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The A.L. Closer Report: 9/24

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

The Panamanian with the deadly cutter will be 40 this November, yet it’s actually shocking any time that Rivera allows a run. He gave up two in a blown save vs. Seattle on the 18th. Those are the only tallies against Mo since August 11th. Rivera has 9.96 K/9, with 1.73 BB/9 and a 2.54 XFIP. His percentage of contact within the zone is higher than usual (89.8% in ’09, 85.9% career), but Mo remains as effective as ever.

Joakim Soria, Royals

Soria has worked four times since the last Closer Report, collecting three saves and striking out five in four scoreless innings. Joakim has yet to allow a run this September, while racking up an insane 19 K’s in 10.2 IP. The Mexicutioner has 12.06 K/9 in 2009, with a 31.1 O-Swing% (25% MLB avg). It’s no wonder why the 25 year-old is so difficult to touch up: he can unleash a 92 MPH heater (+0.61 runs/100), 80 MPH slider (+0.62), 70 MPH curveball (+4.95) or an 85 MPH changeup (+0.42). How many relievers have four plus pitches?

Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox

The major league leader in Win Probability Added (+4.79), Papelbon has punched out 11, issued two walks and surrendered 2 runs in 9.1 September innings. Boston’s 4th-round pick in the 2003 draft has been much sharper in the second half of the season, with a 5.5 K/BB ratio since the All-Star break (2.28 K/BB prior).

Joe Nathan, Twins

Nathan has seen extensive action as the Twins attempt to catch the Tigers in the A.L. Central standings. Joe has pitched 7 times over the past 10 days, collecting six saves. He has whiffed 8 in 6.2 frames, but has also issued 4 free passes. Nathan struck out 9.67 hitters per nine innings in 2007 and 9.84 in 2008, but his K rate has climbed back up to 11.86 this year. His contact rate (68.2%) is his lowest since 2005.

Andrew Bailey, Athletics

Bailey has pitched 79.1 innings in relief this season, the most by any closer in the majors. But if the 25 year-old with the nasty fastball, cutter and curve is tired, he sure isn’t showing it. Bailey chucked four scoreless innings since our last Closer Report, with 6 K’s, zero walks and one hit. With 9.87 K/9 and 2.61 BB/9, the 6-3 righty has a 3.37 XFIP. Opposing batters have made contact with 75.6% of Bailey’s pitches within the strike zone, the lowest rate among all relievers.

David Aardsma, Mariners

Can you believe that Aardsma hasn’t walked anyone in over a month? A highly-touted prospect taken 22nd overall by the Giants in 2003, Aardsma drifted through many organizations (San Fran, both sides of Chicago, Boston) before breaking out in Seattle. Control problems plagued him throughout. Yet, the 27 year-old has now gone 11 consecutive frames without allowing a free pass. His walk rate is down to 4.32 for the season. Punching out 10.26 batters per nine innings and showing adequate control, Aardsma has a 4.16 XFIP in 2009.

In Control

J.P. Howell, Rays

Howell has collected just one save this September, with the Rays fading down the stretch. His control has been MIA, with seven walks in five IP (this after 9 BB in 12 August frames). J.P. hasn’t been easy to hit (10.67 K/9, and a 68.1% contact rate well below the 81% MLB avg). But he’s struggling to locate, with a 45.8 Zone% (49% MLB avg, 50.1% Zone% for Howell in 2008).

Frank Francisco, Rangers

Watch out for: C.J. Wilson

Putting the finishing touches on a fine (if injury-riddled) 2009 season, Francisco has picked up two saves in five scoreless frames since the last Closer Report (6 K, 2 BB). In 46.2 IP, Frank has a 4.0 K/BB ratio, with a 3.78 XFIP. He’s pounding the zone (55 Zone%, 49% MLB avg). But when he does bury a pitch in the dirt, hitters are chasing more often (27.1 O-Swing%, 22.8% career avg).

Matt Thornton/Octavio Dotel, White Sox (Bobby Jenks out for the season with a strained calf muscle)

A calf injury closes the book on Jenks’ 2009 season. Bobby’s ERA soared from 2.63 in 2008 to 3.71 in 2009, but it’s questionable how much he actually declined. The 28 year-old’s XFIP was 3.86 in ’08, and a slightly-lower 3.77 in 2009. Jenks’ K rate bounced back this year (5.55 K/9 in ’08, 8.27 K/9 in ’09), but a huge 17% home run/fly ball rate put a big dent in his season. He’s basically the same guy: a good late-inning arm, if not an elite one.

