Commentary

Relievers graduating to closer role

Updated: May 24, 2012, 3:39 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Call it the month of the dominant setup guy-turned-closer.

Relief Efforts

Already in May, we've seen Kenley Jansen, owner of the single-season record for strikeouts per nine innings (50-plus innings) with a 16.10 mark, and David Robertson, owner of a 1.33 ERA and 124 strikeouts since the beginning of last season, "graduate" from setup to closer duty.

Robertson, unfortunately, succumbed to a strained left oblique shortly thereafter, but Jansen, in the 17 days since he took over for Javy Guerra, has converted four of five save chances with a 1.50 ERA and nine K's in six innings, even earning himself a No. 5 ranking among relief pitchers in the past 15 days on our Player Rater.

These are pitchers who, thanks to their already-sound contributions in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, became instant fantasy superstars thanks to the prospect of saves, a product of their promotions into their teams' respective ninth-inning roles.

Chalk up two more within the past week.

After going more than six weeks keeping him in a low-profile setup role, the Cincinnati Reds finally appear to have placed Aroldis Chapman in a fantasy-relevant position, that of their new closer. Chapman converted saves on Sunday and Tuesday, sandwiching Sean Marshall's eighth save of 2012 on Monday and seemingly earning the endorsement of his manager, Dusty Baker.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAroldis Chapman enters Thursday's action with more strikeouts than Cliff Lee, Madison Bumgarner, Jordan Zimmerman and Johnny Cueto in at least half the innings.

"Hopefully, he's graduated -- which we think he might have -- to the closer's role," Baker said. "It just depends on how often you can use him."

Baker's hesitance -- hinted with those words -- probably relates to two specific concerns: 1) the Reds' desire to use Chapman for lengthier outings, as he has recorded more than three outs in six of his 20 appearances and thrown 25 or more pitches seven times, while traditional, 21st-century closers tend to be locked into a solitary frame, and 2) Chapman's recent off-the-field concerns, including a weekend arrest for speeding and driving with an expired license and a recent lawsuit filed against the left-hander. Baker might be hedging as a manner of working Chapman more slowly into the role, merely alleviating the pressure on him.

Skills-wise, there's no question Chapman is up to the task. He has been discussed numerous times in this space, and he remains as dominating a hurler today as he was on the first day of spring training, having gone 20 appearances of 24 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run and limiting opponents to a .085 batting average. Chapman also has a 15.90 K's-per-nine ratio, which puts him on pace for the third-best single-season number in the category, as well as provides him a legitimate chance to challenge Jansen's 2011 record mark.

But what has made Chapman such a fantasy sensation -- exemplified by his 12-spot bump in this week's rankings -- has been his substantially improved command. Comparing his statistics this season to last, he has improved his walks-per-nine ratio from 7.38 to 2.59, his rate of pitches judged in the strike zone from 44 to 56 percent, his overall strike rate (swings at non-strikes included) from 59 to 63 percent and his rate of strikes on sliders from 59 to 65 percent. From the day spring camps opened, his command hasn't wavered; it's as good today as it was back then.

It's that command improvement that has fueled Chapman's No. 1 rating among relief pitching-eligible players in WHIP "points". It's a simple way of saying that his WHIP has been the most valuable of anyone at his position. Last season, Chapman had the 170th-most valuable WHIP among relief-eligibles.

Maybe that No. 6 ranking looks generous, but as Chapman was last week's highest-ranked setup man in terms of fantasy value, there shouldn't be much doubt that frequent save chances will make him a candidate to quickly challenge for the No. 1 spot among closers, too.

In the nation's capital, meanwhile, the Washington Nationals finally tired of Henry Rodriguez's issues with walks, stripping him of his closer job on Tuesday and handing their most recent save chance to Tyler Clippard. Clippard had previously been one of the game's most accomplished setup men; from 2009-11 he logged the most relief innings (239 2/3), had the third-most relief wins (18), the seventh-most holds (64) and earned top 15 rankings among qualified relievers in ERA (2.52), WHIP (1.05) and K's-per-nine ratio (10.63).

Though Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced a committee approach to saves, Clippard's track record, as well as his having received and successfully converted the first opportunity in that arrangement, gives him the clear edge. Clippard is the team's relief leader in Wins Above Replacement (0.7) and is second in FIP (1.91), and his left-on-base percentage (65.2 percent) hints that his 3.15 ERA is about as "unlucky" as his 1.83 ERA of 2011, fueled by a 95.6 left-on-base percentage, was "lucky." While it made sense for Johnson to keep Clippard locked into the eighth inning -- and parts of the seventh and ninth when applicable -- to begin the season, Clippard's status as the team's most valuable reliever makes him a prime choice.

That's not to say Sean Burnett nor Craig Stammen might receive a save chance or two in Johnson's committee, at least in the short term, and it's why Clippard, in spite of his ERA, WHIP and K's contributions, garnered a mere No. 27 rating this week. Drew Storen's potential midseason return, too, suppresses Clippard's rank. But if we knew that Clippard would close for the Nationals for the long haul, he, like Chapman, would warrant top-10 fantasy consideration at his position.

Stammen, incidentally, is this week's highest-ranked new entrant, registering at No. 60. He's a worthwhile pickup in National League-only and deep-mixed leagues with the prospect that he might either figure into the saves mix or take over for Clippard as the team's top eighth-inning/holds option. Stammen, a so-so starting pitching prospect who had a 4.63 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 45 career games (43 starts) at the Triple-A level, has thrived since shifting to relief in the majors last season. Thanks mostly to a two-seam fastball, he has managed a 57.6 percent ground ball rate in 2012, and his 9.72 K's- and 1.80 walks-per-nine ratios show that he has the kind of command to handle the closer role if needed.

Chapman and Clippard, incidentally, might not be the final dominant setup men to "graduate" into the closer role this month.

The Arizona Diamondbacks might not be far off making a closer change of their own, as veteran J.J. Putz has blown three of his past eight save chances and sports a 7.20 ERA and 1.53 WHIP for the season. Putz's command numbers -- 10.20 K's and 1.80 walks per nine -- might look every bit as good as in any season in his career, but he has allowed a .250 well-hit average, up from 2011's .186, and his fastball has not only diminished in velocity, going from 93.0 mph on average in 2011 to 92.4 this season, it has been pounded to the tune of .378/.429/.689 triple-slash rates.

Putz's struggles could open the door for either of his setup men, David Hernandez or Bryan Shaw, to claim the role, but it's Hernandez's performance to date that should catch fantasy owners' eyes.

Thanks to continued improvement on his breaking pitches, Hernandez has lowered his ERA, WHIP and walks-per-nine ratio while increasing his K's-per-nine ratio for a second consecutive season, his numbers in those categories thus far 2.25, 1.10, 3.15 and 13.05. Among qualified relievers, his 33 percent miss rate on swings ranks 10th in the majors, his ability to punch hitters out compensating for what is the game's second-highest fly ball rate (58.7 percent) at his position. Hernandez might be susceptible to the occasional blown save because of untimely home runs, but everything else about his game makes him look like another possible top-10 option if he gets to close.

Hernandez remains available in 99.0 percent of ESPN leagues, or more than Shaw, who has allowed five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in his past eight appearances. If he's available in your deep-mixed league, you're scouting for cheap saves and have the bench space, consider adding Hernandez now.

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