Power Ranking the Top 15 American League Closers
With the fall of the pictured Joe Nathan, the American League was rocked.
As it should be.
A closer or relief ace is the primary guy in the bullpen, and the one stable asset in what is a volatile part of any team. But what men are true "relief aces" among the ranks of current AL closers, and what men live off of big moment reputations and a "closer's mentality"? One of the best ways to attack this issue is to rank the men in question.
So, let's get started with No. 15.
No. 15: Jon Rauch, Minnesota Twins
From a potential Hall of Fame-caliber closer to a journeyman reliever is not exactly the key to a team's success. Unfortunately, that is exactly what faces the Twins in the form of Jon Rauch.
While Rauch is by no means bad, his 4.00 career FIP and 6.3 K/9 in 2009 is not exactly what the doctor ordered for post-Nathan roster disorder. He also has an unusually low (for a closer) career leverage index of 1.21, meaning he's not been a late-game guy in his career.
We will have to see how he reacts to the added pressure of not having guys to bail him out (albeit even I likely overstate the effect).
No. 14: Brian Fuentes, Los Angeles Angels
Want to see why saves are an overrated stat? Look no further than Brian Fuentes in 2009. Fuentes led the AL in saves in 2009 with 48, which is good.
He also blew seven, recorded a 3.93 ERA, a 4.42 FIP, and a 1.92 K/BB, numbers that scream "LOOGY", not "closer".
The Angels' solution was to give Fernando Rodney a lot of money. Maybe they should've hired someone who could tell them that Kevin Jepsen has a sub-3.00 FIP in his short career with that money. The Angels would be better off.
No. 13: Kevin Gregg, Toronto Blue Jays
Looks to be sharing ninth-inning duties north of the border, but he's in this 15 anyway, as he should be since he's still better than Rauch and Fuentes.
He has struck out almost nine batters per nine innings since becoming a closer in 2007, which is passable enough to be given important innings out of the pen. He survived off some low HR/fly ball rates in 2007 and 2008, only to see the rate explode in 2009, along with his ERA.
He's still okay, though. I would rather have him on my ball club than a lot of relievers.
No. 12: Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Like fire-balling young players? Perez is the type of guy for you.
Averaging nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his 101.2-inning career, and hitting nearly 95 mph on his fastball, Perez has plenty of potential.
Like many young relievers, though, it all depends on his walk rate, which is, for lack of a better word, terrible right now, with a 4.69 BB/9 in his career. The benefit of being an extreme strikeout pitcher, however, is a longer learning curve, so he may get his walk rate turned around.
Fans of the Tribe sure hope he does.
No. 11: Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Probably not a lot of people will have Valverde this low. It may be a slight low ball: Valverde was ninth of 15 pitchers on this list in 2009 xFIP, but two of the pitchers behind him, Papelbon and Perez, were barely behind him, and on the correct side of 30.
Some people liked the deal to Detroit, and argued the detractors were too bent on his peripherals. If Valverde really has magic, peripheral-beating stuff, what happened in 2006 when he posted a 5.84 ERA? He recorded great K numbers in his career, but they have been falling every season since 2006, without a similar walk rate pattern.
We haven't even touched upon his move to the AL for the first time in his career. How will that affect his numbers? Valverde's a good pitcher, but there are others I would rather have going forward.
No. 10: David Aardsma, Seattle Mariners
Home run record? Aardsma broke the real "unbreakable" record of Hank Aaron: The alphabetical first player in major league history. Truly an amazing feat.
Joking aside, the journeyman enjoyed tremendous success in 2009, and for the first time in his career, stayed in a stop for longer than a season. Aardsma continued to strike people out at 10 per nine, but he also saw his HR rate fall to 0.5 per nine in 2009.
It's probably not safe, even at Safeco (pun unintended), to assume Aardsma will continue to keep the ball in the park like this, but even a normalized HR rate (0.91 career average) would likely make Aardsma a decent, mid-threes ERA option at closer.
No. 9: Mike Gonzalez, Baltimore Orioles
Underrated for years, Mike Gonzalez boasts a very good 2.67 ERA, and a solid 3.29 FIP in his career, heavily due to being over 11 K/9 for his last two seasons.
Gonzalez brings his strikeout power over to Baltimore, where he has started off slow. I still say that time is all he needs to have a solid 2010 campaign.
No. 8: Jason Frasor, Toronto Blue Jays
The 2009 carry over in the closer role for Toronto, Frasor, with three saves already, looked to be given his fair share of high-leverage situations in 2010 as well, even with Kevin Gregg in the mix.