With Bobby out of commission, Thornton and Dotel figure to get dibs on any save ops for the Pale Hose. Per Win Probability Added, Thornton (+2.87) has Dotel (+0.74) beat by a healthy margin. Same goes for XFIP (2.92 for Matt, 4.33 for Octavio). Thornton has whiffed 10.72 hitters per nine frames this year, firing a blistering 96 MPH fastball nearly 90 percent of the time.

Jason Frasor/Scott Downs, Blue Jays

The Jays haven’t had a save converted since Sept. 12th, when Frasor took down the Tigers. Frasor (a former Detroit prospect himself) blew a save op against the Tigers on the 14th (3 runs allowed, including a homer), then took a loss against the Yankees on the 16th (2 hits and a run). He allowed another run in an appearance vs. Baltimore on the 21st, then finally tossed a clean inning yesterday against the O’s.

Downs, meanwhile, has had some trouble of his own. He blew a save op vs. the Bronx Bombers Sept. 16th, giving up 3 hits two runs and a homer. He hasn’t appeared in a game since.

Brian Fuentes, Angels

Watch Your Back: Kevin Jepsen

Are the buzzards circling Fuentes? Shiny save total aside, the former Rockie hasn’t enjoyed a stellar first year with the Halos. His XFIP, 3.25 in 2008, has soared to 5.09 this year. Fuentes’ K rate (7.71 per nine) has dipped considerably, and is the worst mark of his big league career. The lefty’s fastball has still been effective (+0.66 runs/100), but he’s lost control of his mid-70’s slider (-0.82 runs/100). That has led to more contact (79.5 contact%, 73.4% career) and plenty of hitter’s counts (52.2 first-pitch strike%, 58% MLB avg).

As Eno Sarris noted, Fuentes’ hiccups could open the door for Jepsen. A 25 year-old right-hander toting upper-90’s gas (96.2 MPH), Jepsen missed many bats in the minors (8.4 K/9) while generally having no idea where the ball was going (5.4 BB/9).

Jepsen appears to have made some progress on that front. In 50.2 IP this year, the 6-3, 215 pounder has whiffed 7.46 per nine innings, with 2.84 BB/9. Using that zipping fastball (+1.56 runs/100) and a hard 90 MPH cutter (+1.61), Jepsen has generated grounders at a 57.1% clip. If Jepsen can keep the walks in check, Fuentes’ hold on the closer job could become tenuous.

Kerry Wood, Indians

Watch Out For: Chris Perez

Hardly all that the Indians had hoped for this season (0.5 WAR, or $2.1M worth of value while making $10M), Wood surrendered a run vs. the Royals on Sept. 13th then pitched a clean inning against Oakland on the 19th. Kerry’s O-Swing% fell off a cliff this year, from 31.3% in 2008 to just 19.4% in 2009. That’s one of the 10 lowest rates among all relievers. Wood’s 90 MPH cutter (+1.18 runs/100) and 79 MPH curve (+2.01) worked well, but his 96 MPH heater (-0.52) was often hit hard.

Perez has followed up a dominant stretch of pitching with some rocky outings (4 R, 2 H vs. Minnesota on the 14th and 2 R against the Tigers on the 22nd). The former Hurricane was quite sharp in July and August (4 BB in 19 IP), but he has dished out 5 walks in 8.1 September frames. If Perez can find the strike zone more consistently, he could challenge Wood for ninth-inning glory in 2010.

Fernando Rodney, Tigers

Rodney is having a rocky September, with 7 runs and 8 walks allowed in 9.1 IP. The 32 year-old could be headed for a big payday, if some team sees a “proven closer” who collected 34 saves in 35 attempts this season.

A more thorough examination, though, would uncover mediocre peripheral stats (7.93 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, 4.31 XFIP). Other warning signs: Rodney’s rate of contact within the strike zone jumped up to 83.6% (79.5% career avg.), with his overall contact rate climbing to 76.7% (73% career avg). Rodney hasn’t posted a WAR total above 0.7 dating back to 2002; his performance has been worth an average of $2.4M per season over the past three years.

Jim Johnson, Orioles

September has not been kind to Johnson, as he has coughed up 11 hits and 9 runs in 6 innings pitched. His XFIP for the year is 4.06. The 26 year-old has posted rates of 6.62 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9, with a 52 percent groundball rate.

Looking forward to 2010, Johnson’s principal competition, assuming the O’s don’t look outside of the organization, might be righty Kam Mickolio (currently sidelined with an elbow injury). Part of the Erik Bedard trade (the gift that keeps on giving for Baltimore fans), Mickolio stands 6-foot-7, sits in the mid-90’s with his fastball and has punched out 10.6 hitters per nine innings at the AAA level. However, inconsistent control has stalled his progress.

Watch Your Back

No one, at the moment.