The consensus around the fantasy industry seems to be that John Axford is a top tier closer while Joel Hanrahan is more of a second tier guy. Among closers, Axford has been drafted third in standard mock drafts on Mock Draft Central and fifth in expert drafts, while Hanrahan sits at eighth and tenth respectively. To me, there seems to be a bit too large of a gap between their draft positions.
Hanrahan has posted two consecutive sub-3.00 FIP seasons, though his ERA dropped almost two full runs from 2010 to last season. The drop in ERA had a lot to do with Hanrahan’s pitching approach, as he threw his fastball over 15% more than his career average. This resulted in a 10% increase in ground balls and only one home run allowed compared to his yearly average of six long balls given up.
While his career BABIP of .318 and 8.2% HR/FB ratio point to a regression, — he posted a career best .282 BABIP and 1.9% HR/FB ratio last year — his new approach seems to be a good counter-point against his numbers reverting back to career rates. Even if you do expect a regression, he should maintain similar success on batted balls with his new fastball heavy method.
Although his strikeouts were down last season, 22.3% compared to 34% the previous year, his K/BB ratio sat at nearly the same rate – 3.85 in ’10 to 3.81 in ’11. He walked fewer batters and saw more success on batted balls due to his 97 mph heater. According to Brooks Baseball, Hanrahan recorded ground balls on 10.18% of his fastballs last season compared to 7.67% for his career. An uptick in velocity and downward movement look like the catalysts behind the improved ground ball rate, which explains the BABIP drop.
As mentioned, the fastball heavy approach led to fewer strikeouts for Hanrahan. For Axford, his strikeouts are a big reason for his draft position being so high. Although his strikeout-to-walk ratio was lower, he struck out 86 batters compared to Hanrahan’s 61. That is a substantial difference, and it makes sense that Axford is ranked higher due to the better strikeout rate. Potentially Axford’s biggest advantage, but what is likely not used by most mock drafters – though it should be – is his shutdown-to-meltdown ratio. Axford netted a ratio of 43-3 while Hanrahan recorded a 35-8 mark.
Where Hanrahan makes up for his lack of strikeouts is in his control. As stated, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was lower, which led to a lower FIP of 2.18 to Axford’s 2.41. This also resulted in a lower WHIP, which I do not find to be an extremely useful statistic but it is one of the five stats used in standard formats. A lower ERA, lower FIP, lower WHIP, and better strikeout-to-walk rate push the values of both closer together than average draft positions indicate.
The decision comes down to whether an owner would want to draft Axford 30 to 40 picks before Hanrahan. The strikeouts and higher save totals last season are nice, as is the assurance of a spectacular shutdown-to-meltdown ratio, but the difference in draft position seems like a big disparity. In drafting a number one closer, looking down the line at Hanrahan should provide similar fantasy value for a lower cost. Side with Hanrahan when the time comes and the closers start coming off the board.