The save speculator: Milwaukee Brewers

Eric Gagne blew his fifth save of the year Sunday night, leading to speculation that he might be removed from the closer’s role. First I’ll give a brief overview of what makes a good fantasy closer—which will appear in each edition of the “Save Speculator”—and then we’ll examine the Brewers’ situation more closely.

What makes a valuable fantasy closer

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 Rafael Soriano early last year, but doesn’t have the opportunity, he won’t pick up many saves. If a closer has the opportunity, like Bob Wickman 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.

Milwaukee Brewers

Eric Gagne was once the top closer in baseball, but has been plagued by injuries in recent years. He looked very strong in the first-half of 2007 for the Rangers, but he seemed to fall apart after being traded to the Red Sox. This offseason, the Milwaukee Brewers signed him to a one-year, $10 million contract. He is currently sporting a 6.14 ERA, nine saves and five blown saves. The Brew Crew did, however, lose only two of the games in which he blew a save (one of which was Sunday).

The Brewers are primed to contend this year, though, and they can’t afford their ninth inning guy putting the game in jeopardy. So what will they do?

It’s possible Gagne has seen his last save opportunity for the Brewers, although the guys vying to replace him aren’t exactly awe-inspiring.

Candidates:
1) David Riske
2) Salomon Torres
3) Guillermo Mota

Skills

2008

Pitcher	IP	K/9	BB/9	GB%	xFIP	ERA
Gagne	13.2	11.20	4.61	34%	3.60	5.27
Torres	19.1	7.45	3.72	63%	3.71	3.26
Mota	14	10.93	6.43	47%	4.31	2.57
Riske	16.1	5.51	4.41	33%	4.87	5.51

2007

Pitcher	IP	K/9	BB/9	GB%	xFIP
Gagne	52	8.83	3.63	39%	4.21
Torres	52.2	7.69	2.91	49%	4.21
Mota	59.1	7.13	2.73	44%	4.32
Riske	69.2	6.72	3.49	41%	4.56

2006

Pitcher	IP	K/9	BB/9	GB%	xFIP
Gagne	2	---	---	---	---
Torres	93.1	6.94	3.66	55%	4.07
Mota	55.2	7.44	3.88	34%	3.36
Riske	44	5.73	3.48	36%	5.13

2008 Marcels

Pitcher	IP	K/9	BB/9	GB%
Gagne	---	7.76	3.53	---
Torres	---	6.64	3.39	---
Mota	---	7.05	3.45	---
Riske	---	6.47	3.38	---

Note: I realize this might not be the most easily readable format for this, but when we need to look at multiple years for several players, I’m not sure how best to do it. If you have suggestions for future editions, they’re more than welcome.

Gagne was great until 2005, but didn’t pitch much in 2006 and was only decent in 2007. He’s actually been pretty good so far in 2008, but his 31 percent HR/FB rate is making him look really bad. Nothing is more detrimental to a closer’s job security than the long ball. It is easily observable and does immediate, irreparable damage. Gagne has given up four already this year. Combine that with a below-average walk rate, and that can cause some serious damage.

If Gagne is removed, who fills in? Well, Marcels saw very little distinguishable difference among his potential replacements coming into the year. Torres gets the edge given his superior career ground ball rates.

If we look at the actual data from the last couple of years, we see that Riske appears to be clearly inferior. He and Derrick Turnbow (who has since been designated for assignment and subsequently sent to the minors) were originally the backup plan to Gagne, but when your ERA matches your K/9, there’s a good chance you’re doing something wrong. Riske really hasn’t been a good pitcher since 2003 or 2004, and he isn’t looking good so far this year.

Mota and Torres have quite similar peripherals. Above-average strikeouts, so-so control. Torres gets the edge, though, because of his 52 percent ground ball rate since 2002. Mota’s is just 42 percent.

Opportunity

Most people seem to think Torres would get the job should Gagne get removed, but Leverage Index would argue with them.

Leverage Index

Pitcher	gmLI	pLI
Mota	1.87	2.18
Torres	1.22	1.36
Riske	1.03	1.21

Mota leads here by a substantial margin in both gmLI and pLI. That the Brewers trust him more than the other guys says something. They obviously don’t want somebody they don’t trust pitching the ninth inning, especially with the way Gagne has been so far.

