Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Looking Back to Look Forward

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Today's Saves and Steals will look a little different. It's time to look back on the year and see where your Saves and Steals correspondent hit the mark, and where he whiffed. Before we look to next year with a keeper ranking, it's time to look back and learn.


I'll update the rankings to reflect the final few days of play, and I'll talk about the most interesting bullpens for those of you still chasing the save -- but I'll spend most of my words talking about whether or not I had the players ranked correctly, and what we can gleam from these successes and failures. We'll name the tiers in honor of spectacular prognoses (both correct and incorrect), and we'll see how much I helped or hurt you in your search for saves.


Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The ""After the fight I'm gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him," - Muhammad Ali, before beating Sonny Liston." Tier.)


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals


Whoo boy. What a trash talker. I probably didn't come close to having any prediction like this one in this tier, though. Okay, I put Craig Kimbrel in the tier from day one. Whoo-hoo. Gone are Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and Joel Hanrahan, who all patrolled this tier at one time or another. Jason Motte was Rock Steady all year, and he finally put up a double-digit strikeout rate in his first full season as closer. I don't think anyone is mad at me about Jason Motte, who was tier two before he was tier one. I liked Joe Nathan, although maybe it took me a little bit to recognize his excellence -- I was skeptical about his age and arm, and that's a healthy skepticism.


Mo was felled by bad luck, although you could say that age was a good enough reason to worry a little, maybe. Papelbon put up elite stats, but his team failed to give him the opportunities -- and we once again learn the lesson that teams (and their bullpens and scoring punch) are important, and also hard to predict. The Phillies were supposed to be better than this, after all.


Hanrahan? Well, it's not too bad a whiff, since he has an ERA under three and an above-average strikeout rate, but his old walk rate came back to bite him in the butt. Let's call this the John Axford lesson (with the Carlos Marmol corollary) -- bad control in a player's history could easily come back to plague a closer. Great stuff can reduce a walk rate -- swing at a pitch outside the zone and miss and you've turned a ball into a strike -- but it's worth mentioning that Craig Kimbrel had bad walk rates in the minor leagues, and even in his rookie season. Just saying…


And my highest profile whiff. Aroldis Chapman. What a beast. First, I liked Ryan Madson, but that didn't last long. Then, I liked Sean Marshall -- a source I had told me that Chapman didn't like warming up on consecutive days, and I fell for the great rates that Marshall had. When Dusty Baker mentioned the warmup thing, I was sure Chapman wasn't going to the closer. Maybe I fell in love with a piece of knowledge and ignored the obvious and inevitable excellence of Aroldis Chapman. (Who's back in charge again, so you can drop Jonathan Broxton.)


Verdict: One big whiff, but otherwise mostly made solid contact.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The ""We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee it," - Joe Namath before winning Super Bowl III." Tier.)


Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles


What a classic prediction that people will never forget.


Perhaps some of you will never forget my rankings of Fernando Rodney and Jim Johnson. I won't apologize for Johnson -- he'll be one of a handful of closers that ever had more saves than strikeouts, and that hurts his value, and the Baltimore Orioles are likely just another one-year over-achieving wonder like the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks. And Rodney? He's probably the biggest pitching surprise of the year, reliever edition. Multiple times in his career, Fernando Rodney has walked double-digit batters in a month. He only walked 14 this entire year. The Rays moved him on the rubber, and probably Rodney should have moved up in these rankings a little sooner. But dude had never once had a walk rate below the league average, and this year he halved the league number. What do we learn? Surprises happen, and not all of them are Ryan Cook flash in the pans, especially if the peripherals look fine.


Here's what I said about Henry Rodriguez in April:

Henry Rodriguez has not improved his control. The baby fireballer has always had gas (he averages 98+ on his fastball), but he's never been able to place the ball exactly where he wants to. This year, he has six walks in his eight and a third innings, and that's pretty bad. It's also pretty much right in line with his career rates. So he's a bit of a time bomb.


Unfortunately, I listened to the manager when he said that Tyler Clippard was needed in his setup role and wouldn't be moved to closer. This is now two cases (Chapman) where I listened to the manager a little much. We have to be a step ahead of these guys.


David Robertson, I fell for hard. He has such great rates. I don't believe in the mythical 'closer mentality,' but it's been shown in the past that previous saves are well-correlated with future saves. Who knows why -- could just be the manager is more comfortable with the guy with experience in there -- but this should have been a red flag for me.


Verdict: Not great. I should have loved some of these guys quicker. In my defense, players mostly return to their career means, and there are some pretty singular stories in this tier.


Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The ""We want the ball and we're going to score," - Matt Hasselbeck, before not scoring." Tier.)


Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Huston Street, San Diego Padres


Ironically, we get to the erroneous prediction right when we get to my wheelhouse. I was all over Tom Wilhelmsen in the spring after seeing him in Spring Training. I loved Greg Holland the minute Joakim Soria went down, and before his manager said a word. I told you all that Rafael Betancourt would not be traded, because his contract was too nice. I loved Kenley Jansen, then again everyone did. (Except his manager right now, who is still throwing Brandon League out there for some reason. Expect that to change soon.)


I said J.J. Putz would be great but would get hurt at some point and allow David Hernandez to close. I called him a "50-inning closer" at some point, and he's got 51 1/3 innings right now. Rinse and repeat for Huston Street, who is finally back but won't manage 50 innings, let alone 40, this season.


If I'm going to admit my failures, I might as well admit that I aced this tier.


Except Chris Perez. After three years of declining whiffs, bad control, and terrible ground-ball rates, I was ready to call it the Vinnie Pestano era. I might just have been a year early -- after Perez's statements to the media down the stretch, the trade rumors will be blowing this offseason -- but it is worth noticing that Perez had better strikeout rates in the National League, and had shown this ability before. If a closer shows something he'd seemingly lost, he's worth a little extra love. Maybe. I still won't draft him next year, not where he's likely to go. 


Verdict: Nailed it, with one (ranking) caveat.


Tier 4: Question marks (8) (AKA: The ""Everything that can be invented has been invented." - Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899. " Tier.)


Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Andrew Bailey, Red Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros


Glad we didn't stop inventing things in 1899!


The top of this tier is full of players that I may have liked too much. I thought Addison Reed's strikeout and walk rates from the minors would translate better to the majors -- and they still might, but not this season. I thought maybe Andrew Bailey would come back quicker, the Red Sox would be better, and he'd have more of an impact this year. He might still be good next year, if he can stay in one piece. I thought John Axford would have a great season with all those strikeouts and even with more walks. The walks kind of sunk him, to return to our first rule (watch the walks). Ditto Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour.


In my defense, I hated Jose Valverde from day one. I said that Carlos Marmol would 'do it ugly' all year because there was nobody else in that pen. I said you should get Steve Cishek and Wilton Lopez before they were closers, too. And even though Reed and Axford might not be as good as I thought they'd be -- they did keep their roles for the good part of the season.


Verdict: Mostly right, with a dash of overblown expectations.


Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.

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Eno Sarris is an editor and writer at FanGraphs.com. You can find his work gathered in one place at and enosarris.com. Follow his misadventures in writing on Twitter as well.
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