Commentary

Midseason All-Stars

The relievers who have most exceeded our preseason expectations

Updated: July 5, 2012, 2:43 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's only fitting that, in this "closing" edition of our Fantasy Baseball Midseason All-Star team, we shift our focus to the closers.

Relief Efforts

Don't blow it, fellas. In a year like this, you could use the reminder.

Nineteen -- nineteen! -- of the 30 major league closer roles have experienced some sort of turnover since spring training camps opened in February, and in two bullpens in particular, those of the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins, we've already watched as a closer lost his job, toiled in middle relief, then returned to reclaim his closer's role several weeks later. (Hello, Carlos Marmol and Heath Bell).

It has been a wacky season as closers are concerned, and as you scroll through some of the names that made the cut, you might notice a common bond: These guys didn't cost you a heck of a lot to acquire. It's the position, as Matthew Berry and any of us in ESPN Fantasy will attest, that is the easiest to fill via the waiver wire during the season. And in 2012, that has certainly seemed to be the case.

The players on the fantasy All-Star team are those whose performances carried the most weight comparative to preseason expectations. Craig Kimbrel is not on the team, for obvious reasons. He was the No. 1 closer off the board in most leagues, and while he ranks among the top five at his position on our Player Rater, he was expected to do that. In a year in which you should've expected the unexpected, Kimbrel hasn't provided nearly the bang for the buck that these names have. Heck, a few of them rank higher on the Player Rater than he does!

So who are these surprise closer stars? Let's have a look …

Team Captain: Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

Why he's an All-Star: The obvious answer is that he's the No. 1 pure relief pitcher on our Player Rater (he's actually No. 2 to Chris Sale, but Sale is a starter with relief eligibility). But Rodney is the captain of this team for more reasons than that. He was an undrafted player in the preseason. In fact, he even went undrafted in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and Tout Wars experts drafts, both of which are 12-team standard-roster AL-only leagues with reserve lists. He was a $23 FAAB (Free Agent Acquisition Budget) pickup in LABR on Monday, April 9, and was actually the second-priciest closer bought that day (Hector Santiago, $37), and he was a $16 FAAB pickup in Tout Wars on the same day, again well cheaper than Santiago ($52). Perhaps Rodney's lifetime 4.29 ERA and 1.46 WHIP entering the season, or the prospect of a quick return to health by Kyle Farnsworth, suppressed the bidding, but Rodney hasn't given his faithful fantasy owners one reason to be concerned. He notched his first save of the season on April 7 … and is now 24-for-25 in that department with a major league-leading 0.72 WHIP (among qualified relievers) and a 0.96 ERA, which ranks third.

Rodney's breakthrough is the product of two critical adjustments: Glove positioning and his placement on the pitching rubber, which are largely responsible for his markedly improved control. Rodney has averaged just 1.19 walks per nine innings, or approximately 3 2/3 fewer per nine than he averaged in his career through 2011 (4.88).

What's in store during the second half: The "new" Fernando Rodney is now a strike-throwing, ground ball-inducing (51.0 percent rate in 2012), 95.5 mph-average-fastball dynamo. Doesn't that sound like your classic elite fantasy closer? Put aside Rodney's past history, because it's irrelevant in evaluating this clearly remade pitcher. Examining the 2012 Rodney model, the only possible remaining question is natural regression to his ratios, but even that might not result in an ERA north of 2.00 from this point forward.

Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles

Why he's an All-Star: He's the major league leader in saves (25) despite playing for a team that many people believed stood little chance of winning 65 games all season. The Orioles have 44 wins through exactly one-half of their schedule, thanks in large part to the contributions of Johnson, who has a sixth-best 1.24 ERA and third-best 0.76 WHIP, those rankings among qualified relievers, to go along with his impressive saves total. Though Johnson is anything but an overpowering type, his 5.55 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio ranks among the bottom 25 qualified relievers, he more than makes up for it with a 68.6 percent ground ball rate, third-highest at his position, and a .058 well-hit average (percentage of at-bats against him that resulted in hard contact), which rates considerably better than the .108 major league average.

What's in store during the second half: Anytime you're a pitcher who allows the ball to be put into play as frequently as Johnson does, the chatter about regression becomes all the more relevant. But he's one of the put-it-in-play pitchers least affected, thanks to his extreme ground ball tendencies, as the league-average BABIP on ground balls this season is a mere .225. The challenge in projecting Johnson's second half is determining whether he can keep hitting his spots with his two-seamer/sinker with similar pinpoint accuracy. In his defense, he did so over 91 innings last season, when he never had an ERA higher than 3.86 (April) or WHIP higher than 1.30 (July) in any single month. As a criticism, he threw 91 innings last season and is on pace for 72 1/3 this year. That's a lot for any reliever, and it could eventually take its toll. Just a guess, but maybe that happens in 2013.

