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The A.L. Closer Report: 7/3

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

Aside from showing Zen-like plate discipline by drawing a bases-loaded walk against K-Rod, Rivera collected three more saves this week (taking him to 20 for the year). Mo mowed down 3 hitters in 3.1 innings, allowing 1 hit. That takes his K/BB ratio for the year up to a ridiculous 40/3 in 32.2 IP. Rivera’s XFIP figures since 2006: 3.64, 3.06, 2.44, 1.93. For more on how Rivera has managed to make hitters look silly with essentially one pitch for a decade and a half, check out Dave Allen’s piece on two very different kinds of cutters. It may technically be the same pitch, but Rivera works both sides of the plate against righty and lefty hitters alike.

Joe Nathan, Twins

The 34 year-old Nathan could be turning in the best season of his career. His K/BB ratio is an obscene 6.5 in 2009 (a career-high), with a 1.95 FIP bested only by LA’s Broxton and Atlanta’s Soriano. The last time Nathan allowed a run was May 15th, a stretch of 16.2 IP. During June, this far-from-ordinary Joe whiffed 18 batters while issuing a single walk in 11.2 IP.

Joakim Soria, Royals

Joakim collected two saves this week, slamming the door on the Pirates June 28th and the Twins the following night. Soria’s FIP is 2.39 for the year, with 23 K’s in 18.2 IP. The 25 year-old has an awfully deep mix of pitches for a reliever, and he’s mixing it up more since his rookie season. In 2007, Soria tossed his fastball 77.2% of the time. He used the heat 72.4% last year, and 67.6% in 2009, as he relies more on a wicked 70 MPH curveball (+4.76 runs/100 pitches career) and low-80’s change (+0.98).

Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox

Papelbon picked up 3 saves this week, while blowing one opportunity vs. the O’s on the 30th as part of that absurd 11-10 Baltimore comeback. Perhaps Papelbon’s early-season control issues are in the rearview mirror: he has issued just 1 free pass over his past 5 innings. Still, his FIP (4.21) is well above his accustomed level (2.01 in ’08 and 2.45 in ’07), with just 8.74 K/9 (10 K/9 in ’08, 12.96 in ’07).

Bobby Jenks, White Sox

Jenks pitched just twice this week, getting a W vs. the cross-town Cubbies June 27th and getting the save against the Royals yesterday. The 6-3, 275 pounder is turning in a superb year, with 8.79 K/9 (a marked increase from last year’s 5.55 K/9) and 1.88 BB/9. Some poor luck on flyballs has put a damper on the overall numbers, but Jenks has recovered his strikeout ability and velocity (95.4 MPH fastball in 2009, 93.8 last year) while further refining his control.

Frank Francisco, Rangers

Re-inserted as Texas’ closer, Francisco had a rough return when the Angels pummeled him for 3 runs, two walks and a homer on July 1st. In a season interrupted by elbow and shoulder pain, Frank has posted a 26/7 K/BB ratio in 23.2 innings. His split-finger pitch is stifling the opposition, with a +4.58 run/100 pitch value in 2009. Normally a wild child (4.43 BB/9 career), Francisco has issued 2.66 BB/9 this season.

Andrew Bailey, Athletics

Bailey continues to crush hitters in the late innings. While he didn’t get a save this week, he eviscerated the competition to the tune of 7 K’s and 1 hit in 3 innings (his FIP sits at 2.65 for the year). Bailey’s three-pitch mix has limited batters to a Z-Contact% (percentage of contact made on pitches within the strike zone) of 70.8%, light years below the 87.7% MLB average.

In Control

Brian Fuentes, Angels

Fuentes didn’t give up a single run in June (8.2 IP, 11 K, 3 BB), and he started off July with another scoreless frame against the O’s yesterday. His walk rate is down to 2.86 per nine innings (a career low), with a 3.11 FIP that trumps the 3.34 mark posted by the Queens-bound man he replaced in Los Angeles.

J.P. Howell, Rays

Howell has taken the past five save chances for the Rays, a great development for fantasy owners. The 26 year-old converted starter is among the very best ‘pen arms in the majors, with 10.71 K/9, and a 2.47 FIP. J.P. supplements a deceptively effective mid-80’s fastball (+0.87 runs/100 in 2009) with a knockout 80 MPH curve (+2.28) and changeup (+2.91). He may not fit the fire-breathing closer archetype, but he’s damned hard to make contact against. Howell’s 68.3% contact rate ranks 6th among relievers tossing at least 30 IP. If the save chances keep on coming, he’ll surely climb this list.

Kerry Wood, Indians

Wood didn’t get a save chance this week, but he and the Indians will gladly take two scoreless innings, given his turbulent beginning in Cleveland. The 32 year-old Texan still has a walk rate nearing 5.3 per nine innings, with a -0.99 WPA that places him in the bottom 10 among all relievers. The Tribe acquired another hard-throwing, control-challenged ‘pen arm in Chris Perez (acquired from St. Louis along with a PTBNL for Mark DeRosa), but he doesn’t seem likely to challenge Wood this season.

George Sherrill, Orioles

Sherrill was shellacked by Boston on July 1st, walking three and giving up 2 runs in a 6-5 loss. Overall, the 32 year-old southpaw has a 3.62 FIP and a 1.22 WPA. Sherrill’s shiny 2.51 ERA and “Proven Closer” moniker could make him attractive to bullpen-starved teams. The O’s are reportedly still unsure of whether or not to ship Sherrill elsewhere, but it definitely seems to make sense. The club has an outstanding crop of talent, but the A.L. East is a whole different beast; they’re not contending now, and George won’t be part of the next competitive Baltimore team.

David Aardsma, Mariners

Aardsma collected a save vs. the Dodgers on June 28th, then tossed a scoreless frame against the Yankees (no save) yesterday in an 8-4 win. The flame-throwing 27 year-old is fooling plenty of hitters (11.33 K/9, with a contact rate in the low-70’s), but his XFIP (4.01) is considerably higher than his ERA (1.45). If there’s a place Aardsma can keep defying convention, though, it’s Seattle (the flyball righty resides in a park that suppresses homers and has the benefit of Gutierrez and Ichiro! in the outfield).

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

Frasor didn’t get a save op this week, but he did make two scoreless appearances (vs. Philly on June 28th and Tampa on July 1st). He did walk two in two innings, however. Frasor’s walk rate will be worth monitoring in the following weeks. He has issued just 2.28 BB/9, but that’s more the product of more outside swings (25.1% O-swing% in ’09, 19.7 in 2007) than some newfound ability to paint the corners.

Meanwhile, Downs is on the comeback trail (he threw off a mound for the first time June 30th). Downs seems to feel he’s close to a return

“It’s progress,” Downs said. “It wouldn’t be the first time I pitched through discomfort. It’s not discomfort enough to where it’s affecting my mechanics and that’s the main thing.” (mlb.com)

…While manager Cito Gaston is less convinced…

“I hope he is but I really dont know,” said Gaston. “I have no confidence in that at all.” (Jordan Bastian)

Watch Your Back

Fernando Rodney, Tigers

Watch out for:Joel Zumaya

Rodney dips back down to “Watch Your Back” territory, following a flammable June that saw him get hammered for 9 runs in 12 IP. Fernando issued an ugly 10 free passes during June, locating just 45% of his pitches within the strike zone (49.2% MLB average). Rodney’s FIP has ballooned to 4.04. Granted, Zumaya (5.05 FIP, 5.47 BB/9) hasn’t been some beacon of stability. But the Tigers could explore trade possibilities over the next month.