Non-Closers Who Could Keep the Job If They Got It

No term annoys a sabermetrically-inclined fantasy player more than Proven Closer. As far as baseball has come in the last decade, I still won’t feel confident that Shawn Kelley, for example, will be given an opportunity to close until the ball is in his hands in his first ninth inning this season. That said, I think the casual rebuttal of Anyone Can Close misses the mark in the opposite direction. Any reliever might perform well in high-leverage situations, but a traditional closer faces an extra challenge that most setup men do not: he has to regularly face batters from both sides of the plate.

For most pitchers, it is more difficult to get opposite-handed hitters out than same-handed hitters. Since 2010, relievers who have faced at least 100 batters from both sides of the plate have averaged a platoon split of 44 points of wOBA, and that sample is biased toward relievers teams are comfortable using against batters from both sides. Many relievers, and not just LOOGYs, rarely face hitters on the opposite side of the plate because of the challenge.

In part because closer committees are weirdly perceived as anathemas but mostly because of the financial incentive driven by the market evaluation of the save statistic, closers do not enjoy the same luxury. And so effective closers cannot have a platoon split. Or rather, effective closers must be effective against both left-handed and right-handed hitters (even if they are still much better against batters on one side than the other).

To demonstrate that point, I researched relievers who had 20 or more saves in consecutive seasons since 2010. They were the relievers who were able to keep their closer jobs. There were 83 of them in that time, and only 10 of those allowed a wOBA above .319 to their worst platoon side. I chose .319 because, overall, relievers allowed a .319 wOBA against right-handed hitters (and a .324 wOBA against left-handed hitters) between 2010 and 2016. So 73 of 83 safe closers performed better than league average against their worst platoon side.

Looking forward to 2017, there are five relievers I think are currently expected to close for their teams who fail to meet that .319 wOBA standard.

At-Risk Current Closers
Pitcher Team Age Throws K% wOBA vs. LHBs wOBA vs. RHBs Greater
Jim Johnson Braves 33 R 21.2% .283 .328 .328
Jeanmar Gomez Phillies 29 R 15.7% .334 .306 .334
Brandon Kintzler Twins 32 R 16.2% .318 .336 .336
Fernando Rodney DBacks 39 R 23.6% .346 .302 .346
Neftali Feliz Brewers 28 R 23.3% .304 .348 .348

Given that all five of those closers are on teams that are closer to rebuild mode than compete mode in 2017, the decisions their teams make in the ninth inning may be more complicated than for competitive teams. Still, one has to assume that any of those teams who falls out of the race would be happy to trade away their temporary closers for pieces that could help them in the long term. As such, I maintain that the Braves, Phillies, Twins, Diamondbacks, and Brewers have the shakiest closer situations to monitor for speculative purposes.

The question of which relievers to target is more complicated. With a simple set of restrictions—relievers with a worst platoon wOBA allowed better than .319 and with at least 50 batters faced from both sides of the plate since 2015—92 relievers make the cut.

