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Top 10 Closers: MLB Saves Leaders

Thursday August 25, 2011

 

 

Rob Bland (Intern- MLB reports):  Closers are a topic a lot of people ask about, but I never really got around to writing about.  Mainly because, in my opinion, it is a position that is completely overrated.  While it certainly helps to have a guy that can go in and slam the door and collect saves for over a decade a la Mariano Rivera, it isn’t necessary to have a “closer” to be a contending team.  One need only to look at the top 20 leaders in saves in baseball to notice that the Texas Rangers’ closer Neftali Feliz sits 19th with 25 saves, and Philadelphia Phillies’ Ryan Madson is 20th with 23 saves.  It also doesn’t guarantee success, as Heath Bell, Drew Storen, Leo Nunez, Joel Hanrahan are all in the top 10 in saves, while their teams are not in playoff contention.

 

Top 10 Saves Leaders in MLB as of today:

Pitcher Team Saves K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
Craig Kimbrel Atlanta Braves 40 14.56 3.53 1.70 1.20 3.1
John Axford Milwaukee Brewers 37 10.86 3.32 2.26 2.36 1.7
Jose Valverde Detroit Tigers 37 8.31 4.79 2.72 4.08 0.2
Brian Wilson San Francisco Giants 35 8.72 5.20 3.19 3.40 0.7
Heath Bell San Diego Padres 35 6.79 3.23 2.55 3.07 0.7
Drew Storen Washington Nationals 34 8.03 2.19 2.77 3.48 0.6
Mariano Rivera New York Yankees 33 8.45 0.92 2.20 2.23 1.8
Leo Nunez Florida Marlins 33 8.31 2.88 4.63 4.02 0.1
Joel Hanrahan Pittsburgh Pirates 32 7.85 2.04 1.73 2.17 1.8
JJ Putz Arizona Diamondbacks 32 8.28 2.17 2.76 3.10 1.0

I look at this list and a few things come to mind:

1)      Craig Kimbrel is absolutely filthy.

2)      Mariano Rivera is still one of the very best.

3)      Closers are more overrated than I originally expected.

4)      A lot of saves does not equal success.

5)      Craig Kimbrel.  Wow.

Craig Kimbrel is having the best year ever for a rookie closer.  It isn’t even September and he has 40 saves.  Not only that, but he is striking out more than 14 batters per 9 innings.  His FIP is a ridiculous 1.20, and his WAR is at 3.1, which is 1.3 higher than any other closer in the Major Leagues.  His ground ball rate is 43.7% and has only given up 1 home run in 63 2/3 innings.  If the Braves end up winning the Wild Card and have a lead late in games, the shutdown duo of Johnny Venters and Kimbrel should be able to save the game for the Braves in most instances.

John Axford has had a strange way to becoming one of the premier closers in all of baseball.  It took him many years to get there, but under the tutelage of Trevor Hoffman, the career saves leader, whom Axford took his job from, he has flourished.  In 2010, Axford had 24 saves after taking over for Hoffman mid-season, and this year’s 37 so far are tied for 2nd in the big leagues.  Axford gets over 50% ground balls, and keeps the ball in the yard, two main factors for his success.

Jose Valverde is one of the closers whom I find to be overrated.  Part of his success can be attributed to a lucky .250 BABIP.   He also walks close to 5 batters per 9 innings, which is extremely high, especially when he does not strike out a very high number of batters.  Valverde may appear to be very good with 37 saves, but his 0.2 WAR suggests that he is basically a replacement level pitcher.  Surely he is not worth the $7M he is being paid.

Brian Wilson is loved by many in the game.  He is funny, has a strange personality, (which seems to be perfectly suited for the bullpen) and he has an outrageous beard.  Since 2008, he has accumulated 162 saves, so he is very valuable at the back-end of the Giants’ bullpen.  He keeps the ball on the ground, with a career 50% ground ball rate, but he walks a ton of batters (5.20/9IP).  He gets a lot of save opportunities because the starting rotation is very good, and his team doesn’t score many runs, so there are a lot of close games. 

Heath Bell has put up some ridiculous numbers over the last few years, but these numbers come with half of his games played in the cavernous PETCO Park.  While his last two seasons had his K rate over 10, he sits at 6.79 for this season.  His ground ball rate is also down 5% to 43.  Although his ERA is a good 2.55, his xFIP is 3.89, and like Wilson, gets saves because of an anaemic offense that results in his team often being in close games.

Drew Storen is another of the Washington Nationals’ young phenoms.  He moved up the ranks, throwing only 53 2/3 innings in the minor leagues before making his debut in 2010.  He has been a tad lucky as his BABIP is .241, but he gets a lot of ground balls, so the hits will even out.  He also gives up a higher than average home run per fly ball rate at 11.1%.  Storen doesn’t walk many, and as he matures, should probably strike out a higher number.  When Washington starts winning more games, he will have even more opportunities for saves.

