The save speculator: Arizona Diamondbacks

With Manny Corpas‘ recent removal as the Rockies’ closer, I thought we should look at some other closers whose jobs might currently be in jeopardy or might be down the line. .

What makes a valuable fantasy closer

We’ve discussed this before: There are two things that make a valuable fantasy closer. The first is talent and the second is opportunity. A pitcher needs both to be an effective fantasy closer. If a closer is talented, like Matt Capps early last year, but doesn’t have the opportunity, he won’t pick up many saves. If a closer has the opportunity, like Salomon Torres last year, but doesn’t have the talent, he is likely to lose the job.

This series of articles will examine situations around the leagues, identify where there is a closer who doesn’t possess the talent to keep his job, then assess which of the team’s other relievers might replace him.

Arizona Diamonbacks

Brandon Lyon is currently closing in Arizona, and some feel he will continue to close effectively for the remainder of the year. I am not one of these people.

Yes, Lyon currently has a 2.77 ERA and is 8-for-10 in save opportunities. Yes, he also currently has a 6.92 K/9 and 0.69 (!) BB/9. He also, however, has thrown just 13 innings and faced just 50 batters. According to Pizza Cutter, this would put him just one-third of the way toward being meaningful with his strikeouts and less than 10 percent of the way with his walks. PITCHf/x might be helpful here to see if he changed something, and if this continues I’ll be sure to take a look, but I don’t think it’s the most likely scenario looking at a sample this small. Combine this small sample with his poor overall skills in the past, and I’m willing to bet that Lyon regresses.

When he does, he won’t be closer material. A worse-than-average strikeout and walk rate, combined with a league average ground ball rate in a park that inflates homers by 15 percent isn’t exactly a recipe for success.

So who replaces him? Well, during the offseason, he and Tony Pena were the two candidates for the job, but several factors lead me to believe that it might actually be Chad Qualls who would get the nod.

Skills

Qualls has better skills than Pena. Check them both out from 2007:

Player	K/9	BB/9	GB%
Qualls	8.49	2.72	57%
Pena	6.64	3.27	48%

Qualls was better in each of the big three. He is currently struggling with his control a little bit (4.30 BB/9), but he’s only thrown 14.2 innings and his career mark is 2.74. His strikeout rate in 2007 was higher than the rest of his career, but it’s high again this year, and after 400 batters faced, I think we can reasonably expect him to keep it up. Also, Pena’s current stats are nearly identical to 2007.

Furthermore, it can’t hurt that Qualls’ ERA currently sits at 0.00 while Pena’s is at 5.56.

Opportunity

Neither, obviously, has opportunity now, but there is some evidence that could reasonably lead us to believe that if a choice is to be made, it will be Qualls. So far this year, he is being used in higher leverage situations than Pena.

Player	gmLI	pLI
Qualls	1.44	1.42
Pena	1.00	0.98

First, a big thank you to FanGraphs for providing these stats. gmLI, as I talked about this winter, measures the relative importance of the current situation at the time the pitcher enters the game. A little less important, in this context, is pLI, which measures the player’s leverage index for all game events. Qualls leads Pena in both by a significant margin.

Pena’s gmLI is exactly 1.00, meaning that he is being used (on average) in exactly neutral situations. I’ve shown this stat to some people and they’ve reasoned that the D-Backs are a progressive organization and probably don’t consider their closer their most important reliever. They’d rather use their best relievers (Qualls and Pena) in the higher leverage situations, which usually come up before the ninth inning.

While I certainly like this logic in the grand scheme of things, there are a couple of things wrong with it. I would first point out that the D-Backs used their most talented reliever, Jose Valverde, as their closer last year.

Also, while I agree that a team’s relievers should be perfectly leveraged, with the best reliever being used in the highest-leverage situations, the fact is that the Diamondbacks do use the traditional closer system. It is also a fact that closers, league-wide, do end up pitching in the highest-leverage situations. They aren’t leveraged as well as they could be if they weren’t restricted to the ninth inning, but they are still involved in higher-leverage situations than any of a team’s other relievers. Look at the leaders in gmLI from 2007.

