So long, Danny Graves. The era of closers like you has passed.
We are in an age of strikeouts, specifically a season on track to set all-time records in the category. Major league pitchers, in 2012, have combined to average 7.50 K's per nine innings and a 19.6 K percentage going by individual batters faced, both of those representing a 5 percent increase upon the 7.13 and 18.6 numbers of 2011, which at the time set single-season records in either category. Pitchers have already struck out an individual, Adam Dunn, a major league-leading 121 times. Sixty years ago, there wasn't a major leaguer who struck out that often the entire year.
Relievers have demonstrated even greater success in the strikeout department in 2012. They sport an 8.27 K's-per-nine ratio and 21.6 K percentage per batter faced, also on track for single-year bests, and also up 5 percent from in 2011.
But here's where strikeout performance gets really interesting: Narrowing that relief pool to current closers -- and because of their season-long contributions up until the past week, let's include injured ex-closers Matt Capps of the Minnesota Twins and Frank Francisco of the New York Mets -- the 30 major league finishers have combined for a 10.03 K's-per-nine ratio and 27.0 K percentage per batter faced. Meanwhile, the 30 team leaders in saves combined for 8.93 and 24.1 numbers in those categories in 2011.
It's clear, therefore, that these days, it's all the more important to invest in a high strikeout rate as you seek saves. Colleague Matthew Berry annually stresses his mantra, "Don't pay for saves" but might it be smart, during this strikeout-happy era, to amend that to read, "Don't pay for saves that come with a low strikeout rate"?
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.
Returning to Capps for a moment, he's an ideal example of the ever-shifting bar for strikeouts. He averaged a career-low 4.66 K's per nine in 2011, but rebounded slightly in the category this season before getting hurt, to 5.47. Now look at what that performance means to fantasy owners, using only Player Rater earnings in the category: Capps' strikeouts were worth minus-0.30 in 2011, but this season, despite his improvement in this department, his K's have been worth minus-0.50. And if you want to play the "volume" card, pointing out his missed time recently adversely impacting that number, consider that he's on pace for 57⅓ innings, or only 8⅓ fewer than in 2011. He's also on pace for 35 K's or one more than he had last season.
That's not to say that Capps is entirely without value now that he's on the disabled list. The Minnesota Twins' decision to go with a co-closer arrangement between Jared Burton and Glen Perkins demonstrates a lack of clarity in long-term replacements. Capps might return only shortly after the minimum DL-stay requirement -- he's eligible to return July 9, the first day of the All-Star break -- but he might by all rights instantly recapture the ninth inning once he does. The issue isn't job security; it's that the "replacement level" for strikeouts has risen, pushing him even further beneath it. Throw the DL absence into the mix and he's a much more questionable stash, and second-half option, than you might think.
Now, you might be wondering whether this shifting bar applies to the other prominent Rotisserie categories, like, say, ERA?
Examining ERA, major league relievers have combined for a 3.66 number this season, only a hair beneath 2011's 3.67. Narrowing the field only to those 30 closers, the group this season has a 2.87 number. Last season, the 30 team saves leaders had a 2.89 ERA. And to pick a specific example, Aaron Crow has a 2.65 ERA this season, after 2.76 in 2011, and his earnings in the category this season (0.72) are only 0.07 beneath those last year (0.79). It's a slight shifting of the bar, not nearly as extreme.
It's for this reason that it's puzzling fantasy owners are so quick to question the short-term struggles of strikeout-getting closers, like the Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman. Yes, Chapman has blown three of his past six save chances, and has a 9.82 ERA, .290 batting average allowed and three homers served up during that eight-game cold spell dating back to June 7. But the left-hander has that elite strikeout potential -- and let's stress that the definition of "elite" is ever-rising -- that few pitchers in history have; his 15.85 K's-per-nine ratio would rank third highest all-time (among pitchers with at least 50 innings in the given season). Most importantly, what has made Chapman great all season, that being his huge strides in terms of command, hasn't wavered even during his recent cold spell. Take a look:
Through June 6 (0 ER in 24 G): 8.5 BB%, 2.79 BB/9, 56.8 Zone%*
Since June 7 (8 ER in 8 G): 8.6 BB%, 3.68 BB/9, 53.1 Zone%
* Zone%: percentage of pitches thrown within the strike zone; Chapman's number in this category in 2011 was 43.8.
Do those look like panic-button numbers? More likely, they represent natural regression to Chapman's ERA/WHIP, after what had been a record-setting first two months of 2012. Any short-term struggles by a closer -- especially in this season of quick-changing relief roles -- bear watching, but there isn't a lot in Chapman's slump to suggest anything more than a short-term blip. Besides, even if he does eventually lose his role, reverting to setup relief, he's still a handy fantasy helper in terms of ERA, WHIP and K's. Among pure relievers, our Player Rater scores him first in K's, 17th in ERA and third in WHIP. There's something comforting about knowing the closer you own wouldn't be devoid of value even in the event of a demotion.
Ernesto Frieri, whose 14.97 K's-per-nine ratio would rank fourth all-time (fifth if you include Chapman's 2012 number), is another pitcher whose perceived fantasy value is puzzling. His owners constantly sweat Scott Downs' presence, despite the fact that, in the month of June, Frieri has seven saves to Downs' one.
Shouldn't fantasy owners appreciate Frieri's contributions more? His strikeout contributions place second only to Chapman's on our Player Rater, he's second in ERA and 14th in WHIP and he does rank among the top 25 in the majors in saves despite not recording his first of 2012 until May 23. In addition, the track record of relievers who strike out hitters at a rate as high as Frieri's (or Chapman's, for that matter) is a quick ascension to a full-time closer role. Consider this: Every single one of the 21 closers in the history of baseball to average more than 13 K's per nine innings either closed in the given season or the following one. And, yes, that includes David Robertson (13.50 in 2011), who closed albeit for only a couple of days earlier this year when Mariano Rivera first was injured.
In addition to Chapman and Frieri, nine other current closers have managed better than the 10.03 K's per nine and 27.0 K rate numbers in 2012: Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, John Axford, Huston Street, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Tom Wilhelmsen, Tyler Clippard and Joel Hanrahan.
Valverde's troubles this season were previously the topic of a "Relief Efforts" column, as were Myers'. But in Myers' case, while today his job security within his own Houston Astros bullpen seems high, remember that we're 33 days away from the trade deadline, and there's a good chance he'll wind up with a team that might use him merely in setup relief. And accounting for his poor strikeout performance -- he has a 6.23 K's-per-nine ratio and 16.7 K percentage of total batters faced -- he'd be entirely robbed of his value without the prospect of saves.
As for Capps, while fantasy owners now have the maddening headache of trying to guess which between Burton or Perkins is likely to garner save chances on any given night, let's conclude with this: Perkins is the one of the two fill-ins who has higher-than-closer-average numbers in terms of both K's-per-nine (11.65) and K percentage of total batters faced (30.6 percent).
Is there a sleeper second-half save-getter to be had there? Hmmm