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Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Which closers are safe, and unsafe?

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

Every July it happens. The lure of the beach and chicken parmesan sandwiches beckons, and my colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft is unable to resist taking a well-earned week off before trade-deadline moves change the baseball landscape to the point where one cannot afford to look away. Once again, I have been asked to fill the huge void left by his absence, and I'll try my best not to blow this save situation.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Speaking of saves, when it comes to trying to figure out which pitcher is going to get the call when victory hangs in the balance, most managers want this decision to be made on autopilot. Managers hate uncertainty. They want to pick up the bullpen phone and have there be no question as to which pitcher they want to close out a win.

As long as the skipper feels "his guy" is doing a good job, the closer keeps his job, even if everyone in the stadium begins to feel sick to their stomach the moment the first notes of a less-than-dominant closer's entrance music emerges from the loudspeakers. But unless the manager actually decides to field questions from reporters about whether or not a change is coming and then answers them honestly, trying to guess what's going on inside his head is virtually impossible.

We can make educated guesses by what we see in the highlights and read in the box scores, but at the end of the day, no matter how many batters seem to reach base on Chris Perez, if Tribe manager Terry Francona decides he'd rather continue to use Vinnie Pestano in a setup role, then there's absolutely nothing Pestano's owners can do but shake their heads in disbelief.

By way of trying to play the role of mind reader, I've found over the years that there is a statistic that can give the fantasy owner some insight into which managers might actually be pondering a changing of the guard at the back end of their bullpen. I call it FBA, which stands for first batter average. It's the combined batting averages of the first hitters a reliever has faced upon entering a game. After all, the quickest way for the boo birds in the stands to gain momentum and for the manager to start to question the status quo is to see his closer consistently struggle out of the gate.

FBA might well be a window into this thought process and a forecaster of change. Is it based on a small sample size? Of course it is. But closers are all about small sample sizes. In most cases, they have no room for error, and often just one bad pitch is all it takes for a lead to vanish into thin air.

FBA foreshadowed the demise of Jonathan Broxton as the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer in 2010 and predicted the rise of then-future closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen in 2011. Last year, it correctly suggested that John Axford, and not Francisco Rodriguez, would be the last man standing in Milwaukee's pen. So what does it say about the rest of 2013? Let's take a look at the current slate of closers around the league and see if there are any unexpected collapses on the horizon, and if so, who might be affected.

Group 1: Security blankets

We're just one pitcher shy of a full dozen names that reside in this safety zone, which consists of pitchers who have an FBA under. 200, and as such, should be able to maintain a solid grasp on their respective closer jobs for the remainder of the season, even if there might be a few bumps along the way.

Craig Kimbrel and Edward Mujica are on this list. It would take a collapse of monumental proportions for any of their managers to move away from relying on these stalwarts anytime soon. And with Huston Street, whose name always seems to come up in trade talks at this time of the year, signed through 2014, while there's always a chance of a deal, we're skeptical San Diego will make a move.

In the case of Jonathan Papelbon, his solid FBA might be part of the reason that even though he had a rough stretch at the end of June, during which he blew four out of five save chances over an eight-day period, his manager Charlie Manuel has no problem standing firm. It doesn't mean, however, that he won't turn to Antonio Bastardo for a short stint, should Papelbon have a relapse. Anything is possible.

Clearly a reliever can build a lot of confidence with his manager. Instead of panic, a solid FBA can cause a manager like Manuel to say things like, "You go through times when you're going to give up some runs and things like that. That's all part of the run. Papelbon, to me, is one of the premier closers in our league, if not the best."

Group 2: Only as good as today

This next group of pitchers each has an FBA in the "neutral zone" between .200 and .250. In this range, and with lurking competition, their jobs are only going to be as safe as their team's win-loss record.

In the past, potential trades have typically come from this neck of the woods, since there are always trusted (though clearly at varying levels) alternatives to be found on the staffs of the teams with closers in this grouping. With that additional wild-card spot keeping more teams in the running as July 31 approaches, though, only the Twins, White Sox and a post-Braun Brewers squad, of the teams below, can legitimately be considered the "sellers" in this group.

Still, the fact these teams all have playoff aspirations only heightens the pressure on their managers to "win today." It might take only a few consecutive poor outings for someone such as Fernando Rodney or Kenley Jansen to be given, at the very least, a temporary "vacation" from the job.

Obviously, a special case exists in New York, where Mariano Rivera's career is unlikely to come to a close without him getting every possible chance to tip his cap in each and every stadium the Yankees play in the rest of the way. But if the team needs him to throw several days in a row come September, we're not 100 percent sure the team won't call on David Robertson to help ease the burden on its ancient warrior.

