OPENINGS FOR CLOSING

Ah, yes, the always intriguing, ever fickle, closer carousel. Without fail, a fair share of teams will end the season with a closer whom was not their closer on Opening Day. It happens. We know this. This truth that we have come to know is the driving force behind almost every fantasy expert’s (with the possible exception of our own Jim Finch) draft day mantra, “don’t pay for saves!”. This is, I think, even more relevant in head-to-head leagues, where the saves category is nice and all, but relievers generally won’t pitch enough to impact the other categories a great deal. Look, 24 pitchers had more than 20 saves in 2014, 17 had more than 30 saves and seven had more than 40. Would it be nice to have a couple of those 40 saves guys, especially in a rotisserie league? Sure, but of the top 10 closers in saves last season, I would say at least three were surprises and maybe five were drafted as top ten closers. The five that were not necessarily drafted as top ten closers, well, those are guys you want to find. Of course, this is easier said than done. Closers already “firmly” entrenched in the closer’s role to start the season always have a chance to lead the league in saves. You see saves, while not as iffy as the wins category for pitchers, are still a product of outside factors, the biggest of which, of course, being opportunity. So projecting saves for the known quantities can have a slight margin for error. But what we are going to look at today is the, for lack of better phrasing, “unknown” quantities.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, closers lose jobs all the time. It is not at all unusual to have, say, a third of the teams in Major League Baseball change closers during the season, whether it be due to performance or injury. I would never pretend to be able to predict injuries, at least not since Biff Tannen swiped my sports almanac. And yes, if I could see the future I would use it to succeed at fantasy baseball because I am really smart like that. Bottom line is I cannot foresee injuries to closers. What I can do is try to predict who might lose their closer gig due to performance. To be fair, I can’t actually foresee this either, but have a little more to go on to make some conjectures. So, below are a some guys who, as of now, are not their team’s closer but could be come season’s end. This will not include guys that are starting the season as the closer due to injury to the top closer, so no Clippard, Boxberger or the likes.

Adam Ottavino, Rockies – The guy currently standing in Ottavino’s way is LaTroy Hawkins. I have nothing against LaTroy Hawkins; he has a cool name. In fact he was a closer on one of my fantasy squads just last year. The fact of the matter is, Hawkins is roughly 67 years of age. I may be using a bit of hyperbole, here, but he is old. I mean, ya know, not old for Earth, just for professional baseball. This is not to say,that Hawkins can’t be a dominant closer, but let’s just say the odds are not forever in his favor. Well, actually, he has never really been a “dominant” closer at all, so let’s go with, “This is not to say, that Hawkins can’t be a serviceable closer.” Good? Good. Now, not only has Hawkins started paying more attention to AARP ads (don’t worry there are plenty more old person metaphors ahead) but he doesn’t strike guys out. I must say I am maybe a bit more in love with the K for pitchers than a lot of people, especially when it comes to closing games. It is not completely unprecedented for a closer to have success without a high K-rate. Jim Johnson saved 50 games with a K/9 below 6 a few seasons ago after all.  The fact does remain, though, that closers who strike guys out at a high rate are well in the majority. While Hawkins does induce an above average ground ball rate, when one pitches in the mile high air of Colorado, one probably wants to keep the ball from being put in play at all. (That’s where the strikeouts would come in handy) There’s also the fact Hawkins had an ERA over seven in the last month of 2014 and has already announced 2015 will be his final season. Yes, it is tough to focus on single month splits, but still.

Now Ottavino has a similar ground ball rate but combines that with a K% over 10 points higher than Hawkins. Seems like that should play better as a closer a mile above sea level. I should mention that Ottavino is far from perfect with a walk rate a bit higher than one might like.  And, while he is younger than Hawkins (not saying much), he is also, at 29, no Spring chicken, himself. Plus he only has one career save, so he doesn’t have the experience in the high leverage situations, as it were. So, Ottavino is definitely not the next Craig Kimbrel. Heck, he probably isn’t even the next Cody Allen, but I have a feeling he is the next Rockies closer and it could be happening sooner than you think.

Joakim Soria, Tigers – Soria is currently behind Joe Nathan on the Tigers game closing depth chart. Like the aforementioned LaTroy Hawkins, Joe Nathan is aged. Nathan is not quite to the point of sitting on his porch in a rocking chair yelling incoherencies at neighborhood youths just yet, but for a major league pitcher he is considered old. (Notice a theme, here?) In 2014, maybe not entirely due to age, we started seeing what many thought to be the beginning of a drastic decline for Joe. Nathan’s K:BB rate was not even over two, his K% was the lowest it has been since becoming a closer in 2004 (by 6%) helping him achieve an ERA just under five (4.81). The more walks and fewer strikeouts are more than likely a result of reduced fastball velocity and more reliance on the slider and sinker. Nathan did fine with this strategy in 2013, but in 2014 he started throwing those pitches for strikes far less. Throwing fewer strikes could generally lead to an increased walk rate, especially if batters are not fooled and are chasing balls out of the zone less…which they were. Nathan’s WHIP was over 1.50 in 2014. That is not good by any standard and one thing I look for in a closer is keeping guys off the base paths. In 62 appearances (not all save opportunities), Nathan walked or gave up a hit in 42 of them. Now one runner is not an issue, but in a third of his appearances, he allowed more than one batter to reach base and in none of Nathan’s appearances did he record more than three outs. With all that to consider, Nathan may not have the tightest grip on the closer’s role, especially with another pitcher waiting in the wings who has successfully closed games in the past.

