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How to Win: Runs Scored

If you've done fantasy baseball long enough, you've probably come to think that runs are a pretty dumb stat. If you've followed sabermetrics long enough, you're probably totally sure about that. And yet, we keep coming back to it, to baseball's first recorded stat. Its unpredictability haunts us, leaving us to the caprices of teammate performance, park effects, opposing defenses, and blind luck.

Runs scored (presumably) correlate so weakly from one year to the next that Fangraphs didn't even mention them when discussing such things last month. But Runs are a whole category in our game, so we have to find some way to cheat the system and come out on top. To start us off, here are last year's leaders:

2012's Top 12:

1. Mike Trout                          129
2. Miguel Cabrera                 109 
3. Ryan Braun                        108
4. Andrew McCutchen         107
4. Justin Upton                      107
6. Robinson Cano                  105
6. Ian Kinsler                          105 
8. Austin Jackson                 103
8. Adam Jones                       103
8. Josh Hamilton                  103
11. Jimmy Rollins                 102
11. Curtis Granderson          102 

What can we learn from this list? Not next year's top twelve, I'd imagine--though some should still be on there. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of player on the leaderboard: elite hitters who had great seasons, and the top-of-the-lineup players hitting ahead of them. Splitting the difference apparently doesn't hurt, as Rollins can attest, and at least Upton managed to do something productive for his fantasy owners. Notice, too, how many of these hitters came from elite lineups, hitters' parks, or both--only Rollins and McCutchen break that mold. Finally, we can all appreciate that Trout scored 20 more runs than anyone else despite waiting in the minors for a month. Wow. You don't have to be a traditionalist to appreciate that.

It is from these gleanings that we can begin to form a strategy more cogent than simply: "Get good hitters and good luck." You can't build a competitive advantage with that one--all but one other team in your league will be trying to get good hitters. (One will be stumbling around in the dark--you probably know who I'm talking about.) Exception: if you're lucky enough to draft near the top, grab Trout because his combination of elite hitting and setting the table for other elite hitters gives him a very real advantage.

For everyone else, we'll be looking at how to increase your runs on the margins and get more value out of the same picks everyone else has.

Top of the Order Hitters
Except in the case of your worst leadoff men, on your worst offenses, leadoff hitters are a great place to sneak in some extra runs. The nice thing is that they tend to play in the outfield--where you probably have more roster flexibility--or middle infield, where everyone is bad, so you might as well score some runs. Some teams will settle on a leadoff hitter in Spring Training, and plenty of teams will change leadoff hitters over the course of the season. Nabbing a newly-minted leadoff hitter can be a great way to swipe some extra runs off the waiver wire in the summer. For now, here are a few players who should be leading off, won't be early draft day targets, and aren't already on your depth chart for bushels of steals:

Dustin Ackley, Jon Jay, David DeJesus, Adam Eaton, Michael Brantley, Ruben Tejada, Denard Span, Nick Markakis, Starling Marte, Dexter Fowler, Darin Mastroianni, and Derek Jeter

I know, there are some names you know here, and some guys that are projected to swipe a few bags, but all of these guys--as long as they can hold down the leadoff spot--are likely to get a little extra boost in runs scored. If someone's flying off the board because of their batting average (like Jackson), or their elite steals (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Reyes), or their all-around utility (Shin-Soo Choo), they might not be a bargain. But prospects like Eaton, Mastroianni, and Marte might be. Even the shortstop once considered by everyone on the West Coast to be the game's most overrated player might be a good deal.

High OBP + High in the Lineup

Not everyone on the list above is going to be a good leadoff hitter. They may not even lead off for very long. Besides, leadoff hitters aren't the only place to look for value in Runs Scored. Anyone who can get on base and hit in the 1-3 spots of a batting order is probably going to be helpful in this category. Here are some elite pretty high OBP-players who will see time at the top of a lineup. Again, superstars are excluded.

Fowler (.389), Jeter (.362), Martin Prado (.359), DeJesus (.350), Elvis Andrus (.349), Brantley (.348), Marco Scutaro (.348), Carlos Beltran (.346), Span (.342), Neil Walker (.342), Asdrubal Cabrera (.338), Angel Pagan (.338), Ian Desmond (.335), Ben Revere (.333), Daniel Murphy (.332), Alcides Escobar (.331).

Fowler is the only one on this list whose OBP is elite, but any and all of these players should be scoring some runs. Even in lousy lineups like those the Mets and Royals will be putting out, hitting in the first couple spots in the order usually means someone pretty good is coming up next.

High OBP + Elite Lineup

Of course, runs aren't scored only at the top of the lineup. With a powerful team or a helpful home park a player who gets on base should be scoring some runs. Think about:

Miguel Montero (.391), David Murphy (.380), A.J. Ellis (.373), David Freese (.372), Paul Konerko (.371), Torii Hunter (.365), Aaron Hill (.360), Andre Ethier (.351), Adam LaRoche (.343), and Jordan Pacheco (.341).

Notice that Fowler, Jeter, Prado, and Beltran would qualify for both lists. Unfortunately, they're also four of the most expensive players on these lists. 

XBH Leaders

Obviously, just getting on base and hoping for help later in the lineup isn't always possible--especially for players hitting in the five-six spots in the lineup, since they are the help that comes later. Getting yourself to second--or third--base is a great way to help your own cause. So is hitting a home run, but that's its own category and price tag.

This time with elite hitters remaining, here are some top doubles hitters: Alex Gordon (51), Aramis Ramirez (50), Albert Pujols (50),  Cano (49), Adrian Gonzalez (47), Nelson Cruz (45), Hill (44), Paul Goldschmidt (43), Choo (43),  Prado (42),  Kinsler (42), David Wright (41),  Cabrera (40), Murphy (40), Buster Posey (39), Dustin Pedroia (39),  Jones (39), Yonder Alonso (39), Ben Zobrist (39), Pagan (38), and Span (38).

I left the top players in this time to show their relatively hidden extra value. Doubles aren't often shown on your fantasy website's searchable stats unless you're using them as a category, so this kind of production can fly under the radar. Also, is Arizona going crazy with doubles hitters or what?

Remember when the league leader in triples used to hit about seven? Not anymore. Just as stolen bases have spread throughout the game, so is baseball's most exciting play. Here are the top triples hitters: Pagan (15), Reyes (12), Starlin Castro (12), Fowler (11), Jackson (10), Michael Bourn (10), Andrus (9), Bryce Harper (9), Trout (8), Alex Rios (8), DeJesus (8), and Jemile Weeks (8).

