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.
|Pitcher||Team||Age||Throws||K%||wOBA vs. LHBs||wOBA vs. RHBs||Greater|
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.
|Pitcher||Team||Age||Throws||K%||wOBA vs. LHBs||wOBA vs. RHBs||Greater|
|Carl Edwards Jr.||Cubs||25||R||35.7%||.220||.211||.220|
|Carson Smith||Red Sox||27||R||31.8%||.264||.231||.264|
|Nate Jones||White Sox||31||R||30.9%||.276||.240||.276|
|Drew Pomeranz||Red Sox||28||L||27.9%||.221||.280||.280|
|Tyler Thornburg||Red Sox||28||R||30.0%||.242||.291||.291|
|Bo Schultz||Blue Jays||31||R||17.0%||.294||.297||.297|
|Michael Ynoa||White Sox||25||R||22.2%||.299||.234||.299|
|Dan Jennings||White Sox||29||L||18.3%||.292||.304||.304|
|Ryan Tepera||Blue Jays||29||R||18.8%||.276||.306||.306|
|Zach Putnam||White Sox||29||R||28.8%||.299||.312||.312|
|Gavin Floyd||Blue Jays||34||R||20.7%||.205||.318||.318|
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.
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