Monitoring Closers’ Workloads

We’re getting close to the halfway point of the season for most teams (Game 81, not the All-Star break), so now is a good time to step back and look at some closer workloads. A lot of times a manager will run his top reliever out there game after game early in the season only to have it come back to haunt them down the stretch. They might have to ease off them a bit or deal with a prolonged slump. Happens all the time. Let’s list the number of appearances each closer had made so far, as well as extrapolate that out into a full season workload. Forgive me, but the following table does not include last night’s games…

The bottom three guys all spent a decent amount of time on the disabled list, so their data is skewed and essentially meaningless to us. I also did not list anyone for the Dodgers or Cardinals, because it seems like their ninth inning situation changes by the week. The top is what concerns us, starting with Craig Kimbrel. The 69 appearances he made last year (combined majors and minors) are a career high (though his career is relatively short), and he’s on pace to blow that out of the water. Furthermore, Jonny Venters (the obvious candidate to vulture saves) in on pace for 89 appearances, so it’s likely the Braves will scale back his usage as well. All bets are off if the Braves are fighting for a playoff spot right down to the bitter end, but look for them to ease off the gas with their two stud relievers in July and August.

Mark Melancon’s usage has changed somewhat since he shifted in the closer’s role; he went from appearing in games regularly to pretty much save opportunities only (or any other time a manager typically uses their closer, tie game at home, etc.), so his appearance rate is trending downward. Storen’s isn’t even though he was in a similar situation, and the surprisingly tough Nationals figure to keep running him out there. With Tyler Clippard rumored to be on the trade block, it only reinforces the point that Storen’s going to pitch as much as needed. I don’t blame them, but 77 appearances in a season is a ton.

Francisco Rodriguez is in an interesting case because of his vesting option. If the Mets keep him all season, his usage will likely decrease as they try to prevent that sucker from kicking in. If K-Rod is traded to a contender, don’t be surprised if he actually sees more appearances down the stretch. I could see a team rely on him heavily in a pennant race since he won’t be any of their concern after the season is over. Hell, that’s what I’d do. Run him into the ground while you got him. Huston Street is about due for a disabled list stint, and he’s two weeks away from matching last year’s workload. Colorado has plenty of alternatives should they scale back his usage, starting with the Matts: Lindstrom and Belisle. For whatever reason, Jim Tracy keeps Rafael Betancourt glued to that eighth inning, hell or high water.

Brian Wilson’s appearance total is interesting because he started the season hurt and missed the first week or so. Since being declared healthy enough to pitch, he’s appeared in 36 of San Francisco’s 71 games, an 82 appearance pace over a full 162 games. Wilson is pretty durable (70 and 68 appearances in the last two seasons) and the Giants play a ton of close games due to their “offense,” so I could absolutely see this pace keeping up. He might appear in 75-78 games when it’s all said and done. John Axford is another guy I can see being run into the ground, so to speak. The Brewers are all in this year, and I doubt they’d hold back on their best reliever when it could be the difference between a playoff spot or golf in October.

The guys on pace for 70-72 games are fine, that’s a pretty standard workload and you don’t have too worry about their clubs taking it easy on them down the stretch. Guys like Matt Capps, Jonathan Papelbon, and Heath Bell could see more action in the second half than they did in the first. It might not be a bad idea to sell high on Kimbrel (or Venters) in a trade just because their workloads have been so heavy so far. It’s not just a matter of having appearances limited later in the year, they could break down. Maybe not physically, but just performance-wise and run into a bad stretch for an extended period of time. There are a number of ninth inning guys on pace for some huge games pitched total, but the guys in Atlanta top the list.

Why appearances and not innings you ask? Because a closer can still rack up saves while having his innings limited. Once the team stops putting them into a game all together, that’s when we have a problem.

Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

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12 years ago

The Cardinals’ closer situation hasn’t really changed in the last 45 days now. Salas is the closer. The only other RP to get a save in that timeframe was 1 by Sanchez, and that was only because Salas had picked up saves in 3 straight games/days coming in, and was unavailable.

He hasn’t saved a game since the 18th, but that’s more of an issue with the Cardinals only winning 3 games since then–one of which Salas got the W, the other two being non-save situations.