These guys are just a sac fly away from adding to your Runs Scored; not only that, but extra base hits will help quietly pad your RBI total. So that's nice too.

Run Scoring Parks--and Divisions

If you're deciding between two players to draft for help in runs scored, consider their park factors. And--with the unbalanced schedule--the factors of other teams in the division. The AL West, for instance, has one extreme hitters' haven (Texas), but three places pitchers love (Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles). Houston's own Minute Maid Park isn't the same place that torpedoed its pitchers when it was first unveiled--it had a mildly run-suppressing factor of 0.937). So your Texas hitters will love their home games, but their road schedule will be pretty ugly. At least the Astros can't pitch, right?

On the flip side, the AL East features three hitters' parks (Boston, Baltimore, and Toronto), and one more that adds a lot of help to home run hitters (New York), and just one pitchers' park (Tampa Bay). The other divisions are more balanced than these, though the NL West balances only extremes.

A Few Final Words

Runs Scored isn't an easy category to win--I should know, I finished nearly last in the category last year. There's a lot of luck, and the best way to win it is to spend a little extra on your offense. Probably the person who does that in your league will come out near the top in the category. They might have an unbalanced team, though, and suffer in the overall standings because of it. Without breaking the bank, looking for an extra edge in each pick can get you a long ways in the standings. You aren't in as much control here as in other categories, like Homers, Steals, and Strikeouts, but looking for high OBP's, lots of XBH's, and hitters near the top of good lineups can make a lot of difference at the margins.

Shutdown Corner: AL Central Closer Roundup

Baseball players are showing up at Spring Training sites, everyone! And as spring gets within reach, I'm posting closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the mysterious, murky, up-for-grabs American League Central on the hot seat. As always, you can check back in on our previous roundups: AL WestNL East, AL East and NL Central.

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago White Sox: Addison Reed

Last season, Addison Reed -- a guy who was highly hyped as a sleeper closer by many fantasy mavens -- made good on most of his promise and held down the White Sox closer job for most of the season. While he turned in 29 saves, the rest of his numbers weren't quite as stellar as owners would have hoped: a 22.7% strikeout rate was lower than anything he'd posted in the minors by a fair bit, and his ERA sat at an ugly 4.75, despite peripherals that gave him an FIP of 3.64.

On the bright side, Reed is still young for a closer at 24, and will have the ninth inning all to himself this season. He's ensconced in his position now, and he still projects to improve upon last season's rate stats and K totals. This is a guy who just doesn't have the actual performance to move up to Tier 2 yet, but is on the leading edge of Tier 3 closers. He could have a big season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (needs more strikeouts / consistency to be a upper-echelon closer)

Next in line: Jesse Crain

Cleveland Indians: Chris Perez

After 2011, I swore I'd never draft Chris Perez again. The Cleveland closer has a history of cardiac saves, and Perez had more meltdowns in 2011 than the Springfield nuclear power plant. So you can imagine my surprise when 2012 was a pretty great season for Perez. Last year, Perez was actually pretty reliable, posting solid rate stats (3.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP), watching his strikeout rate rebound (up to 24.4%) and grabbing a career-high 39 saves.

Nevertheless, I'm still a little wary about drafting Perez again this season. While he's a good bet to grab you saves, his performance is still a bit too up-and-down for my taste, without some of the upside of other closers. And, of course, the Indians don't look to be contenders this season, and could very likely trade their expensive closer to a team closer to the playoffs. When factoring in Vinnie Pestano's readiness to close, Perez might only be a closer for half the season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (Perez is unstable, and always close to being traded)

Next in line: Vinnie Pestano

Detroit Tigers: Bruce Rondon

In truth, Bruce Rondon's name is here as a placeholder, because the Tigers are really giving no strong indication who will close for the team in 2013. With Jose Valverde (likely) leaving via free agency, Jim Leyland has yet to commit to a new stopper for the team in 2013. With plenty of decent-but-not-great options in the bullpen, trying to guess on the Tigers' closer before Spring Training kicks off seems like a fool's errand.

If we (as fantasy owners) are lucky, though, Bruce Rondon will be the guy for Detroit. Rondon has a big 10o+ mph heater, and if it plays up in Spring Training, the team may want to give him a shot at the ninth inning. We're still not entirely sure if Rondon can consistently get his big fastball over the plate, but if he can, he could be a huge strikeout machine in the mold of an Aroldis Chapman. And Rondon could certainly be a keeper for future years, provided he stays healthy.

But yeah, I wouldn't draft a closer from Detroit this year. I think it will take them a few months to figure out who owns the ninth, if they ever do.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (too unstable to call at this point)

Next in line: Brayan Villarreal, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke

Kansas City Royals: Greg Holland

Without too much fanfare, Greg Holland has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons. Last season was the first in which Holland was a "real closer" for part of a season, but the 27-year-old hurler did himself proud. A 31.5% strikeout rate puts him in the top tier of late-game hurlers, and a 2.25 FIP means that we can continue to expect big things going forward. While he's still prone to too many walks and hits (1.37 WHIP last year), he's probably one of your best bets when it comes to mid-level closers.

I'd be comfortable drafting him in the 5-10 range among closers for next season. Don't break the bank to add him (he's not going to put up a Craig Kimbrel season, most likely), but he's probably going to be better than most other late-inning options next season.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, not much competition, recent track record is great)

Next in line: Aaron Crow

Minnesota Twins: Glen Perkins

Many Minnesota fans must be breathing a sigh of relief that the Matt Capps era is over in the Twin Cities. Though Perkins was once another unremarkable Twins starter, he has reinvented himself as a reliever, one who features a solid fastball-slider combo able to get whiffs at an above-league-average rate. I know. It is weird to see that written about a Twins pitcher.

Perkins has posted very sharp rate stats over the past two years, with ERAs sitting right around 2.50 and a 2012 WHIP of just 1.03. Not too shabby. When you factor in the fact that the Twins don't have a strenuous competition for the job, and that the team doesn't seem likely to add another bullpen piece to oust him, Perkins looks to be sitting pretty for 2013.

The only tough question with Perkins is whether or not he'll get the number of save opportunities necessary to make him an upper-tier closer. My guess is that, well, that's tough to guess. But if Chris Perez got 39 saves last season for the lowly Indians, there's a pretty good chance that Perkins could get 30 for the Twins in 2013. Don't hesitate to draft him.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (good strikeouts, good rate stats, homers can beat him up)

Next in line: Jared Burton

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with the last installment of the Closer Roundup series: a look at the NL West.

