Before going through the closer upheaval rigmarole, I thought it important to set some context on blown saves. From 2009-2011 (three seasons), of pitchers with at least 10 saves, 11 relievers blew 16 or more saves. Only three of those pitchers (Matt Capps, Carlos Marmol and Jim Johnson) are still closers. Leo Nunez and Brian Wilson aren’t closing for, mostly, non-baseball-related reasons. While the other half (Kevin Gregg, Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez, Chad Qualls, Brad Lidge and Kerry Wood) deservedly do not have full time closing duties. However, for these pitchers to lose their Rolaids relief roles, they had to blow, on average, 5 – 7 saves a season. That’s a lot when you think about it. And even when some of these gentlemen blew that many saves, about half were still given the ball with the game on the line.
Expanding the pool, 26 pitchers recorded at least 10 saves from 2009-2011 and blew 10 – 14 opportunities. Of the 26, roughly 15 (Bell, Papelbon, League, Soria, Hanrahan, Madson, Rivera, Francisco, Betancourt, Street, Perez, Farnsworth, Feliz, Putz and Walden) are/would be full time closers today. Of the remaining 11, two are current closers (Broxton and Rodney) and the rest have largely been middle relievers or flamed out (Ryan Franklin and Bobby Jenks). Consequently, it seems that blowing 3 – 5 saves in a season isn’t at all detrimental (in recent history at least) to maintaining a hold on the closer position.
This is by no means scientific (neither is the usage of bullpens) as many factors contribute to relief upheaval. I do think it puts in perspective how often a closer needs to fail before he’s removed from the position though. For instance, just last year Walden (10), Marmol (10), Capps (9) and Kimbrell (8) led closers in blown saves. After them, Soria blew seven leads and Farnsworth, Cordero, Feliz, Santos and Nunez blew six. Of those, only Cordero (and potentially Nunez) could not get a job closing because of ability in 2012.
Check the bottom of the column for the BS meter, which will track blown saves for relevant relievers all season long.
Chicago White Sox: Poor Robin Ventura waited until the 14th inning to get his “best” reliever into the game. The White Sox had a two-run lead when Hector Santiago took the mound. He struck out the first guy he faced, but then surrendered a single to Eric Skarsgård Sogard who was followed by the mighty Cespedes who homered to left. Seth Smith and Kurt Suzuki singled back-to-back and Kila Ka’aihue brought home the winning run. At least Santiago was around the plate (15 of his 21 pitches were strikes)? Santiago is getting killed by the long ball (30% HR/FB rate), while posting a nasty K:BB rate (9.00). In addition, every single runner Santiago has allowed on base has scored. If Rolaids spells relief, that spells regression. Meanwhile Jesse Crain was unavailable because of an oblique injury, which isn’t supposed to be serious. I have faith in Santiago’s stuff, but not Ventura’s patience. I’d put my money on Addison Reed at this point, unless Crain is healthy.
Chicago Cubs: While Carlos Marmol has been horrendous (with as many walks as K’s this year), the rest of the Chicago Cubs bullpen has been even worse. There’s no silver lining to Marmol’s stats as his FIP and xFIP are right in line with his wretched ERA. That said, it is just 5.2 IPs and the Cubs are going to keep throwing him out there to extract value and because they have no choice. At the end of Tuesday’s game, Dale Sveum said, “He’s been pitching good. To me, that’s just a case of a 2-2 slider that one of the strongest guys in baseball hit for a home run. Did he do anything wrong or whatever? No, it was just another guy on the other side of the fence making a lot of money who does that quite often.” Marmol is and will continue to be the closer. So, basically, there’s no reason to handcuff or speculate here.
Washington Nationals: Brad Lidge has two blown saves, a 5.14 ERA and a 2.00 WHIP. Meanwhile, Henry Rodriguez has been near perfect (0.84 WHIP). However, Rodriguez has been working around a pretty ridiculous walk rate (six batters in 8.1 IPs) and has a .059 BABIP. At a certain point, the fairy tale will end. In addition, Davey Johnson keeps saying he’s going to throw Lidge out there in the ninth, vertigo and all. I’d rather own Rodriguez, he’s just better, but there’s no reason to drop Lidge yet.