2007 Top 15 in gmLI

Name			Team		gmLI 
Trevor Hoffman		Padres		2.02
Jose Valverde		Diamondbacks	1.96
Joe Borowski		Indians		1.94
Jeremy Accardo		Blue Jays	1.86
Mike MacDougal		White Sox	1.82
Francisco Cordero	Brewers		1.80
Brad Hennessey		Giants		1.80
Rafael Betancourt	Indians		1.78
Takashi Saito		Dodgers		1.77
J.J. Putz		Mariners	1.76
Francisco Rodriguez	Angels		1.76
Jonathan Papelbon	Red Sox		1.75
Chad Bradford		Orioles		1.74
Todd Jones		Tigers		1.74
David Weathers		Reds		1.72

Only three players on this list weren’t closers last year. One was Rafael Betancourt, who doesn’t really count because he was used in lower-leverage situations than his team’s closer, Joe Borowski. The Indians just had a lot of high-leverage situations to go around. The other two are Mike MacDougal and Chad Bradford. While not an exact science, I think it’s pretty clear that while closers aren’t leveraged as well as they could be, they are indeed used in the highest-leverage situations.

Maybe this is coincidental, but Lyon was second on the Diamonbacks in gmLI last year at 1.44 (ahead of Pena). In a move that surprised many, he was chosen as the closer above Pena after Valverde was traded. Guess who is second on the team in gmLI so far in 2008? Yup. Qualls.

This off-season, Lenny Melnick of Melnick & Greco Fantasy Sports said on several occasions—before the decision was made—that he was hearing Lyon would win the job because the D-Backs wanted to the flexibility of allowing Pena to throw more than one inning. If this is the case, wouldn’t it make sense to pass him up again, this time for the more talented Qualls? It’s true that Pena hasn’t thrown more than one inning in an appearance yet this year, but when the guy is being roughed up like he has, wouldn’t that make the team a little hesitant to do so? Maybe they’re just waiting for him to get it together.

Also, and this is probably just coincidental as well, Valverde was used in the second highest-leverage situations of any reliever in baseball last year. Being a progressive organization but still going with a traditional closer, maybe the D-Backs make a concerted effort to use their closer in more high-leverage situations than other teams do. If this is the case, it would seemingly make it more likely that they would choose Qualls, who is their best reliever now that Valverde is gone. Of course, that then begs the question of why he didn’t get the job to begin with.

While this all is certainly is favorable for Qualls, leverage index isn’t the be all, end all. If you look at Atlanta, Manny Acosta had a better leverage index than Peter Moylan, but Moylan got the closing gig over him.

If we look at the point in games that Pena and Qualls are being used, we see that Pena has been used almost exclusively in the eighth or ninth inning, having pitched in the seventh just once in 11 games. Qualls has pitched in the eighth or later eight out of 13 times (not bad, but not as often as Pena), but two of those times he actually entered in the seventh and then stayed on into the eighth for at least one batter.

Qualls, however, was used over Pena on April 6 in a save situation after Brandon Lyon was used in the eighthh inning. Might not signify anything, but it certainly isn’t a good sign for Pena.

Final breakdown

Reasons for Qualls:
1) Better skills
2) 0.00 ERA compared to 5.56 for Pena
3) Used in higher-leverage situations
4) Team might prefer Pena as a setup man

Reasons for Pena:
1) Was the only other candidate in the preseason
2) Currently the primary eighth-inning guy

I don’t have access to Bob Melvin‘s brain and I don’t have all the answers, and it really could be either of these guys, but if I’m speculating on one for my fantasy team, I’m probably going with Qualls. Some will say Pena simply because he was the other candidate during the preseason, but consider this theory:

After Pena posted a 3.27 ERA last year and Lyon posted a 2.68 ERA, it might have come across as disrespectful to these guys to throw Qualls into the mix before he threw a single inning as a Diamondback. Now that the season has started and Pena has a 5.56 ERA, it would be much easier to say, “Look, you’re struggling right now. Chad Qualls hasn’t let in a run yet and we really like you in the eighth-inning role. We’re going to use him as the closer.” Just some food for thought.

Also, even if it is Pena, there’s no guarantee he would keep the job. His skills aren’t fantastic for a closer. Saves are saves, though, and if you think Pena will be chosen instead of Qualls, he is worth the speculative pickup.

Concluding thoughts

I had originally intended this article to talk about the situations for several teams, but with everything there was to say about the Diamondbacks, I think I’ll spread them out. Look for more in the coming days.

Also, if you have your own opinions or theories about the D-Backs’ closer situation, please feel free to leave some comments or e-mail me.

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