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Fact: Four of the top six closers selected in the preseason, per ESPN live drafts, have experienced a decline in strikeout rate of 2.50 per nine innings or more this season from last. A fifth has seen his K rate drop by 1.70 per nine.
In short, it has been a difficult year for closers, though in defense of those top six, three remain ranked among the top 15 on our Player Rater so far. But it's the youngest one, and the one lowest ranked on the Player Rater (37th), under the microscope this week: Texas Rangers finisher Neftali Feliz.
After setting a rookie record with 40 saves in 2010, Feliz has experienced a stark decline in numbers as a sophomore. His six blown saves are twice as many as he had a year ago and are one shy of the major league lead in the category. Among qualified relievers, per FanGraphs, his 3.48 ERA ranks 82nd out of 137 (40th percentile); he was 37th out of 134 (72nd percentile) with a 2.73 ERA as a rookie. And his strikeout rate, a healthy 9.22 per nine in 2010, has slipped to 6.55 this season.
What's more, things have changed for the Texas Rangers. Feliz has struggled most mightily lately, blowing two of six save chances with a 4.40 ERA in 15 appearances since July 1, and the team bolstered its setup corps at the trade deadline, landing Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, both of whom are capable of closing if needed. For the first time all season, there's a legitimate closer controversy brewing in Texas.
There's an obvious oddity in Feliz's 2011: He's actually having trouble striking out right-handers, eight in 80 plate appearances (10.0 percent), to be exact, after whiffing 31 in 138 PAs (22.5) in 2010. Don't blame it on his fastball velocity, either. During his 14-game slump since July 1, he has averaged 96.6 mph with his fastball, higher than his 96.2 number of 2010. His fastball is just getting hit harder: .220 well-hit average (.269 for the season), 16.2 percent line-drive rate (18.8 season), .244/.326/.341 rates (.231/.320/.377 season). Compare those to his 2010 numbers: .146 WHA, 13.8 LD%, .190/.262/.283 opponents' rates.
Command is most likely the issue. In addition to his diminished K rate, his walk rate has soared, from 2.34 per nine in 2010 to 4.30 this season. This season, he has thrown 52.5 percent first-pitch strikes; in 2010, he threw them 57.2 percent of the time. Meanwhile, 46.9 percent of his total pitches have been judged in the strike zone and he has thrown 60.4 percent strikes; in 2010, he threw 48.0 percent of his pitches in the zone and 65.0 percent strikes.
Ultimately, the Rangers can't afford to be too patient with a closer struggling as Feliz has, especially not now that they have the reliever with the third-best qualified ERA (1.16), fourth-best WHIP (0.83) and ninth-best K-to-walk ratio (4.50) on the roster in Adams. Adams has already shown the Rangers first hand he can close, small sample or not: He got the save this past Sunday when Feliz was unavailable.
At the minimum, grab Adams if he's available in your league, especially if you're a Feliz owner. Handcuffing the two is an almost mandatory strategy.
At the maximum, Feliz could turn over this job with a few more faulty outings, leaving Adams to be the Rangers' closer with top-10 fantasy potential at his position. Certainly Adams' upside is that: Among relievers with 200-plus innings since 2008, he has the majors' best ERA (1.65), second-best WHIP (0.83) and fifth-best K-to-walk ratio (3.97).
Fantasy owners can be a reactionary bunch, and after back-to-back bad outings by Rivera, it's understandable if some of us question whether, at 41, he's finally beginning to show his age. While the right-hander has an extensive track record of success, even since his 40th birthday, leading us to be as patient with him as anyone, there are some subtle warning signs with Rivera, discussed in detail by ESPNNewYork.com's Mark Simon here.
To dig deeper regarding Simon's blog, left-handers have improved their numbers against Rivera's cutter from .182/.243/.263 rates in 2009 (in 107 plate appearances that ended with one) to .211/.242/.274 in 2010 (99 PAs) to .274/.284/.342 this season (75 PAs). That .267 batting average Rivera has allowed to left-handers, in fact, is the highest number he has allowed to them since he was a starter [e] in 1995. Excluding that 1995 rookie campaign, Rivera is on pace to set new career worsts against lefties in batting average (.267), slugging percentage (.333) and OPS (.610) allowed. And if you know anything about Rivera, you know how important that cutter is to his success because of what it does to lefty hitters.
That's not at all to say Rivera is done, or that in the very near future he will be done. After all, Rivera has a few instances of multi-outing slumps in the past half-decade: April 15-27, 2007 (back-to-back blown saves, 30.38 ERA in a four-game stretch); Aug. 12-15, 2007 (a blown save, a loss, 13.50 ERA in three games); May 16-21, 2010 (a blown save, a loss, 11.57 in three games); Sept. 19-26, 2010 (two blown saves, 10.80 ERA in three games). Every single one of those times, he rebounded to be the Rivera of old, and few would expect any different this time.
But keep those cutter facts in the back of your mind, because they could signal anything from a proverbial "blip" to the beginning of Rivera's career decline to a sign of imminent disaster (think: during 2011). I'm picking the former with a slight leaning to the median, so it bears watching.
In the event of disaster, who might take over for Rivera? Ex-closer Rafael Soriano was initially ticketed for the job, but David Robertson has since inherited the primary setup role, thanks to the majors' fifth-best ERA (1.38) and second-best K's-per-nine rate (13.99) among qualified relievers (per FanGraphs). Robertson has pitched in the eighth inning in 20 of his past 21 appearances and has 13 holds and a 1.31 ERA during that span. He's next in line if Rivera's owners need a handcuff -- that need remains marginal -- and can be a help even in mixed leagues in ERA and strikeouts.
Soriano, however, might still have his sights on the closer role once Rivera eventually cedes it in a future season. While Soriano's season has been frustrating, he has looked quite a bit like his old self since returning from the disabled list. In four appearances during that time, he has four perfect innings, including five strikeouts, and keep in mind that two of those games were pitched in Boston. In an AL-only league and even some mixed formats, Soriano might again be a helpful source of ERA/WHIP/K's, even if his prospect of saves -- in 2011 at least -- are now third-best in his bullpen.
Several readers astutely pointed out following last week's Relief Efforts that the profiled Aroldis Chapman wasn't the only relief pitcher to recently enjoy the "reliever's no-hitter" -- a string of appearances totaling nine or more innings without a hit. Romo also recently accomplished it; he actually was perfect over 10 innings during a 14-appearance stretch from July 6-Aug. 6. He finally surrendered a hit on Tuesday, but even with that he has now tossed 13 shutout innings with 17 strikeouts and a .050 opponents' batting average in his past 18 outings.
So why wasn't Romo profiled with Chapman? Simple: He's a bit less likely to score saves of the two, the closer ahead of him (Brian Wilson) more secure in his role than Francisco Cordero, not to mention there isn't the question about his future role (starter or closer) that there is with Chapman. Still, the Romo question is a fair one; he has the best WHIP (0.64) and K's-per-walk rate (13.25), the 10th-best ERA (1.67) and sixth-best K's-per-nine rate (12.66) among qualified relievers.
That leaves little doubt Romo is one of the game's most valuable middle relievers, a group that includes Jonny Venters, Robertson and Tyler Clippard. But there's another common thread between the three: I wouldn't expect a single one to notch a save the rest of the year, save for the possible vulture save on their respective closer's night off.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.