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
Any early-season concerns about Rivera’s mortality are decidedly in the rearview mirror, as the Hammer of God has not given up a run since June 12th (a stretch of 14.2 innings). His K/BB ratio is an obscene 45/4 in 41.1 innings, and the run value on Rivera’s cutter (currently +2.29 per 100 pitches) climbs by the appearance. Mo’s XFIP (based on BB’s, K’s and a normalized HR/FB ratio) is 2.20. That’s the fourth straight season that his XFIP has decreased.
Joe Nathan, Twins
How good has Nathan been in 2009? The 2 runs he gave up in a blown save op vs. the Angels on July 23rd were the first tallies against him since May 15th. Joe has whiffed 10.8 batters per nine innings, while posting the lowest walk rate (1.88 BB/9) of his career. Nathan is generating his highest percentage of outside swings we have on record dating back to 2002 (32.7%), and all three of his pitches are decimating hitters. Whether he chucks a 94 MPH fastball (+3.25 runs/100), 88 MPH slider (+2.08) or 82 MPH curve (+2.62), the end result is the same: the batter ain’t getting on base.
Joakim Soria, Royals
Cliff Notes version of Kansas City’s second half: Royals lose a lot, Soria doesn’t pitch enough. K.C. blows several 8th-inning leads while leaving the club’s best ‘pen arm to flick sunflower seeds and drink Gatorade. In another example of why using your best reliever only when he can earn a “SV” next to his name is shoddy strategy, Soria has tossed 7 innings this month. Roman Colon, Juan Cruz, Ron Mahay and Jamey Wright have all gotten more work in July. Huh? When Joakim has taken the mound, he has been his customary dominant self (1 R, 9 K, 0 walks).
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
While under the weather (flu), Papelbon has turned in his finest month of the season. The 28 year-old has punched out 8 batters in 7 innings, with 1 walk and 1 run allowed. Uncharacteristically wild in the early going, Papelbon has pounded the zone as of late:
Zone%, by month:
Not coincidentally, Papelbon’s mid-90′s gas has been as its best in July (+4.97 Runs/100). It’s beginning to look like Boston’s stopper is back to his old dominant self.
Bobby Jenks, White Sox
Jenks has turned in a bumpy July. In 6 innings, he has allowed 10 hits, 6 runs and 4 base on balls. His K/BB ratio (3.5) is still well ahead of last year’s pace (2.24), and there appears to be little chance of anyone overtaking Bobby as he works out the kinks in his delivery. Pale Hose skipper Ozzie Guillen, uh, made that pretty clear recently:
“Wow, what did this kid do to this town to make people treat him like that? He’s my closer, and if people don’t want him to be my closer, don’t come to the [bleeping] game.” (chicagotribune.com)
J.P. Howell, Rays
Apparently entrenched as Tampa’s closer, Howell will only climb this list in the weeks to come. J.P. tossed 13 scoreless frames in June, and has made 6 spotless appearances out of seven this month (a 3-run hiccup vs. the A’s on the 12th being the exception). Howell is an odd bird as a closer, but just because he doesn’t fit the fire-breathing archetype doesn’t mean he can’t wipe the floor with hitters. His oft-used curveball (+2.44 runs/100) and changeup (+3.67) have been superb, and that mid-80′s fastball is certainly holding its own (+1.16).
Andrew Bailey, Athletics
Bailey has given up runs and taken losses in back-to-back appearances (on the 19th and the 21st), but he otherwise has enjoyed another stellar month (12 K, 2 BB, 6 H in 10.1 IP). The rookie righty sports rates of 10.48 K/9 and 3.18 BB/9. His 68.4 percent contact rate is the 6th-lowest among all relievers (teammate Mike Wuertz, at a stunning 56.5%, leads all ‘pen arms).
Brian Fuentes, Angels
Fuentes hasn’t coughed up a run since May, a run of 16 innings in which he has K’d 17 and walked five. The first-year Angel has posted the lowest walk rate (2.78 BB/9) of his career, though I’m not entirely sure how, to be honest. He’s not generating a bunch of outside swings (24%, one percent below the MLB avg), his Zone% is down (47.8%, 52.1% career average) and so is his First-Pitch Strike % (53.8%, 56.4% career average).
Scott Downs, Blue Jays
Activated from the DL before the All-Star break, Downs returns to the closer’s role with little competition. He has whiffed a career-best 9.49 per nine innings in 2009, relying heavily on opposing batters getting themselves out by expanding their strike zones (34.2 O-Swing%, nearly 12 percent above his career rate). Like Howell, Downs is another example of a guy getting power-pitcher’s results with movement and deception. Downs’ pitches don’t sizzle, but his 90 MPH fastball has a ton of tailing action (10.6 inches; the avg, lefty fastball has 6.4 inches of tail) and his 76 MPH curve features plenty of sweeping (7.5 inches) and dropping (7.3 inches) movement.
David Aardsma, Mariners
Believe it or not, Aardsma hasn’t actually exhibited bad control over the past two months. Since the beginning of June, the former Giant, White Sock, Cub and Red Sock has a 29/7 K/BB in 22 frames. His Zone% for the season is up to 49.7% (including 56 percent in July), which is slightly above the league average, and his BB/9 is back under five. Aardsma has typically walked the yard during the course of his career and his BABIP (.256) is on the low side. But as a flyball pitcher, behind great defenders, in a pitcher’s park, he’s in the perfect situation.
Kerry Wood, Indians
Kerry has turned in an adequate July, with 3 runs, 8 K’s and 2 walks in 7.1 innings. Saves have come few and far between for the also-ran Indians (Wood has 13 on the year), though the Texan is at least generating more outside swings of late. Wood has a paltry 20.7 Outside-Swing% for the year (over 10 percent below his 2008 rate), though that mark is up to 31.5% this month.
George Sherrill, Orioles
Sherrill went on a tear in June (11 IP, 1 R, 8/2 K/BB), but his July performance has been milder (7.2 IP, 4 R, 9/4 K/BB). The 32 year-old would appear to be a prime trade candidate for the O’s, who are still likely two years away from mounting any kind of serious threat to the beasts of the A.L. East. His walk rate (2.97 BB/9) is a career-low, and his 64 First-Pitch Strike% is the highest of his big league tenure.
With the thrice-D.L.’ed Francisco yet again unavailable, Wilson will pick up the save chances. The 28 year-old southpaw is still a little on the wild side (45.9 Zone%, compared to the 49.3 MLB average), but he has reigned in his walk rate from 2008′s unacceptable 5.24 to this year’s 3.77 mark by virtue of getting more swings outside of the zone. Wilson has also generated more grounders (56.3%, 49.3 in 2008). He’s not a great reliever, but there are certainly worse options out there.
Fernando Rodney, Tigers
Rodney moves up into “In Control” status, due to a combination of good pitching and Zumaya’s shoulder going “boom” yet again. In 7 July innings, Fernando has allowed 1 run, with 8 K’s and 3 walks. With 4.28 BB/9 and just 47.5% of his pitches thrown within the zone, Rodney is still something of an adventure in the late innings.
Watch Your Back
No one, at the moment.