Fantasy: Closer Reportby Ben Jacobs
August 24, 2004
It's been a while since I last discussed closers, so today I want to talk about a dozen closers who aren't all at the top of the rankings, but who do all interest me for one reason or another.
Eric Gagne, Dodgers: Gagne's overall numbers indicate a season just slightly less dominant than last year's Cy Young award-winning performance -- 35 saves, 2.36 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 86 strikeouts in 61 innings. A closer, however, shows that he's been struggling mightily lately.
After his save conversion streak came to a close, Gagne didn't allow a run in his next 11 appearances, including three scoreless innings on Aug. 1. Since that three-inning stint, however, he's allowed 12 runs (eight earned) on 15 hits and three walks with 12 strikeouts in 10 innings while blowing another save and losing three games.
Before you panic, keep in mind that he had a 4.97 ERA last May (despite 24 strikeouts in 12.2 innings) and recovered just fine. Most likely, he's just getting unlucky since he didn't allow any home runs in those 10 innings.
Mariano Rivera, Yankees: I'll be the first to admit that I didn't think Rivera had this kind of a season in him. I thought it was much more likely that he'd dip back below the 60-inning mark than that he'd pitch more than 80 innings for just the second time since 1996.
Yet here he is, on pace for 84 innings, with 43 saves already under his belt and a 1.39 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. He's shown no signs of slowing down, and I see no reason he won't get another 10-12 saves this year. The only place he's not great is strikeouts, with just 7.38 K/9IP.
Brad Lidge, Astros: Lidge is one of the top three fantasy closers right now for the entire season despite the fact that he didn't even become a closer until halfway through. He only has 16 saves, but 2.11 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and, most importantly, 115 strikeouts more than make up for that.
Lidge's 14.24 K/9IP mark is almost as good as Gagne's 14.98 rate from last year. If Lidge had been the closer from the very start of the season, he'd be the top fireman in the majors. If he can maintain that strikeout rate, he'll be the top closer the rest of the way.
Joe Nathan, Twins: Nathan allowed two runs against the Tigers on June 6. Then, he went 28 games (29 innings) without allowing any more runners to touch home plate. That streak ended when he allowed four runs (three earned) in two-thirds of an inning against the Yankees last Thursday. Three days later, in his next appearance, he allowed one run in one inning. Yesterday, he gave up two more runs in two-thirds of an inning.
Combine the 28 game scoreless streak and the three-game scoring streak and you get a 1.72 ERA for Nathan's last 31 appearances. His ERA for the season is 1.74. So, whether you want to concentrate on the last three games or the 28 games before then or the season as a whole, he's been a pleasant surprise. He also has 34 saves, a 1.09 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 57 innings.
Instead of declining from last season's performance like I expected him too, he's taken his game to another level. Assuming these last three games are just a blip on the radar screen, he's turned himself into an elite closer.
John Smoltz, Braves: Speaking of elite closers, Smoltz didn't really look like one earlier this year. Through the first three months of the season, Smoltz only had 14 saves to go with a 2.70 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. Good numbers, to be sure, but not what you expect from a top three or four closer.
Now, Smoltz is up to 33 saves, has a 1.92 ERA and 0.91 WHIP and 70 strikeouts in 65.2 innings. He's walking fewer than one batter per nine innings, striking more than one batter per one inning and dominating just like he did last year. He's already passed last year's innings total (64.1) and he's showing no signs of injury or age.
Keith Foulke, Red Sox: Foulke's had an excellent season for the Red Sox, but not quite so good for fantasy teams. Despite his 1.87 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 63 strikeouts in 67.1 innings, he only has 23 saves and is on pace to just barely reach 30 for the season. I don't expect him to have any problems getting there though.
After a strange first four months for him, Foulke has finally been getting save opportunities in August, and he's converted every one of them. His seven save opportunities are already more than he had in any other month (he had six in both May and July) and his seven saves are obviously also more than he's had in any other month (he had five in both April and May).
Based on what he's done this month, I'd expect Foulke to get at least 10 more saves and maybe as many as 12 or 13. If he does, he won't fall too much short of the 40 or so I expected him to record.
Billy Wagner, Phillies: Injuries have completely dismantled Wagner's season. His 0.87 WHIP is amazing and his 11.94 K/9IP rate is excellent, but injuries have limited him to just 34.2 innings. Such a small workload has allowed a couple bad outings to skew his ERA up to 3.12, and with just 16 saves, he's in serious danger of falling short of 20 for just the second time since 1996.