All data from FanGraphs.

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Sleepers & Busts: Injured Backstops

Buster Posey made a lot of people look smart in 2012. His hype machine was derailed somewhat by a grotesque injury, but those who put their faith in him on Draft Day reaped the benefit of said injury's negative impact on his value.

It's not an uncommon scenario. Well, ok, a catcher blowing out his knee then returning a year later to win the MVP is slightly uncommon in real baseball, but in terms of fantasy baseball we see the re-emergence of injured players each and every season. Here are three banged up catchers that are in comparable situations...

Victor Martinez, DET - ADP 109

Martinez enjoyed a strong season in his first year with Detroit, hitting .330/.380/.470 and driving in 103 runs. His power dipped (12 homers), but to call that "elite" production from a catcher would be putting it lightly.

However, V-Mart would then injure his left knee during his offseason training regimen. While there was some speculation that he could return late in the season, Martinez didn't play a single game in 2012.

He's currently the 10th catcher off the board over at MockDraftCentral, going ahead of Salvador Perez. If you look at ESPN's preseason rankings Martinez is the sixth catcher. That places him ahead of Perez, Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero and Wilin Rosario, to name a few.

I understand that Victor Martinez has long been a strong hitter, but the fact of the matter is that he recently turned 34, his power dipped in 2011 as it was, and he's coming off of major reconstructive knee surgery. In fact, before he could even undergo surgery to repair his torn ACL, he first underwent microfracture surgery and had to have his MCL and meniscus repaired. That's not an encouraging injury for someone who caught 6,532 innings from 2004-10 (fifth most of any player in baseball).

If you're still a believer, take a look at the last 20 years of catchers' age 34-36 seasons (min. 400 PAs). Only 10 times has a catcher even managed to be a league-average hitter, per wRC+. Only nine times has a catcher clubbed 15 or more homers at age 34-36.

Martinez at one time was an elite offensive force, but I can't see the justification of drafting him ahead of Perez's .301/.328/.471 batting line with 11 homers (76 games). Nor do I find him justified to be ranked ahead of any of the aforementioned players on ESPN.

Martinez is going two rounds ahead of Perez, per MDC, and a full five rounds ahead of fellow injured backstop Brian McCann. McCann may miss the first few weeks of 2013, but he said mid-January that he's targeting an Opening Day return. Even if he does miss a few weeks, I'll wager that 90% of a full season from the 29-year-old McCann ends up being superior to a full season of the 34-year-old Martinez.

Final ruling: Bust

Brian McCann, ATL - ADP 170

Speaking of McCann, let's discuss the former Top 3 backstop. He underwent shoulder surgery following the season after playing through some serious damage. He received a cortisone shot in August which allowed him to push through October, but an MRI following the Braves' playoff exit revealed a torn labrum. After doctors opened him up, it was discovered that the tear was larger than the MRI had shown. Whoops. And ouch.

As I stated above, McCann is projected to miss the early weeks of 2013, though he himself remains confident that he'll be able to be in the Opening Day lineup. Even if he's out for the first month or so, remember that this is a once-elite catcher who still managed to post his fifth consecutive 20-homer season despite a torn muscle in his shoulder.

He hit a career-worst .230, but that was largely because of a career-worst .234 BABIP. McCann saw his pop-up rate and ground-ball rate both rise, both of which could potentially be attributed to bad swings due to a bum shoulder. He also hit just .623 on line drives (more than 100 points below average).

McCann's plate discipline remained keen. He still whiffed in just 15.6 percent of his plate appearances and walked nine percent of the time. He rarely chased pitches out of the zone (28 percent), and his 87 percent contact rate was the best of his career. He swung through pitches just 5.4 percent of the time -- a noticeable departure from the league average of 9.1 percent.

McCann's value is being deflated by his injury, but he looks primed for a rebound season. Even if his shoulder has deteriorated, McCann still has 20-homer pop in his bat and will hit in the middle of a stacked lineup. If he does miss the early weeks, stash him in a DL spot and employ Erik Kratz for the first 25 games. Carlos Ruiz will be suspended for those games anyhow, and Kratz posted a sky-high .255 ISO for the Phillies last season. That may not be repeatable, but his .206 mark over seven Triple-A seasons suggests he can come close.

I prefer a McCann/Kratz pairing (if Kratz is even necessary) to Ryan Doumit, Jonathan Lucroy and certainly Martinez. Feel free to reach a round or two -- the power and RBIs will be worth it from your catcher slot.

Final ruling: Sleeper

Wilson Ramos, WAS - ADP 278

Ramos may have had arguably the worst 2012 ever. His season began with being kidnapped duringWinter Ball in Venezuela and ended when he tore his ACL in early May. Not exactly the follow-up to his .267/.334/.445, 15-homer 2011 season that many were anticipating.

With a (somewhat) rejuvenated Kurt Suzuki in the fold for the Nationals, Ramos will once again have to beat out an underwhelming veteran to secure the role of Davey Johnson's everyday catcher. Suzuki rebounded offensively to an extent with the Nats, but it barely moved the needle on what has been a horrible three-year stretch. Dating back to 2010, Suzuki has batted .238/.295/.361. And while he's typically around league-average in limiting the running game, he caught just five of 33 potential thieves with Washington in 2012.

In other words, Suzuki doesn't appear to be an iron-clad road block for Ramos to reclaim the starting job. Ramos was long considered one of the game's best catching prospects while with the Twins organization, and he delivered on some of that upside with a strong 2011 showing. He has 15-20 home run power and will be in a better lineup than in 2011.

Still, Ramos is a forgotten man among draftees. He's coming off the board after the likes of Wellington Castillo, Derek Norris (who no longer has a starting job) and Tyler Flowers (career 34% K-rate). Ramos should be a late steal in two-catcher leagues and is a wise target in NL-only leagues as well. I don't anticipate a Top-12 finish, but as the 28th catcher off the board currently he's clearly undervalued.

Final ruling: Sleeper

Go Bold or Go Home: Draft Adam Dunn Over Paul Konerko

By every significant metric, Paul Konerko had a better 2012 season than Adam Dunn.  Though Dunn enjoyed a big comeback from his legendarily disastrous 2011 campaign, Konerko was clearly the superior overall hitter.  As such, I expected that Konerko would probably be a higher choice on most 2013 draft boards but all things considered, both players fall within my general grouping of "second-tier first basemen."  If you adopt the strategy of drafting the harder-to-fill infield positions first, then Dunn and Konerko are the type of guys you turn to by the 9th or 10th round to fill your 1B or utility spot.

