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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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Will the Diamondbacks Win the NL West in 2011?

Saturday August 13, 2011



MLB reports:  With the playoffs just around the corner, it is time to slowly predict which teams will be making the cut in advancing to this year’s playoffs.  One of the closest races is in the NL West, where the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants are going head-to-head in fighting for the division title.  When the dust settles come October, we expect to see Arizona overtake the defending World Series champions and advancing to the playoffs.

The Diamondbacks with a 66-53 record are currently sitting two games ahead of the Giants in the standings.  On a four-game winning streak and a 6-4 record in their last 10, the Diamondbacks have been fairly hot since the All-Star break.  The Giants are headed in the opposite direction, currently on a two-game losing streak and a 3-7 record in their last 10.  When looking at the overall compositions of the team, I believe the Diamondbacks are better constructed to make the playoffs.

Last year the Giants were successful in winning the World Series almost exclusively built on pitching.  To be a playoff contender however, there usually needs to be a balance of both offense and pitching strengths on a ballclub.  Taking a look at the Diamondbacks roster, I see that required balanced.  The starting rotation is led by their big three, Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders.  The bullpen has closer J.J. Putz and setup men, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler.  On offense, Miguel Montero, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Upton, Kelly Johnson and Chris Young lead the way.  Not a complete all-star team like the Yankees, but the Diamondbacks appear to have the best mix of components to take the NL West.  In comparison, the San Francisco Giants appear to fall far short.

The Giants as usual have some of the best starting pitching in baseball this year.  Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are as solid as they come.  Now add into the mix Ryan Vogelsong, Brian Wilson and the rest of the Giants bullpen and you have almost enough pitching to singlehandedly lead the team to the playoffs.  Almost, but not quite in my estimation.  While the Giants proved last year that offense alone can win a World Series, I do not see that happening again this year.  Not with that offense.  With team leader Buster Posey out for the year and new acquisition Carlos Beltran on the shelf, the Giants will not be able to score enough runs to over take the Diamondbacks.  Pablo Sandoval cannot do it on his own and Aubrey Huff, Orlando Cabrera and the rest of the Giants batters simply can’t cut it.  The Giants will be able to stay close in ballgames, but the reality is that runs are needed to win the necessary games to make it to the playoffs.  While 2010 was a dream season, 2011 will now be a return to reality.

Much credit needs to be given to Kirk Gibson and his staff for turning a young and up-and-coming team and turn them into contenders almost overnight.  While Gibson has made the right moves on the field, GM Kevin Towers has been the lightening rod behind the scenes.  Strengthening the bullpen and beefing up the rotation with a mix of veterans and blossoming prospects has been the key for the team.  Having their young hitters turn the page like Justin Upton and Miguel Montero to take the next step has been the turning point.  If you compare the Giants and Diamondbacks just based on pitching, then San Francisco has the edge.  But considering that the Diamondbacks can score runs and the Giants have one of the worst offenses in baseball, I see Arizona having the advantage.  Giants fans should feel no shame, as the glory of their championship from last year will shine bright for many years to come.  But until the team can find a stronger and balanced offense in its lineup, in the short-term the team has too many shortcomings on offense to overcome.  As a result, expect Arizona back to the playoffs this year.  As the Giants were a team of destiny last year, the Diamondbacks are the same team of destiny to win the NL West in 2011.  


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