For a team that has excelled on the mound all year -- their team ERA is a major league-best 2.87 -- the Oakland Athletics' bullpen has fallen on hard times.
Through 23 games in May, Athletics starters have 19 quality starts, a 2.45 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, despite having to use seven starters during the month. Here's how remarkable their starting pitching performance has been in May: Even 27-year-old journeyman fill-in Guillermo Moscoso, a Tuesday spot-starter, handed them six shutout innings of three-hit baseball in a winning effort.
The Athletics' bullpen, meanwhile, hasn't been nearly as sharp, blowing two of five save chances, absorbing six losses and posting a 4.12 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.
Fill-in closer Brian Fuentes deserves much of the blame; five of the losses were his and he has a 6.48 ERA and 1.80 WHIP in his 11 May appearances. It's that slump -- and perhaps his comments critical of manager Bob Geren following a Monday loss -- that cost him a demotion from the closer role.
Fortunately for the Athletics, 2009-10 closer Andrew Bailey is on the mend and could be back in the ninth inning within hours, not days. He's currently on a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Sacramento after recovering from a forearm injury and already has three scoreless innings of relief. Bailey was one of fantasy's most effective closers when healthy the past two seasons; he had 51 saves, a 1.70 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in his first two big league seasons combined.
But Bailey is hardly a model of health, this representing the second DL stint of his young career. The previous one was for a back injury, one that cost him 28 days in 2010. He has also had two surgeries on his elbow -- Tommy John surgery in college in 2004 and September 2010 surgery to remove scar tissue and bone chips that prematurely ended his season. There's no guarantee Bailey's forearm issues are completely behind him, so handcuffs are a relevant discussion in Oakland.
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.
If not Fuentes, though, then who?
Grant Balfour, the Athletics' temporary closer to bridge things from Fuentes to Bailey, is one smart choice. He's the team's leader in holds (9) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.80) and sports a healthy 2.08 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. It's the third year out of his past four that he has been a lights-out setup man, though that might actually work against him, being that Geren probably prefers him as an eighth-inning reliever, rather than full-time closer. On performance, Balfour is certainly the next most deserving to Bailey, and even if it turns out he never gets a single save chance, his ERA, WHIP and K's can be of help in AL-only leagues.
Meanwhile, Joey Devine, the former Atlanta Braves prospect, is the sleeper of the bunch. Though he lost all of the 2009 and 2010 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery, Devine's numbers between Triple-A Sacramento and the Athletics so far this season show the operation hasn't adversely affected him one bit. He had 12 1/3 scoreless innings of 17 K's and a .098 batting average allowed in 11 games for Sacramento and three shutout innings in as many games for the A's, numbers that compare favorably to his last healthy season of 2008, when he set a record-low ERA (0.59) for pitchers with 45-plus innings in a single year.
Devine might not be an immediate candidate to close, but he might not have to be. With Bailey due back, Devine can work himself back into the mix in a setup role, earning Geren's trust as an injury-replacement fill-in later in the year. AL-only owners might want to stash him on a bench if he's available.
New faces in La-La Land
The Los Angeles Dodgers haven't had much better luck with their bullpen lately, the group combining for five losses, a 4.34 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in the month of May. Matt Guerrier and Kenley Jansen, their two most obvious options to close, have each absorbed the loss in their most recent appearances; Jansen blew a save on Monday (2/3 IP, 3 H, 3 ER), while Guerrier lost in a tie game Wednesday (2/3 IP, 2 H, 1 ER).
It's problems such as that which make most any Dodgers reliever a viable option to close these days, and NL-only owners might want to familiarize themselves with two lesser-known names from their bullpen: Javy Guerra, who notched his first career save on Tuesday, and Rubby De La Rosa, who was recalled the same day and set Guerra up with a shutout inning of two-hit relief.