One interesting thing about this situation is that all three of these guys have closed before. I don’t think this will matter too much to the Brewers, but let’s check out their records anyway.

Save conversions

Pitcher	SVO	SV	BS	SV%
Torres	45	30	15	67%
Riske	38	21	17	55%
Mota	19	7	12	37%

None were very good, which further leads me to believe that this won’t have much of an impact on the Brewers’ decision (again, should one actually have to be made). That Mota was just 37 percent successful could keep him out of the role, but the Brewers are a pretty progressive organization. Hopefully they see the small sample size there and don’t buy too deep into the notion that the ninth inning is so pressure-filled that some guys simply can’t do it. I mean, they’re putting Mota in very high-leverage situations now and he’s doing fine, so hopefully they’d be all right with him closing.

Let’s check out where in games each of these guys is being used. We know that Mota is being used in the highest-leverage situations, but is he also being used late in the game? The following table shows the breakdown of the number of times each of these pitchers entered the game in a particular inning.

Innings breakdown

Pitcher	5th	6th	7th	8th	9th	10th	8th+	Average
Mota	0	0	0	10	0	2	12	8.3
Torres	2	2	7	0	1	2	3	7.1
Riske	1	5	3	4	0	1	5	7.0

Note: 8th+ is the numbers of times the pitcher entered the game in the 8th inning or later.

We can see that Mota clearly has the advantage here. He is being used most often late in the game (never earlier than the eighth inning) in addition to pitching the highest-leverage innings. These two things will sometimes coincide, but not always. Just look at the Diamondbacks’ situation from last time.

Torres has actually entered in the eighth inning or later just three times this year, but did enter in the seventh and stay on into the eighth four times, and one time he pitched from the seventh into the ninth.

Riske is being used all over the place, and has entered in the eighth inning or later only once over the past two weeks. He also has been yanked in the middle of an inning five times this year, showing what little confidence the team has in him to work out of a jam.

Finally, let’s check out how often these guys are being used for more than one inning. Sometimes a team will forgo the most talented pitcher because the manager prefers to use him for multiple innings instead of pigeon-holing him in the ninth.

Multi-inning usage

Pitcher	1+	2+	3+
Mota	3	2	0
Riske	5	3	0
Torres	7	5	1

Another reason to like Mota. He is used for multiple innings the least of these three and would make more sense pitching just one inning in the ninth. While I think you’ve likely already eliminated Riske in your mind, I wanted to note that it’s possible his numbers here would have been higher had he been performing better this year.

Final breakdown

Reasons for Mota:
1) Highest Leverage Index
2) Used late in the game more often than the other two
3) Used for multiple innings the least often
4) Comparable skills to Torres and better skills than Riske
5) Lowest ERA of the group

Reasons for Torres:
1) Best skills (though not by much compared to Mota)
2) Given Gagne’s homer troubles, Torres’ low fly ball rates might look appealing
3) Most prior success closing games among the three candidates (although he wasn’t that good)

Reasons for Riske:
1) Was considered Gagne’s primary insurance early in the season (so was Turnbow, though)

Verdict:
I picked up both Mota and Torres in one of my leagues tonight. If you have the bench space to do it (I placed John Smoltz, Yovani Gallardo, and Hank Blalock on the DL this week, so I did), it might be a good idea in case Gagne is removed over the next couple of days. If he lasts longer than that, you can drop one. If you have room for only one to begin with, I would probably go with Mota. I picked him up in another couple of leagues tonight.

While a lot of people will tell you Torres is the guy to own, Mota seems to make a lot more sense to me given all that we looked at today.

Please keep in mind, though, that Gagne is not a lock to lose his job. He would probably be more successful than any of these guys given the chance to close for the rest of the season. The name of this series of articles is the “saves speculator.” In competitive leagues, we often need to pick up a closer before he actually inherits the job. While it’s no lock that one of these guys will be closing soon, picking one up is probably one of the better percentage plays you could make at this time.

Also, please realize that even if one of these guys takes the job, there is no guarantee he will close all year. None really has the skills to be a good closer. I do believe in the saying “saves are saves,” though, so if one of them does start closing, that guy would absolutely be worth owning. Just don’t count on him to close all year because the likelihood of that isn’t great, whoever it ends up being.

Concluding thoughts

If you have any thoughts on this matter, feel free to either comment or send me an e-mail.

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