"The Beard": Still scary-good, or simply scary to draft?
Many distinguishable characters have occupied the role of closer over the years.
From Rich "Goose" Gossage, to Rollie Fingers and his handlebar moustache, to submarining Dan Quisenberry, to Shooter Rod Beck, to K-Rod Francisco Rodriguez, to the goggled Eric Gagne, some of the position's all-time greats ranked among the most instantly recognizable players in all of baseball. Today's crop is led by another eccentric: The man they call The Beard, Brian Wilson.
Wilson's fame -- or at least the fame of his beard -- has reached great heights over the past two years; even the President is familiar with the San Francisco Giants closer. Wilson has been featured in countless commercials, and he's quite a wacky interview, too.
Wilson's statistics support his fame: During a span of two calendar years from the 2009 through 2011 All-Star breaks, he had the second-most saves (89), fourth-lowest ERA (2.15) and seventh-highest strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio (10.39) among relief pitchers with 120 or more innings pitched during that span. He also tossed 11 2/3 shutout innings and recorded six saves during the Giants' 2010 playoff run that culminated in a World Series title.
The problem, however, is that in the half-season since that outstanding run, Wilson faced questions about his health, questions significant enough to knock him from his lofty perch as one of baseball's -- and fantasy's -- top finishers.
During that time, elbow problems cost Wilson a trip to the disabled list and a total of 32 scheduled Giants games (out of 70), and in the 14 games in which he did appear (out of the other 38), he walked nine batters in 12 innings of work. That resulted in a 1.67 WHIP. That was easily his worst WHIP of any half-season, as well as his fewest appearances in any of the past four seasons.
But Wilson's problems ran deeper than walks and DL time. For one, his velocity suffered a noticeable decline last season, as evidenced by the chart below:
For another, as his fastball has declined, his reliance upon his slider -- sometimes classified as a cutter -- has increased accordingly. After throwing sliders 29 percent of the time in 2009, he increased that number to 37 percent in 2010, then 45 percent in 2011. And in the second half of 2011, he threw sliders 48 of the time -- nearly every other pitch. As sliders rate among the most taxing offerings on a pitcher's arm, Wilson's increasing usage of the pitch is troubling, especially when coupled with the elbow problems that prematurely ended his 2011.
Though Wilson's spring health reports have generally been positive, the Giants have taken every precaution with him, holding back his Cactus League debut until March 11, then sidelining him briefly this week when he reported minor soreness in his throwing arm. To date, he has made three appearances totaling 2 2/3 innings.
That's more than enough, however, to make Wilson a worthy top-10 fantasy closer selection. He's as much of a risk/reward candidate as there is at his position, but few pitchers, when healthy, possess his 40-save, 90-strikeout potential. The caveat with Wilson is that he's as close to a mandatory-handcuff closer as they come.
Who, then, is Wilson's smartest handcuff? Let's take a closer look at each of the Giants' primary setup men and determine who makes the strongest case:
Sergio Romo: Statistically speaking, Romo draws the strongest comparison to Wilson. His 2.50 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 11.28 K's-per-nine ratio the past three seasons combined within range of Wilson's 2.36, 1.24 and 10.36 numbers. But they get there with varied skills: Romo's fastball barely scrapes 90 mph and he has a filthy slider that was responsible for 74 percent of his strikeout total from 2009-11, while Wilson averaged 95.6 mph and recorded 60 percent of his K's with his fastball. Romo and Wilson unfortunately share another trait: a history of elbow issues. Romo made trips to the DL with elbow problems in both 2009 and 2011, and he threw his slider 54 percent of the time last season alone.
Romo is the most sensible choice to close should Wilson miss time. The problem, however, is that Romo is every bit as likely to miss time as Wilson, and if their absences coincide, as they did at one point last August, then you'll have to grab a third Giants closer and burn another roster spot.
Santiago Casilla: Would you believe that Casilla actually had the second-most saves among Giants relievers last season (6)? Often overshadowed by Wilson and Romo, Casilla has done an outstanding job adapting his arsenal to bring his righty-lefty splits in line and generate a healthy share of ground balls, establishing himself as a consistently reliable late-inning option. He has a 1.85 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his two seasons with the Giants, perhaps making him the most sensible choice to fill in should Wilson go down.
Casilla does have one trait in common with Wilson and Romo, though: He, too, has battled elbow problems.
Jeremy Affeldt: Though hardly your prototypical closer, Affeldt has seven saves the past two seasons combined, and a 2.74 ERA and 1.29 WHIP during his three-year Giants career. He's an extreme ground-baller, his 61.1 percent rate the past three seasons third highest in the majors, and is murder on left-handed hitters, limiting them to .205/.315/.299 triple-slash rates during that time. Those traits -- the former especially -- make him a low-risk late-inning option, but also paint the picture of a reliever as more valuable as a specialist than full-time closer. This is your prototypical matchups closer, meaning if you hear the phrase "closer by committee" if Wilson gets hurt, it'd be as much of a plus for Affeldt as anyone in the bullpen. He could get as many as half the saves in such an arrangement.
Javier Lopez: He's even tougher on left-handers than Affeldt, if that's possible, limiting them to .182/.269/.244 triple-slash rates the past three seasons combined, and is a similarly extreme ground-baller, with a 64.5 percent rate during that span. But Affeldt's strength is an ability to get right-handers out as well; Affeldt limited them to a .683 OPS from 2009-11, while Lopez's OPS against that side was .792. In other words, Lopez fits the description of your typical LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy), a pitcher you'll see come in to face one, tough left-handed hitter, then depart as quickly as matchups dictate. Pitchers like this are poor bets for saves; unless an Andre Ethier is due up with a save situation present with two outs in the ninth, Lopez isn't going to get the ball. (Even if Ethier is, there's always the chance of a right-handed pinch-hitter.)
Guillermo Mota: He'll have a spot in this bullpen at season's start, but he also had the highest ERA (3.81) among Giants regular relievers in 2011, a so-so 1.26 WHIP and his 8.63 K's-per-nine innings ratio was unexpectedly high, setting a new personal best. The Giants claim he'll be a long man in the middle innings, and that makes sense; Mota averaged 1.54 innings per appearance last season and was the most rubber-armed of the group.
Who's it going to be?
Though Romo is the hot choice, Casilla might be the bargain bet of the bunch, and certainly he warrants stashing at the back end of an NL-only bench, while Romo goes several rounds earlier in the format. The Giants are well aware of the toll Romo's slider takes on his elbow, and they manage him accordingly -- his ratios of value in deep mixed and NL-only leagues, but his prospect at saves somewhat overstated. Casilla might not be the obvious handcuff but he might be the smartest.
All he needs now is a nickname as fearful as The Beard.