2011 AL East Closers

I am in the midst of a series examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams in the AL East, on a position-by-position basis. The players at each position are being ranked in relation to their peers within the division, with each team being assigned points based on where their player ranks in comparison to the other players.

Today, the series continues with a look at the closers.

The best player will earn 10 points for his team, with the remaining players being assigned points as follows: 7-5-3-1.

At the end of the process, I will accumulate all of the points for each team and create a divisional power ranking.

Analysis / Ranking:

Here are the 2010 statistics for each of the five projected starters entering the 2011 season. The chart presents the five basic stats used in fantasy baseball, plus ERA+ and Runs Above Replacement (RAR). The rankings contained herein are based on these stats, plus projections as to what the upcoming year may have in store.

1. Mariano Rivera, NYY

Rivera has a lock on this designation in much the same way that Colin Firth had a lock on the Academy Award for Best Actor. It is a no-brainer.

The future Hall-of-Famer suffered with a sore knee and oblique strain through much of the second half of the season, yet his numbers were still very solid after the break, although not Rivera-esque. He posted 15 saves, with a 2.60 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 2d half, but saw his strikeout rate and his K-BB ratio cut in half.

For fantasy owners: Rivera is the model of consistency and excellence. He has recorded at least 30 saves in each of the last eight seasons, while posting an ERA under 2.00 in seven of those years and a sub-1.00 WHIP in five of them (he did not exceed 1.121 in any of the other three campaigns). Year after year we predict that age will catch up to Mo, but year after year he proves all of his doubters wrong, One of these days they will be right… but I wouldn’t bet against him.

2. Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon is coming off the worst season of his career – it’s not even close. The ironic thing is that, at face value, he does not appear to have lost his “stuff”, as his strikeout rate remained above 10K / 9IP (10.2) and his average fastball continued to approach 95 mph (94.9 mph).

But while his strikeout rate was still elite, most of the rest of his pitching metrics were far from ‘elite’, and it seems obvious that his struggles come down to one word – location.

Pappy had difficulty both locating the strike zone and locating his pitches within the strike zone when he found it. According to the data at fangraphs.com:

* he failed to throw at least half of his pitches for strikes for the first time in his career (46.2%)

* opponents swung at barely half of all of his pitches (52.1%)

* opponents contact rate for all of the pitches he threw for strikes was a career-worst (87.7%)

What does this data mean?

He threw fewer pitches for strikes. Batters became more patient and made contact more consistently when they swung. Opponents BABIP was .287, nearly the league-average of .294 (NOT a good indicia of success when discussing a closer). His walk rate, which edged above 3BB / 9IP for the first time in his career in 2009, came dangerously close to reaching 4.00 last year (it was 3.8 / 9IP).

For fantasy owners: The data at fangraphs.com illustrates another key feature about his performance last year: he threw far fewer fastballs (69.5% of his pitches) than he ever had previously (he had a career rate in excess of 78% entering the season). He replaced those fastballs with split-fingered pitches (21.2% of his pitches, as opposed to 14.2% previously). It is impossible to know whether his pitch-selection is a result of the change in catcher (Victor Martinez vs Jason Varitek)… or whether it is the result of getting hit hard and having less confidence in his fastball… or whether he strayed from what had made him successful in previous years and batters teed off on his other offerings.

Whatever the reasons for the change, there appears to be a correlation between his pitch selection, his ability to throw strikes, and the ability of his opponents to hit him hard (he posted a career-high earned run average (3.90)). Pitch selection data will be hard to come by in spring training, but his fate during the 2011 season could rely on whether he effectively uses – and locates – his fastball.

3. Frank Francisco, TOR

While none of the remaining pitchers is guaranteed the closer’s role for the majority of the season (or for ANY of the season, for that matter), Francisco seems like the best bet to contribute meaningful innings at the end of the game.

Francisco has more competition from his teammates than either Uehara or Farnsworth in Baltimore or Tampa, respectively. He will have to ward of challenges from Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch in order to win and retain the closer’s role, but he is well-positioned to do so.

His stiffest competition may come from Jon Rauch, who took over in Minnesota last year when Joe Nathan went down with an injury; but while Rauch pitched very well in the first half, he imploded in the second half (walking 3.5 hitters for every 9 IP and compiling a 1.48 WHIP). If Rauch doesn’t pose the biggest threat to Francisco then it would likely be Dotel – but his elevated walk rate (4.8 BB / 9IP over the last two years) and home run rate (1.3 HR / 9IP last season) make it unlikely he would be effective over the long haul.

For fantasy owners: None of the three potential closers have routinely posted solid WHIPs, but Francisco posted a solid 1.12 mark when registered 25 saves for the Texas Rangers back in 2009. He has issued 2.9 BB / 9IP over the last two seasons while striking out 10.3 batters for every nine innings pitched over that same period. I expect he will save at least 25 games in 2011.

4. Koji Uehara, BAL

Uehara will battle former Marlins, Cubs and Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg to assume the closer’s responsibilities in Charm City. Gregg has registered 121 saves over the last four seasons, but I still believe Uehara is the guy who will emerge as the winner of this battle.

In my opinion, Gregg walks too many hitters (4.2 BB / 9IP over the last two seasons) to win and hold the job. On the other hand, Uehara exhibits outstanding control, walking just one batter for every nine innings pitched while striking out in excess of one hitter for each inning (11.3 K / 9IP).

For fantasy owners: Uehara would appear to be susceptible to home runs in Camden Yards thanks to an elevated fly ball rate (58%), but his control and ability to change speeds kept his home run rate below 1.00 over his first two seasons in the United States. His strikeout rate will likely regress somewhat, but his overall Dominance (which was in double figures last year) should enable him to be an effective closer.

5. Kyle Farnsworth, TB

With the mass defections of relievers via free agency and southpaw JP Howell still sidelined by last May’s labrum surgery, the closer’s role will be filled by either Farnsworth or Joel Peralta when the season gets underway. Farnsworth should win the job out of spring training and hold it for half the year; thereafter, expect either Howell or rookie Jake McGee to wrest the job from his control.

Farnsworth still ranked among the league-leaders in fastball velocity (94.9 mph) last year, while demonstrating greater control and reducing his walk rate to a career-low 2.8 BB / 9IP. While his strikeout rate checked in at just under one per inning, he still managed to post one of the best K-BB ratios of his career (3.21).

For fantasy owners: Farnsworth struggled in the second half of last year due to an insanely-low strand rate (only 60%), as was borne out by his xERA (which was just 3.10). He combines an elite strikeout rate with the ability to keep the ball in the ballpark (36% fly ball rate and 0.6 HR / 9IP). Don’t pay for him as if you will obtain benefits of ownership throughout the year… rather, think in terms of 15 saves (+/-).

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