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A.L. Closer Report: 7/31

For the purposes of the “Closer Report” (which will be a weekly feature), we’ll place the relief aces in one of three categories: Death Grip (these guys have no chance of relinquishing the closer’s role; think Mo Rivera), In Control (a good chance of continuing to rack up the saves) and Watch Your Back (the set-up man is planning a coup d’etat as we speak).

Death Grip

Mariano Rivera, Yankees

It was more of the same for Rivera this week, as he tossed two innings (one save) while punching out four hitters. Opponents have made more contact against Mo this season (his Z-Contact% of 90.4 is by far the highest we have dating back to 2002), yet he has the highest K rate (10.18) since 1996. Rivera’s swinging strike percentage is down for a third straight season (from 11.8% in ’07 to 7.9% in ’09; 9.5% average for relievers), but he has seen an increase on his called strike percentage (17.7% to 20.2%; 16.1% average for relievers).

Over that same span, hitters are swinging at fewer of Rivera’s pitches within the zone (66.8% in ’07 to 61.9% in ’09; 65.7% MLB average). Mo is putting fewer of his pitches within the zone (53.4% in ’07 to 46.3% this season), and hitters are still swinging at the same number of outside pitches (about 35%). However, they’re making over 10 percent more contact with those outside pitches, which helps to explain the increase in Rivera’s foul ball percentage (23.1% this season; 17.8% average for relievers).

All of that is a rambling way of saying:

– more called strikes, due to a decrease in Z-Swing%, fewer swinging strikes due to an increase in Z-Contact%
-Rivera is putting fewer pitches in the zone, but hitters are still happily chasing a ton of those offerings. They’re making contact more often on those outside pitches, which has led to an increase in foul balls (which puts Mo up in the count and makes it easier for him to K a batter)

Rivera might not be outright dominating hitters as often by making them swing and miss, but opponents have actually put the ball in play just 16.5% of the time this year, according to StatCorner (his lowest rate dating back to 2003).

Joe Nathan, Twins

Joe recorded three saves this week (taking him up to 29 for the year), working 2.1 spotless innings as the Twins took three from the White Sox. The 34 year-old has shown no signs of decline in 2009. His 5.44 K/BB ratio is the second-highest mark of his career (5.94 in 2006), and his 66.7 First-Pitch Strike% is the highest we have dating back to 2002. Hitters have just a 13% line drive rate against the Minnesota relief ace, and they’re getting jammed often. Joe holds a 20.5 Infield/Flyball rate, third among all relievers.

Joakim Soria, Royals

The Mexicutioner had a busy, successful week. The former starter recorded a (gasp!) six-out save on the 25th vs. Texas, then collected two more saves against the O’s on the 27th and 28th. Soria has a devastating 14/1 K/BB in 11 July innings. The 25 year-old is garnering outside swings at a career-best 30.9 percent clip.

Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox

Papelbon endured a rocky week. He recorded a save vs. Baltimore on the 24th while giving up two hits and a walk, then was smacked for 3 H, 3 R and a walk against the A’s on the 28th. He did notch a silent save against Oakland yesterday. The 28 year-old has been at less than his best this season: his walk rate remains above four (4.09 BB/9), with a 3.69 FIP that’s a full run higher than his career mark.

J.P. Howell, Rays

J.P. continues to roll, with three innings of scoreless relief (one save, one win) and 4 K’s since out last Closer Report. Howell was very impressive in 2008, but he’s been even better this season. His K/BB ratio has climbed from 2.36 to 3.08, he’s inducing more outside swings (22.2% to 26.9%), and he has lowered an already-stellar contact rate (73.8% to 68.1%).

Bobby Jenks, White Sox

Bobby has hardly been King of the Hill in July. In 7.1 frames, he has served up 13 hits, 8 runs and 4 walks. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Jenks may be able to be acquired at a less-than-premium price from an angered owner. His 4.33 ERA looks horribly disappointing, but Jenks has suffered from a .338 BABIP, with a HR/FB rate (15.2%) way above his career average (8.7). His K/BB for the season is 3.7, well above 2008’s 2.24 mark. It may sound crazy at first, but Jenks’ 2009 is probably better than his 2008 work, bloated ERA and all.

Andrew Bailey, Athletics

Overall, Bailey has turned in a superb rookie season. He has whiffed 10.2 per nine innings, with 3.30 BB/9 and a 2.75 FIP. Perhaps he’s tiring a bit, though. The 6-3 righty has given up 4 runs in 7.1 IP since July 19th, with 8 H surrendered. He’s a converted starter, but Bailey has thrown more innings than every reliever except Chicago’s D.J. Carrasco and Los Angeles’ Ramon Troncoso.

