Oh, my! What was I thinking when I volunteered to opine about relievers? This is the position Billy Beane most famously compared to volatile stocks; offering the sage advice of buying low and selling high. There are notable exceptions, but the sad truth is that most relievers just don’t consistently hack it for long in the majors. With so much unpredictability, how do you accurately predict relievers from one year to the next? Well, I’m going to help out my cause just a bit and limit the scope of my analysis strictly to pitchers that are, or are highly likely to be, closers for their respective team in 2007. Given that, here we go: my take on four closers that I believe will deviate strongly from their 2006 production.
Jose Valverde – Diamondbacks
The two most important stats for closers are strikeouts and walks. If you find that hard to remember, don’t worry. I’m going to mention it again (and again and again) in this article. In Valverde’s case, despite the amazing strikeout figures (1.33 K/IP), he couldn’t stop walking batters (0.44 BB/IP) or giving up home runs (1.1 HR/9 IP) for most of 2006. As a result, he was sent down to the minors for a while late in the year. So what’s to like about him? You should like what he did when he returned from the minors. In 18.2 IP, he managed to maintain his strikeout rate while cutting his walks in half and giving up zero home runs (that’s right, none). Of course, it makes sense that he also posted a 1.98 ERA after his stint in the minors.
I would expect more of Valverde’s post-minors numbers as he again opens the year as the Diamondbacks’ closer. I’d also expect to see him slip into the mid-to-late teen rounds in your draft.
Brad Lidge – Astros
Again, the two most important stats for closers are strikeouts and walks, and in Lidge’s case, this could not be more pronounced. In 2006, Lidge had 27 appearances in which he walked at least one batter. In those games, Lidge had the following stats: 1.40 K/IP, 1.48 BB/IP, 11.47 ERA, 8 Saves, and 4 Blown Saves. In the 51 appearances when Lidge did not walk a batter, his stats looked like this: 1.38 K/IP, 0.00 BB/IP, 2.31 ERA, 24 Saves, and 1 Blown Save.
Notice a trend? Lidge had problems with walks last year. To complicate matters, when he walked batters, it always seemed to come back to bite him, as evidenced by his extremely poor strand rate last year (only 66% of runners were left on base). So where’s the silver lining? The silver lining is in his left-right splits. Lidge had great second-half success against righties last year, but he could not stop giving free passes to lefties. If Lidge can regain his old form against lefties – a sound assumption since lefties have historically fared no better against him than righties – you can expect the walk numbers to drop. And as we saw above, if the walks drop, so too does the ERA.
Chris Ray – Orioles
The two most important stats for closers are strikeouts and walks (starting to sound familiar?). Unfortunately, that is very bad news for Ray. His strikeout rate declined by 50% over the course of the year while his walk rate increased by 500% from mid-year levels. Those two stats alone are enough to cause worry, but it doesn’t end there. After giving up 0 HRs in his first 15.1 IP, Ray proceeded to give up 10 HRs over his last 51.2 IP (1.74 HR/9 IP). Ray also benefited from some very good luck last year. Only 20% of batted balls (excluding HR) ended up as hits against Ray. That’s well below the 30% league average. Furthermore, Ray left over 85% of runners on base in 2006. The league average here? Approximately 70%.
So what do you get when you draft pitcher with a declining strikeout rate, an increasing walk rate, a propensity to give up home runs, and a stream of good luck that is bound to run out? You get a very good bust candidate for the 2007 season. Tread carefully here, folks.
Tom Gordon – Phillies
I swear I’m done after this one: the two most important stats for closers are strikeouts and walks. Looking at Gordon, we see a very healthy strikeout rate that stayed over 1.0 K/IP for the entire year. The walks, though… They are a different story. After spending most of the year with a walk rate below 0.33 BB/IP, it suddenly jumped up to over 0.56 BB/IP by the end of the season. Making matters worse, he started giving up home runs as well. That is not something you want to hear about in a pitcher whose home stadium is the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Ballpark.
Make no mistake about it, Gordon had a very productive year in 2006. However, the rising walk rate, the increase in home runs allowed, and the fact that he just recently turned 39 years of age do not bode well for a repeat of that performance in 2007.
That wraps up this article. If you need to keep abreast of closer situations for each team (and who doesn’t?), make sure to check this thread in the forums.
John Sherwood is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with John in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of StlSluggers.
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