Can a closer really lose it overnight?
As difficult as it is to imagine such a scenario, the evidence surrounding Jonathan Broxton's steep, swift fall from grace is stark. You can turn the history books back to the evening of Sunday, June 27, 2010 -- a seemingly harmless interleague game between Broxton's Los Angeles Dodgers and his manager Joe Torre's former team, the New York Yankees -- and say, "Something happened to Broxton on that night."
Was it the 48 pitches Torre allowed him to throw in a non-save situation, the final eight of those after Broxton had already surrendered a four-run lead? Was it that Torre allowed him to do so a night after Broxton had thrown 19 pitches, or coming off a four-day stretch in which Broxton had made three appearances and thrown 51 pitches combined? Was it something he ate? Something else?
Whatever the cause, compare Broxton's numbers in 41 games since, but not including, that night to the numbers he had in the 41 games preceding it.
41 since: 11 saves, 6 blown saves (64.7 percent success rate), 6.00 ERA, 1.90 WHIP, .301 batting average against and 6 homers allowed
41 before: 18 saves, 3 blown saves (85.7 percent success rate), 1.35 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, .205 batting average against and 0 homers allowed
Diminishing velocity, as well as a less effective slider, is responsible. ESPN Stats & Information notes that in 2009, Broxton's best season, 31.4 percent of swings against him were misses, a number that dropped to 26.2 percent in 2010 and 22.3 percent this season. His slider, in particular, which generated misses on 47.4 percent of swings in 2009, has only a 26.3 miss percentage so far this year. And his fastball, which once averaged 97.6 mph in 2009, has averaged 94.3 mph this season, and that drop in velocity has almost directly coincided with the June 27 game.
Ultimately, Broxton is no longer the same overpowering closer he was two short seasons ago. Sticking with the theme of "changed" players, as we saw in Tuesday's 60 Feet 6 Inches and Wednesday's Hit Parade, Broxton's struggles come with clear, underlying warning signs. He's a clear sell-high candidate assuming, that is, you can hook anyone on a closer with eroding skills.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Incredibly, only a few hours after word began to circulate in Los Angeles that Broxton was out as Dodgers closer, manager Don Mattingly stuck up for him and declared that the right-hander was still his closer. (Speaking for the fantasy community, thanks, "Donnie Baseball," for buying us more time to sell!) Then, a day later, he gave Vicente Padilla the save opportunity during Wednesday's extra-inning win but was steadfast in his stance that Broxton was still his closer. Broxton, apparently, had a "barky" elbow and was unavailable to pitch after working each of the previous two days, ESPNLosAngeles.com reported.
Perhaps Mattingly's endorsement of Broxton isn't as much faith in the right-hander as it is a lack of viable alternatives. Of the two most discussed preseason alternatives, Hong-Chih Kuo is currently on the disabled list with a back injury, while Kenley Jansen has an 8.03 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 10 appearances. Kuo is the obvious benefactor should Broxton cede the role over the long haul, his lifetime 3.19 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 10.51 strikeouts per nine innings making him the next most suitable to close. But there's a reason the Dodgers gave Broxton the role on Opening Day, and it's Kuo's injury history. He has made four trips to the disabled list during his career, twice for elbow issues, and might not be up to the physical demands of the role during the course of a long, 162-game season.
If you want to speculate on the Dodgers' full-season leader in saves and believe talent wins out, snatch up Kuo if he was dropped. Understand, of course, the ride will be bumpy. This might not be his final DL stint and, as is, he is struggling during his current rehabilitation assignment in Class A ball, allowing four hits to five batters on Tuesday. It's a risk/reward play, through and through.
So how about Padilla? Ah, that's where this gets interesting. At the time the veteran right-hander signed his one-year, $2 million contract in December, several sources (ESPNLosAngeles.com included) noted that Padilla might be in consideration to close. Odd strategy, yes, being that he hadn't been a full-time reliever in 10 years and had made only one relief appearance in the past nine seasons, but there are hints that a short relief role might be good for him. He's usually stronger the first time through a lineup; opponents have .254/.326/.401 lifetime rates in their first plate appearances of Padilla's starts, and .231/.307/.334 from 2008-10, and as a reliever he can dial up his fastball (not to mention his slider and curve) a couple mph while relying more on his splitter.
That's not to say Padilla should be an instant saves star, but a fantasy pickup, yes, being that he's being taken seriously as a ninth-inning option. NL-only owners need to roster him for sure, and even those in deep-mixed should consider it. After all, it's fair to ask whether he can be any worse than Broxton.
Neftali Feliz lands on the DL
In most instances, it's the lower-tier relievers ceding their jobs or getting hurt, but fantasy took quite a blow when Texas Rangers closer Feliz landed on the 15-day disabled list this past Saturday with right shoulder inflammation. That's a top-five fantasy closer -- No. 4 in ADP (84.1) -- lost for at least two weeks.
