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Thursday, July 19, 2012
More closer shake-ups

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

The single-season record-holder for saves (62 in 2008), and the No. 4 active and No. 24 all-time pitcher in the category (294) is back in the role that made him famous.

"K-Rod" once again is a household nickname, and Francisco Rodriguez a household name in fantasy, now that the Milwaukee Brewers have tired of John Axford's season-long struggles. Here's a fact that encompasses the disaster of a season Axford has endured: Only once all season did he manage a streak of five consecutive scoreless appearances or more (May 15-30, nine in a row).

Relief Efforts

Let's first discuss Axford's struggles, because while Rodriguez's ownership percentage has skyrocketed in the past 48 hours, making a decision on picking him up moot, the quandary as to whether to cut Axford remains relevant. He is, after all, still owned in 84.3 percent of ESPN leagues.

Axford is on pace for 11 blown saves, which would make him only the 16th different reliever to have that many in a single year since 1974, the first season for which blown saves are listed on FanGraphs. Axford also has a 5.17 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, which, had he remained in the role all year while sporting ratios that high, would've ranked his among some of the worst all-time seasons by a closer. Much of the problem has been poor control; he has averaged 4.93 walks per nine innings, up from his career-best 3.05 set last season.

Everything about Axford's game hints at an issue with location. He is a pitcher who thrives on ground balls, and keeping the ball down in the zone. Sure enough, he has thrown only 29 percent of his pitches "down" (bottom third of the strike zone and beneath), compared to 34 percent in 2010-11 combined. His ground-ball percentage also has dropped, from 48.8 percent in 2010-11 to 45.5 this season. Meanwhile, on all other pitches -- "up" (upper third and above) and "middle" (middle third) -- Axford has surrendered .284/.381/.500 triple-slash rates as well as all six of his home runs. Command might be something fixable for a pitcher, but considering the length of time this has persisted, it might be a lengthy endeavor.

Francisco Rodriguez
Francisco Rodriguez allowed six total baserunners in picking up saves in the past two Brewers' wins.

In a shallow, 10-team mixed ESPN league, Axford is therefore a cut candidate, without any promise of another save chance the remainder of the season. He is the kind of pitcher who, in larger leagues (deep mixed, NL-only), warrants only a bench spot based upon the oft-unpredictable chance he can quickly turn things around.

Rodriguez's reputation provides as good a reason as any to think Axford's fantasy value has dried up. K-Rod was a full-time closer for 6½ seasons at the time the Brewers acquired him July 12, 2011, from the New York Mets. The Brewers then, in one of the more puzzling moves of the winter, re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million contract. He was a pricey insurance policy to Axford, one now put into action.

That's not to say that we're about to witness the K-Rod of old, the kind destined to set saves records. If you watched the Brewers' Wednesday game, during which Rodriguez served up a run on three walks and a hit in recording his second save as closer, you might even have questions about his security in the role.

In addition, with strikeout rates of 8.66 per nine innings and 22.3 percent (using total batters faced), Rodriguez is well on his way to setting career lows in those categories. He also has, per FanGraphs, surrendered a career-high 26.0 percent line-drive rate, and his isolated power allowed is a career-high .158.

Rodriguez is no longer the unhittable finisher he was during his heyday; he doesn't get swings and misses like he used to and his curveball/slider -- whichever you choose to classify it during the course of his career -- has diminished in effectiveness as he has aged. Again, per FanGraphs, K-Rod's curve has been worth -1.6 runs above average this season; his slider (which some argue back then was effectively the same pitch but misclassified) was worth a career-best 12.6 in 2006.

In his past 17 games, Rodriguez has eight holds, two saves, a 2.30 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and 9.19 K's-per-nine ratio. Perhaps more importantly, however, he has both increased his velocity and generated more ground balls in the process. His fastball has averaged 92.5 mph during that time, up from 91.1 mph in his first 30 appearances; he also has a 56.0 percent ground ball rate, up from 47.1. This was the right move for the Brewers, there's an excellent chance it's a permanent one, but it doesn't necessarily mean it is a perfect one.

It's for that reason Rodriguez the closer warrants only second- (third-?) tier status in the fantasy rankings.

Time for change in San Francisco

It has been said many times in this space that saves speculation has less to do with picking the most worthy reliever in a given bullpen than simply the one getting the ball in the ninth; managerial decisions when doling out saves can be unpredictable, often perplexing. Such is the case with the San Francisco Giants, where the (healthy) reliever with the best overall stuff has saved but eight games in his five-year career.

