The Change: Finding This Year’s Next Closers

There aren’t a lot of ways to predict closer change. Don’t go looking at ERA, projected or past, it’s not useful. Nor are three-Year Fielding Independent Pitching stats, even if those give you a bigger sample. Experience closing? Nah. Shutdown percentage? Nope. It’s not even important whether the pitcher was the favorite or a bullpen committee member. Depth of arsenals — and platoon splits on pitches — seem important, but aren’t really.

These things don’t seem to matter much when it comes to closer changes.

The list of things that might matter is super short, and the effects not so large that you’d want to stake your life on them. Reliever strikeout rate and velocity is important — new closers have higher rates and more velocity than the closers they replace, at least. Closers have slightly more experience in general (they are older). And lefty closers are about half as likely as you’d expect given the population of lefties in the game. Closers usually come from the end of the bullpen, so role is important.

We could use these facts to create a list of relievers that might close this year, really. If you then somehow controlled for the excellence of the closer in front of them, you could even sort this list for likelihood of change. Then we’d have the Non Closers Most Likely to Close This Year. Seems possible.

We’re interested in draft day pickups that aren’t closers now that are most likely to be closers later.

Since the saves projections on Steamer are fed from our depth charts, we can actually sue projected saves to limit the field. The 30 “closers” are all projected for 28 saves, and then the guys behind them get six to one save. Our sample are the 114 relievers projected to be late-inning relievers (> 0 projected saves) but not get 28 saves. We’ll give them z-scores for their velocity and strikeout rate, and then compare the top guys by the strength of the guy in front of them, all while keeping an eye on handedness.

Here’s how it looks.

Non Closers Most Likely to Close This Year
Name sERA sSV sK/9 15 Velo Velo Z K/9 Z RP Z CL Z Diff Z Hand
Arodys Vizcaino 3.19 6 10.4 97.0 1.38 1.02 2.41 #N/A #N/A R
Chris Withrow 3.28 2 10.7 95.0 0.68 1.20 1.88 #N/A #N/A R
Jason Grilli 2.89 3 10.5 93.9 0.29 1.06 1.35 #N/A #N/A R
Daniel Hudson 3.19 6 9.5 96.0 1.03 0.33 1.37 -5.58 6.94 R
Silvino Bracho 3.03 1 10.2 92.9 -0.06 0.85 0.79 -5.58 6.36 R
Randall Delgado 3.55 3 8.7 93.1 0.01 -0.27 -0.26 -5.58 5.31 R
Bruce Rondon 3.62 1 9.6 97.6 1.60 0.43 2.03 -2.00 4.03 R
Arquimedes Caminero 3.47 3 8.9 97.8 1.67 -0.10 1.57 -1.51 3.08 R
Mark Lowe 3.62 6 8.6 95.3 0.78 -0.36 0.42 -1.95 2.37 R
Tony Zych 3.41 2 8.5 95.9 1.00 -0.42 0.57 -1.79 2.36 R
Mike Morin 3.19 2 8.7 92.3 -0.27 -0.25 -0.52 -2.77 2.25 R
Hunter Strickland 2.65 3 9.9 96.9 1.35 0.62 1.97 -0.26 2.23 R
Jumbo Diaz 3.19 3 9.8 96.8 1.31 0.58 1.89 -0.21 2.10 R
Blake Wood 3.50 1 10.2 95.6 0.89 0.83 1.72 -0.21 1.93 R
Fernando Salas 3.28 3 8.7 90.7 -0.84 -0.29 -1.12 -2.77 1.65 R
Keone Kela 3.49 1 9.7 95.0 0.68 0.48 1.16 -0.26 1.42 R
Nate Jones 3.09 1 10.6 97.5 1.56 1.17 2.73 1.35 1.38 R
Jose Alvarez 3.47 1 7.69 90.9 -0.77 -1.04 -1.81 -2.77 0.96 R
John Axford 3.83 1 9.2 95.9 1.00 0.06 1.06 0.22 0.84 R
Tony Cingrani 3.23 6 10.4 91.8 -0.45 1.01 0.56 -0.21 0.77 L
Justin Grimm 3.04 3 10.4 95.2 0.75 0.99 1.73 1.05 0.69 R
“s” means Steamer projected value
Z scores figured by looking at the 140 signed relievers projected to have one save in 2016
RP Z is a simple addition of the velocity and strikeout z-scores for a reliever
“CL Z” is the RP Z Score of the projected closer on that team

What a list. It’s great when a regimented approach — however flawed — produces the same names that your reaching around in the dark has produced so far. I love almost everyone on this list.

