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Top MLB Saves Leaders At the All-Star Break

Sunday July 8, 2012

Bryan Sheehan (MLB Writer): The All-Star Break is now upon us, so now is a good time to start looking at stats for the first half of the season. One of the most important statistics in the game of baseball is the “save,” and the mammoth contracts that relievers are signed to every year in free agency are proof that teams are hungry for a strong closer capable of providing saves. In fact, a third of the league’s closers are making at least $4.5 million in 2012, while eight are raking it at least $7 million. This does not include the huge salaries of Ryan Madson ($8.5 million), Mariano Rivera ($15 million), Brian Wilson ($8.5 million) or any other that may have been injured or otherwise removed from their role as closer. But salary does not always equal success: six of the top eleven saves leaders are earning less than $2.75 million (keep in mind that the MLB average is just about $3 million). This top eleven, all of whom have recorded 19 saves or more, is not as predictable as you might think: Heath Bell of the Marlins serves as a surprise member of the list while his NL East counterpart Jonathan Papelbon, while more consistent in terms of ERA and opportunities converted, falls just shy. So who else is on the list? You’ll have to read on to find out.

1. Jim Johnson (26 Saves): Coming into this year, Johnson would not have been on many top ten lists. Especially considering the firepower of a Papelbon or even a Hanrahan, it’s surprising to see Johnson’s name at the top of the list for saves. Even more, Johnson would have probably ranked third in the AL East behind Rivera and Red Sox Andrew Bailey before this season started.  The setup man for Kevin Gregg in 2011, Johnson has broken onto the scene and made a name for himself so far with his 1.21 ERA and sub-1 WHIP (0.75) in 37.1 innings of work. He’s allowed just five earned runs, four of which have come on three home runs. A rightful American League All Star for 2012, JJ has come somewhat out of the blue to become the strongest closer in the game right now.

T2. Fernando Rodney, Chris Perez and Craig Kimbrel (24 Saves): A pair of American League All Stars themselves, both Rodney and Perez have pitched beyond expectation through the first half of 2012. This year will be Rodney’s first All Star nod, and Perez’s second in two years. The former holds an insanely low 0.96 ERA in 37.2 innings, while the latter has a still impressive 2.59 ERA. Rodney’s success is pretty surprising considering he hadn’t been a regular closer since 2009 in Detroit (his only year as a closer), but his control has improved greatly since 2011, when he allowed 28 walks in 32 innings (this year he has surrendered five in 37.2 innings). As for Perez, his success and subsequent invitation to the Midsummer Classic is less shocking because of his All Star season and 36 saves in 2011. Also tied for second is the NL’s Rookie of the Year from a year ago, 24-year-old Craig Kimbrel. The current saves leader in the National League, Kimbrel’s 23 tallies in 24 chances put him on pace to repeat his 2011 campaign that ended in 46 saves. His ERA has improved over last year, from 2.10 to 1.45, as has his WHIP, from 1.039 to 0.742, and his placement on this list is not surprising. Like all the others mentioned so far on the list, he’ll be making the trip to Kansas City for the All Star Game, his second trip in as many years. Kimbrel is still developing into a superstar closer for the Braves, and he is right on track.

5. Joel Hanrahan (23 Saves): There has certainly been surprise surrounding Pittsburgh’s season so far, as they are still a game ahead of Cincinnati for the NL Central lead, but the performance of Joel Hanrahan is not part of the surprise. In 2011, he was one of the most effective closers, finishing the year with 40 saves and a 1.83 ERA. This year, his ERA has risen to 2.38 and he’s surrendered more walks in 34 innings than he did last year in 68.2, but his performances have been solid enough to land him a spot on the National League All Star team. If there’s any surprise surrounding Hanrahan right now, it’s more about his rise in walks than his placement on this list.

T6. Santiago Casilla and Jonathan Broxton (21 Saves): Casilla is a huge shock. Starting the year behind Brian Wilson, he was never expected to even be the closer until Wilson tore a ligament in his arm and required Tommy John surgery. Casilla has stepped up, though, and while his 2.84 ERA is not worthy of an All-Star berth, he certainly is the biggest surprise on this list. On the other hand, Broxton, a former closer in Los Angeles, has transitioned well into the American League for the Kansas City Royals. His 1.99 ERA is worthy of an extra game on his home field at Kaufman, but a low 23 strikeouts and three blown saves has seemingly kept him off the team.

T8. Rafael Soriano and  Jason Motte (20 Saves): It may unexpected to see someone other than the all time saves leader, Mariano Rivera, closing out games for the Yankees, but after Mo tore his ACL Soriano became the obvious choice for closer. The closer for the 2010 Rays, Soriano has had experience as a shutdown ninth inning guy, so the transition back from setup man was not too difficult. His 20 saves in 21 opportunities is even more impressive since he didn’t record his first save until Rivera went down in early May. Soriano’s $12 million salary is also the highest of any closer in the league right now, not bad for a player that started the year as an eighth inning man. Joining him is  St Louis’ Jason Motte, who is sporting a respectable 3.05 ERA. While he has blown four saves, his performances have been good enough to keep him as the Cards’ closer. His first full year as a closer, Motte represents, at least to me, a slightly above average closer.

T10. Heath Bell and Alfredo Aceves (19 Saves): Both Bell of the Marlins and Aceves of the Red Sox are huge surprises on this list. Bell because his ERA is 6.09 and he may not deserve the role of closer after five blown saves in just 24 opportunities. Earlier in the year, he was removed from the role, only to return as the closer in mid-May. Looking at his past performances, including three straight seasons of 40 or more saves, it was more surprising to see Bell struggle so mightily in 2012 after signing a huge deal with Miami. For Aceves, his role was earned after Andrew Bailey went down with an injury, and his performance has been above average for a replacement-level closer. His inclusion on this list is surprising because he has beat out more well-known closers like Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan

Today’s feature was prepared by  Baseball Writer, Bryan Sheehan. You can follow Bryan on Twitter (@BaseballHipster), read his interviews with Phillies’ minor league prospects at PhightingOn.com and PhuturePhillies.com, and catch him writing the occasional article for ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com. Tweet him about this article and give him a follow and he will follow you back!

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Posted on July 8, 2012, in MLB Player Profiles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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