Guerra has swing-and-miss stuff, having accrued a 13.0 percent rate in his first five big league appearances after averaging 8.81 strikeouts per nine innings during his minor league career and 10.07 per nine since 2009. A mid-90s fastball and slider are mostly responsible for that. The problem, however, is that Guerra's command has wavered throughout his professional career; he averaged 5.23 walks per nine in the minors (4.53 per nine since 2009) and has served up a great number of fly balls when his command is off. That's a recipe for disaster if he enters one of those bad periods, and the Dodgers might not be able to stomach it in the ninth.
De La Rosa, meanwhile, was rated the No. 90 prospect overall by Baseball America this preseason and ranked 67th in Jason Grey's preseason top 100 fantasy prospects for 2011, and while everyone seemed to view his future as that of a starter, the Dodgers apparently felt his stuff was good enough to help coming out of the bullpen. He throws in the mid-90s with a slider and splitter and dominated Double-A ball late last season and the beginning of this one to the tune of a 2.08 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 9.00 K's per nine in 16 starts. The Dodgers might be rushing him, but in shorter outings opponents might have a more difficult time getting a read on him, and in terms of skill he's capable of quickly rising up the depth chart and putting himself into the saves equation.
Neither Guerra nor De La Rosa appears ready to make an immediate impact in shallow mixed leagues, but certainly both are on the NL-only radar and could rise in value quickly. If you have the bench space to take a chance, do so.
Do relievers' benchmarks need adjustment?
You might notice that this week's Relief Effort lead story went in a different direction than 60 Feet, 6 Inches and Hit Parade before it; those two columns discussed the need to adjust statistical benchmarks in today's increasingly pitching-rich game. There's a reason: Examination of the data shows that there isn't much of a need to adjust our benchmark for what's considered a "good" closer.
Oh, sure, there's the matter of the major league averages for relief pitchers, which have progressed steadily the past three seasons:
2011: 3.69 ERA, .243 BAA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.62 K/9
2010: 3.94 ERA, .250 BAA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.85 K/9
2009: 4.08 ERA, .252 BAA, 1.39 WHIP, 7.61 K/9
But there are a couple problems with taking those numbers at face value: One is the matter of sample size; the 2011 statistics account for only 56 days' worth of a season, compared to 180-plus for either 2009 or 2010. It's for that reason I won't even bother publishing what the top X Player Rater relief pitchers have done the past three years for a comparison; relievers' samples are the tiniest of the three groups I've examined this week, so the regression argument is most valid here.
The other problem is that there's a substantial difference between your average "relief pitcher" and a "closer" -- the latter the far more desirable asset in fantasy. Remember, the vast majority of fantasy owners are targeting saves first and foremost when scouting relief pitchers, and the early returns show that there has been next to no change in that particular category:
• The major league leader had 18 through May 24, but in the past 10 seasons, the leader actually had more on that date in 2008 (21) and 2004 (21).
• Twelve closers had double-digit saves through May 24, but that's actually tied for the second-fewest to do so by that date in the past 10 seasons (2009, 11).
• The top 25 closers totaled 273 saves through May 24, and although that's the fourth-best total on that date in the past 10 seasons, consider that Opening Day 2011 was on the earliest date (March 31) of any of those 10. If you calculate the average number of saves by calendar day of the top 25, the 2011 season actually ranks third-worst (4.96 per day), ahead of only 2006 (4.96, just percentage points behind) and 2009 (4.65).
• Through May 24, only four relievers had double-digit saves and an ERA beneath 2.00, down from five on that date in 2010. There were actually more on that date in 2007 (6), 2008 (7) and 2009 (8).
So who's benefiting from the league-wide drops in relief ERA and WHIP? Perhaps it's the middle relievers: Three of the five relievers with sub-1.00 ERAs and 25 of the 43 with sub-2.00 ERAs didn't have a single save, and 31 of those 43 with ERAs under 2.00 had two saves or fewer. It's for that reason pitchers such as Jonny Venters and Mike Adams earn such generous rankings in Relief Efforts. These days, it seems foolish to stomach a high-ERA/WHIP starting pitcher in your lineup, what with so many talented middle men available to bolster those ratios.
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.