Non-Closers Who Could Close
Pitcher Team Age Throws K% wOBA vs. LHBs wOBA vs. RHBs Greater
Carl Edwards Jr. Cubs 25 R 35.7% .220 .211 .220
Miguel Socolovich Cardinals 30 R 22.8% .222 .231 .231
Carter Capps Padres 26 R 49.2% .200 .233 .233
Dellin Betances Yankees 28 R 40.7% .246 .253 .253
Jerry Blevins Mets 33 L 29.0% .255 .247 .255
Dalier Hinojosa Phillies 31 R 21.2% .228 .261 .261
Brian Flynn Royals 26 L 20.6% .258 .262 .262
Carson Smith Red Sox 27 R 31.8% .264 .231 .264
Yimi Garcia Dodgers 26 R 28.0% .236 .264 .264
Will Harris Astros 32 R 25.8% .219 .265 .265
Tyler Cravy Brewers 27 R 21.3% .267 .237 .267
Ryan Buchter Padres 30 L 31.6% .224 .267 .267
Derek Law Giants 26 R 23.4% .226 .267 .267
Addison Reed Mets 28 R 26.1% .257 .271 .271
Pedro Strop Cubs 31 R 30.9% .272 .217 .272
Joe Blanton Nationals 36 R 26.1% .275 .243 .275
Hunter Strickland Giants 28 R 24.3% .275 .241 .275
Nate Jones White Sox 31 R 30.9% .276 .240 .276
Drew Pomeranz Red Sox 28 L 27.9% .221 .280 .280
Luis Avilan Dodgers 27 L 25.5% .280 .264 .280
Erik Goeddel Mets 28 R 24.2% .281 .279 .281
Matt Bush Rangers 31 R 25.1% .282 .207 .282
Cory Gearrin Giants 30 R 23.7% .284 .273 .284
Joaquin Benoit Phillies 39 R 25.1% .284 .241 .284
Justin Grimm Cubs 28 R 30.7% .285 .282 .285
David Phelps Marlins 30 R 30.9% .285 .240 .285
Kyle Barraclough Marlins 26 R 35.4% .286 .227 .286
Matt Andriese Rays 27 R 20.9% .279 .286 .286
Brett Cecil Cardinals 30 L 31.0% .271 .287 .287
Matt Bowman Cardinals 25 R 18.5% .254 .287 .287
Pedro Baez Dodgers 28 R 28.4% .275 .288 .288
Alex Wilson Tigers 30 R 15.3% .284 .288 .288
Brad Brach Orioles 30 R 28.5% .289 .250 .289
Brad Ziegler Marlins 37 R 17.0% .289 .245 .289
Felipe Rivero Pirates 25 L 26.2% .289 .271 .289
Tyler Thornburg Red Sox 28 R 30.0% .242 .291 .291
Fernando Rodriguez Athletics 32 R 25.2% .293 .260 .293
Andrew Chafin DBacks 26 L 21.3% .246 .293 .293
Luke Gregerson Astros 32 R 26.9% .293 .213 .293
Sammy Solis Nationals 28 L 24.1% .275 .294 .294
George Kontos Giants 31 R 15.8% .294 .242 .294
Chris Rusin Rockies 30 L 21.9% .213 .296 .296
Bo Schultz Blue Jays 31 R 17.0% .294 .297 .297
Chris Devenski Astros 26 R 27.3% .297 .170 .297
Hector Neris Phillies 27 R 28.7% .296 .297 .297
Antonio Bastardo Pirates 31 L 25.7% .296 .298 .298
Trevor Cahill Padres 28 R 23.9% .288 .298 .298
Hector Rondon Cubs 29 R 26.4% .299 .235 .299
Michael Ynoa White Sox 25 R 22.2% .299 .234 .299
Liam Hendriks Athletics 28 R 26.5% .300 .276 .300
Mike Montgomery Cubs 27 L 21.7% .229 .300 .300
Evan Scribner Mariners 31 R 27.5% .298 .301 .301
Oliver Drake Orioles 30 R 26.0% .275 .301 .301
Carlos Torres Brewers 34 R 21.6% .299 .302 .302
Kyle Ryan Tigers 25 L 14.5% .303 .289 .303
Nick Vincent Mariners 30 R 25.1% .303 .301 .303
Matt Belisle Twins 36 R 17.0% .255 .303 .303
Sean Doolittle Athletics 30 L 28.3% .289 .304 .304
Darren O’Day Orioles 34 R 30.9% .304 .247 .304
Dan Jennings White Sox 29 L 18.3% .292 .304 .304
Sean Gilmartin Mets 26 L 21.7% .304 .273 .304
Dan Otero Indians 32 R 18.0% .282 .305 .305
Fernando Salas Mets 31 R 24.6% .301 .306 .306
Hunter Cervenka Marlins 27 L 23.1% .286 .306 .306
Ryan Tepera Blue Jays 29 R 18.8% .276 .306 .306
Mauricio Cabrera Braves 23 R 19.8% .308 .240 .308
Adam Liberatore Dodgers 29 L 25.5% .252 .308 .308
Buddy Boshers Twins 28 L 24.3% .250 .308 .308
Arodys Vizcaino Braves 26 R 27.2% .271 .310 .310
Brad Hand Padres 26 L 27.2% .217 .310 .310
Ryan Dull Athletics 27 R 25.0% .311 .225 .311
Nick Wittgren Marlins 25 R 19.7% .269 .311 .311
Koji Uehara Cubs 41 R 32.0% .218 .311 .311
Zach Putnam White Sox 29 R 28.8% .299 .312 .312
Travis Wood Royals 30 L 24.2% .233 .313 .313
Jake Diekman Rangers 30 L 26.6% .313 .282 .313
Keone Kela Rangers 23 R 28.8% .313 .296 .313
Cory Rasmus Angels 29 R 23.3% .301 .314 .314
Mike Morin Angels 25 R 23.8% .314 .297 .314
A.J. Schugel Pirates 27 R 20.0% .279 .314 .314
Bryan Shaw Indians 29 R 22.8% .317 .295 .317
Justin Wilson Tigers 29 L 26.5% .318 .278 .318
Gavin Floyd Blue Jays 34 R 20.7% .205 .318 .318
Tommy Hunter Rays 30 R 18.0% .318 .298 .318
Zach Neal Athletics 28 R 9.3% .251 .318 .318
Tyler Clippard Yankees 32 R 24.2% .263 .318 .318
Jhan Marinez Brewers 28 R 18.6% .307 .318 .318
Will Smith Giants 27 L 32.3% .318 .261 .318
Zach Duke Cardinals 33 L 26.1% .267 .319 .319
Josh Fields Dodgers 31 R 29.7% .319 .297 .319
Ryan Pressly Twins 28 R 19.9% .297 .319 .319

However, given other important fantasy considerations such as strikeout rate, age, and handedness—which I anecdotally will suggest is a criteria managers use to select their closers even when their platoon rates do not justify it—I have favorite relievers on which to speculate. Meanwhile, I think relievers like Dellin Betances, Kyle Barraclough, and Hector Neris are on everybody’s radar at this point, so let me focus on the ones who I think are potential closer sleepers:

 

Carl Edwards, Cubs

The Cubs are loaded with relievers who meet the qualifications, which makes it difficult to isolate one to own in fantasy. That said, Carl Edwards has been so good, I’ll trade the lower chance he becomes a closer on the higher reward if it does come to fruition. Edwards has allowed a miniscule .220 wOBA versus lefties and .211 wOBA versus righties since his call-up. There aren’t any active closers with a better worst-side wOBA than Edwards over that period—Zach Britton is closest at .231. And only Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Edwin Diaz, and Craig Kimbrel best his 35.7 percent strikeout rate.

