Which Closers Are About to Lose Their Jobs?

At this point of the season, there is still time for fantasy owners to make up ground in some categories — one of them being saves. Every year, a handful of teams make changes in terms of the man who will be getting those save opportunities down the stretch, and forward-looking owners can exploit those changes to their own benefit.

The list of statistics that are *not* statistically associated with closer change is long:

* ERA, projected or past
* Three-Year Fielding Independent Pitching stats
* Experience closing
* Shutdown percentage
* Whether the pitcher was the favorite or a bullpen committee member

These things don’t seem to matter much when it comes to closer changes. Maybe it’s because the samples are so small that these stats don’t do a great job capturing what’s happening in the bullpen. If you look at the list of things that *have* been shown to matter, not only is the list shorter, but the statistics become meaningful much faster. Here they are:

* Reliever strikeout rate
* Reliever velocity
* Reliever handedness

The short version? If you bet on the righty with the most gas and strikeouts in the pen, you’re going to be correct more often than you’ll be wrong. And that’s all we can hope for when it comes to our fantasy teams.

So let’s turn this lens on the current bullpens around MLB and see what we can find. Maybe we’ll predict the next closer change.

Ten closers in trouble

In order to do this, I took the top 40 relievers, ranked by saves, and then indexed their velocity and strikeout rates to the league average for relief pitchers. Then I simply added them together and sorted for the lowest combined velocity and strikeout score. Here are the 10 “closers” who are the most likely to be replaced, without looking at their (small-sample) balls in play results at all.

Note: K+ is the reliever’s strikeout rate divided by the league’s strikeout rate, times 100; in other words, a K+ of 120 basically means that the reliever’s strikeout rate is 20 percent better than league average. Velo+ follows the same framework for velocity, and KVelo is the two scores added together.

Name SV IP K/9 FBv K+ Velo+ KVELO
Brad Ziegler 17 44.2 5.4 83.9 65 90 156
Mark Melancon 32 47.2 6.2 90.8 75 98 172
Jason Motte 6 39.2 5.9 95.1 71 102 173
Jim Johnson 9 48 6.2 94.3 74 102 176
Fernando Rodney 16 41 6.8 94.8 81 102 184
Kevin Jepsen 5 41.2 7.3 94.4 88 102 190
Joakim Soria 22 40 7.7 92.1 92 99 191
Neftali Feliz 6 25 7.6 94.1 91 101 192
Luke Gregerson 21 36.1 8.2 89.3 98 96 194
Glen Perkins 29 41 8.1 93.8 97 101 198

Immediately, this passes the sniff test. Brad Ziegler has been in and out of the closer’s role over the last couple of years, Mark Melancon has seen his velocity drop precipitously, and Jim Johnson and Jason Motte have both gained and lost the closer’s seat repeatedly. There are even a few closers on this list that have already lost their jobs, in Neftali Feliz, Fernando Rodney and — maybe — Kevin Jepsen.

Who’s in line to replace them?

The good news about our research is that it helps us identify the next guy in line, too.

Take the submarining Brad Ziegler in Arizona. The guy most likely to replace him is right-handed, and has the most strikeouts and the most gas of any right-hander currently in that bullpen. Daniel Hudson has even ramped up his strikeout rate during the past month, pushing it from around one per inning to 13 per nine innings. On the seasonal level, Oliver Perez has a few more strikeouts, but managers prefer to use lefty closers about half as often as the population of left-handers suggest they should. It’s just easier if your closer is a righty, and Hudson, finally looking healthy, could be their closer down the stretch if too many of Ziegler’s balls in play start finding grass.

Pirates closer Mark Melancon shares Ziegler’s low velocity and sparkling ERA, but there was a time when it looked like he might give up the job, and that time will likely come again if he doesn’t push the strikeout rate north. The bullpen behind him is not as easy to figure out.