I was surprised, then, to learn that early drafters didn't only have Konerko going earlier than Dunn, but going WAY earlier.  According to Mock Draft Central's latest average position ranking, Konerko is the 12th-ranked 1B-eligible player, with an average draft position of 80.48 (77th overall).  Dunn, if you can believe it, was the 21st-ranked 1B-eligible player, with an ADP of only 193.55 (188th overall).  Sixteen percent of drafters didn't take Dunn at all, if you can believe it.

Granted, ADP isn't foolproof this early in the fantasy drafting season.  For example, Corey Hart is three spots ahead of Dunn, but that will obviously change given that he'll be on the DL until May.  That said, I'm stunned that Dunn was given so little credit by Mock Draft Central's early birds.  The two players immediately following Dunn are the tantalizing-but-unproven Eric Hosmer and the human decline phase known as Ryan Howard.  At the risk of sounding like an old-school sportswriter that lives and dies by counting stats....you're taking these guys over a player who hit 41 home runs last year?

Not only do I think this gap between Konerko and Dunn should be much smaller, I think it shouldn't exist at all.  If you have to draft just one White Sox first base-eligible player this spring, make it the Big Donkey.  Here are a few reasons why...

* More 5x5 Value.  I noted earlier that Konerko beat Dunn in "every significant metric" in 2012, yet that wasn't exactly true.  While Konerko provided more offensive value in real life, Dunn outpaced Konerko in the stats you actually use in your fantasy league.  Konerko's .298 average swamped Dunn's .204 mark, but Dunn hit more homers (41 to 25), drove in more runs (96 to 75), scored more runs (87 to 66) and even stole more bases, albeit by a negligible 2-0 margin.  Since many leagues use walks as a sixth category, that's another big win for Dunn, as he received 105 free passes to Konerko's 56.

It's easy to be critical of Dunn's traditionally low batting averages but beating Konerko is four out of five categories (or five out of six) is hard to ignore.  Dunn had a .246 BABIP in 2012 and a .240 BABIP in 2011, so perhaps he's also due for a bit of a turn-around in actual average.  If he can hit close to the .250 career average that he owned between 2001-2010, then Dunn's value will rise even more.

This is twice now that I've cited counting stats in my pro-Dunn argument.  Geez, I feel like the Fire Joe Morgan guys should tear this column apart.

* Consistency.  You might think this sounds odd given that Dunn is just a year removed from one of the most famous sudden declines in baseball history, while Konerko has been the model of consistency even in his mid-30's, averaging a .304/.384/.530 line over his last three seasons, a.k.a. his age 34-36 seasons.  Let's not forget, however, that Dunn's collapse in 2011 was so shocking simply because Dunn had been so money-in-the-bank for the previous 10 years.  The fact that Dunn rebounded in 2012 makes his 2011 performance all the more bizarre since now it might have been just a blip on the screen, rather than the first sign of a decline.  It's like Wile E. Coyote fell off the cliff, hit the canyon floor and then just bounced up back to the road and chased the Roadrunner again like nothing had happened.  While it's fair to say that Dunn isn't quite all the way back (his .800 OPS in 2012 is the second-lowest of his MLB career), I'm willing to write off his 2011 as just an aberration. 

So if Dunn is consistent again, does that necessarily make him more consistent than the reliable Konerko?  Maybe.  It's interesting to note that both players' 2012 seasons were largely built from their performances in April and May.  Konerko held a 1.097 OPS through his first 51 games and a .258/.329/.409 line in his remaining 96 games, while Dunn had a .950 OPS throgh his first 52 games and then hit .190/.307/.416 over his last 99 games.  That's a big drop for both guys, but Dunn's decline be partially explained by his low BABIP, while Konerko's BABIP was a healthy .312.

* Age.  Using BABIP numbers to excuse one second half slide and raise eyebrows at another might not be much, but when you're dealing with a first baseman who's going into his age-37 season, any sign of decline is a red flag.  Konerko himself recently admitted that his 2012 season "was kind of one of those years where it was smoke and mirrors for most of it," which could be modesty or competitiveness talking, but it could also be an athlete being frank about coming close to the end of his career.  Dunn is no spring chicken himself, but ironically, his bounce-back in his age-32 season somewhat mirrors how Konerko rebounded at age 33, hitting well in 2009 after a disappointing 2008 campaign.  You're rolling the dice on any first baseman (and really, any player) once they pass 32, so you might as well go with the younger option.

Konerko might've had the better season, but his slight dip in form was a warning while Dunn's return to form was a relief.  I think we can count on at least a couple more three-true-outcomes seasons from Dunn while Konerko's 2012 was just troubling enough that a sudden decline wouldn't be a surprise.  If you do find yourself looking for a safe 1B pick in the 9th or 10th round of your draft, I would pick Dunn, since I think you'll know what you're getting.  With Konerko, I'm just not sure. 

Draft Round Battles: Headley Vs. Zimmerman

Washington D.C. is about 2700 miles from San Diego but the two cities' star third basemen could hardly be closer.  In Mock Draft Central's most recent average draft position report, Chase Headley's 50.84 ADP narrowly edges out Ryan Zimmerman's 51.55 ADP and the duo are ranked 48th and 49th overall among all players.  It's basically about as close as it gets between the two third baseman heading into 2013 and when you hit that late third round/early fourth round, you'll probably still have both of them on the board.  Who do you take if you're looking for a big bat at the hot corner?

Let's take a look at both players' 2012 numbers.  As we see, Headley had the clear edge...

Headley: 699 PA, .286/.376/.498, 31 HR, 115 RBI, 95 runs, 17 steals, 144 OPS+, 145 wRC+

Zimmerman: 641 PA, .282/.346/.478, 25 HR, 95 RBI, 93 runs, 5 steals, 121 OPS+, 121 wRC+

You really struck paydirt if you were a Headley owner in 2012.  The Padres third sacker took the big step from underrated fantasy option to superstar, providing consistent production all year long and taking it to another level in the second half.  Headley posted a .984 OPS over his last 74 games and no doubt swung many a fantasy playoff race.  