Frasor's career statistics of 8.29 K/9, 3.89 BB/9, and 0.78 HR/9 scream "good, not great reliever". I tend to agree, and think that the middle of this list is appropriate for Frasor.
No. 7: Frank Francisco, Texas Rangers
I may be underrating Francisco—after all, he boasts two straight seasons of over 10.0 K/9 pitching, as well as a walk rate that plummeted in 2009. His HR/9 rate of 0.89 HR/9 is not great, but it's far from terrible, and it allows him to maintain a 3.71 career FIP despite a weak career walk rate.
Francisco's ability to control his walks are the absolute key to him being an effective relief ace, or becoming an MLB journeyman. The Rangers are sure hoping the 2009 version of Francisco continues to pitch for them, and not the 2007 one.
No. 6: Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox
Seems like Jenks has been on the South Siders for ages, when really he's still just 29 and entering his sixth season.
When it comes to peripherals, they tell a lot about Jenks: 3.21 career ERA, 3.25 career FIP, 3.34 career xFIP.
Last season was a bad one for Jenks, though I highly suspect his ERA/FIP was inflated by a 17 percent home run per fly ball rate that should go down in 2010. He will be fine and pitching well again, as pitchers just do not see their HR/9 rate go up 150 percent in a season often.
No. 5: Rafael Soriano, Tampa Bay Rays
Soriano was a world beater in Atlanta last year with a 2.54 FIP. Unfortunately, injuries have plagued Soriano in the past, and he missed significant time in 2008.
It is hard to argue with results, though, and Soriano provided them in Atlanta, with 102 strikeouts in 75.2 innings. How he will handle the move to the American League and the tough AL East, however, remains to be seen.
No. 4: Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
Probably the only closer list by a Red Sox fan that would list Jonathan Papelbon behind the likes of Joakim Soria and Andrew Bailey, though I feel I could argue he belongs even lower.
His walk rate spiked to 3.18 in 2009, and he continues to live on the edge with his fly balls (and could be in trouble once his career 6.6 percent home run per fly ball rate spikes up).
Once again, though, results are results. Playing against teams like the Yankees and Rays regularly in his career, Papelbon still sports a 1.88 ERA, a 2.69 FIP, and a 10.36 K/9 rate. Even the Red Sox, at the forefront of being stingy with reliever salaries, showed up big money for 2010.
I would be lying to myself, though, if I did not admit that his 2009 xFIP (3.98, 11th of 15 on the list) was not a bit unnerving.
No. 3: Andrew Bailey, Oakland A's
Anyone need advise on how to build a loaded pitching staff without dipping heavily into free agency? Billy Beane is still your man, as Andrew Bailey looks to have a great future.
Both him and Papelbon, though, saw big splits in their FIP and expected FIP (xFIP), where xFIP predicted far worse results. Bailey also sees a low HR/FB rate so far, at just 5.4 percent.
Allow him another year of seasoning as a pure reliever, though, and barring knee problems, watch him shine.
His skill set, at this stage, seems highly similar to Papelbon's. I rank him higher simply because his walk rate in 2009 was better, and as a starter-turned-reliever, rapid BB/9 rate drops usually mean good things.
No. 2: Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
Did you know Kansas City has a good pitcher whose name is not Zach Greinke?
It is true, and his name is Joakim Soria. After two pretty good seasons in 2007-08, Soria saw his strikeout per nine rate jump in 2009 to 11.72, leading to a 2.74 FIP. Turning 26 in a month, one suspects plenty of great years ahead for the righty.
If he plays on a halfway decent team he is already a household name, but as such, awaits his first trip into the free agent market.
No. 1: Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Rivera turned 40 in November. Pitchers usually slow down at this point, but apparently no one bothered to tell this to Rivera.
How does he do it, year after year, though? While he is not a bad strikeout pitcher, with a career 8.30 K/9, he has not topped 10 K/9 since 1996, which was his first full year out of the pen (and where he survived Joe Torre's vendetta against setup men, pitching 61 times for 107.2 innings). Rivera has been the closer since, and it has been miserable for a Red Sox fan.
Do finesse pitchers not usually flame-out quicker than power pitchers, though? I thought so too, and it is usually the case, as you can teach finesse, but not power. But when you let fewer than 0.5 balls per nine innings clear the fence over a near-1,100 inning career, something is being done right.
Rivera has not posted a FIP over 3.00 since 2000. That is an incredible feat. The No. 1 spot in the AL is his to lose, especially with Nathan on the shelf for 2010.