Let’s get the simple numbers out-of-the-way first. Soria had an ERA just over a run and a half lower than Nathan’s in 2014, while striking out over a batter more, and walking three batters less, per nine innings than Nathan. Just looking at these numbers makes me wonder why Nathan even has a hold on the job at all. However, I am fair and, in the light of fairness, it was not all kittens  and rainbows for Soria in 2014. While Soria was cruising along closing games for the Rangers, his numbers with the Tigers were, well, less than good. This is an extremely small sample size of 11 innings and he had some issues with his oblique, but bears mentioning that he was not the same lights out reliever he was pre-trade. Soria, though, is more likely to bounce back to form, since Nathan is about 10 years his senior and Soria has not shown any overall signs of decline. Nathan could very well return to his 2013 form and Soria never gets a chance at saves, but my money would be on the opposite of that happening. Of course, another thing to consider is Big Bruce Rondon. BBR ultimately (the Tigers hope), is the closer of the future, but I am unsure of the timetable for him. Bottom line? If you ask me who I think will have the most saves for the Tigers in 2015, I’d go with Soria.

Sergio Romo, Giants – Romo lost the closing job in 2014, so this portion of my ramblings is not off to the best of starts. Overall I think Romo has better stuff than Casilla, but you can’t argue with Casilla’s results, I guess? Casilla strikes out fewer batters on average, but can counter balance this a bit with a 56% ground ball rate. Casilla allowed a lot of balls to be put in play and had a BABIP of .211, which points right to regression city, making another season with a sub-two ERA a bit unlikely. While I think Romo has better make up to be a closer, the thing about real baseball, is managers tend to just look at the on field results (how dare they!). Yeah, doesn’t sound so far-fetched, right? What I mean here is, managers are not going look at advanced stats and pull a closer from the role based on potential badness. As long as Casilla is finishing games, Bruce Bochy is not going to care how it gets done. That is, unless of course the appearances look continually dicey and have Bruce constantly reaching for the Rolaids. This is not a position battle right now and with Romo’s shoulder woes it may never be a conversation, but I still say Romo is worth a late flier, especially if you are in a league with holds.

Ken Giles, Phillies – Ken Giles has already exhibited some closer-esque qualities. Out of the Phillies ‘pen last season Giles pitched in 44 games, posting a 1.18 ERA, a .79 WHIP and a 12.61 K/9. Do not adjust your monitor’s folks, those numbers are indeed accurate. Giles combines a nice K/BB ratio of almost 6:1 and induced ground balls at a 44.3% rate in 2014. Strikeouts, grounders, the kid has it all! Okay, he does have a history of control issues, but he also has a history of throwing high heat. Giles now combines the high heat with a wicked slider. Wicked, folks! Giles might not post the 2014 numbers over a full season, but he should still post some darned good numbers and seems to have that closer moxie about him. What stands in his way though, is Jonathon Papelbon.

Paps is not in danger of losing his job in Philly, per se. I say, per se, because if Paps loses his job it will, most likely, not be due to performance. It could be, but that is not something on the table at the moment. What is on the table is the high possibility of the Phillies being very, very bad in 2015. It’s barely even debatable, kids. Not only are the Phillies expected to be intensely terrible, but they are also rebuilding and shedding money. That’s where the Paps/Giles story comes into play. There is decent speculation that Papelbon gets shuffled off to another team, opening the door for Giles to, well, close the door for the Phils. There is little doubt in my mind that Giles inherits the closer when and if, Papelbon gets traded.

So, there you have it! Four guys who have a good shot of taking over the closer role on their respective teams before season’s end. All four are worth a flier and if your league counts holds, than all the better! Worst case scenario they add a few Ks and help your rate stats all season. Best case you got yourself some cheap saves. The risk is fairly minimal, especially if you already have some saves on your roster (and you should). These guys are all perfectly suitable RP3s, in mixed leagues of 12 or more teams, right this second. Until we meet again, be safe and keep on truckin’!

Will Emerson

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Affectionately know by close friends as Willie Moe, Will is back living in Boston after brief, 11 year stint, in upstate New York. Will loves numbers and baseball, so it is no surprise that he has been addicted to fantasy baseball for over two decades. That’s right, Will was playing fantasy baseball since before the internet was providing up to the minute stats and standings, and you had to get your hands inky checking box scores in the newspaper.