If you’re a long time Yankees fan you’ll probably remember former broadcaster Phil Rizzuto joking about wanting to leave games early to beat the traffic. Back then if he left before the game was over there’s no telling what he would miss. He might not get to see a potential Yankee comeback. On the other hand, if the Yanks had the lead, could he be sure that their bullpen would protect the win? If that bullpen had the kind of talent that the modern day Yankees bullpen has, he’d be able to get in his car, and drive home knowing that he wasn’t going to be missing much. Today’s Yankee bullpen with Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances will not be blowing too many leads. To quote current Yankees announcer John Sterling, with the talent in the Yankees bullpen it’s gonna be “BALL GAME OVER, THE YANKEES WIN, THEEEEEE YANKEES WIN!!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxtgPjgZwPw)
There’s a lot of volatility surrounding the typical closer’s career. With the importance of their specific job, many teams can’t afford to give their closers a long leash. For that reason, you should not only familiarize yourself with current closers, but you should also get to know those pitchers who have the potential to take over the closers role over the course of a season.
Some big time closers took their act on the road this offseason. Craig Kimbrel will now be closing out games for the Red Sox. RotoExperts’ Managing Editor Tim McCullough talked about him in this recent article http://rotoexperts.com/101619/red-sox-pay-high-price-to-stay-out-of-basement/. I went over the impact of Francisco Rodriguez as the Tigers’ new closer last week http://rotoexperts.com/103301/tigers-reboot-starting-rotation-with-zimmermann/.
Here’s a closer look at some of the other relief pitchers who will either be closing games or challenging to be the primary closer for a new team this season:
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
The acquisition of Chapman from the Reds, gives the Yankees what could be one of the most dominant bullpens of all time. There were three relievers who struck out at least 100 batters last season, and the Yankees have all three in their bullpen. Chapman, who manager Joe Girardi has already anointed as the Yankees closer for 2016, has reached the century mark in K’s for the past four seasons and has converted at least 30 saves each season during that same time period. Opposing hitters, who are batting .153 against him for his career, find it practically impossible to catch up to Chapman’s electrifying fastball, which can surpass the 103 MPH mark. Chapman will also mix in an occasional changeup, but it’s his slider that is virtually unhittable. In Chapman, Miller, and Betances, the Yanks have three pitchers who’ll strike out a lot of batters and who each can take over as the team’s primary closer at any time. With a starting pitching staff featuring Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda, none of whom are expected to reach the 200 innings pitched mark, having a deep bullpen that’ll shorten a game is a tremendous strategy for the Yankees. Miller, who may get some save opportunities if Chapman is suspended due to domestic violence accusations, on average, is the 13th reliever coming off the boards in NFBC drafts. Betances, who might be more useful in leagues that track holds, (he was tied for fourth with 29 last season) is the 23rd reliever being taken in NFBC drafts. J.J. Hoover is the favorite replace Chapman as the Reds’ closer this season.
Drew Storen, Blue Jays
There are some pitchers, like the aforementioned Andrew Miller, who can function effectively as either a closer or a set-up man. Drew Storen is not one of those guys. He converted 29 of 31 save opportunities with a 1.73 ERA last season, but inexplicably lost his closers job when the Nationals made a trade deadline deal for Jonathan Papelbon. From that point forward, Storen’s season was basically over. As the Nationals setup man from August until the end of the season, he posted a whopping 7.78 ERA. Storen was traded to the Blue Jays this offseason and may have to contend with Roberto Osuna for the closer role. Osuna, who saved 20 games for the Jays last season, did pitch as a starter in the minor leagues and with Storen in the mix, may end up returning to that role. With a K/9 rate of just under 11, Storen has proven that he has the talent and physical tools necessary to be an effective closer. More importantly, as his last season’s sub-par numbers as a set-up man show, his mindset is best suited to closing out games.
Ken Giles, Astros
The Phillies had a tough season in 2015, but one bright spot was the play of Ken Giles who took over the role of closer when Paplebon got traded to the Nats. Unfortunately, save opportunities with the Phillies were hard to come by, but when given the opportunity Giles delivered. He went on a run during which he converted 13 straight saves. Overall, opposing batters hit just .217 against him, and he recorded 87 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched. He has a fastball that tops out in the upper 90 MPH range, which helps to make his hard slider appear all that more menacing and tougher to hit. Giles was traded to the Astros this offseason and is likely to take over the closer duties from Luke Gregerson. He needs to work on lowering last season’s walk rate, but should get plenty of game saving opportunities as the closer for a competitive team. Giles is the ninth closer being taken in preseason drafts according to Fantasypros.com.
Steve Cishek, Mariners
Primarily relying on a sinker and a curveball and occasionally mixing in an average fastball and a rare splitter, Steve Cishek isn’t your typical closer. However, between 2013 and 2014 he saved a total of 73 games. Even then he wasn’t truly dominant, posting a mediocre 3.17 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 2014. At 30 years old he’s lost a bit of velocity off of his sinker, and he is coming off of a disappointing 2015 in which he posted a 3.58 ERA and walked 27 batters in 55 innings, which contributed to his ugly 1.48 WHIP. Despite Cishek’s statistical regression over the past two seasons, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto claims he will be their closer. Realistically, if that’s the case, it will be because Cishek’s competitors for the job, namely Joaquin Benoit and Charlie Furbush, aren’t good enough to take it from him.
Who’s going to close for the Rockies this season? They signed both Chad Qualls and Jason Motte in the offseason and recently acquired Jake McGee in the Corey Dickerson deal.
Qualls had excellent K/9 and BB/9 rates last season, however his 17.1 percent HR/FB rate was even worse than his terrible career average (13.1), which is surprising, since he’s a ground ball pitcher (57.9 percent lifetime GB%). The bottom line is that he gets hit (lifetime .258 BAA). He was the Astros closer, but pitched so poorly that not only did he lose the job, but he was left off of their post season roster.
It’s been two years since Motte saved 42 games for the Cardinals and had Tommy John surgery. His velocity is just about back to what it was prior to the surgery but 2015 saw him pitch to the highest contact and fly ball rates of his career, which is not good for a pitcher working half his games at Coors Field.
The trade for McGee tells me that the Rockies don’t believe in either Qualls or Motte. McGee’s got all the skills and lifetime stats that you would want in a closer: great K/9 rate (11.06), low BB/9 rate (2.5), an above average strand rate of 78.1 percent, a low contact rate of 76.4 and an excellent HR/FB rate of eight percent. McGee looks like he could end up being the Rockies primary closer while Adam Ottavino recovers from Tommy John surgery.