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The Closer Catch-Up: Craig’s List Is Good!

Saturday night marked Craig Kimbrel’s 300th career save, placing him just two spots behind Fernando Rodney on the all-time career saves list. It also tied him 27th alongside Doug Jones and Jason Isringhausen. But while milestones make baseball fun, let’s take a moment to discuss the state of the Red Sox bullpen.

Over the last seven days, Boston’s pen has pitched 26 innings, giving up 14 earned runs and secured just two saves. It’s a drastic fall from grace, especially for a bullpen that finished 2017 with the second-best ERA in baseball. Despite Kimbrel’s usual killer instinct, it’s not hard to see why the Sox have lost six games by three runs or fewer this season.

So far Boston’s starters are lasting a total of 5.7 innings per start, placing enormous strain on a middle-relief unit that’s combined to allow eight home runs already this season. Of course, every bullpen has its day, and as we saw on Saturday, the Sox’s ‘pen can be just as dangerous as anyone’s with the game on the line … if they are throwing strikes, that is.

Tied 5-5 against the Rangers in Arlington, Heath Hembree tried his best to blow the game for Boston, loading the bases in the bottom of the eighth. Joe Kelly was then brought in to stop the bleeding, and in my best Italian-American accent, I liked what I seen. Kelly struck out Joey Gallo swinging, and then engaged in a 12-pitch at-bat with Jurickson Profar, resulting in a 98 MPH fastball strikeout high in the zone.

That’s the side of the Sox that makes them a serious World Series contender. Better yet, it’s also the side of the Sox that holds some fantasy relevance. We all know what you’re getting with Kimbrel, consistency and saves, but with Kelly figuring in as Boston’s first choice high-leverage guy, his strikeout numbers make him an intriguing watch going forward. I’m not saying he hangs onto that 0.80 WHIP, but Kelly’s 26% K-rate looks like the real deal. Anyways, congrats to Kimbrel, and here’s everything else closer related from a big weekend in baseball…

The Big Board

Team Closer Next in Line Plan C
 Arizona Diamondbacks Brad Boxberger Archie Bradley Yoshihisa Hirano
 Atlanta Braves (C) Arodys Vizcaino A.J. Minter Shane Carle
 Baltimore Orioles (C) Darren O’Day Brad Brach Richard Bleier
 Boston Red Sox Craig Kimbrel Joe Kelly Matt Barnes
 Chicago Cubs Brandon Morrow Carl Edwards Jr. Steve Cishek
 Chicago White Sox (C) Joakim Soria Nate Jones Hector Rondon
 Cincinnati Reds Raisel Iglesias Jared Hughes Wandy Peralta
 Cleveland Indians Cody Allen Tyler Olson Dan Otero
 Colorado Rockies Wade Davis Adam Ottavino Jake McGee
 Detroit Tigers Shane Greene Joe Jimenez Alex Wilson
 Houston Astros (C) Ken Giles Chris Devenski Brad Peacock
 Kansas City Royals Kelvin Herrera Brad Keller Brian Flynn
 Los Angeles Angels (C) Cam Bedrosian Justin Anderson Blake Parker
 Los Angeles Dodgers Kenley Jansen Josh Fields Pedro Baez
 Miami Marlins Brad Ziegler Kyle Barraclough Drew Steckenrider
 Milwaukee Brewers (C) Josh Hader Jeremy Jeffress Matt Albers
 Minnesota Twins Fernando Rodney Addison Reed Zach Duke
 New York Mets  Jeurys Familia A.J. Ramos Robert Gsellman
 New York Yankees Aroldis Chapman David Robertson Dellin Betances
 Oakland Athletics Blake Treinen Santiago Casilla Ryan Dull
 Philadelphia Phillies (C) Hector Neris Luis Garcia Tommy Hunter
 Pittsburgh Pirates Felipe Vazquez George Kontos Michael Feliz
 St. Louis Cardinals (C) Bud Norris Greg Holland Jordan Hicks
 San Diego Padres Brad Hand Kirby Yates Craig Stammen
 San Francisco Giants Hunter Strickland Tony Watson Sam Dyson
 Seattle Mariners Edwin Diaz Juan Nicasio Nick Vincent
 Tampa Bay Rays Alex Colome Sergio Romo Jose Alvarado
 Texas Rangers Keone Kela Alex Claudio Jake Diekman
 Toronto Blue Jays Roberto Osuna Ryan Tepera Seung Hwan Oh
 Washington Nationals Sean Doolittle Ryan Madson Brandon Kintzler