Going into 2012, the line on Headley was that he was a Petco Park victim, putting up big numbers on the road but mediocre stats in his very pitcher-friendly home ballpark.  Headley still had significant home/away splits last season but he definitely turned a corner at Petco, posting an .812 OPS at home and a whopping .975 OPS on the road.  He can hit, he can steal you some bases and he's just going into his age-29 season, so Headley should be right in the middle of his prime.

Headley's big 2012 bore quite a resemblance to Zimmerman's big 2009-10 campaigns, when Invader Zim averaged a .299/.375/.518 slash line, 29 HR, 96 RBI and a 137 OPS+ over those two seasons, no small feat considering that Nationals Park is also pretty pitcher-friendly.  Zimmerman was hampered by injuries in 2011 (yet still posted a .798 OPS in 440 PA) and was also bothered by a shoulder injury at the start of 2012, spending some time on the DL and owning a measly .590 OPS and three homers through his first 55 games.  Like Headley, however, Zimmerman caught fire in the second half, hitting .321/.383/.584 over his last 90 games.  Zimmerman has undergone surgery this offseason in an attempt to fix his shoulder issue once and for all, and he is on pace to be ready to go on Opening Day.

A healthy Zimmerman and a "new normal" Headley are basically the same player, so fantasy owners have to ask themselves what's more likely to happen --- Zimmerman going back on the DL or Headley coming back to earth.  All things considered, I'll consider Zimmerman to be the slightly better fantasy option.  Here's my reasoning...

* Past history.  Put me in the camp that believes Headley is probably due to produce something closer to his .773 OPS performance from 2011 than repeat his 2012 performance.  Fangraphs' Chris Cwik recently noted that most players who had similar jumps in production (as measured by wOBA) over a single season regressed the following year, in some cases drastically.  An explainable dip in production can be more comforting to a fantasy owner than an unexplainable surge in production, and I put more faith in Zimmerman getting over his shoulder than I do in Headley suddenly putting up Adrian Gonzalez numbers on a consistent basis.

* Surroundings.  I actually think the Padres lineup could be underrated next season, especially since they're moving the fences in at Petco Park.  Headley has some talent around him and his ballpark will be at least slightly more hitter-friendly, and yet that said, Zimmerman clearly benefits more from hitting in that stacked Nats lineup and playing in Washington.

* Luck.  This is kind of a minor thing since Zimmerman owns a career .313 BABIP himself, but Headley's career BABIP is an eyebrow-raising .339.  Unless Headley was given a lifetime blessing by the BABIP fairy (or maybe just really knows how to hit 'em where they ain't in his spacious home stadium), surely you have to figure that sooner or later, Headley's luck will turn.  Also, Headley is due some bad karma for not adopting this classic as his walkup music.  C'mon, he actually plays in San Diego and his first name is actually Chase!  It's a no-brainer!  If a member of Petco Park stadium operations staff happens to be reading this, at least start using the "ooooo, the Chaaaaaase" sound clip after Headley's base hits.

I reserve the right to change my opinion if Headley is dealt before the trade deadline, though it seems the Padres are eager to work out a contract extension with him even if talks aren't taking place at the moment.  As it stands now, however, I see Zimmerman carrying a minor edge over his fellow third baseman.  While Headley is still a strong option and I'd be happy to have him on my fantasy roster, I just think Zimmerman's track record makes him the safer option. 

Fantasy Stars: Top of the Third (Round)

Welcome to the penultimate edition of Fantasy Stars. This week we'll be looking at the first six players off the board in the third round. Last week, we discussed the latter half of the second round, ending on Josh Hamilton in pick number 24. He's been passed up by David Wright and Giancarlo Stanton and dropped a spot into pick 25. The picks are still close enough that their strategic value really isn't any different. For our purposes, we'll just pretend like Wright is still Mr. Number 25 and lead off the top of the third with him.

As always on Fantasy Stars, the Average Draft Position (ADP) numbers come from  MockDraftCentral and come from 111 qualifying drafts. The stats shown with the players are the Big 5:  AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB for position players and IP/W/K/ERA/WHIP for starting pitchers. 

25. David Wright, 3B              ADP 25.83
26. Cliff Lee, SP                         ADP 30.05
27. Yadier Molina, C             ADP 30.93
28. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF      ADP 31.07
29. Jose Reyes, SS                  ADP 31.38
30. Starlin Castro, SS            ADP 33.97 

In these picks, drafters seem to be paying a little more attention to position scarcity than in the first and second round, with two shortstops, a third baseman, and a catcher. Nothing wrong with that in my mind; the third round is a great time start caring about these sorts of things.

25. David Wright, 3B    .306/21/91/93/15
Wright is a pretty acceptable pick here. He bounced back from his injury-marred 2011 campaign and, while he hasn't recovered his mid-00's form, he's returned to near the top of a tough position. Cabrera is a clear number one, Beltre the clear number two, and Wright probably ought to be the number three guy at third base. (Though you could make a case for Evan Longoria too.)

It should be made clear that this is a position scarcity move, however. Wright isn't the player he was at his peak, and he hasn't shown signs of returning. The HR's have dropped to the low 20's; between that drop and the Mets' lineup I'd be pretty surprised if he matched last year's Run and RBI totals. With a SB% of just 60% last year, it would make sense to see him run less and less. His batting average is still good, though, thanks to a career's worth of great BABIP's, and I don't imagine that changing for 2013 unless injuries bite again. When you go after him, though, you have to remember that average is the only category in which he's an impact player. 

26. Cliff Lee, SP 211/6/207/3.16/1.11
Cliff Lee was so good in 2012. His 3.16 ERA matched his 3.13 FIP almost exactly. He posted the second best  K/9 rate of his career, 8.83. His K/BB of 7.39 led the Majors by almost two full points. Too bad he played for the Houston Astros and they couldn't muster up a win for him until the Fourth of July. Oh, what? He didn't play for the Astros? Then how did that happen? The Phillies weren't good last year, and a lot of their good points are tied up in Lee's left arm (not to mention the arms of Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay), but they aren't so bad that what happened last year should be considered the norm.

Mock drafters aren't nearly as worried as I would have liked, because I was selfishly hoping for some sneaky value here. I guess playing fantasy baseball against Buzzie Bavasi puts too much emphasis on fantasy. Regardless, I like using a third round pick on Lee, and I think he might be the best bet in pitching after Strasburg, Kershaw, and Verlander are gone. The one caveat is the one I mentioned about David Price in the last go around, and that's that there remain several high-quality starters that will still be available to someone using this pick on Lee.

27. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF .271/4/43/26/14
In the RotoAuthority Silver League, I made Ellsbury my proud first pick at the end of the first round. Coming off a 2011 in which he'd been one of the best players in baseball and added sudden power to his game of blazing speed and good batting average, I was pretty excited. Even if the power fell off, I'd be left with a game-changing base stealer. It was a no-lose situation.

As you may recall, I lost. Injuries have been a big part of Ellsbury's career, killing two of his last three seasons. I took the risk on my fellow Oregonian last year, and I'd do it again this year--for a discount. I don't expect much power in 2013--his ISO of .099 was less than half of the .230 he posted in his big 2011--but the upside is there. The downside remains a season lost to injury, but the median remains too: a good average hitter with enough speed to carry your team to the top of the category. Unless something drastic changes in his health, he'll be a risk every year, in fantasy and in real life, but for now he's a pretty good risk to take. 

I would rather have him in the fourth round than right here, but if you believe more fervently in his power potential, or can't bear to draft the likes of Coco Crisp or Alcides Escobar later on, I can understand. I probably wouldn't take him with OF's Curtis Granderson or B.J. Upton still on the board, and I definitely wouldn't take him over Jose Reyes, who we'll be looking at momentarily.

 28. Yadier Molina, C .315/22/65/76/12
When Yadier Molina first came up, he hit like...well...he hit like his brother Jose. Then he added batting average and he was a good average, nothing else catcher. Then in 2011 his power output more than doubled, from six to 14 homers. Then, in 2012 he clubbed 22 and slugged .501 with a .186 ISO. For kicks, he added 12 stolen bases, proving my thesis that everyone is stealing bases and their value is dropping accordingly. But that's another story, this one belongs to the new Best Molina Brother.

Yadier Molina is an easy choice for second catcher off the board, coming as he does without the health concerns of Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, or Carlos Santana, and without a single weakness in his category game.

Not every projection system is bullish about Molina retaining all the power he found last year, but even a reversion to his 2011 numbers is like Miguel Montero but with stolen bases. His batting average is also one of the safest looking, since he managed it with just a slightly above-average .316 BABIP. Actually, it wouldn't take much good luck for his average to improve next season.

So, he's the catcher you want--do you want a catcher in the second round? Just because he's the best catcher left no longer means that he's the only good catcher left. (It sure used to.) Mauer, Napoli, Santana, Montero, Matt Wieters, Wilin Rosario, Salvador Perez, and Victor Martinez are all pretty good. You can even dream on Jesus Montero, hope for a Brian McCann comeback, or an A.J. Pierzynski repeat. There's a lot more depth at catcher than we're all used to, which means I'd rather take one of the shortstops coming up next, get the fourth or fifth best catcher and have two good players at weak positions. Remember also that a catcher's low playing time limits the goodness of his batting average.

29. Jose Reyes, SS .287/11/86/57/40
Reyes is a great choice here. Actually, I think he's a pretty good choice in the second round too. Shortstop is such a weak position and Reyes has stats that would be impact numbers even in the outfield. That combination makes him a great investment. 

I think it's reasonable to bet on Reyes to increase his homer total. Though Marlins Park in Miami and Rogers Centre in Toronto had almost identical overall park effects last year, their HR effects couldn't have been more different: 0.720 in Miami, 1.030 in Toronto. He's going from a park that depressed homers at a huge rate (making it the fifth-worst) to one that's more or less average. I don't think Reyes will break 20 homers this year, but he could certainly scrape it, which would be pretty good for a shortstop who didn't steal bases by the dozen.

He turns 30 this year, so it's probably too late to wish for a return of his 60-steal days, but another 40 if he can stay healthy wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Expect a healthy Reyes to give three categories of excellence and throw in a few extras in homers. Don't get too excited about his RBI total, but who's quibbling at this point?

30. Starlin Castro, SS .283/14/78/78/25
Whenever I see two position scarce players in a row, I wonder if the whole of mock drafters are going on a collective position run. Well, a small one. Or, at least, one big groupthink knee-jerk reaction. It's not that I don't like Castro, it's just that he's not as good as Reyes and it seems odd that they should have such apparently equal value.

To be fair, the big difference is in steals, and that isn't so big that Castro couldn't conceivably close the gap as he improves. Right? Don't bet on it. Castro's SB% is almost exactly 66%--or right on the new break-even for success on the basepaths. If I were his manager, I'd keep him running exactly as much as he is right now. Reyes is succeeding more than 78% of the time, which is to say he might help the team by running even more. Maybe the Blue Jays will notice that and maybe they won't, but I bet they aren't going to be slowing him down any time soon.

Castro could improve in this or any other aspect of his game (he is just 23), he also might not. The third round isn't a terrible time to grab a player who is good now and has a decent chance of getting better but he's no sure thing, and he isn't the only shortstop who might see some improvement in the immediate future. 

Here's how I would reorder these players: Reyes, Wright, Lee, Castro, Ellsbury, Molina. In a departure from previous weeks, I think all six are sensible third round picks. While there are some whole positions I might shy away from, these are the players I'd take if I were going to draft a catcher or a starter. 

Tune in next week, for the exciting conclusion of the third round, not to mention the Fantasy Stars series. Don't spend too much time mourning the loss because the Player Rankings will be taking its place!

How to Win: ERA

Like it's hitting cousin, Batting Average, ERA is a seriously unpredictable category, even for pitchers. It's less luck-dependent than wins, but only by so much. The main strategy for ERA is this: get good pitchers, don't throw too many innings. Hopefully we can do better than that today.

2012's Top 12

1. Kris Medlen                            1.57
2. Clayton Kershaw                  2.53
3. David Price                             2.56
4. Justin Verlander                   2.61
5. R.A. Dickey                            2.74
6. Johnny Cueto                         2.78
7. Matt Cain                                2.79
8. Jered Weaver                         2.81
9. Kyle Lohse                              2.86
10. Gio Gonzalez                       2.89
11. Jordan Zimmermann        2.94
12. Brandon Morrow                2.96

It's worth noting that Medlen pitched just 138 IP over 12 starts, while Morrow threw only 125 over 21 starts. Take those guys off the list and you get Chris Sale and Cole Hamels (3.05) in the last two spots. It's also worth noting that these top guys are all pretty good and you aren't likely to get more than one or two on your fantasy team. Fortunately for us, last year's ERA isn't such a good predictor of this year's ERA. Advanced metrics, here we come!

