StrategyJuly 10, 2013

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Bottom of the 9th: Baltimore’s Blown Saves

By R.J. White

Last season, Jim Johnson led the majors with 51 saves. This season, he is tied with Joe Nathan for the major-league lead with 30 saves. However, there’s a major difference between Johnson’s 2012 and 2013 seasons. Last year, he blew just three of his 54 save opportunities. This year, he owns a 2-7 record and six blown saves. Seven other closers have at least 24 saves, and collectively, that group has blown just 11 of their 194 save opportunities and suffered just eight losses. Is it time for the Orioles to make a change?

Johnson has picked up his strikeout rate this season, posting a respectable-if-not-desirable 7.3 K/9 in 41.1 innings, but his ground-ball rate has fallen while his line-drive, fly-ball and homer-per-fly rates have all risen. That’s not a recipe for success, especially when you don’t have elite stuff to generate an inordinate number of swings and misses. While his numbers will likely regress a bit and prove he’s not quite as bad this year’s stats say, it would be a reach to think he could suddenly go back to last year’s success.

While Johnson’s status atop the league in the saves categories make it seems like it’s silly to worry about his ability to hold onto the closing role, he simply can’t blow one out of every six saves and inspire confidence in manager Buck Showalter. The Orioles have already shown that they’re willing to go out and fix perceived problems via trade this season, snagging Scott Feldman to plug a rotation hole. Could they be in the market to snag a potential replacement closer from Milwaukee, Chicago or any other seller?

If I owned Johnson in fantasy leagues — and I don’t, thanks to his 5.37 K/9 ratio during last year’s 51-save season — I would play up his 30 saves to potential trade partners, especially someone who owns Kevin Gregg or Francisco Rodriguez and worries about losing a source of saves before the trading deadline. You may be able to convince an owner to put a similar value on the 30-save Johnson and a closer with far less saves but far superior abilities, someone like Ernesto Frieri (13.6 K/9) or Kenley Jansen (12.5 K/9). I’d even pay a little bit extra to make that switch if I had Johnson. Better safe than sorry.

Other Notes

  • Tigers manager Jim Leyland put five relievers on the AL All-Star Final Vote ballot. That group includes: Joaquin Benoit, the guy that Leyland almost had to be forced to use at closer; Koji Uehara, an elite closer-in-waiting who’s recently got the chance to turn amazing peripherals into saves; David Robertson, an excellent setup man and likely future excellent closer; and two questionable picks in the low-strikeout Tanner Scheppers and the high-walk Steve Delabar. It’s absolutely perfect that given the choice of all the right-handed relievers in the AL, Leyland settled on these five as the best options behind selected All-Stars Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera and Jesse Crain. No Greg Holland? No Grant Balfour? I guess we know why the Tigers have had so much trouble finding a closer — they have no idea what to look for.
  • Closers who could very well be traded by this time next month: Kevin Gregg, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Rafael Betancourt, Steve Cishek, Glen Perkins and Tom Wilhelmsen. Throw Jonathan Papelbon on that list if the Phillies start to slip, but right now they’re just one game under .500.
  • J.J. Putz hasn’t allowed any runs, hits or walks in 2 1/3 innings over his last three appearances. Heath Bell blew another save in his last appearance and hasn’t pitched in about a week. If anyone cut ties with Putz when he was taken out of the closer role in Arizona, you know what to do. He looks plenty gritty now.
  • The Dodgers scouted Brewers relievers Francisco Rodriguez, John Axford and Mike Gonzalez this week, per CBS Sports. The best hope any of those guys have of closing is for the others to get shipped out and for Jim Henderson to suffer an injury, as Kenley Jansen is locked into the ninth inning with the Dodgers. Once the Dodgers get a look at Carlos Marmol, I wouldn’t be surprised if they added all three Brewers relievers to the bullpen, just in case.
  • Former closer Mitchell Boggs was dealt to the Rockies Tuesday, but it has zero impact with any major-league closing situations, as he was pitching in Double-A for the Cardinals and will head back to Double-A with the Rockies.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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