Mariano Rivera is up to his usual tricks. Even at 41 years old, he is carving up hitters with his signature cut fastball.  Rivera has a ridiculous 9:1 K:BB ratio, as well as getting ground balls 47% of the time.  His WAR sits at 1.8, tied for second best for closers.  The only question is when will this guy ever slow down?

Leo Nunez of the Florida Marlins may be the most overrated closer in baseball.  Nunez doesn’t get a lot of ground balls, nor does he strike out a ton, as he gives up a ton of fly balls (49%) and home runs (8 in 56 IP).  Nunez’s ERA of 4.63 actually looks worse than his 4.02 FIP, so he has been a little unlucky, but still not very good.

Joel Hanrahan has found a home at the back-end up the Pirates’ bullpen, and is thriving there.  While his K rate has dropped to 7.85/9 IP from almost 13 last year, he has walked less batters.  Hanrahan has been able to induce ground balls on over half of his plate appearances, and only given up 1 home run in 57 1/3 innings.  His stellar numbers have allowed him to tie Rivera for 2nd in closer’s WAR this year.

JJ Putz’s resurgence as a closer this year comes as no surprise to many.  Last year as a setup man for Bobby Jenks with the Chicago White Sox, Putz’s K rate was just below 11/9IP, while he walked only 2.5 per 9 innings.  He hasn’t put up the same strikeout numbers this year, but he is walking less batters.  Putz’s WAR of 1.0 puts him towards the top of the list of closers.

 

Out of the top 30 relievers in WAR, only 9 are full-time closers.  Francisco Rodriguez is among those pitchers, but since he does not close games since traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, he was not counted.  Although this doesn’t mean that just ANYONE can close games and earn saves, it does show that many pitchers who have not been given the opportunity probably could get the job done.  

 

 

***Today’s feature was prepared by our Intern, Rob Bland.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Rob on Twitter.***

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Mike Jacobs: Rockies Slugger Receives 50 Game HGH Suspension

Friday August 19, 2011

 

 

MLB reports:  Major League Baseball commenced human growth hormone (“HGH”) testing in the minor leagues in the summer of 2010.  It was only a matter of time before players began to get caught under the new system.  Blood testing for HGH in the minors was the first step in bringing similar tests to the major leagues one day.  With HGH testing now in place as part of the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, MLB cannot be far behind.  With baseball’s agreement with the union set to expire in December of this year, expect HGH testing to be a big topic on the bargaining table.  The first player to be caught in the minors using HGH and receiving a 50 game suspension is Colorado Rockies slugger, Mike Jacobs.  With the first HGH culprit found, pressure will be intense on baseball to bring similar testing all the way to the major leagues.

Mike Jacobs will forever be known as the first North American athlete to test positive for HGH.  Although HGH suspensions have occurred internationally, Jacobs is the first athlete in a professional North American athlete to be tested and fail a HGH test.  Things should have gone differently for Jacobs in his career.  Originally a 38th round pick for the Mets in the 1999 draft, Jacobs rose from baseball obscurity to star with the Marlins from 2006-2008.  Here is a look at Jacobs’ major league stats: 

Year 5 Tm R HR RBI SO BA OBP SLG
2005 NYM 19 11 23 22 .310 .375 .710
2006 FLA 54 20 77 105 .262 .325 .473
2007 FLA 57 17 54 101 .265 .317 .458
2008 FLA 67 32 93 119 .247 .299 .514
2009 KCR 46 19 61 132 .228 .297 .401
2010 NYM 1 1 2 7 .208 .296 .375
6 Seasons 244 100 310 486 .253 .313 .475
162 Game Avg. 71 29 90 142 .253 .313 .475
               
FLA (3 yrs) 178 69 224 325 .258 .314 .483
NYM (2 yrs) 20 12 25 29 .290 .360 .645
KCR (1 yr) 46 19 61 132 .228 .297 .401
               
NL (5 yrs) 198 81 249 354 .261 .317 .496
AL (1 yr) 46 19 61 132 .228 .297 .401

 

2008 represented the best season of Jacobs’ career.  He hit 32 home runs, to go along with 93 RBIs for the Marlins.  But despite the strong power numbers, critics pointed to his .247 AVG and weak .299 OBP that year and labelled him a one-dimensional player.  The Marlins agreed and traded Jacobs in October 2008 for current closer Leo Nunez.  Jacobs originally joined the Marlins in November 2005 as a package of players for superstar Carlos Delgaldo.  Big expectations were placed on Jacobs to replace Delgaldo ever since he joined the Marlins.  While Jacobs had the strong power numbers in 2008, the team ultimately was not convinced that he would ever fulfill his potential.  While Nunez went on to star in the Marlins bullpen, Jacobs lasted only one season in Kansas City, his last full season in the big leagues.

