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The A.L. Closer Report: 6/26

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

Since we last checked up on Rivera, he has racked up three more saves (taking him up to 17 for the year), whiffing 5 batters in 2.2 combined innings. Much has been made about cracks in Mo’s armor this season, from an elevated HR rate to a decrease in cutter velocity to a decrease in his swinging strike percentage. But for all the panic, Rivera holds a 37/3 K/BB ratio in 29.1 innings, with the highest strikeout rate of his career. If this is decline, then we have become awfully spoiled.

Joe Nathan, Twins

Nathan has been a machine in June, compiling 8 saves while allowing no one to cross home plate. In fact, the last time Joe conceded a run was all the way back on May 15th. Since then, Nathan has reeled off 14 scoreless frames while punching out 19 hitters and walking just one. His 93 MPH fastball is overwhelming the competition, with a run value of +3.04 per 100 pitches (tops among all relievers).

Joakim Soria, Royals

With K.C. taking a royal beating as of late (6 losses in the past 8 games), Soria has just 1 save during the month of June. Joakim coughed up a run against the Astros on the 24th, and his control is a little off following a pair of DL stints (45.5 Zone%, compared to a 52.8% career average). He’s nasty as ever, though, with a 73.9% contact rate that ranks as the lowest of his career.

Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox

Boston’s stopper hasn’t quite been himself this season. Granted, it’s difficult to say that a guy ranking in 4th in Win Probability Added (2.17) is scuffling, but Papelbon isn’t attacking the strike zone in 2009 as he did in previous years. After posting rates of 2.31 BB/9 in 2007 and 1.04 BB/9 in 2008, Papelbon has issued 4 BB/9 this year. His Zone% is down to 48.6 (54.2% career average), and opponents have reacted by swinging at about 9 percent fewer pitches this season. Whether intentional or not, his fastball has more tailing action in on righties this year, the continuation of a three-year trend: 7.3 inches in ’07, 8.5 in ’08 and 9.2 in ’09.

Bobby Jenks, White Sox

Jenks got taken out of the yard by Cincy’s Jay Bruce on June 20th, but has since reeled off three scoreless innings (2 saves). Bobby is having some uncharacteristic issues with the long ball this year. With a career 54.9% groundball rate and 0.62 HR/9, Jenks doesn’t give up jacks too often. But in ’09, his HR/FB% is 20 percent, 11 percent above his career average. It sounds silly to say with an established reliever like Jenks, but perhaps you could acquire him a little cheaper than usual from an owner just focusing on his inflated ERA (2.63 in ’08, 3.33 in ’09). Jenks’ K/BB ratio (4.33) is a career-high, with his K rate up from 5.55 last season to 8.67 this year.

Frank Francisco (C.J. Wilson is getting the call until Francisco gets comfortable), Rangers

Francisco is back with the Rangers, but Wilson continues to get ninth-inning duty as Frank works his way back into form. He fired scoreless innings on the 20th and the 24th, but served up a dinger last evening to Arizona’s Mark Reynolds.

Wilson, meanwhile, hasn’t allowed a run since June 4th, a stretch of 7 innings (8/2 K/BB ratio). He’s doing a nice job of keeping the ball on the ground (58 GB%) and his 27.8 Outside-Swing% is a career-high, but Wilson’s 2.67 ERA overstates his case. His Expected Fielding Independent ERA (based on K’s, walks and a normalized HR rate) is 3.78.

In Control

Andrew Bailey, Athletics

Bailey has notched 3 saves since our last “Closer Report”, though June 20th was the last time he got into a game. The 6-3 righty (ranked just 23rd on Baseball America’s top 30 A’s prospects entering the year) has been a revelation in the ‘pen, with 10.15 K/9 and a 2.90 FIP. Bailey offers an unusually deep mix of pitches for a reliever, able to confound hitters with a 93 MPH fastball (+1.47 runs/100), 89 MPH cutter (+1.38) or 78 MPH curve (+3.70). Good luck squaring up those offerings: Bailey’s 71.8 Z-Contact% (percentage of contact made within the strike zone) ranks 1st among relievers tossing at least 30 innings.

