• Boy, did Joe Maddon really fool us. Well, some of us, at least. After all this blathering about a committee, the Rays skipper pulled a fast one tonight. After essentially declaring a bullpen game by yanking Erik Bedard before he could even finish the fifth inning (not the win!), deposed closer Grant Balfour came on to get the last out in the 7th. Low leverage, earlier in the game, let’s see if he can handle it. He did indeed handle it, so he got run out for the eighth, too. Quick work, scoreless frame. Hey, with his pitch count under 20, why not send him back out one more time to try and finish off a 6-3 win?
Time to get your popcorn ready? Not quite. The Aussie tossed a 1-2-3 ninth, completing your oh-so-frequent 2.1 inning save. Maybe not so deposed after all. Of course, what the box score won’t tell you is all three outs were deep fly balls to left, but hey, scoreless innings are scoreless innings, right!? Now, it’s worth noting that Joel Peralta continued to vigorously throw in the bullpen throughout the ninth inning (after deking everyone by warming up in the bottom of the eighth), meaning he would have likely been called upon to clean up any mess that Balfour got himself into. There were three Cardinals righties due up in the ninth, so maybe that’s just Maddon thinking with the matchups, but it’s pretty good evidence that Peralta is strongly in the mix if the Rays need a new ninth inning man.
We’ve hit on this pen a lot in the past 3-4 days, so I recommend digging through some of those archived posts if you want the nitty-gritty. I’m going to move Balfour back into the first chair, but don’t put too much stock into it because he could slip back to third or fourth chair in a heartbeat. Just make sure he wasn’t dropped in your league. Old friend Juan Oviedo pitched OK, but very early in this game. We’ll bump him back out of the top three chairs until it’s clear he has leapfrogged Balfour, Peralta, or Jake McGee.
• When you sort the qualified reliever leaderboard by xFIP over the last month, you see a bunch of obvious names at the top. David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen have all shown to be lights out closers with ridiculous stuff. The emergence of Dellin Betances has been a pleasant surprise for the Bronx Bombers in the middle-to-late innings. But the fifth place guy is a name we all know, but may be a bit of a surprise to see so high. Remember, Joakim Soria wasn’t even supposed to be closing. That job was for young fireballer Neftali Feliz or maybe last year’s emergent righty Tanner Scheppers (aside: now headed to the DL for the second time in 2014 with elbow soreness). The former Royals reliever hasn’t even been that good since 2010. But here we are in 2014 and suddenly his SIERA thus far is almost half off his career mark. The ultimate 50% off sale.
Soria has made notable jumps at age 30 in both the K% and BB% departments. His walk rate (3.4%) is well better than his career mark (7.1%). More impressively, he’s only giving out roughly one-quarter the free passes he did in 2013 (his worst year for walks). Remember, it was last year’s walk rate that caused so many to be down on him on draft boards entering the season. His Zone% isn’t up too much, so he’s not suddenly just pumping strike after strike in there, but his first-pitch strike rate has jumped nearly 10% in 2014. He’s getting ahead of hitters, and we know it’s much easier to pitch from 0-1 than 1-0. His velocity is the same as last year (down from his elite years), but his swinging strike rate is way up. The increase is thanks to a tick up on swing-and-misses on his best pitch (his slider) as well as the reemergence of his changeup, a pitch that hasn’t seen a double-digit SwStr% in three years — at least, until now. Thanks to a relatively low total number of innings/saves, he is only ranked as 13th best “true” RP in Yahoo! 5×5 leagues (Dallas Keuchel and Garrett Richards don’t count). That said, I’m putting him squarely just outside the top tier for the rest of the season, and his to-date results may make him one of the more attractive trade candidates if you need high-quality saves, but don’t want to pay the asking price for Craig Kimbrel. One of the few current closers I see as a value-based add going forward.
• Quick hits: Ben touched on Jonathan Papelbon last night, and there’s little that needs to be said that hasn’t this year. Tonight he pitched the ninth and got his owners a “W.” Aside from the markers concerning me, you have to think the better he pitches now, the more likely some team will be to eat his contract come July. If that team wants him as a setup man, well, his value will circle the drain. Greg Holland racked up save number 19 with a perfect inning against the Indians. Yawn. Francisco Rodriguez is one ahead of Holland, posting his 20th SV of the season. K-Rod has cooled off a bit after a blistering start, but still owns ERA predictors below 2.75, making him a good bet to keep helping you in multiple categories going forward.
[Green light, yellow light, red light: the colors represent the volatility of the bullpen order.]