In 2010, Jacobs spent parts of the year playing in the Mets and Blue Jays farm systems.  He hit 21 home runs and drove in 93 in 120 games combined in AAA, with a .335 OBP and .482 SLG.  This season, Jacobs played exclusively in Colorado Springs and put up inflated numbers in the hitting friendly Pacific Coast League.  With 23 home runs in 117 games, 97 RBIs, .376 OBP and .534 SLG, there looked to be a chance for Jacobs to restart his major league career.  At 30-years of age, Jacobs was looking to have a year-end cup of coffee with the Rockies and leave a strong enough impression to perhaps have a chance in spring training 2012.  Reports had a call up imminent for Jacobs when news of the HGH positive test leaked out.  The Rockies immediately released the slugger, who is now on the MLB sidelines. 

Following the Marlins acquisition of Jacobs in 2005, I expected his career to develop differently.  It was clear the power was going to be there.   It was the rest of his hitting development that I expect to follow.  To stay in the big leagues, Jacobs was going to need to learn patience and to hit lefties.  Following his 2008 campaign, I still hoped in the back of my mind that those qualities would eventually come out.  But they never in fact did.  Looking back at his magical 2008 campaign, there were red flags that Jacobs had major shortcomings as a hitter.  25 of his home runs came against right-handed pitchers.  Against lefties, Jacobs hit .218 with a .248 OBP and .429 SLG.  At best, without improvement, Jacobs was likely destined to be a platoon player for the rest of his career.  Now today, Jacobs stands as the new poster child for HGH cheating.  A scarlet letter that will be difficult, if not impossible to remove.

With Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro gone from the game and the “steroid era” at an apparent end, the focus is now on HGH.  Apparently very wide-spread in the game, baseball officials are said to be taking a hard stance to remove HGH use from the game.  In suspending Jacobs, commissioner Selig indicated that baseball is on top of testing and is not hiding from the process.  I expect HGH testing to be a part of the major leagues as early as 2012.  Despite the tests and the threat of strict penalties, as Mike Jacobs has shown, athletes will continue to try to get ahead despite the risks involved.  Jacobs came clean following his positive test, admitting usage to overcome injuries and regretting his decision to use HGH.  The decision to use HGH will cost Jacobs more than 50 games.  It resulted in his dismissal from the Rockies and likely removal from major league baseball all together.  For a fringe player that was already hanging by a thread, having the HGH suspension on his resume will scare off many, if not most major league teams.

Mike Jacobs had his chances in baseball.  While many sluggers before him are lucky to get one shot at the big leagues, Jacobs had several chances.  Despite playing for three teams over six major league seasons, Mike Jacobs was never able to fulfill his vast potential.  Like many left-handed home run hitters, Jacobs could never hit well against lefties and get on base at a high enough level to compliment his power bat.  Now at 30-years of age, the legacy of Mike Jacobs will be as using HGH and failing the first North American test.  While I expected Jacobs to be fighting for home run crowns at this point in his career, he now sits outside of baseball.  A lesson to be learned for future sluggers.  It is better to play clean and keep your reputation than cheat and get caught.  Once the first failed test hits, any accomplishments in the past and future will always be tarnished.  As Palmeiro, Bonds, Sosa and McGwire can attest, poor public perceptions never seem to go away.  They just continue to linger, seemingly until the end of time.   

 

 

 

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Top 5 Closers Available at July 31 MLB Trade Deadline

Friday July 22, 2011

 

MLB reports:   The MLB Non-Waiver Trade Deadline is rapidly approaching.  With only nine days to go, MLB teams need to decide if they are buyers or sellers.  Right up until July 31st deadline, the baseball world will be buzzing on potential deals.  While transactions can occur after July 31st, the respective players will need to first pass through waivers, which makes trades more difficult to happen.  Especially in the category of closers, who are sought after by almost every team.  Whether to obtain a 9th inning stopper or upgrade their middle relief, the majority of MLB teams are currently on the prowl.

There are some contending teams would love to add a closer, including the Rangers and Cardinals.  The host of other teams battling for a playoff spot are ready to take a current closer to pitch the 7th or 8th inning.  To win today in baseball, you usually need 2-3 closer-type pitchers in your pen.  The Brewers recently added Francisco Rodriguez to compliment John Axford.  The New York Yankees signed Rafael Soriano to pitch in front of Mariano Rivera, although David Robertson has since grabbed the role.  True closers will always be in demand and teams with playoff aspirations will always find room for these guys on their rosters.

