Bullpen Battles

This is that happiest time of year when hope springs eternal, as baseball is once again in the air!  And what exudes more happiness during spring training than some friendly competition? As Fantasy baseball drafts get into full swing, we eye these battles quite closely in hopes of getting an edge over the rest of the owners. This can be a challenge, especially if you are drafting now.  You’re basically trying to pick a horse in a close race hoping your thoroughbred pulls out a victory. Well, today I am going to walk you through a few closer battles and let you know who I think should have the inside track.

Cincinnati Reds

The good news here is that both of these pitchers should fall fairly deep in the draft, even after Bryan Price finally makes his closing decision. Why is that you ask? Well, for one, neither has experience in the closer role, and while everyone has to start somewhere, it is still something to keep in mind. You don’t just need the “stuff” to close games, but also the composure to do so, and for many that comes with experience. Between the two they have combined to save a total of six Major League Baseball games, but that’s not really what concerns me, so much.

J.J. Hoover had a 2.94 ERA which is fine for a closer, and while his K/9 and his ground ball rate are average for starting pitchers, they are what I would consider sub par for a closer.  Last season’s K/9 could be an anomaly since he has struck out slightly more than a batter per inning in his short career – so let’s just say Hoover turns it on and gets back to a closer level strikeout rate.  There’s still the issue of his walk rate. Control is not something that JJ seems to have; a BB/9 of 4.06 is just not great.That number probably helped contribute to his 4.14 FIP.  While the ERA may not jump into the fours, it most likely won’t stay below three, and that could have Reds fans reaching for the antacids every time Hoover toes the rubber.

So, obviously Jumbo Diaz has the inside track then, right? Well, maybe not.  Bryan Price is probably not going to be too concerned with FIP if the ERA is good, and when it comes to ERA, Jumbo’s was not. Diaz posted an ERA of 4.18 in 2015, and that doesn’t scream closer material. Before leaning back towards Hoover, keep in mind Diaz’s FIP did go the other way, as his xFIP was a run less than his ERA.  Still not what one might call a spectacular closer ERA, but still respectable. Diaz also sports a better K/9 (10.14) and ground ball rate than Hoover, which I like.

Ultimately I like Diaz in this battle, but think Hoover may get the first shot. While neither looks to be a top-notch closing option in 2016, they’ll still get you some cheap saves.

Milwaukee Brewers

This situation is similar to the one in Cincy, in that neither of Milwaukee’s top closing option at this time have experience closing Major League Baseball games.  The difference here is both guys appear to be more viable options.  Both Jeffress and Smith posted a sub-three ERA out of the ‘pen last season which is promising, and those numbers are supported by their FIP numbers – even more so in Smith’s case.

Bullpen Battles 2Aside from the fact that Will Smith will provide me with endless opportunities to throw in Fresh Prince references, he is also a fairly viable closer option.  In 2015 Smith posted a 2.70 ERA along with a K/9 of 12.93 and 45.8% ground ball rate; all good things when looking for a closer –  in my humble opinion, anyways.  The walk rate is a tad higher than I like, but despite that it is tough for me to imagine Smith not getting the first shot at closing games.  That being said, Jeffress certainly provides a sleeper option at the closer role.

Jeremy Jeffress doesn’t have an overpowering K/9, but striking out close to a batter an inning is by no means anything to scoff at – especially when he combines that with a ground ball rate close to 60%.  A decent amount of K’s and grounders are great for minimizing damage in high leverage situations, so if Smith should falter or sustain an injury, Jeffress may not be a bad backup plan.  If you are in a league with holds, Jeffress is, at the very least, a solid grab for those, to start. 

I think the saves are Smith’s to get jiggy with and to lose, but Jeffress is intriguing and really just an injury away from closing games.  The only potential roadblock right now for Smith is the fact that he is a lefty, and other than newly acquired Franklin Morales the Brewers are short on quality lefties in the pen.  If Smith doesn’t start the year as the closer, it’s not for a lack of stuff.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies are only projected to win a little more than 60 games in 2016, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be save opportunities in the City of Brotherly Love now, does it? No, there will still be save chances abound, we just need to figure out to whom they will belong. The options are not quite terrible in Philly either. I mean there is at least a hint of closer experience in this battle.

Ernesto Frieri was actually a closer in 2012 and 2013, and his numbers in 2012 were pretty decent.  Well, his ERA was decent enough (2.32), but his FIP data points to him being a bit lucky (3.58 FIP – 3.36 xFIP) and that respectable ERA regressed in 2013.  But what am I talking about; that was three seasons ago – let’s focus on some more recent data.  Injuries kind of limited Ernesto the past two seasons so the sample sizes are kind of small.  Nonetheless, the numbers are not good.  In the 65 innings he pitched over those two seasons he posted an ERA of 6.37 *Yikes!*, and his FIP numbers don’t point to him being unlucky or anthing being fluky about that ERA.  With a sub-eight K/9 (his K/9 has regressed each year since 2012) and a 26.2% ground ball rate, unless he has made some drastic changes – like literally transforming himself into Mariano Rivera – Frieri does not look to be a viable closer option in Philly (stranger things have happened though).  So how about Garcia?

To begin with, Luis Garcia owns a 62% groundball rate along with a K/9 that has increase each year, from 6.61 in 2013 to 7.71 in 2014 up to 8.51 last season.  While another increase in strikeouts would be nice, another season above 8.0 would be acceptable.  A high ground ball percentage combined with an increasing strikeout rate is a recipe for success (more often than not).  The big drawback for Garcia is walks. In 2015, Garcia had a BB/9 of 5.0 which is a bit worrisome for a closer.  Heck, that is a kind of worrisome for any pitcher, really.  A high WHIP and middling three ERA doesn’t exactly strike me as a dominant closer, but I would choose him over Frieri at this point, without question.  His ERA, WHIP and walk rate were much lower in AA and AAA so there is potential, it’s just a matter of if and when that potential shines through at the major league level.  So is Garcia the best option for the Phightins?  Possibly, but we have one more option.

I’ve always liked David Hernandez, but other than a decent 2012 season in Arizona the numbers have never really come around; 2012 seems to be an aberration at this point.  Hernandez has a career GB% of 30.7, and while that number was up considerably to 39.4 last season, there were no considerable changes to explain the increase.  His once elite K/9 has slowly decrease, from above 10.0 down to 8.82 in 2015 – still good enough to get the job done though as long as it doesn’t continue to drop.  Hernandez did miss all of 2014, so maybe the 2015 numbers were a result of still shaking off some of the rust, but without a proven track record of dominance, you shouldn’t expect elite numbers in 2016 or, well, maybe ever, from Hernandez.

That being said, I think Hernandez gets the closing job in Philly but should only really be viable for saves and not much of a contributor in the rate categories.  In all honesty, things look kind of bleak in the Phillies bullpen this year.


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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.