Closers regaining jobs

Balfour, Thayer appear set for saves again; Axford re-emerges for Brewers

Updated: August 23, 2012, 3:16 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Let's tell the tale of two new closers, one who should be and one who shouldn't be.

Relief Efforts

The one who should: Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics, who despite having actually lost said closer's job earlier this season ranks among the most productive late-inning relievers of 2012. Combining saves and holds, Balfour's 27 rank 16th in the majors, and his 93.1 percent success rate (converted save or hold) ranks 12th-best among relievers with at least 20 opportunities.

Balfour has ridden a 0.63 ERA and 0.63 WHIP and 32.1 percent strikeout rate (calculated based upon a percentage of total batters faced) since the All-Star break -- those stats ranking seventh, third and 11th, respectively, among qualified relievers -- to his second stint as a closer in 2012. Capitalizing upon Ryan Cook's recent struggles in the role, Balfour has converted five consecutive save chances.

Though Athletics manager Bob Melvin hasn't yet formally declared Balfour his full-time closer -- he said on Aug. 11 that he merely wanted Cook to work a few clean innings in a lower-pressure role before restoring him to the role -- the patterns read as equivalent. Besides, examining the three most likely closer candidates in Oakland, the full-season statistics lean in Balfour's favor:

Balfour: 2.51 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, .162 BAA, 22.0 K%, 93.1% SV/HD conversion
Cook: 2.58 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, .176 BAA, 25.6 K%, 77.4% SV/HD conversion
Sean Doolittle: 3.54 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, .262 BAA, 35.9 K%, 88.9% SV/HD conversion

"SV/HD conversion" is a calculation of saves plus holds divided by total opportunities (save or hold), and that category alone shows how wide the split is between Balfour and Cook. As the Athletics fancy themselves contenders -- they are five games back in the American League West and are tied for the two wild-card spots -- they're sure to be aware of those numbers.

[+] EnlargeGrant Balfour
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesGrant Balfour has a 0.63 ERA and 0.63 WHIP since the All-Star break.

Balfour has another advantage in the race for saves out west: Since the beginning of the 2010 season, his 2.42 ERA ranks 10th and his 1.02 WHIP eighth among relievers with at least 150 innings pitched. His track record is lengthier than that of either Cook, who has all of 64 career big league appearances, or Doolittle, who has 25. And we know how managers sometimes prefer the guy with "experience."

It's for that reason that Balfour, despite the lack of an official closer endorsement, soars seven spots in this week's rankings. He might well make a case to be a second-tier closer, one deserving of a ranking in the 11-20 range.

As for the one who shouldn't: Dale Thayer of the San Diego Padres, the fill-in for Huston Street while the latter nurses a strained quadriceps. Since Street's placement on the disabled list on Aug. 11, Thayer has converted two of his three save opportunities but allowed three runs on six hits in four innings in the process, opponents batting .333/.368/.556 against him during that span.

As with the Athletics' bullpen, let's examine the stats of the leading contenders to close in San Diego to illustrate the point from a seasonal perspective:

Street: 0.75 ERA, 0.53 WHIP, .094 BAA, 35.7 K%, 100.0% SV/HD conversion
Thayer: 3.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, .259 BAA, 18.6 K%, 83.3% SV/HD conversion
Luke Gregerson: 2.37 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, .216 BAA, 25.7 K%, 84.6% SV/HD conversion

It's Street's job when he's healthy, based on his recent and historical performances, including an 84.0 percent SV/HD conversion rate, 2.93 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in his eight-year big league career. But he's probably out another two weeks or so, having only recently resumed playing catch, so there's enough value in his fill-in that the discussion has merit.

[+] EnlargeDale Thayer
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesDale Thayer is hoping to regain the magic that saw him throw 10 scoreless innings with five saves to open the season.