** C=closer by committee. Red=unstable bullpen. Blue=stable bullpen. Green=elite bullpen **

The DL D-Low

  • Saturday was a disaster show for the Cardinals, losing Yadier Molina, Tommy Pham and Bud Norris to injury. Norris exited with tricep tightness, although there’s no real word on just how serious it is. So far he’s avoided the disabled list, but should he serve a brief stint, I’d look to Jordan Hicks if you’re trying to find a replacement. Greg Holland seems like the logical option after throwing a scoreless eighth inning on Saturday against the Cubs, but there are still a few rumors circling that Mike Matheny doesn’t trust the 32-year-old. Holland currently has more walks (9) than strikeouts (7) on the year.

The Worry Warts

Houston Astros: Perhaps Ken Giles going full fisticuffs on himself was a sign of things to come, because here’s the Astros with their fourth ninth-inning meltdown in the last seven days.

You’ve got to hand it to the Diamondbacks; they love making things interesting, as Houston found out on Saturday night. Tied 3-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth, this time it was Chris Devenski dishing up the stink in the ninth. He loaded the bases with A.J. Pollock on deck, only to be replaced by Brad Peacock, who gave up the game-winning single on the first pitch he threw.

The common theme for most of these Houston hiccups has been the breaking ball. Giles’ blunder against Gary Sanchez last week came on a slider, while nine of Devenski’s 12 pitches on Friday were also breaking balls, ultimately resulting in walks. So what’s the solution here? Often it comes down to numbers, velocity, and contact rates, but sometimes these committee situations just aren’t right for each and every bullpen.

When you look at the Astros, you’ll notice they’ve thrown the second-fewest high-leverage situations in the league. That’s great, but their 11.57 ERA in those innings is not, which shows this guess-who game at closer every night isn’t helping Giles, Devenski, and Peacock find any consistency in their roles, or with their pitch selection. Often we talk about pitchers finding their “groove,” but how can you consistently throw 98 MPH or create movement on your slider when you don’t know when you’ll be entering the game, which part of the lineup you might be facing, and how long you should warm-up?

There’s no doubt committees work for some teams, moreso ones that have slightly unstable bullpens like the Angels, but this already looks like a dud move for Houston. For a good committee to work, pitching coaches need to accommodate their pitchers mentally, and clearly something is lacking for the Astros.

Middle of the Pack

David Robertson: After striking out the side during Friday’s 7-6 thriller, Aroldis Chapman was given a rest on Saturday night, hurling David Robertson into his first save opportunity of the season. Robertson was brilliant in the ninth, striking out Michael Brantley and calming the storm following Edwin Encarnacion’s double to fool Yonder Alonso swinging. What impressed me the most, though, was Robertson’s slider, and as you’ll see below, it’s been particularly effective outside of the strike zone…

Last season Robertson threw his slider 74 times, but already through April and into early May, he’s opted to throw it 24 times. So far the payoff has been close to a 50% swing rate, which in turn explains Robertson’s incredible 1.56 BB/9. Since Chapman tends to throw around four innings each week, these kinds of elusive save opportunities will come far and few between. Still, buy into Robertson if you need some strikeouts — he’s got 21 of them and is owned in around the same percentage of leagues.

