Rockies' saves strategy, Betancourt might be the lights-out closer during the weekend Petco series, while Street might recapture the gig in time for the 14-game cakewalk schedule to conclude the season. As for in between? If it's still Betancourt, that's probably best for the Rockies and fantasy owners, as he's the one with the stronger ratios and therefore the more trustworthy choice during the Rockies' more challenging games against the Arizona Diamondbacks (three at Coors, Sept. 5-7), Cincinnati Reds (three at Coors, Sept. 9-11) and Milwaukee Brewers (two at Miller Park, Sept. 13-14).

Rockies relievers aren't the only pitchers who have favorable September track records. Here are three other closers whose regular-season histories after Sept. 1 make them excellent bets to finish on a high note:

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs: Marmol's lifetime September saves total -- he has 23 of his 92 career saves, or 25.0 percent, in the month -- is somewhat skewed by his having initially captured the role on a full-time basis in September 2009, but it's his 2010 September numbers that are most notable. Last year, after Sept. 1, he did not allow a single run, had a 0.77 WHIP, was a perfect 14-for-14 in save chances and limited opponents to a .041 batting average in 16 appearances. What's interesting about his monthly splits is that he's comparably productive in April (lifetime 2.26 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) as September (2.48 and 1.12), bringing the "he prefers cooler weather" argument into play. Marmol's performance is already trending upward -- he's 12-for-13 in save chances with a 3.00 ERA and 12.00 K's-per-nine ratio in his past 16 appearances -- and his Cubs face some light competition in the Pittsburgh Pirates (Sept. 2-4), Houston Astros (Sept. 16-18) and Padres (Sept. 26-28, that series at Petco) in the final month.

Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies: There have been precisely two points during Madson's career when he has been "the guy" for the Phillies in the ninth inning: this season and the final month of 2009. It was during that September of 2009 that Madson was 6-for-7 in save chances with a 3.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 8.80 K's-per-nine ratio in 17 appearances, a productive enough month that made it puzzling why both his general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., and pitching coach, Rich Dubee, questioned his ability to close earlier this year. Put Madson's 2008-10 post-Sept. 1 regular-season numbers together and you get a 1.69 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 9.70 K's-per-nine ratio in 43 appearances, numbers actually more impressive than his full-season 2011 stats in his first year as full-time Phillies closer. Doesn't it now make sense why the Phillies didn't acquire a more "proven" option?

Two September stinkers

Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates: Walks have been especially problematic for him in September in the past, as his WHIP (1.71) and walks-per-nine ratio (6.66) are higher in that month than in any of the other five. In 2010 alone, after he had already emerged as the Pirates' closer, Hanrahan had four saves and a 2.77 ERA … but also a ghastly 1.62 WHIP and eight walks in 13 innings. Hanrahan, one of fantasy's most dominant closers this season, has already shown some signs of slowing down of late, having absorbed two losses, converted two of three save chances, and managed a 8.44 ERA and 2.25 WHIP in his past seven appearances. With the Pirates now long since out of the playoff race, there might not be nearly as many save chances for him looking forward, either. He can no longer be regarded a top-shelf option.

Heath Bell, San Diego Padres: He has a weakness! In no other month of the year does Bell have a higher ERA than in September, a bloated 4.42, and he has managed that number in 93 2/3 innings, the most he has thrown in any specific month. He's also 20-for-25 in save chances after Sept. 1. Bell did succeed last September, converting all 10 of his save opportunities with a 2.51 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, but it was one of only two Septembers with the Padres in which he has been successful; the other was in 2007. What's the common bond? His Padres were winning, competitive teams in both 2007 and 2010, and in 2008-09, when they were not, his ERA was 5.34 and WHIP 1.40 after Sept. 1. Bell's Padres aren't competitive this year, either, and he was a somewhat ordinary 5-for-7 in save chances with a 3.72 ERA in the month of August. It's understandable if you have some doubts about his potential the remainder of the year.

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.