FIP (from Fangraphs.com, 120 minimum IP)

1. Kris Medlen                    2.42
2. Gio Gonzalez                  2.82
2. Stephen Strasburg         2.82 
4. Felix Hernandez            2.84
5. Clayton Kershaw           2.89
6. Justin Verlander            2.94
7. David Price                      3.05
8. Adam Wainwright        3.10
8. Zack Greinke                  3.10 
10. Cliff Lee                          3.13
11. Wade Miley                    3.15
12. Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Chris Sale tied with 3.27 

It's easy to say that if you see someone on this list but not on this first one, you can expect a little bit better from his ERA, and to expect the opposite too. That's mostly true, but it's not so simple. Again, this can be used for your benefit.

So, who had the biggest differences between their FIP's and their ERA's? Anyone with an ERA lower than his FIP probably benefited from a degree of good luck, anyone with an ERA higher than his FIP should have gotten the corresponding bad luck. You could do it either way, but I subtracted ERA from FIP, meaning that negative numbers are "good," showing FIP's lower than ERA's and offering optimism for the year to come. The lower the negative number the more the optimism, I suppose. The reverse is also true.

Better FIP than ERA--Opportunity?
1.Luke Hochevar                  -1.10
2. Tim Lincecum                  -1.00
3. Francisco Liriano          -1.00
4. Randy Wolf                     -0.86 
5. Adam Wainwright        -0.84 
6. Roy Halladay                 -0.80
7. Joe Blanton                    -0.80
8. J.A. Happ                       -0.78
9. Justin Masterson          -0.77
10. Derek Lowe                  -0.74
11. Jon Lester                      -0.71 
12. Rick Porcello                -0.68

There are a number of things that go into FIP, and what makes for repeatable success, so I wouldn't go out drafting Hochevar or Lowe just because they show up high on this list. Plus, their FIP's were still lousy (4.63 and 4.37, respectively), just not horrid like their ERA's. Some of the names on here are intriguing, though. Lester, for instance could be a lot more serviceable than his 2012 ERA would suggest, so long as you don't harbor expectations of a return to greatness on his part. Joe Blanton had a very large drop from a 4.71 ERA to a 3.91 FIP--but even farther to his xFIP of 3.39, which suggests that he should have been pretty good, not terrible. Maybe the Angels looked those numbers up when they signed him....

Halladay, as Mark has written before, is a great candidate to put up numbers that look more like his former self, as bad luck seems to have compounded his injury struggles and sunk him on ADP boards. Adam Wainwright appears on this list, and on the FIP top 12, so you know that impresses me. If he matches that FIP, he's right back where he belongs: with the best pitchers in baseball. Too bad he's already getting drafted like it.

Lincecum and Liriano are probably the most interesting cases, and a lot has been written about each elsewhere. I've even done some of it. Two of the three most extreme pitchers on this list have some of the highest upside--and lowest downside. Both of them had more going on than bad luck to produce differences between their FIP's and ERA's, and their prodigious strikeout rates probably hid their real struggles in composite measures. Don't think that FIP-ERA is a magical catch-all for isolating the unlucky, because there were a lot of factors that led to these pitchers' disastrous seasons. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take a chance on them, but you have to know it is one.

Worse FIP than ERA--Beware?

1. Jeremy Hellickson             1.50
2. Jered Weaver                       0.94
3. Kris Medlen                         0.85
4. Jason Vargas                      0.84
5. Matt Harrison                    0.74
6. Kyle Lohse                           0.65
7. Ross Detwiler                     0.64
8. Clayton Richard                0.63
9. Matt Cain                             0.61
10. Jordan Zimmermann    0.57
10. Travis Wood                     0.57
12. R.A. Dickey                       0.54
12. Hiroki Kuroda                  0.54 

Hellickson's number sure jumps off the page, doesn't it? So much so that number two Jered Weaver is actually closer to the twelfth spot than he his to overtaking Hellickson for number one. Maybe Hellickson has some sort of skill for beating his FIP with his ERA, but I bet it isn't a run and a half per game good. Look for some serious regression next year.

Speaking of regression, expect some out of Weaver and Vargas, not to mention small-sample superhero Medlen (though he can regress a long, long way and still be really good.) Weaver's high FIP comes with a shrinking strikeout rate too, so be extra careful. Both Angels starters have a good opportunity to post better ERA's than FIP's owing to their home park and defense (more on that below), but not to this extreme. 

Harrison, Richard, Detwiler and Wood could all see their ERA's go from good to lousy with more normal luck, as indicated by the difference between that number and their FIP.

Lohse, Zimmermann, Kuroda, and especially Dickey all posted good FIP's and amazing ERA's, which means even if and when they get hit with regression, they should still be useful to excellent pitchers. 

Cain is a special case, as he's shown a consistent ability to post a better ERA than FIP. He's done it every year since 2007, in fact, and it's long past the time that we all acknowledged that as a skill. Expect more of the same next year.

Defense and Park Effects
The purpose of FIP is to isolate a pitcher's contributions to his own success, which means taking out all the defense and park effects along with what we understand as chance. That's why they call it "Fielding Independent Pitching," after all. 
Of course, your fantasy league is won on results, not true talent, so we have to take defense and park dimensions back into account. On a team-by-team basis, here are the top seven defenses from 2012, by Fangraphs' UZR:

Top Defenses, 2012

Braves                     53.1
Angels                    44.3
Red Sox                   35.5
Twins                      29.5
Mariners                27.3
Athletics                 24.3
Diamondbacks    19.5 

The numbers will be different for 2013, since players have shifted teams (especially between the Braves and Diamondbacks), balls will bounce differently, and fielders will have up and down years. Still, this can be a starting point for evaluating how much the difference between a pitcher's "true talent" stats and ERA can be attributed to something that won't repeat, like luck, and something that should, like fielders' performance.

Here are some uglier numbers, again by UZR.

Bad Defenses, 2012

Indians        -57.0
Rockies         -41.6
Astros           -31.3
Tigers           -28.1
Orioles         -26.5
Mets              -23.3
Marlins        -21.1
Cardinals    -20.4
Blue Jays     -17.9 

If your pitcher underperformed his ERA for one of these teams--and he'll be pitching there again--don't be shocked if you see another year of better FIP's than ERA's.