 

Carter Capps, Padres

I’m not really clear where Carter Capps stands relative to the radar. His absurd 49.2 percent strikeout rate in 2015 made him everyone’s favorite non-closer, but Tommy John surgery may have led people to forget about him. Brandon Maurer barely meets the safe closer threshold with a .312 wOBA allowed to righties. He’s a placeholder, and I’m eager to own Capps to start the season to see if he can pick up where he left off in 2015.

 

Will Harris, Astros

Ken Giles has the chance to be an exceptional closer, but he has a weird reverse platoon split over the last two seasons—.263 wOBA versus lefties and .301 versus righties—and has at times struggled with his command. Will Harris doesn’t have Giles’ strikeout potential, but he has struck out more than a batter per inning over the last two seasons, hardly walks anyone, and has bested Giles by more than 30 points of wOBA against hitters from both sides of the plate. I wonder if Harris had a name like Barraclough whether he’d be on everyone’s short list of favorite non-closers.

 

Addison Reed, Mets

After a bit of a down year in 2015, Addison Reed produced his best relief season in 2016 with 10.6 strikeouts and only 1.5 walks per nine for the Mets. The former White Sox’s closer may find himself working the ninth inning by default later this season if teammate Jeurys Familia faces a suspension.

 

Joe Blanton, Nationals

So I sort of take back what I said at the start of the article about Shawn Kelley (.306 wOBA versus lefties) because newly-signed Joe Blanton should have this job (he won’t). Yes, that is the 36-year-old former back-end starter Joe Blanton. Baseball is weird.

 

Nate Jones, White Sox

Nate Jones may be the favorite to close for the White Sox on Opening Day at this point with all of the rumors out there about David Robertson being traded. At 31, Jones has been around for a while now, but his impeccable strikeout and walk rates and lack of a platoon split would likely make him a better ninth-inning option than Robertson (.306 wOBA versus righties).

 

Matt Bush, Rangers

After a five-year absence, Matt Bush enjoyed a stellar 2016 season for the Rangers, striking out 8.9 and walking just 2.0 batters per nine. Having faced just 243 batters last season—93 on the left side and 150 on the right—he is one of the smallest samples among my recommendations. But if his rates are real, then he beats Sam Dyson against batters from both sides.

 

Pedro Baez, Dodgers

Like the Cubs, the Dodgers have a lot of relievers who qualify for this list. However, Yimi Garcia’s elbow injury that will force him to miss 2017 with Tommy John surgery makes Pedro Baez the clear No. 2 man (I think) in their bullpen. Kenley Jansen is incredible, but Baez would be excellent if Jansen missed time.

 

Liam Hendriks, Athletics

The less popular pitcher named Hendriks/Hendricks, Liam deserves some love, too. Earlier this year, Rylan Edwards broke down how some poor timing with some poor performances may have cost Hendriks a chance at late-inning work a year ago, but he is someone to keep an eye on if some of the older arms in the Athletics’ bullpen—Ryan Madson is 36, Sean Doolittle is 30 and often-injured, Santiago Casilla is 36, and John Axford is 33—start to break down or get traded. Ryan Dull is a major threat to Hendriks even if events conspire in his favor, but Hendricks has the better platoon splits, strikeout rate, and walk rate, so I’ll take the first chance on him.

 

Arodys Vizcaino, Braves

Edwards is probably my favorite non-obvious reliever target, but I own Arodys Vizcaino on more teams. Next to Capps and Reed, he is the reliever on this list who I think has the best chance to earn saves this season. Jim Johnson was one of the five closers who made my shaky platoon-split watch, and no doubt the Braves will make every effort to trade the 33-year-old Johnson at the deadline if they are out of the race. Injuries have prevented Vizcaino from reaching his potential so far in his career, but with youth and strikeout potential on his side, I think he’ll earn another chance. Mauricio Cabrera is another name to watch in the Braves’ bullpen, but like with Hendriks in Oakland, I favor Vizcaino because of the strikeout rate.

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Paul
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Member
Paul

Thanks, excellent article. Why would Baez close over Dayton if Jensen went down?

ralph
Member
ralph

Perhaps Dave Roberts really enjoys five-minute breaks between pitches?

johansantana17
Member
johansantana17

Dayton has a large platoon split. He had a 2.01 FIP and .193 wOBA against lefties and a 3.79 FIP and .240 wOBA against righties.