“You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin'” ~ Bob Dylan
Baseball is, as Mr. Dylan would say, a-changin’. Positional versatility trumps pure power. Power trumps speed. Openers. Multi-inning relievers. Some of it is history revisited, some of it is new. Either way, you’ve got to know which way the wind is blowing when you draft.
For good and for ill, the role of the conventional closer is slowly dying. The importance of the conventional closer is fading as managers are catching on to the idea that maybe saving your best reliever for 3 outs in a 5-2 game isn’t the best use of his talents. Thus, the rise of Andrew Miller in Cleveland. Which has led to Hader in Milwaukee, and Peacock and McHugh in Houston last year, and Adam Conley in Miami and . . . well, you get the picture.
Yes, there are still conventional, elite closers. Kimbrel has gotten the job done for a decade. Edwin Diaz is filthy. Treinen was practically a unicorn last year (free advice – magical unicorn seasons happen once, not twice). But if you actually look at the relief picture, you’ll notice something new beginning to appear.
The Todd Jones’s and Robb Nen’s and Mitch Williams’s of the closing world are disappearing. There are still adventures out there, one of whom I’ll touch on later, but more and more, valuable relief is about 2 things. The first is pure, raw stuff. That’s nothing new. Mark Wohlers was filthy – when he wasn’t doing his best Nuke LaLoosh impersonation. What is new though is the emphasis on command.
Craig Kimbrel isn’t still unemployed just because of his age, or his salary demands. His velocity hasn’t declined. The stuff is still there – but the command slipped. Last year he gave up exactly 1 home run per 9 innings pitched – which isn’t a bad rate but was the worst of his career. His walk rate jumped from 1.8/9 in 2017 to 4.5/9 in 2018. His FIP was a career-high 3.13 as result. Obviously, he was still good. Obviously, he still deserves a job. But the “buts” became louder than they’ve ever been.
That’s where relief pitching is at now. Promise is good. Past production is good. Stuff is good. But – that’s what every team is trying to avoid. The but. They want to feel like they can finally breathe when their ace reliever comes in, not like they are witnessing a tight-rope act that involves juggling grenades.
So that’s what you should be targeting too. If teams want certainty, they’re going to play certainty. And guaranteed jobs and innings is what the relief game is all about.
If there’s one guy who is a great reason to ignore everything I just wrote, it’s Jordan Hicks. Sometimes, it’s the stuff. Jordan Hicks has stuff in spades. He averaged 101 with his sinker last year, with a 60% groundball rate. Even if the command never comes, it’s hard to hit for power when a guy is breaking your thumbs as you pound pitch after pitch into the dirt.
That said, there’s more to Hicks than that. Everyone notices the relatively strikeout rate for a guy with his velocity. The high walk rate stands out even more. I think both are flukes. Last year, Hicks made the jump from A-ball at 21 – and still produced palatable numbers. This year, he’s put all of that behind him. No more huge jump. No more adjusting to the majors.
I think last season’s numbers add credence to the fact that he has more in the tank. Last year, from May through July, Hicks walked 14 of 166 batters faced. Then the wheels came off. He got tired. It happens to rookie pitchers all the time. However, even as he tired the strikeout numbers rose, as Hicks averaged over 9 k/9 in August and September. The velocity never tailed off, the stuff never slipped, but the command did. Now imagine he’s a year older, not making a huge jump, and better prepared for the grind. Maybe he can mix his late-season strikeouts with his mid-season command and be something really special.
For as long as the blurb on Hicks was, Hader’s is short. In fact, it’s a haiku
Hader may get saves
He may not, but he will get
Whiffs like a starter.
Seriously. Last season he was 68th among ALL pitchers in strikeouts. Just do yourself a favor and don’t overthink it.
Disclaimer: All rights and properties belong to . . . oh, wait, wrong thing. Really, this is all about depth. The deeper the league, the more every save has value. Even there, you shouldn’t reach for nominal saves. But in 10-12 team leagues, these guys are draft nightmares. If they are still hanging around when you are drafting your bench, fine. If you’re relying on them in leagues with set and forget line-ups or weekly line-up changes, it may burn you.
AJ Minter and Arodys Vizcaino
Hopefully, some wiser soul than I will come along and sort out some of these situations and make me look like an idiot. Frankly, I could use the advice too.
The Braves have announced that Minter and Vizcaino are sharing closer duties. There are a lot of problems with that scenario.
- You draft Minter, but the rest of the NL East has improved drastically and the Braves fall behind. In that scenario, Minter takes a backseat to Vizcaino, so that the Braves can showcase the latter as trade bait.
- You take Vizcaino, but his spotty control and inability to work a clean inning cost him the job before June.
- They actually split the stupid job all year so they each only get half as many saves and you have to spend 2 roster spots to have 1 closer.
It’s not a fantasy-friendly situation. Avoid it.
David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez
This is basically the Braves 2.0. One is a vet, one is a young ‘un with filthy stuff. With the investments in Harper and McCutchen and Segura, whoever has the job is always going to be on a short leash. My fear here isn’t in any individual performance, like Vizcaino’s perpetual high-wire act, but in the impatience of a team that is extremely invested financially in the product on the field, and in analytics.
This job could turn into the hot hand very quickly, or a committee. Kapler could literally do anything with his bullpen, and will if math suggests he should. With Harper in the fold, they’ve made it clear they are all-in. And an all-in team with an uncertain closer situation is a big draft-day NO.