Everything Else I’ve Seen

  • Okay, go ahead and sit every closer you own against the Yankees. This time around it was Gleyber Torres walking it off against Dan Otero, following Cody Allen’s blunder in the eighth. The Indians really need Andrew Miller back, like, right now, because there’s absolutely zero confidence in any of their middle relievers. The good news is Miller is set to return mid-week, which is good news for a pen that has allowed 24 earned runs in 23 innings pitched over the last seven days.
  • Ah, the ninth inning, so kind to Kimbrel, but so cruel to Keone Kela. If there’s a Red Sox hitter you don’t want to allow a hit against, it’s Andrew Benintendi. He legged a simple line drive into a triple during Saturday’s 5-5 tie, which eventually turned into the game-winning run following Hanley Ramirez’s sacrifice fly. Kela was a sexy option off the waiver-wire earlier in April, but after last week’s four-earned-run fiasco against the Indians, suddenly that 36% hard-hit rate is looking scary, especially against the league’s top offensive teams.
  • Speaking of all things kind and cruel, ditto Sunday’s Phillies/Nationals game. Sean Doolittle earned his first win of the year with a pair of Ks in the ninth, while Hector Neris was slapped with his second loss and his second blown save of the season. Neris’ command was pretty wonky all day, plumping Howie Kendrick with a fastball, followed by two straight walks to Michael Taylor and Pedro Severino. Suddenly Neris’ walk-rate has ballooned to 13%, but worse yet, he’s now allowed 15 career walks to the Nationals.
  • You didn’t think Marcell Ozuna was gonna stay this quiet forever, did you? He picked a great time to heat up over the weekend, pounding Brandon Morrow for a two-run double in the ninth inning of Saturday’s extra-inning thriller. The Cubs’ 8-6 loss marked Morrow’s first blown save of the year, and although you could read a whole lot into it, my main takeaway was this: Morrow shouldn’t trust his slider so much against elite hitters.
  • Brad Hand owns a career .225/.287/.400 line vs. the Dodgers, so you could understand why there were some a few knees weak, moms spaghetti’s going on in San Diego. Fortunately, Hand held his own against Enrique Hernandez, Yasmani Grandal, and Cody Bellinger, striking out all three to earn his eighth save of the season. You’d be forgiven for thinking Hand might have lost a step given his 2.87 ERA, but the 28-year-old’s 13.79 K/9 puts him on pace for a tidy 120 strikeouts this year, which, by the way, would be a career high.
  • So here’s Shane Greene with six saves on the year. He also has six multi-strikeout innings next to his name, and although he’s had his moments, the Tigers bullpen as a whole did a great job shutting down the Royals on Saturday. With some easy games against the Orioles, Rays and Royals now out of the way, though, let the fun begin.
  • You won’t see me admit it very often, but I could be wrong on Wade Davis. The shift to Coors, plus the age, plus the velocity drop had me a little sketchy, but here we are in the first week of May and Davis already has 13 saves. To put things in perspective, by this point last season Davis had accumulated just six saves with the Cubs. Then again, what’s interesting here is Davis’ contact rate is up nearly six percent from last season, and his swinging strike rate is way down. Davis has also pitched just four of his 14 innings in Colorado, so you know, I take it all back. Maybe there is a chance we see some slight regression after all.
  • Ch-ch-challenges, that’s exactly what’s in front of you if you own shares in Alex Colome. The wheels fell off again on Sunday, as the Rays righty gave up the winning run in the ninth to send the Blue Jays home with a 2-1 win. I still don’t think there’s any danger of Colome losing his job as closer, but Jose Alvarado continues to look enticing after earning his first save of the season last week.

Sell: Hunter Strickland

Couple of reasons: First, Mark Melancon is scheduled to return in the final week of May. Second, Sunday’s outing. Strickland earned his eighth save against the Braves, but it’s hardly what it sounds like. He gave up two earned runs and a walk,  and although there’s no guarantee Melancon reclaims the closer gig right away, you’ll want to unload Strickland on one of your opponents before he really screws you. So far on the season he’s allowing around 55.3% of his pitches to be hit hard, and his .320 AVG against righties is a huge red flag that there could be some bad times to come. The Giants also face off against the Phillies this week, followed by road trips to Houston, Chicago, and Colorado to round out the final two weeks of the month.

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