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).
Mariano Rivera, Yankees
Mo is on yet another tear, having tossed 6.2 scoreless innings since he gave up a dinger on Aug. 11th (6 K, 2 BB, 2 H). Rivera’s K/BB ratio sits at 6.78, with a 3.47 Win Probability Added that places second among all relievers. The all-time great is locating far fewer pitches within the strike zone this season (44%, 49% MLB avg). However, opposing batters are going after those outside offerings frequently (34.8 O-Swing%, 25% MLB avg).
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
Mr. Rivera is second in WPA. Who’s the leader, you ask? That would be Papelbon. His WPA sits at 4.48, and the 28 year-old has hit the mark far more often lately (6.2 IP, 12/1 K/BB ratio since August 24th). Not surprisingly, Papelbon’s return to dominance begins with that blistering mid-90′s fastball:
Papelbon’s Runs/100 with his fastball, by month:
Joe Nathan, Twins
Nathan has been so thoroughly dominant for such a long period of time that his pitching line from Sept. 2nd against the Pale Hose (2 H, 4 R, 2 HR) requires a spit-take. The typically iron-fisted stopper has endured a rough patch lately (11.2 IP, 12 H, 7 R 18/8 K/BB from Aug. to Sept). Nathan’s velocity held steady during that rocky month-plus of pitching, and even with a sour August and beginning of September, his XFIP (based on K’s, BB’s and a normalized HR/FB rate) is 3.07.
Joakim Soria, Royals
Joakim ended August poorly (0.2 IP, 3 R and a HR allowed on the 24th vs. Cleveland), but he enjoyed an extended vacation and returned with a quality two-inning appearance vs. Oakland on the 1st (4 K, though he did walk two). The two-out saves have become a common occurrence for Soria, a happy development given the Mexicutioner’s deep arsenal and background as a starter. In a 2009 season shortened by shoulder problems, Soria has punched out 11.32 per nine innings, with 2.83 BB/9. He’s getting ahead of hitters or inducing first-pitch contact often, with a first-pitch strike% of 65.9 (58.2 MLB avg).
Bobby Jenks, White Sox
A quick look at Jenks’ line would lead one to believe that he has been much worse in 2009 than in 2008. After all, his ERA is over a full tick higher (2.63 in ’08, 3.66 in ’09). However, Bobby’s K/BB ratio has spiked from 2.24 to 3.38. He’s throwing harder (95 MPH in ’09, 93.8 in ’08), and opposing hitters aren’t making as much contact against his stuff (78.4% contact rate in ’09, 84.5% in ’08). Jenks’ XFIP is 3.66, which is actually lower than his ’08 mark (3.86). The root cause of his ’09 struggles is a ballooning HR/FB rate (15.6%). Bobby’s career HR/FB rate is 9.1, and the average for a pitcher tends to hover around 11-12%. Jenks could be a bargain on draft day next year. He’s still the same guy.
Andrew Bailey, Athletics
Oakland’s rookie closer has not issued a free pass since July 25th, a stretch of 14 innings in which he has whiffed 10 and allowed 2 runs. Bailey’s first-pitch strike% shot up to 66.7% in August, well above his 60.1% season average. In 72 frames in ’09, Bailey has posted rates of 9.5 K/9 and 2.75 BB/9. The sub-two ERA (1.88) has something to do with a sub-.240 BABIP (.239), but he has been legitimately excellent. Be it Bailey’s searing 94 MPH fastball (+2.04 runs/100 pitches), 89 MPH cutter (+1.59) or 78 MPH curveball (+2.71), hitters just aren’t getting good hacks against his stuff.
David Aardsma, Mariners
Believe it or not, wild man Aardsma is working on a walk less streak of his own. The relief nomad has found a home in Seattle, and he hasn’t allowed a batter to take ball four in his past seven frames (8 K, 0 R). Picked up from the Red Sox for A-Ball lefty Fabian Williamson before the season, Aardsma has been worth 1.8 WAR in 2009.