Arquimedes Caminero owns the rights to best name, most gas and biggest strikeout rate in the pen behind Melancon. But, no matter what stats you use to predict change, you have to keep an eye on what the manager is currently doing with his bullpen. And right now, Clint Hurdle is using lefty Tony Watson as his setup man. With Antonio Bastardo able to play the role of the situational lefty, it might still be Watson who takes over for the Pirates should they switch from Melancon.

The Cubs have given five relievers at least one save, which is the second-highest number of save earners for a team in baseball (the Cardinals, Rays, Diamondbacks and Dodgers have used six). Though Jason Motte is doing well enough, the team has been linked with relievers on the market, and they even signed Rafael Soriano.

It now looks like maybe the change has already been made in Chicago. It’s worth noting that Hector Rondon had the velocity, and his strikeout rate was better than Motte’s, even if it wasn’t not better than Pedro Strop’s. During the past month, Rondon had the most holds, too, so this model would have pointed to him for the change, and likes him going forward, even if Strop is worth watching.

We’ll give Atlanta an incomplete. Mike Foltynewicz just rejoined that rotation, but in the pen, he has the potential to show the best combination of velocity and strikeout rate. Arodys Vizcaino is virtually tied with him in velocity, and though his strikeout rate is lower, he’s being used as the setup man more often right now. It’s Vizcaino if the switch is made now, but the answer may be different later.

In Detroit, there might not be change a coming. Joakim Soria has never had great velocity, and he does enough with the strikeouts to stay in his job most (healthy) years. If they do make a change — perhaps to look to the future — there’s one pitcher that’s right-handed and owns the most velocity and strikeouts (and holds, during the past month) in that pen: Bruce Rondon.

If not for a recent demotion to the pen, Houston would be just as easy to figure out should they switch from Luke Gregerson. Josh Fields is being used as the setup man most nights, and he has the best numbers on the gun and in the strikeout category … aside from converted starter Vincent Velasquez. Here’s a bet that Velasquez will remain in limbo, perhaps to be used if a starter gets hurt, and that Fields is next in line. A team source pointed out Fields’ performance to me late last year, saying that a rough start had covered up great stuff.

By the time you get to Glen Perkins, you’re mostly looking at an average closer, and a player like that doesn’t necessarily need to be replaced on a fantasy team. But, prior to the MLB trade deadline, we may see a couple closers leave their team, and so it’s worth trying to anoint their successors as well.

Francisco Rodriguez may leave Milwaukee, and if he does, he’ll leave a conundrum. Righty Jeremy Jeffress owns the velocity crown, and has six holds in the past month. Lefty Will Smith throws the ball three mph slower, but has more strikeouts, along with six holds in the past month of his own. Both are under contract until 2019, too, so future considerations are about the same. Jeffress fits the traditional mold, and he was used after Smith in the last win, so he’s ahead. By a nose.

Tyler Clippard has already left Oakland, and Edward Mujica has been named the closer in Oakland. But if Mujica had qualified for the list by already having saved more games, he would have showed up on this list of shaky closers — in the fourth spot. So keep an eye on Fernando Rodriguez, who owns the best stuff in the pen behind him.

It’ll take some sort of ransom, but if Aroldis Chapman is traded from Cincinnati, some signs point to J.J. Hoover taking over closing duties there. But, Jumbo Diaz does own the most velocity and should be watched. He should be watched anyway — because he’s fun to watch.

And if Craig Kimbrel leaves San Diego (so soon!), it’s Brandon Maurer that has the gas, but Joaquin Benoit that has the strikeouts and more holds. Just don’t mention his previous closing experience, because that’s mostly irrelevant, even if the manager refers to it when he makes his choice.

Looking ahead

It’s possible that we won’t see all of these jobs change hands, but history has shown that a few of them certainly will during the home stretch of the season. For any fantasy owners looking to bolster their own production in the saves category — or block another owner behind them from doing so — these potential replacement closers are the place to start.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

One Response to “Which Closers Are About to Lose Their Jobs?”

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  1. Very Interesting
    With 40 IP aprox. a Strikeouts rate lower that the Starter Pitchers and Bullpen.
    Bad numbers, very bad numbers.
    Thanks for the article.