As the line between buyers and sellers becomes less blurry, we take a look today at the top five closer candidates to be traded by the July 31st MLB Trade Deadline:

 

1)  Heath Bell:  San Diego Padres

The Rolls Royce of available closers, the Padres are talking to teams on a daily, if not hourly basis on the availability of Heath Bell.  Nearly every team has been linked to Bell in the past few days, from the Rangers, Cardinals, Phillies, Red Sox, Jays and Tigers.  The prize of the closing market, expect the Padres to demand a king’s ransom for his services.  At least two top prospects, with one being major league ready should get this deal done.  With 28 saves and a 2.45 ERA, the 33-year old Bell is having another fantastic campaign before his impending free agency.  The Rangers and Cardinals are most in need of a closer, with the Rangers the most likely destination based on availability of prospects.  The Rangers have the superior farm system and could match up best with the Padres.  The Phillies and Jays are the dark horses according to reports and need to decide if they are willing to pay the price.

 

2)  Brandon League:  Seattle Mariners

A first time All-Star in 2011, Brandon League has raised his stock this year and given the Mariners an interesting trade chip to work with at the deadline.  League has chipped in 23 saves already this year, with a 3.35 ERA and 1.088 WHIP.  With a team friendly contract and under team control for another season, League should draw much interest on the market.  St. Louis seems like a logical choice, as the Cardinals will be looking for a long-term solution to their closing woes.  I cannot see the Mariners dealing in their division and having to face League next year with the Rangers.  A top prospect or two middle prospects should make this one happen.  With the Mariners far out of contention and in complete rebuild mode, a top closer seems like a luxury that the Mariners cannot afford at the moment.  The Mariners need offensive help and need it quickly, with League being one of many candidates likely to leave Seattle by July 31st to replenish the farm system.

 

3)  Frank Francisco, Jon RauchOctavio Dotel, Jason Frasor:  Toronto Blue Jays

If Heath Bells is a Rolls Royce, the Blue Jays are running a used Ford dealership in their bullpen.  Frank Francisco is like a used mustang with transmission problems, while Jon Rauch is a pickup truck without the V8 engine.  The Jays have assembled a collection of the middle-of-the-road closers and setup men this year in their bullpen.  Francisco will likely draw the most attention, despite his mostly awful numbers this year.  At 31-years of age and throwing big time heat, Francisco still has potential.  Rauch has served as the Jays closer for much of the year and could be in demand as well.  Octavio Dotel, the eldest member of the pack, has bounced around during his major league career and could be a useful trade deadline pickup.  The most effective reliever though for the Jays has been Jason Frasor and a smart team should consider him.  While the Jays are unlikely to offer any true closers to contending teams, there are middle relief candidates to be had.  Expect the Phillies to come calling and pickup one of the above.

 

4)  Kevin Gregg:  Baltimore Orioles

For those teams that like to play with fire, closers don’t get more dangerous than Kevin Gregg.  A 4.00 ERA and unsightly 1.583 WHIP are not numbers that scream out lock-down closer.  Gregg has shown though the ability to get hot at times during his career and will be considered by many teams over the next week.  Signed through next year, the Orioles will look mainly for salary relief in shedding Gregg’s contract.  Personally, I wouldn’t consider Gregg if I was running a team.  But somehow he will likely move by July 31st.

 

5)  Leo Nunez:  Florida Marlins

Another up-and-down closer in the Gregg mold, Leo Nunez is quietly having a very solid season for the Florida Marlins.  Up to 27 saves, with a 3.22 ERA and 1.187 WHIP, Nunez might actually be the best affordable option on the closers market.  The Rangers and Cardinals will sniffing around here, as will the Red Sox, Indians and Tigers.  As the Marlins and Tigers have matched up well before in trades, I can see this swap happening.  The Tigers have the ability to surrender a decent pitching prospect and can use Nunez down the stretch as Valverde insurance.  With the Tigers in contention and the majority of their bullpen being fairly unstable for most of the year, Nunez might be a late inning option that the the Tigers can ill-afford to miss out on.

 

Send us your comments and opinions on available closers for the trade deadline.  Other names thrown around have been Joakim Soria, Matt Capps, Joe Nathan, Andrew Bailey and Brian Fuentes.  The trading of players, especially closers, is especially reliant on the competitiveness and status of a team in the standings.  With so many teams still in their respective races, there are not as many top bullpen arms available at this point in the season.  But come August, as more teams continue to drop out, expect to see even more trade activity.  Exciting times, as the MLB pennant races continue to heat up, and baseball trade talk is on everyone’s lips.

 

 

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