David Aardsma, Mariners

Outside of a nightmarish, 5-run drubbing by the Orioles on July 8th, Aardsma has not been scored upon this month. While the well-traveled righty will never be known for surgical control, his wild tendencies have at least been partially under control over June and July (3.38 BB/9 in 24 IP). Aardsma’s approach is pretty darned simple: throw one mid-90’s fastball after another (he has used the pitch over 88% of the time), with excellent returns (+2.16 runs/100). Opponents aren’t chasing his stuff out of the zone often (20.1 O-Swing%, about 5 percent below the MLB avg.), but they’re having problems connecting when Aardsma does put one over the plate (his 77.1 Z-Contact% is over 10 percent below the MLB avg).

In Control

Brian Fuentes, Angels

L.A.’s stopper had been money for most of July (8.1 IP, 7 K, 2 BB from 7/2 to 7/23), but Fuentes has been anything but en fuego in his last two appearances. In two spots vs. the Indians on the 27th and 28th, the lefty was mauled for 6 runs, 6 hits and two homers, without retiring a single batter. Fuentes’ 4.29 ERA overstates his struggles (his FIP is 3.78), but he hasn’t exactly been a shut-down option in high-leverage situations (his WPA is +0.45). The soon-to-be 34 year-old’s 90 MPH fastball has been effective (+0.84 runs/100 pitches), but his slurvy mid-70’s breaking pitch (-0.40) and changeup (-3.59) are not getting the job done.

Scott Downs, Blue Jays

Downs posted minuscule walk rates earlier in the season by virtue of getting a boatload of swings on pitches off the plate (his O-Swing% for the season sits at 34.8%). Will opposing batters continue to be fooled by his sinking high-80’s heater and big curve? Scott has surrendered 7 runs in 6.2 July innings, with 6 free passes. Downs’ O-Swing% has remained lofty this month (37.7%), but he has placed just 42.1% of his pitches within the zone (49.3% MLB avg), with a First-Pitch Strike% of only 52.6 (58.2 MLB avg). One bad month isn’t cause for panic, but you would think that hitters would begin to show more restraint if Downs continues to miss the mark with his stuff.

Kerry Wood, Indians

Woody only worked once this week for the under-construction Indians, notching a save vs. the Angels on the 27th. The 32 year-old’s main issue for the season has been fastball control: his mid-90’s gas has posted a run value of -1.07, while Wood’s near-90 MPH cutter/slider (+0.61) and 80 MPH curve (+1.87) have often had the desired effect. With a -0.53 WPA for the season, Kerry has been exactly replacement-level to this point a year after notching 2.2 WAR with the Cubs. Paying good money for even established relievers is a risky proposition, as the Tribe will surely attest.

C.J. Wilson, Rangers (Frank Francisco on the DL yet again, this time with pneumonia)

Francisco is making progress toward a return, but Wilson surely wouldn’t mind if the seemingly cursed closer takes his time on the rehab trail. The 28 year-old lefty has punched out 8.6 batters per nine innings, with 3.8 BB/9 in 45 IP. There’s nothing wrong with those rates, but Wilson’s 2.80 ERA is pretty far ahead of his 3.61 XFIP.

Fernando Rodney, Tigers

Rodney has given up just one run this month, with 12 K and 4 BB in 9 IP. The changeup-centric reliever does not appear to have any immediate threats challenging him for 9th-inning duty. Rodney is pulling the string even more than usual in 2009, throwing his 84 MPH changeup 42.1% of the time, with a +2.65 run value per 100 pitches (his best mark since 2005).

Jim Johnson, Orioles

With George Sherrill now in Dodger blue, the 26 year-old Johnson would appear to be the best candidate to claim the closer role.

A 5th-round pick by the O’s back in 2001, Johnson looks like a power pitcher but isn’t. Sure, he’s 6-5, 225 and chucks his fastball near 95, but he has a career 5.46 K/9 mark in the majors. Johnson posted a dubious 2.23 ERA in 2008- he posted rates of 4.98 K/9 and 3.67 BB/9, but managed not to give up a single dinger in 68.2 IP. To his credit, he has improved his peripherals in ’09 (6.52 K/9, 2.98 BB/9 in 48.1 IP). Johnson uses the aforementioned fastball more than three quarters of the time to induce grounders (the pitch has 8.2 inches of tailing action on righties, over 2 inches above the norm). With that offering, as well as an 80 MPH curve and a hard changeup, Johnson has induced grounders at a 55.6% clip during his career.

Watch Your Back

No one, at the moment.