Those three at the top are just there because there’s no real closer projected for Atlanta, but it’s a nice way to see what the numbers say about who’s going to close there. It might still be Jason Grilli so that the other two stay cheaper — saves are expensive in arbitration. But Arodys Vizcaino should be the man based on his stuff.

But otherwise, I stand behind these rankings. Daniel Hudson is a great pre-season sleeper because Brad Ziegler lets all of those balls in play and throws like 82. Then again, Ziegler is also almost unique in release point and pitch arsenal. Maybe he’ll just be a beautiful butterfly while Hudson blows them away in a setup role. Randall Delgado also has the stuff in that bullpen, but he’s probably behind Hudson and doesn’t have great command. And here comes Silvino Bracho into the picture, who owns a fastball so straight that it’s probably a cut fastball. He got a whopping 15% whiffs on the pitch and he threw it 160 times last year, so maybe the rest of his arsenal is almost irrelevant. We’ll see if people catch up to it and figure him out eventually, but he’s the best young guy in that pen.

Former D-back David Hernandez is only decent as far as closers go — almost average — and you might think he’ll lose his job. A strikeout per inning and 94 mph gas doesn’t get you much separation these days. He’s exactly average by our little reliever Z-score method. But there isn’t a guy behind him that’s knocking on the door right now. Hernandez might be safer than we think.

With the way that Bruce Rondon was sent home, maybe we should just file that name away and nod before moving on. Mark Melancon looks lights out, but by velocity and strikeouts, he was a bottom-five closer last year. The Man Named Arquimedes looks interesting, probably more interesting than the lefty setup man Tony Watson.

Francisco Rodriguez is throwing his changeup more than his fastball, so maybe you aren’t surprised to find that he’s a bottom-three guy by our metric. That explains the resurgent Mark Lowe here (and Rondon, for that matter). Steve Cishek, also a bottom-three guy, hasn’t put up the results that K-Rod has, so I’d personally be more interested in Tony Zych than Lowe, but they all belong on the list.

Down list are some of my favorite names in terms of name and game. Jumbo Diaz is large, so everything fits about his name and that doesn’t about his uniform. Of course J.J. Hoover will get the first shot. Hoover will probably give it up over the course of the year, though. He seemingly has to choose between grounders and fewer homers or more strikeouts and more homers, and neither outcome is super exciting.

Santiago Casilla is alright, but Hunter Strickland is the man. He always had great command of a high-nineties fastball, at least since he stopped starting, fixed his arm, and moved to the pen. But now he’s added a sinker and a splitter to his slider, and now that he’s been through his trial of fire, and has shown that he has the mindset to get back out there, you’ll see manager Bruce Bochy throw him out there in the ninth inning eventually.

Maybe Keone Kela and Nate Jones have to wait a year or two. They’re behind some decent guys. But they have fire stuff, and if they can avoid the sudden velocity decline that Carson Smith saw, they’ll be in next year’s column.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

I would not count on Caminero getting many saves this year. When asked previously by the Pittsburgh Media Clint Hurdle has said, on multiple occasions, that he believes Tony Watson will be a good closer one day, but is only in the set-up role because they like the guy they have (Melancon). Caminero might not even be third on the closer depth chart with the recent addition of Neftali Feliz.

6 years ago
Reply to  Tom

While I agree that barring injury Watson will probably first in line after Melancon, I think Feliz has a long way to go before he climbs up the reliever ladder and passes Caminero

6 years ago
Reply to  Buctober

In my opinion there is no chance the pirates will use Caminero as closer this year. He’s a pre-arbitration player. They are not gonna let him(or anyone) rack up saves, which are rewarded handsomely in arbitration, until they are closer to free agency.

Dave Dombrowski
6 years ago
Reply to  Tom

Napalm Feliz?