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Why he's an All-Star: He almost made the Reds' Opening Day rotation, then settled for a setup role, in which he managed 24 consecutive appearances (over 29 innings) without allowing an earned run to begin the season. He parlayed that outstanding start to the closer's role once his predecessor, Sean Marshall, faltered. Chapman might have spent the past five weeks attempting to sabotage his season, allowing an 8.64 ERA and .286 batting average (while blowing three of six save chances) in his past nine appearances, but it would've taken an awful lot to sully the outstanding work he did during the season's first two months. (Losing the closer job might have been a more compelling reason to cost him his spot on this team.)

Besides, Chapman's skills improvement this season have remained present even during his recent cold spell: He walked only three batters in 8 1/3 innings and spotted 54 percent of his pitches in the strike zone during that nine-game stretch. For the season, he has averaged 2.89 walks per nine innings and thrown 56 percent of his pitches within the strike zone. In 2011, his numbers in those departments were 7.38 per nine and 44 percent. Wow is that an improvement.

What's in store during the second half: There are legitimate questions about Chapman's future because he's the one name on the team who has been slumping, but the fact remains that his skills are equal, if not greater than, any of these teammates, and it's always easy to criticize the guy in the funk. Chapman, who has thrown the 12th-most pitches of any reliever since the 2011 All-Star break (1,141), could use the four-day rest in the coming week to recharge his batteries, because after that he might make a run at No. 1 fantasy closer status during the season's second half. His value might be a little more volatile than any of the other names on this team, but his statistical ceiling is also higher; he might have another 20 saves and 60 K's left in him this season.

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

[+] EnlargeKenley Jansen
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireDodgers closer Kenley Jansen has struck out 58 batters in 37 1/3 innings this season.

Why he's an All-Star: His is an example of skills winning out over experience, though "experience" might be overstating it with the Dodgers' Opening Day closer Javy Guerra, who had all of 21 career saves entering the season. Jansen set a single-season record for strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 2011 (50-inning minimum) with 16.10, captured the primary setup role to Guerra coming out of spring training, then supplanted a struggling Guerra as closer during the first week of May. Since Jansen's first save after his takeover, which came on May 12, he is 12-for-14 in save chances with a 1.83 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 13.27 K/9 ratio. He is as attractive a saves/K's combo closer as there is in the game, and he has been rated accordingly in this space for a good two months now.

What's in store during the second half: Again, Jansen hasn't ranked lower than third in "Relief Efforts" since May 10, and there's no reason to believe that with his strikeout ability and newfound job security that he'd be any worse. Health is often a question, but it has also become one with Guerra, who succumbed to knee surgery on June 5 and is only just now approaching activation. Any pitcher could get hurt, so why not take the chance Jansen doesn't miss a day and makes a run at No. 1 reliever status?

Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

Why he's an All-Star: You'd have had to use an actual draft pick to net Nathan this preseason, but as the No. 21 pure relief pitcher off the board in average ESPN drafts (ADP: 186.2, 185th), he was a cheaper fantasy selection than Jordan Walden, Kyle Farnsworth and Carlos Marmol, among others. Nathan has been everything that owners of any of those other three might have hoped for and much more, as he's the No. 7 pure reliever on our Player Rater. Not bad for a 37-year-old with a 2010 Tommy John surgery on his resume, right? Nathan might have disappointed those who drafted him in 2011, his first year fresh off that injury, but this season his next-level statistics sure look a lot like those in his standout 2009 campaign:

2012: 93.9 mph average fastball, 32 Miss percentage, .164 well-hit average
2009: 93.5 mph average fastball, 33 Miss percentage, .167 well-hit average

What's in store during the second half: Nathan does face two challenges today that he didn't in 2009, one being age, the other his home venue, Rangers Ballpark. As a fly ball pitcher historically, he's more susceptible to the occasional poor outing in the homer-friendly ballpark, though interestingly enough, he has shifted some of his fly balls from 2009 into the line-drive category this year. He has allowed 40.2 percent fly balls and 20.7 percent line drives this season, compared to 55.1 and 2.5 percent in 2009. Maybe that's a fluke … but maybe it's an adjustment he's consciously making? Any way you examine his numbers, he looks capable of sticking close to his current paces, and it's not like his Rangers are any less likely to keep giving him frequent save chances.

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