Yes, it is time for the Giants to give serious consideration to Sergio Romo as their closer … and there are whispers it might soon happen.

Romo's usage has been baffling throughout his career; those familiar with the term "LOOGY" (Left-handed One Out GuY) might understand the reference if I called him a "ROOGY." The Giants have exhibited an inexplicable fear of using Romo against left-handed hitters; he has faced 530 right-handed hitters in his career, nearly double the 271 left-handers he has seen. He is the kind of pitcher who comes in only for the righties in the late frames, then gets yanked when a lefty trots to the plate, which explains how he has tallied more appearances than innings pitched in each of his past four seasons (213 games, 171 1/3 innings, since 2009).

Here's why Romo's usage makes little sense: He has been nearly as effective against left-handed hitters (.189/.256/.279 rates allowed) as right-handers (.178/.230/.291) during his career, and he has a good enough changeup that, even had those sample sizes been identical, he probably wouldn't have exhibited any sort of substantial platoon split. The fact remains, however, that Romo has limited left-handers, in their past 20 plate appearances, to a .059 batting average while inducing misses on 37 percent of their swings.

Whether the Giants are trying to protect Romo, who endured elbow problems in both 2009 and 2011, it's time for them to grant him a more expanded opportunity. After all, current closer Santiago Casilla battled elbow issues of his own in 2008 and 2011, not to mention has blown five of his past eight save opportunities with a 9.45 ERA and .344 batting average allowed. Though the Giants have seemed to prefer Casilla for lengthier outings for a year and a half now, it's time for them to unleash Romo and make him a full-inning reliever … and, frankly, the closer.

Again, while Giants manager Bruce Bochy has said merely he'd re-evaluate Casilla's closer status, Romo has yet to receive a promise of save opportunities. This is mere speculation on a reliever you could scoop up on the cheap -- Romo remains available in more than 75 percent of ESPN leagues -- but there's a good chance that you might land yourself a top-20 closer if you stash him today.

Marlins mess

For the second time this season, Heath Bell, the reliever the Miami Marlins signed to a three-year, $27 million contract during the winter, has lost his closer job.

The decision is entirely warranted. Bell, who has suffered a precipitous drop in his strikeout rate since his peak years of 2009-10, blew two of his past seven save chances with a 7.94 ERA and .311 BAA, pushing his season ERA to 6.21 and WHIP to 1.70. Those place him third- and sixth-worst among qualified relievers, and his six blown saves tie him for the major league lead (Axford, Casilla and Brandon League).

Bell's problems are threefold: His fastball has utterly collapsed, opponents batting .320/.402/.560 against it while missing on only 15 percent of his swings, despite the fact that its velocity remains scarcely changed from two seasons ago. He has walked considerably more hitters, averaging 4.78 walks per nine innings this season after 3.02 in 2011. And his overall arsenal has simply lacked the swing-and-miss potential that it once did; his miss rate is only 17 percent overall, a sharp decline from his 21 percent number of 2011 or 28 percent in 2010.

Like Axford, Bell appears to be a pitcher with command problems, which, while fixable, might be much more than an overnight project. In fact, it's Bell who serves as your cautionary tale for Axford; Axford might recapture his role la Bell, but without addressing his problem areas, he might subsequently lose it again, la Bell. The Marlins might not have many viable long-term alternatives for Bell on their roster, but there's little incentive to restore him to the ninth right now.

Steve Cishek stands out as the best bet for saves in the Marlins' bullpen looking forward, thanks to his team-leading 2.08 ERA, in addition to 12 holds, a 1.28 WHIP and 9.00 K's-per-nine ratio.

Cishek did get sporadic opportunities to close during his minor league career, totaling 19 saves in five minor league seasons, and he has five between this and last season as a short-term fill-in. But prospecting him for saves isn't an endorsement of him as a top-flight fantasy option; it's more of a "best of the worst" prediction. Consider the Marlins' other alternatives: Edward Mujica has missed time with a fractured pinkie toe and has a pedestrian 4.72 K's-per-nine ratio; former closer Juan Oviedo (whom you might recall as the former Leo Nunez) suffered an elbow injury during his rehabilitation assignment that eventually could require Tommy John surgery.

Sometimes all it takes is an opportunity, though, meaning Cishek is well worth the pickup in the near-75 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's available.