Cleveland Indians: Chris Perez is awful, that is what is known as a baseball fact. Another baseball fact? Perez is the anointed closer. He has seven saves and as long as he keeps his blown saves down there’s no reason for the Indians to do anything. He’ll likely have to blow a few saves in a row or somehow get to 5-6 blown saves before the All Star Break to be in danger of losing the job. Meanwhile Vinnie Pestano is straight dirty and own-able just based on his nastiness (11 K:BB rate). However, it’s unlikely Pestano finishes with double digit saves, barring a Perez injury. If you desperately need saves, you might have to look elsewhere (Houston [Wilton Lopez], Oakland [Fautino de los Santos, Brian Fuentes]).
Baltimore Orioles: Orioles fans can breathe a sigh of relief as it appears Buck Showalter realized Pedro Strop is the second best reliever on the squad. If you own Jim Johnson and are a hand-cuffer, Strop is your man. Strop has paired impressive K-rates with high walk rates throughout his career but also gets a good bit of ground balls (a double play can mitigate a walk pretty quickly). He’s capable of a 3.85 ERA with 65+ K’s this year. Strop is, at the moment, just a handcuff as he’ll only get save chances when Johnson has the flu. Although, apparently, Johnson is still at the hospital having tests on what might be a bacterial issue, so Strop could have a few days as closer.
Boston Red Sox: While his return to the bullpen was momentary (for the time being), Daniel Bard reminded folks of how dominant he can be as a reliever (he entered the game with one out and a runner on third and didn’t allow the runner to score). Meanwhile, Alfredo Aceves is 3/5 in save opportunities and sports an astronomical 18.00 ERA and 2.75 WHIP. Andrew Bailey is on the 60-day DL and out until July. Aceves has some rope here given the rest of the bullpen is really bad. However, a couple of poor starts from Bard and an implosion or two from Aceves could get Bard in the closer seat. If you’re speculating here, grab Bard. He’s the only arm I’d be happy owning in the situation and, apparently, he was available in relief Wednesday night.
St. Louis Cardinals: From 2009-2011, Jason Motte had eight blown saves with just 11 conversions. Of course, for the majority of that time, he wasn’t actually a closer. Still, it does demonstrate the short amount of time Motte has actually been holding the role (heck, he hasn’t even been pitching that long, as he’s a converted catcher). Motte suffered his first blown save on Monday and sports an ugly 4.05 ERA. He is walking a few too many batters, but has a great K-rate and is really suffering from allowing all his HRs early in the season. There’s likely little to be worried about here even though Marc Rzepczynski started the ninth against the Chicago Cubs (he was facing a lefty) Tuesday. Rzepczynski promptly gave up a tying HR any way.
Toronto Blue Jays: With Sergio Santos on the DL, Francisco Cordero assumes a role he’s familiar with. From 2009-2011, Cordero recorded 116 saves and only blew 17. That’s the third best differential during that time frame (behind Heath Bell and Mariano Rivera). Of course, that was in the National League and Cordero has been anything but automatic this season. Cordero had a 1.91 K:BB rate last year and is sporting a 2.00 K:BB rate this year. He is being hit hard in the early going (20.8% LD rate, .360 BABIP) and will experience some bumps in the unforgiving AL East. Even if Cordero somehow turns into a lights out reliever (something he hasn’t been since 2007), Santos will get the job back once he’s healthy. The Blue Jays brought Santos in because he has the stuff to compete in the division. He’s their future at closer and they need to make it work now when the stakes aren’t very high. Cordero is a fine short-term speculation, but he’ll go back to trying to get holds when Santos is healthy. Santos will be out for about a month, even though an MRI showed no structural damage.
New York Mets: Frank Francisco has put up one ugly superficial stat line so far: 7.36 ERA, 1.77 WHIP. He has been walk happy so far (issuing 4 free passes in 7.1 IPs), but has, at least, maintained a solid K-rate. In addition, his strand rate (46.2%) and BABIP (.375) have done him no favors. Still, when healthy, Francisco is a solid reliever. He’ll rebound to put up a 3.30 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 60 K line at the end of the year. The only reason to own Jon Rauch is for potential Francisco injuries.
Kansas City Royals: Unlike Grey, I’ve been on the Jonathan Broxton bandwagon for awhile now, believing the Royals would want to do all they could to turn Broxton into a trade-able commodity. So far, Broxton has a 2.50 K:BB rate and is averaging 95.7 MPH on his fastball, a similar rate to 2010, which saw him post a 4.01 ERA, 3.01 FIP and 3.20 xFIP. Broxton’s current ratios will mirror his end of the year line. He’ll probably even strike out 60+.