Group 3: Only game in town

This next quartet also rests in the FBA neutral zone, but the next-in-line candidates have not done much to make a lasting impression. We're tempted to call this the "Carlos Marmol zone." In fact, had the Chicago Cubs not already sent him and his .333 FBA packing, this is where he'd certainly be yet again.

Kevin Gregg is still with the Cubs, and could well be headed elsewhere as the team continues to clean house. But there's not really a definite replacement should the team pull the trigger. Similarly, though Washington and the New York Mets have seen their share of leads go by the wayside as a result of the late-inning foibles of their closers, it's not like anybody worthwhile is pounding on the door waiting to be given a chance.

It certainly still matters a lot who closes out things in Boston, and it appears Koji Uehara will be forced to figure things out on the fly, as Andrew Bailey is not going to be riding in to save the day, and the alternatives, such as Junichi Tazawa, certainly don't seem all that appealing. Perhaps the Red Sox may be looking to pull the trigger on a deal? If so, Gregg could indeed be an upgrade, in my eyes.

Group 4: In flux

This group is comprised of the jobs that are up in the air due to injuries or a manager simply being unable to make up his mind on just one arm to rule them all. Yes, those dreaded "closer-by-committee" situations drive all fantasy owners crazy. We don't know the full extent of Jason Grilli's injury. Obviously, without fear of a lengthy absence, he'd easily be in Group 1. But if you were wondering why Mark Melancon is the recommended replacement for Clint Hurdle, his FBA could be a reason he instills so much confidence.

In Seattle, Tom Wilhelmsen was the closer, then was yanked for a bit, then was given the job back again by manager Eric Wedge. With three saves in four days, the worst appears to be behind him. But once a manager shows that he's unafraid to ditch "his guy," we can't help wonder if it might happen again. Then again, after looking at the FBA of the other Mariners relievers with saves on the season, our sour stomach settles a lot.

Clearly Heath Bell is not the answer in Arizona, but you can see why Brad Ziegler has been in the mix at the back end of games for Kirk Gibson and the Diamondbacks. But you also shouldn't be surprised if J.J. Putz weasels his way back into the thick of things.

Finally, in Detroit, where Jose Valverde went bankrupt in his attempt to keep the closer job -- his .278 FBA certainly didn't help matters any -- Joaquin Benoit has done well to hold down the fort. However, he's not exactly in the comfort zone, and there are multiple other options at Jim Leyland's disposal should Benoit start to show signs of slippage. But a strong finish to July would certainly end the discussion.

Group 5: Danger, Will Robinson!

If there's going to be an "unexpected" changing of the guard, this is where you need to look. Yes, in terms of getting saves, the guys below may be getting the job done, but psychologically speaking, there are red flags to be found.

Grant Balfour has indeed been perfect in save situations this season, and in fact, he's working on a team-record streak of 44 consecutive chances converted. But he has given up four home runs this season, and his strand rate is an obscenely high 95.9 percent. Smoke and mirrors? Not entirely, but if the bottom falls out of this hot air balloon, the fall may well be precipitous.

Even while going 6-for-6 in save chances since July 7, Jim Johnson has allowed an OBP of .318 over that short span. He has blown six save chances already this season, and overall he has been on the hook for seven Baltimore Orioles losses this season. Every time Buck Showalter is grilled about the fate of Johnson and whether or not a change is imminent, the manager deflects the question, talking about how the offense needs to score more runs. To us, the unspoken words that follow sound a lot like "so that I don't have to bring Johnson in and watch him blow another one."

Due to a lack of competition, it doesn't seem like Ernesto Frieri has much to worry about at the moment. Truth be told, the fact in 15 of his past 16 outings he has faced either the minimum number of hitters or just one above minimum required to retire the side certainly points to increasing confidence from his manager. It's not like the torches are waving like they were in late May.

And lastly, even though the move to Rex Brothers in Colorado was the result of Rafael Betancourt being put on the disabled list due to needing to have his appendix removed, we're not so sure he would have been able to hold on to the job in the long term had the medical emergency not arisen. Rockies manager Walt Weiss might well give the job back to Betancourt when he returns, but if Brothers saves enough games over the next two weeks, that may not be a lock to happen.

Certainly, FBA is not an absolute measure of job security, but in the past it has served us well to help identify pitchers who may be causing their managers to reach for the bottle of antacids, even when they do manage to keep the floodgates from opening.

If you're looking for where the next source of untapped saves are likely to come from, both for the rest of 2013 and beyond, look no further than the vultures circling above the walking dead in Group 5.