The home park makes a big difference too. Here are some of pitchers' friendliest confines from 2012:

Pitchers' Parks, 2012

Mariners     0.687
Giants          0.737
Pirates         0.764
Angels         0.812
Padres         0.852
Dodgers      0.867
Rays            0.874
Mets            0.874
Athletics    0.888 

Notice the presence of the Mariners, Angels, and A's on the park effect list and the defense list, compounding the effect. Not only that, they all play in the same division, so they'll be spending a lot of time on the road at each other's parks. That might even help Texas and Houston pitchers a little. It also suggests a partial explanation for the discrepancies between FIP and ERA for the aforementioned Weaver and Vargas.

Below are some parks pitchers want to stay away from. Some are the usual suspects, but some could be surprising. Also, note the absence of reputed hitters havens like Yankee Stadium and the Phillies' Citizens' Bank Park.

Hitters Parks, 2012

Rockies                  1.159
White Sox             1.268
Red Sox                 1.206
Rangers                 1.183
Orioles                   1.173
Diamondbacks    1.171
Brewers                  1.168
Reds                        1.113
Tigers                     1.071 

While the Diamondbacks and Red Sox managed to mitigate their own park effects with their defenses, the Rockies, Orioles, and Tigers are compounding the issues of their pitchers (though perhaps one number alters another to an extent). The good news is that you were already staying away from Rockies pitchers if you want to win ERA, and you were already targeting a couple of Tigers pitchers. If you were on the fence about the Orioles' staff, maybe this'll push you over. 

A Few Last Words

Unless you want to really break your auction budget there really isn't any way to make sure you own the ERA category. In a draft league, there's almost no way to be sure about it. Maybe you could make your top five picks starters, but even that might not get you very far. It certainly wouldn't help you overall, so don't go out and do it and blame it on me.

By keeping track of team defense, park effects, and the difference between a pitcher's FIP and his ERA, however, you can put yourself in the position to take advantage of the most skilled pitchers. And the luckiest. That's about all you can hope for in ERA, where the winner will have to be both lucky and good. 

Ed. Note: A previous version of this post appeared without links to player names. Content has been otherwise unchanged.

Shutdown Corner: NL Central Closer Roundup

It's another week closer to Opening Day, so that means that it's time for another edition of Shutdown Corner. As you know, I'm grinding out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the National League Central that gets the spotlight. And, of course, if you're interested ... here's our previous roundups: AL West, NL East, and AL East

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol

I'm not sure any reliever combines high highs and low lows as much as Carlos Marmol does. Marmol, the long-time Cub closer, struck out 29.2% of batters faced last season, but walked a ridiculous 18.2% of batters faced. That's a huge amount of walks, more than just about any prospective closer in baseball. Marmol's dealing with challenges from other pitchers on his team (notably Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa), a likelihood that he could be traded (he was almost traded to the Angels this offseason), and an imminent meltdown that's only a few walks away. Stay away from the guy unless you're brave.

Carlos Marmol is beyond all expectations. Marmol could strike out every batter he faces for three full weeks. Carlos Marmol could walk every batter he faces for two full weeks. Carlos Marmol could throw a pitch that hits his left fielder in the face. Everything is in play.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (all the strikeouts, ALL the walks, trade or demotion imminent)

Next in line: Kyuji Fujikawa

Cincinnati Reds: Jonathan Broxton

Broxton is a very interesting case, as he's almost definitely no better than the third-best reliever on his team, yet he still got a three-year, $21 million contract in this offseason to close for Cincinnati. And while Brox used to leverage his massive frame to get huge strikeout numbers, since 2011, he's been posting K numbers more like a #4 starter than a high-leverage reliever. In addition, pitching in homer-happy Cincy makes Broxton very risky from a performance standpoint.

Sean Marshall has a much better track record as a reliever than Brox, and as such, is likely to take over when and if Broxton struggles. Regardless, I wouldn't want Broxton as a bullpen option on my fantasy squad unless I was very desperate for a few saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low strikeout totals, presence of Sean Marshall / Aroldis Chapman)

Next in line: Sean Marshall

Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford

While Broxton is a good example of a pitcher who got good results despite middling peripherals in 2012, Axford might be viewed as an opposite case. Despite being one of the better closers in baseball during 2010 and 2011, Axford fell apart (along with the rest of his bullpen) in 2012, posting a 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. But the underlying peripherals tell the story of a guy who struggled a little, sure, but could be expected to bounce back in 2013.

Axford and his mustache still struck out a tidy 30% of batters faced. And he certainly had more trouble with walks, walking a worrying 12.6% over the past season. But Axford suffered the most thanks to the long ball, as he gave up a homer on nearly 20% of all of his fly balls. This number is pretty unsustainable, and I wouldn't expect this poor luck to continue. Axford may not be an elite-level closer in 2013, but I wouldn't be surprised if he reverts back to his solid self, with strikeouts and 30-40 saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (huge strikeout rates, no serious competition in the 'pen)

Next in line: Jim Henderson

Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Grilli

The Pittsburgh Pirates were comfortable dealing Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox this offseason due to the emergence of veteran Jason Grilli as a frightening late-inning option. Grilli, who was out of the bigs in 2010, re-emerged with stronger-than-ever strikeout totals in 2011. His Ks rose even further in 2012, where he struck out an astonishing 36.9% of batters faced.

The main concern with Grilli is his advanced age. At 36, he's not exactly a spring chicken. When you combine that with the fact that he's actually peaking in terms of performance at this point in his career, that's a major red flag. Instead of looking at a new normal, perhaps 2012 was the dramatic outlier before his production drops back off. But even if that is the case, and Grilli's strikeout rate falls off, it's high enough at this point to shoulder a drop back to earth. He could still be effective if he's only striking out 25% of hitters.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, not a lot of history + age issue, good competition)

Next in line: Mark Melancon

St. Louis Cardinals: Jason Motte

To me, Jason Motte is one of the more sure things in late-inning relievers this season. A fixture in the Cardinal 'pen since 2009, Motte finally became the team's full-time closer for a full season in 2012, and responded with 42 saves and a 30.8% strikeout rate. Despite the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal and a host of live arms in the St. Louis bullpen, Motte owns the ninth, and should be consistent force in 2013 as well.

While Motte's home run rate jumped up in 2012, it probably sat higher than it will in 2013. Motte has a history of giving up long balls, but the strikeout rate and his uncanny ability to strand runners and limit walks will help him keep things at an even keel.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, "proven closer")

Next in line: Trevor Rosenthal

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the AL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.

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