Brian Fuentes, Angels

Fuentes hasn’t surrendered a run in 5.2 innings this month, with 9 K’s and 3 walks. There are a few interesting trends worth watching with the former Rockie: His Zone% has decreased 3 straight seasons, from 52% in ’07, 51.7 in ’08 and 46.1 this year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the effectiveness of his secondary stuff has lagged this year. His fastball may be down a few ticks (91.6 MPH to 89.9), but the pitch still has a healthy run value of +1.60 per 100 pitches. His slider (-1.78) and changeup (-4.29) aren’t working near as well. Fuentes seems aware of this, however: his percentage of fastballs used has increased from 64.9% in 2006 to over 71% each of the past two seasons.

Kerry Wood, Indians

There’s no place like home? Wood headed back to his old stomping grounds in Wrigley this past week, only to get throttled for a pair of blown saves, 3 runs and 1 dinger in 1.1 innings. Cleveland’s big free agent signing then gave up a run and two walks against the Pirates on the 23rd, escaping with the cheap save by the skin of his teeth. Wood now has -0.2 Wins Above Replacement in 2009. Uh, Kerry, can we get a refund?

George Sherrill, Orioles

Sherrill is working on another scoreless streak, with 5 spotless frames in a row. George has issued just 2 walks in June, after dishing out 5 in May. Typically control-challenged (career 4.36 BB/9), Sherrill has just 2.83 BB/9 in ’09. His WPA (1.44) is way above any of his previous marks.

David Aardsma (Brandon Morrow is headed back to the rotation. We think.)

For the most part, Aardsma has been his wild self in 2009 (5.5 BB/9). But in June, he has issued just 3 walks in 9 innings, while whiffing 17 in the process. Perhaps it’s time to stop being quite so critical. Aardsma’s chances of losing his job are remote with Morrow out of the picture, he’s whiffing over 11 batters per nine innings, and he’s an extreme flyball pitcher backed by two center field-caliber OF’s in a park that suppresses homers. The extremely low HR/FB rate (2.4%), BABIP (.251) and high strand rate (88.1%, compared to a 73.8% career average) portend to regression, but the K’s and grip on the job make him a viable option.

Fernando Rodney, Tigers

Watch out for:Joel Zumaya

Same old Rodney? Fernando’s strikeout-to-walk ratios over the first three months: 4.00 in April, 2.60 in May and 1.11 in June. Sadly, his sharp spring is looking like the outlier. Sure, Rodney has been scored upon just once in his last 6 innings, but that stretch also includes 4 free passes. His Zone% (49.6) is now below his career average (51.2), with a 1.8 K/BB that is just marginally better than 2008’s 1.63 showing.

Jason Frasor (Scott Downs on the DL with a toe injury), Blue Jays

Downs is down with a left big toe injury, so Frasor will handle closing duties for the time being. He gave up two walks and took a loss against the Nationals on the 19th, but he came back with a save against the Reds on the 23rd. Frasor’s walk rates have usually been lofty (6.08 BB/9 last year, 3.93 for his career), but the 31 year-old righty has issued just 1.75 BB/9 in 2009. It’s not as though he’s suddenly firing strike after strike: his 53 Zone% is right around his career average. Rather, Frasor has baited hitters into chasing 25.4% of his pitches off the plate, well above his 18.5% career mark.

Watch Your Back

Dan Wheeler/J.P. Howell/Lance Cormier/Joe Nelson, Rays

Howell collected a save versus the Mets on June 20th, and he hasn’t let up a run all month (9 IP, 11 K, 5 H). Howell has whiffed 10.9 hitters per nine innings, with a 68.8% contact rate that bests K-Rod. Yeah, he’s really good. Now if only we knew he’d keep the closer role..