For the purposes of the “Closer Report” (which will be a weekly feature), we’ll place the relief aces in one of three categories: Death Grip (these guys have no chance of relinquishing the closer’s role; think Mo Rivera), In Control (a good chance of continuing to rack up the saves) and Watch Your Back (the set-up man is planning a coup d’etat as we speak).
Mariano Rivera, Yankees
Mo has fired 3.2 scoreless innings to begin August (including 2 saves vs. the White Sox on the 2nd and the Blue Jays on the 4th), fanning three while surrendering 1 walk and 5 hits. Rivera now boasts a 2.82 Win Probability Added, ranking 4th among all relievers. The Panamanian might not light up the radar gun quite as much as in years past (his cutter averages 91.4 MPH now, about 2 MPH slower than before), but that offering remains as deadly as ever (+2.27 runs per 100 pitches thrown).
Joe Nathan, Twins
Joe had an extended stretch without an appearance, striking out the side vs. the Angels on July 31st and then not returning to the bump until August 7th (he surrendered a walk and a run to Detroit). By whatever metric you would like to use, Nathan is showing no signs of slowing down at age 34. He’s whiffing 11.39 batters per nine innings, limiting the free passes as usual (2.11 BB/9) and generating ample swings on pitches outside of the strike zone (32.7 O-Swing%).
Joakim Soria, Royals
Soria was extremely busy to end the month of July, but the Rule V gem has chucked just one inning in August as the Royals lose five of seven to begin the dog days of summer. Joakim has K’d 11.37 batters per nine innings this season, while posting the lowest XFIP (3.04) of his big league tenure.
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
Is Papelbon back on track? Not that the 28 year-old has turned in a poor 2009 season, but an inflated walk rate and a subsequent dip in Outside-Swing% suggested that the typically stingy hurler was missing his spots. Over his last three appearances (3.1 IP spanning from 7/31 to 8/7), Papelbon has punched out five without allowing a walk or a hit. The 6-4, 225 pound righty has a 4.30 XFIP for the season, 1.8 runs higher than his 2008 total.
J.P. Howell, Rays
Howell has endured an uneven beginning to the month. He gave up a homer to Yuniesky Betancourt (no, really) on August 1st, tossed 2.2 scoreless frames against Boston on the 4th and 5th, but again was taken deep yesterday in a soul-crushing loss to the Mariners. Howell has walked a batter in all four of his appearances this month, after issuing one free pass during the entire month of July. Recent struggles aside, J.P. has turned in an excellent 2009 season (10.54 K/9, with a 3.15 XFIP).
Bobby Jenks, White Sox
Think you had a bad week? Odds are, it was better than Bobby Jenks’. The Angels castoff hasn’t pitched since August 1st, as he deals with the excruciating pain caused by kidney stones. Jenks had a rough month of July (8 R, 13 H in 7.1 IP), but hopefully his struggles will, um, pass.
In the short-term, Matt Thornton or Octavio Dotel could pick up a save chance.
Andrew Bailey, Athletics
The 6-3, 240 pound rookie picked up a save on July 31st vs. Toronto and collected another August 5th against the Rangers. Bailey doesn’t generate a ton of outside swings (his 25.2 O-Swing% is right around the MLB average). Instead, he uses his 94 MPH fastball, 90 MPH cutter and 78 MPH curveball to challenge (and pummel) hitters. Bailey has placed 53.7% of his pitches within the strike zone (49.3% MLB average), and opponents have put the bat on the ball just 74.1% of the time on those offerings (the lowest rate among relievers).
David Aardsma, Mariners
The well-travelled Aardsma continued his charmed 2009 season, collecting a save vs. the Royals on August 4th and then striking out the side against Tampa Bay yesterday in a non-save situation. On the down side, the former Rice star has walked a batter in each of his last three appearances (taking him back up to 5.08 BB/9 for the year). However, Aardsma is punching out near 11 batters per nine innings. He has accumulated 1.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season, tied with Joe Nathan for the second-highest total among ‘pen arms. Aardsma’s career WAR total prior to ’09? 0.1.