Perhaps the rationale behind Thayer being Street's short-term substitute is that he's done the job before; he converted each of his first five save opportunities the last time Street was on the disabled list in May. But even then, Thayer showed his warts: He had a 6.52 ERA and .359/.366/.538 rates allowed during his 10 appearances total while Street was sidelined, done in by two extremely ugly appearances (May 26 and 30) late in his stint as closer.

Gregerson, meanwhile, never seems to get a fair shake when it comes to doling out saves. He has a 1.02 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 28.7 percent strikeout rate and 16 holds in 18 opportunities scattered across 37 appearances since June 1. And from a historical perspective, his statistics compare favorably to any Padres pitcher since his debut in 2009, as he has a 2.94 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 85.0 percent SV/HD conversion rate in his career. Gregerson has also done one other recent thing that has made him a more "complete" reliever: He has diminished his platoon split to the point that left-handed hitters have .253 AVG/.371 OBP/.360 SLG rates against him in 2012, whereas in 2011 they managed .329/.394/.376 numbers against him.

The debate between should and is closing isn't easily reconciled, though, so while Gregerson has a fair share of sleeper potential based upon skills, Thayer still seems to be the one to own.

But here's a reason to think the Padres might be rethinking that approach: Rookie Tom Layne, a 27-year-old left-hander who had one save and a 4.50 ERA during his minor league career, got the call on Wednesday. Granted, Thayer had pitched on each of the previous two nights, totaling 42 pitches, but it's not unthinkable that manager Bud Black is rethinking his ninth-inning strategy.

In NL-only leagues, certainly, don't underestimate what Gregerson might offer you the remainder of the year.

Skunky Brew

[+] EnlargeJohn Axford
Mark Hirsch/Getty ImagesJohn Axford may have a 5.08 ERA, but h still has a K/9 rate of 11.6.

If Balfour should be closing and Thayer shouldn't, then how does one describe John Axford … "kinda-sorta should"?

I've said it before in this space and will say it again: There are saves to be had on the Milwaukee Brewers' roster, but they're sure to be ugly the remainder of the season. Five Brewers relievers have a save this season, and not one of them has an ERA beneath 3.50 or a WHIP less than 1.26. As with the previous two teams, let's take a closer look at the seasonal stats of their candidates:

Axford: 5.08 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .250 BAA, 28.4 K%, 73.3% SV/HD conversion
Jim Henderson: 3.97 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, .306 BAA, 33.3 K%, 83.3% SV/HD conversion
Francisco Rodriguez: 5.03 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, .266 BAA, 23.0 K%, 80.0% SV/HD conversion
Kameron Loe: 3.50 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, .258 BAA, 19.1 K%, 50.0% SV/HD conversion
Jose Veras: 4.59 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, .256 BAA, 24.6 K%, 84.6% SV/HD conversion

Though Axford's rate statistics might not elevate him above the competition, consider a few things: Remember that while Henderson has the greater strikeout rate, Axford's has been accumulated over the larger sample, that of 178 more batters faced. Axford's SV/HD sample is also considerably larger; he has 24 more opportunities than Henderson. Axford also has a 48.9 percent ground ball rate, which, coupled with his healthy strikeout rate, should make him one of the "safer" bets of this bunch … if any could be called truly "safe." (None can.)

Axford's problem appears to stem from issues with fastball command within the strike zone. On pitches "down" in the zone -- bottom third of the strike zone and beneath -- he has limited opponents to .168/.258/.224 rates since 2009, his yearly splits rarely wavering from those numbers. But Axford has been getting pounded on pitches "up," opponents batting .295/.476/.557 against them, particularly his fastball. He has thrown only 21 percent of fastballs down in the zone, whereas from 2010-11 he threw 25 percent of them there. That's effectively a sample of 30 fewer pitches located there … which means he's leaving a fastball up approximately once per two appearances. That's a lot for a reliever.

This hardly means Axford will correct that problem in the next few weeks, if at all this season. But he has the skills to most deserve another chance to close, and for that reason, ugly as his saves might be, he's the man to own in Milwaukee.

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