J.P. Howell, Rays
J.P. gave up five H.R.’s in August, walking 9 hitters and surrendering 7 runs in 12 IP. He has begun August with 1.1 scoreless innings over two appearances. Bumpy August aside, Howell has compiled rates of 10.57 K/9 and 3.86 BB/9 on the whole, with a 3.39 XFIP. Even the best relief arms go through stretches of bad pitching; don’t jump ship based on a few flammable outings.
Brian Fuentes, Angels
Fuentes ended August with four clean save ops, but September began with a 2 hit, 2 walk appearance against the M’s on the 2nd. Fuentes’ WPA is 0.84 in 2009, compared to 2.21 in 2008. His mid-70′s breaking ball hasn’t been sharp in his first year with the Angels (-0.69 runs/100), which could help to explain the uptick in his contact rate (79.1% in ’09, 73.3% career average).
Frank Francisco, Rangers
Watch out for: C.J. Wilson
Francisco has racked up three saves already this month, closing the door in both ends of a double-dip with the Blue Jays on the 1st and notching another vs. Toronto the next night. Frank has turned in a banner campaign between a trio of DL stints, with a 4.18 K/BB ratio. His mid-80′s splitter has often been smacked during the course of his career (-0.52 runs/100), but that split has been superb in 2009 (+2.92). Consequently, Francisco has relied upon the tumbling pitch more often (nearly 20% of his pitches thrown, compared to about 10% in years past).
Save opportunities have been few and far between for the scuffling Jays (8 losses in their past 10 games). Downs was activated from the DL on Aug. 24th, and has since chucked 3.2 scoreless frames (3 K, 2 BB). Frasor, meanwhile, was pummeled by the Bronx Bombers yesterday, with A-Rod and Posada taking him deep.
Both undersized relievers have employed similar tactics to post career-low walk rates (2.91 BB/9 for Frasor, 2.77 for Downs). Neither is pounding the strike zone (49.9 Zone% for Frasor and just 43.3% for Downs; 49% MLB average). Rather, they’re both getting more outside swings than usual (Frasor’s league-average 25.1% mark is well above his 18.9% career average, and Downs’ 34.1% figure in ’09 is leaps and bounds ahead of his 22.6% career mark).
Fernando Rodney, Tigers
Fernando Rodney, $10 million per year reliever? It would be incredibly difficult to justify such a lavish payday for the 32 year-old. Rodney has posted 8.3 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9 in 2009, with 0.9 Wins Above Replacement (and that’s his highest WAR total dating back to 2002). If 1 WAR is worth around $4.5 million on the free agent market, then a team properly evaluating Fernando shouldn’t be offering any more than half of that purported sum. His save total (31 and counting) is shiny, but it’s hard to label him as a top-tier reliever.
Jim Johnson, Orioles
Johnson got jacked up during his last appearance: a 3 hit, 5 run disaster vs. the Yankees on Sept. 2 (he didn’t retire a batter). There’s nothing really special about the 6-5 righty, who has whiffed 6.4 batters per nine frames while walking 2.97 and posting a 51.4% GB rate. His FIP is 4.26. He’s not a bad middle reliever, but he’s appearing in the ninth because, well, someone has to.
Other potential candidates for the role haven’t stepped forward, though I wouldn’t totally discount Chris Ray just yet. Sure, his ERA (6.75) is abominable. But the underlying number’s aren’t so bad: 8.15 K/9 and 3.72 BB/9. The flyball-centric Ray does, however, have plenty of issues with the long ball (1.3 HR/9 career).
Watch Your Back
Kerry Wood, Indians
On the whole, Wood’s first season outside of the Friendly Confines has not gone especially well. The 32 year-old Texas has a 4.05 XFIP, with the opposition offering at just 19 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (25% MLB average; Wood’s O-Swing% in ’08 was 31.3).
Kerry is now dealing with a bout of shoulder soreness, and trade acquisition Chris Perez (a former Miami Hurricane righty who pumps mid 90′s gas with a sharp slider) is making a strong case for ninth-inning consideration in 2010. Perez (picked up from the Cardinals in the DeRosa deal) has always fooled plenty of hitters, but he has gone on an absolute tear with the Indians while displaying improved control. The 24 year-old owns a 23/5 K/BB in 20.1 IP with the Tribe.