San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three

Trying to figure out who will be the next closer is the bane/pleasure of the fantasy game. It’s enough to make some people hate fantasy baseball, full-stop. But if you’re a game player — and I love em all from Settlers of Cataan to Dominion to Backgammon — all you have to do is learn the rules of the games, the settings, and then try to win!

If saves are in your settings, you have to chase them. And since more than a third of the closers in baseball lose their job to injury or poor play in any given year, it makes sense to spend little up front and chase hard all year.

The problem with chasing saves is… well, it might be managers. Because, though we think we know what makes a good pitcher — lots of strikeouts, few walks, maybe some ground balls to help keep the homer rate down — most of these things correlate well with a change at the position.

In fact, check the list of metrics that *do not* predict closer changes reliably:

* ERA, projected or past

* Three-Year FIP

* Experience Closing

* Shutdown Percentage

That pretty much shuts down half of the closing prognostication out there. And yet, it’s not to say that these things can’t matter to one team, it’s just to say that once you take baseball as a whole, these things are not predictive. In order to make sure that one of these metrics is actually important to what you are talking about, you have to do something I used to call “thinking stupid.” You have to try to scout the manager and figure out what he thinks is important. Because the manager decides who the closer is.

You can’t just throw your hands up in the air, though. Research on closers has proven some positive correlations that are useful:

* Managers prefer righty closers to lefty closers.

* Even the worst teams provide 30+ save opportunities to their closers.

* Teams that score more provide more save opportunities.

* New closers have more gas and higher strikeout rates than deposed closers.

That last, a new piece this offseason by Jack Moore for FanGraphs+ (sorry, pay link), was the impetus for updating this piece for Roto-Relevant Research. Because it provides us with an easy rubric when evaluating closer battles. It’s fun to look at the graph of ‘new closer’ fastball rates:

fgplusvelonewcloser

Let’s take these findings to some current closer battles!

St. Louis

Jason Motte is down and it looks like it might be for count. If nothing improves with his torn ligament in a month — and really why should it — he’ll have Tommy John surgery. The main contenders for his role are Mitchell Boggs and Trevor Rosenthal. Yup. You already know where this is going. Because, even if Boggs’ velocity has jumped with his move to the pen (94ish mph), Rosenthal is the guy with the big booming triple-digit monster heater. And while Boggs’ strikeout rate jumped in the pen (seven per nine ish), Rosenthal is the guy with a double-digit strikeout rate. Now, if you’d be tempted to go down the experience path here, since Boggs has done it before and Rosenthal is a rookie, but it doesn’t look like that has mattered much in the past in St. Louis or elsewhere. You can’t say anything really definitively about the current manager’s handling of a bullpen, either. Sooo.. if Rosenthal is still out there, go get him.

Milwaukee

Les jeux sont maybe fait when it comes to the Ax man and his wonderful mustache. John Axford can’t keep the ball in the park, and Jim Henderson got the last save. And, really, that’s the best thing to ask when talking about closers: “Who got the last save?” But it is worth noting that as fast as Axford can throw the ball (94 mph this year), Hendo throws it harder (95 mph the last two years). And even if Axford has double-digit strikeout rates, Henderson has bettered him this season and last. Hey, if you got two late-blooming Canadian closers with big fastballs and control issues, might as well just use the one that’s going good. Some teams don’t even have one!

Houston

Don’t you wrinkle your nose at Houston. They can easily produce a closer with more than 25 saves this year. And since the pen is bad, the options are limited. But one thing that makes saves prospecting with bad teams harder is that since the wins are fewer and further in between, it’s hard to know what the bullpen pecking order is. Because the second best thing to ask about closing is “Who’s setting up now?” Well, the Astros won two games and neither of them needed a traditional save. Their closest games featured Rhiner Cruz and Wesley Wright at the back end. Since Wright is a lefty (and a LOOGY), he’s out. But Rhiner Cruz is probably our saves sleeper in Houston then. He’s got about four ticks more than nominal closer Jose Veras. The problem is that the former Rule 5 pick has not added pus strikeout rates to his package. Josh Fields, this year’s Rule 5 pick, has more velocity than Veras, and is also striking people out. He’s the real sleeper here.

Kansas City

Greg Holland is in trouble. He’s got more walks than innings! It’s always been iffy with him, but as we know, walk rate does not tell us much about who’s going to close. If he can strike out 30+% of the batters he faces, we’ll live with a walk every other inning. Or, we would. Who knows what Ned Yost will do. He’s got a very capable setup man in Kelvin Herrera, but Herrera only satisfies half of the ‘requirements.’ He throws harder, but that hasn’t meant more strikeouts… yet. This year might be different, as he’s struck out seven of the 12 dudes he’s seen in the box. And anyway, if you ran hisĀ  2012 numbers through an expected strikeout rate equation, you’d get 25.9% instead of the 22.4% he showed. That’s not quite better than Holland’s numbers, but if Holland’s velocity is indeed down, and he suffers a regression in strikeout rate, Herrera could match him quickly. Herrera is absolutely a great sleeper for saves.

Florida

Hard to tell how much trouble Steve Cishek is in. He’s only blown one save, but he’s given up two runs in two of his three outings. And he only had one save opportunity! He hasn’t been giving up home runs, and he hasn’t been walking guys, but over half of the balls in play have been hits. It looks like A.J. Ramos is pitching the eighth, but he’s really cheap as a rookie, and the team may want to keep it that way. He satisfies the strikeout rate rule, but he has about the same velocity as Cishek. Mike Dunn is the big velocity guy in that pen, but he’s a lefty. It’s probably Cishek all year, with a chance Ramos takes the reins early.

Chicago

Kyuji Fujikawa is already the closer, so this one is done. And it didn’t quite fit the rule. Carlos Marmol strikes more people out and has more velocity. But Carlos Marmol was just too marmolian. If someone is that utter, you have to throw the rules out and figure they’re getting what has been coming to them. In Marmol’s case, he’s been losing that job for something like two years now.