If you used a high draft pick on Wagner, hopefully you were at least able to handcuff him with Tim Worrell, who's been decent with 16 saves, a 3.86 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Octavio Dotel, A's: The only thing you can say about Dotel's season is that it's been a disappointment. He was merely good with the Astros, posting 14 saves, a 3.12 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 34.2 innings before getting traded to Oakland. He was horrible at first with the A's before settling down somewhat and he now has 28 saves, a 3.82 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 95 strikeouts in 66 innings for the season.
If you're looking for the dominant reliever from the last three years, he may have just arrived. In his last six appearances, Dotel has pitched 5.1 scoreless innings. 5.1 innings is nothing, but he only allowed one hit in that time while walking nobody and striking out seven. I'll be pretty surprised if Dotel's ERA over the rest of the season is above 3.00.
Jose Mesa, Pirates: It's a good thing the real Jose Mesa has shown up, because everybody must have been getting pretty confused trying to figure out who the guy closing games in Pittsburgh really was. Surely, somebody who reached the All-Star break with 22 saves and a 2.46 ERA couldn't be the same person as the closer who had a 6.52 ERA and 24 saves total last year.
A closer look at his numbers would have confirmed anybody's belief that the second half of the season wouldn't be so rosy for Mesa. He only had 22 strikeouts in 36.1 innings and his 1.42 WHIP didn't jive with his low ERA. Sure enough, his WHIP's still 1.41, but his ERA is up to 3.18. He only has 31 strikeouts against 18 walks and he's only converted 12 of 17 saves opportunities since converting 22 of 23 before the break.
Danny Kolb, Brewers: Last year, Kolb showed nice potential as a closer by posting a 1.96 ERA and saving 21 games, and he's fulfilled that potential by posting a 2.53 ERA and saving 34 games this year. Seems simple enough -- good numbers last year, good numbers this year. As long as you don't look any closer, you won't get confused.
If you do, however, you might notice that he had 39 strikeouts (8.49 K/9IP) and 19 walks (4.14 BB/9IP) in 41.1 innings last year. This year, he's pitched five more innings so far, and struck out 21 fewer hitters while walking nine fewer hitters. His strikeout rate is a ridiculously low 3.50 K/9IP and his walk rate is an impressive 1.94 BB/9IP.
He's gone from a pitcher with spotty control but the ability to strike people out to a pitcher with pinpoint control and no strikeout ability whatsoever. As long as he gets the job done, you might not think it matters, but in 5x5 leagues, he's not more than an average closer despite his impressive numbers because he doesn't strike anybody out.
Shawn Chacon, Rockies: The Rockies converted Chacon from starter to reliever hoping that it would keep him healthy this year. It worked, but is that a good thing for Colorado? Chacon has been able to pitch 52 innings over 54 games, but he's allowed a 6.92 ERA and 1.92 WHIP. Amazingly, however, the Rockies have kept on using him as their closer, and he's amassed 30 saves despite blowing eight opportunities.
What does he mean for your fantasy team? Well, there's no question that he's helped you out in saves if you've been using him all year, but he's also killed your ERA and WHIP. Let's say your team has about a 3.50 ERA with 1,200 innings pitched. Add in Chacon's 52 innings from this season, and your ERA would shoot up to 3.65. He has the same sort of affect on WHIP as well.
Basically, unless your desperate for saves, the negative affect he has on your ERA and WHIP probably outweighs any saves you'll get from him.
Dustin Hermanson, Giants: For some reason, I've always thought Hermanson should be a good pitcher, even though he's made it perfectly clear that he's not. Maybe all this time, however, he's just been used in the wrong role. Since switching to the closer spot for the Giants -- who rightfully felt anybody must be better than Matt Herges -- Hermanson has five saves, a 2.53 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and eight strikeouts in 10.2 innings.
Obviously, 10.2 innings isn't enough to get a good read on his ability, but it's certainly not uncommon for mediocre (or worse -- Gagne) starters to turn into good (or better -- Gagne) closers. If Hermanson's still available in your league for some reason, pick him up just in case he's able to keep doing what he's been doing for the rest of the season.
Ben Jacobs can be reached via e-mail.
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