Fortunately, there's good news: Feliz has already begun a throwing program, and according to the Dallas Morning News had no issues throwing at a distance of 90 feet on Wednesday. He's eligible to return from the disabled list on May 6 and appears on track to do so. This might indeed be merely a two-week thing. It's for that reason he barely slips at all in the Relief Efforts rankings.
That makes the search for saves in Texas a bit less relevant, though short-term saves seekers surely want the scoop on veteran left-handers Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes, the leaders of this fill-in committee, nevertheless. Oliver is the leader of the bunch and deservedly so; he has a 2.65 ERA and 1.11 WHIP since 2008 as one of the more surprising late-career rebirth stories currently in the game. He's now almost entirely a fastball-slider pitcher, a quality reliever against both sides and, with Rangers manager Ron Washington insisting he sees Alexi Ogando as a long-term starter this season, the probable No. 2 man in this bullpen all year. The problem is that, health willing, Feliz is too talented to cede the job, and Oliver's upside isn't great enough to make him much of a handcuff once Feliz returns.
Rhodes, meanwhile, fell into a save this past Sunday in a game that initially appeared out of hand, so his value is purely speculative and that might be his final save of 2011. Rhodes, 41, has been locked into more of a situational role; he's filthy against lefties and even holds his own against righties, but has averaged just 0.75 innings per appearance since his own late-career rebirth began in 2008. AL-only owners desperate for any saves at all can add him, but most of the reason you'll want him is that he won't hurt your ratios during your desperation.
A change of (White) Sox
It was only two weeks ago that, in this space, I wrote of Sergio Santos, "it's not unthinkable he could garner the next save chance, string two together and emerge from nowhere as the White Sox's new closer." Sure enough, 11 days later, he was thrown into a save chance at Yankee Stadium (this past Monday), converted four outs for his first save then promptly got another the following night, with some help, of course, from Brent Lillibridge's brilliant defense.
That speculative April 14 comment might not have led to a healthy ranking in the top 75 -- he was 67th that week and 58th last, and I've taken heat for that -- but the hints at substantial upside have been present for weeks, including a comment from one of my past chats that I felt "a 25-save season wouldn't be shocking." Today? A 25-save season actually seems somewhat probable yet amazingly Santos remains available in nearly 60 percent of ESPN leagues (59.6 percent, to be exact).
Matt Thornton might have the late-innings track record and Chris Sale the future potential to close, but Santos has a couple things going for him that the other two don't. He's right-handed, and many managers, for some reason, prefer righties in the closer role. Also, he has a filthy slider that generates a substantial number of swings and misses -- 53 percent in 2010, 64 percent in 2011. Santos' stuff is closer-worthy, and there's something to be said for the man who succeeds in back-to-back opportunities during the time the alternatives are struggling.
Thornton might have been permanently dropped back to his former setup role, which suits him well, but in fantasy that makes him a drop candidate. It's Sale -- whose slider at least is within the ballpark of Santos' -- who is probably the smarter handcuff choice, in AL-only and deep-mixed leagues, that is.
Ryan Madson forced to close
In a week littered with closer turnover, we'd be amiss if we didn't discuss the week's other new closer. And this one was a setup man whose team desperately tried everything to avoid pushing into the ninth; the Philadelphia Phillies ultimately had no choice but to turn to Ryan Madson after Jose Contreras (elbow) joined Brad Lidge (shoulder) on the disabled list this past week.
Why is that so bad? After all, since his return from a broken toe last July, Madson has seven wins, three saves, 17 holds, a 1.50 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .185 opponents' batting average in 56 appearances, easily ranking as one of the most effective relief pitchers during that near-four-month span. In terms of sheer talent, Madson would be a potential top-10 fantasy closer, but he's ranked only 28th this week, if only because there's an undeserved belief that he can't close.
Madson's own general manager, manager and pitching coach openly questioned him during the spring. As Ruben Amaro told the Philadelphia Inquirer in early April, "There's no question that we think that Ryan is a great fit for us, but Ryan has not proven to us he can be a closer in the major leagues. Can that happen? That's possible. Can we necessarily rely on him? I don't think so."
Now it's Madson's turn to prove Amaro, Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee, not to mention countless real-life and fantasy fans, wrong. It's a somewhat undeserved reputation; Madson has the skills to close and is already 2-for-2 in save chances since Contreras got hurt. Contreras is out 3-4 weeks and Lidge perhaps the same (if not longer), and while either one might seem an obvious candidate to reclaim the role instantly upon return, I'll ask this: What if Madson is so good in their absence that he doesn't deserve the demotion?
Consider this a great time to speculate on an elite talent.
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.