Brian Fuentes, Angels
After getting torched to end July (6 runs, 2 homers vs. the Indians on the 27th and 28th), Fuentes had plenty of time to recoup. He didn’t get into another game until August 5th, when he surrendered another run (and another dinger) against the White Sox. The port sider’s WPA sits at a modest 0.44 for the season, as hitters aren’t chasing his stuff off the plate as often (23 O-Swing%, down from a career-high 29.4% in 2008). Fuentes is having a hard time getting ahead of the opposition (his 53.2 First-Pitch Strike% is 5 percentage points below the MLB average), and when he does put a pitch in the zone, they’re doing a better job of making contact. Fuentes’ 86.3 Zone-Contact% is well above his 80.2% career average.
Frank Francisco, Rangers
Watch out for: C.J. Wilson
According to manager Ron Washington, Francisco is officially the closer in Texas again (until he contracts the Bubonic Plague or has a Looney Tunes anvil fall on him, that is). In between three DL stints, Francisco has compiled a nifty 34/8 K/BB ratio, displaying a nasty splitter that has hitters eagerly fishing off the plate (28.4 Outside-Swing%, well above his 22.7% career average). Given Frank’s frequent medical mishaps, Wilson is well worth keeping.
Kerry Wood, Indians
Wood got walloped again on deadline day (2 R, 1 BB, 1 HR in a blown save op vs. Detroit), but he recovered to toss three clean frames to begin August (1 save, vs. Minnesota on the 6th). Kerry is still in the red in terms of WPA (-0.38), as opposing batters have chased just 19.5% of his pitches thrown out of the strike zone. Velocity sure isn’t the problem, as Wood has actually picked up steam as the year has progressed (he’s throwing his fastball at an average of 96.4 MPH this month). A 15.9 HR/FB rate has made Wood’s ERA (4.85) look worse than it should (his XFIP is 4.26). Still, that’s not what the Indians signed up for over the winter.
Perhaps feeling the effects of his aching toe, Downs was taken to the wood shed in late July and early August (8 R, 5 BB, 11 H in 5 IP from 7/21 to 8/1). The 33 year-old is back on the shelf now, leaving closing duties to Frasor. An undersized righty, Frasor possesses a deep mix of pitches (including a 94 MPH fastball, an 84 MPH slider, and an 86 MPH changeup/splitter). He generally hasn’t gotten hitters to chase his stuff out of the zone (18.8 career O-Swing%) and has a walk rate around 3.9 per nine frames for his career. However, Frasor has parlayed an increase in outside hacks (25.1% in 2009) to a pared-down walk rate (2.33 BB/9).
Fernando Rodney, Tigers
The 32 year-old Dominican Republic native began the 2009 campaign showing unusually sharp control (2.57 BB/9 in 21 frames in April and May), but Rodney has since returned to his heartburn-inducing ways (6 BB/9 in 27 IP since). And you wonder why Jim Leyland smokes three packs a day?
Rodney’s percentage of pitches within the strike zone has been better in August (51.1%), but his monthly totals nicely illustrate his deteriorating ability to locate:
Zone%, by month:
(the MLB average is 49.3%; Rodney’s career avg. is 50.8%)
Jim Johnson, Orioles
Johnson had a sour run of appearances in late July (3.1 IP, 3 R, 2 HR from the 20th to the 28th), but he ended the month with a two-inning save. To begin August, the 6-5 right-hander has given up 1 run and a homer in three innings (he collected his 3rd save of the year vs. the Blue Jays yesterday). Johnson isn’t the worst option if you’re jonesing for saves. But, as a low-K closer on a talented-but-still-building O’s club, he’s also about as interesting as his name.
Watch Your Back
No one, at the moment.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.