Future Closers With Present Value – Part 2
Let me tell you a Story about a boy named Trevor. Just kidding. Last week I wrote about relief pitchers. I combed the stats, reviewed the depth charts, and poured over usage and velocity graphs. I cobbled together a list of players that I thought displayed good skills and that could turn into productive and even dominant closers in the not so distant future if given the opportunity. I felt good about the list. Once the piece was posted, it was brought to my attention that every single player on the list was in the American League. I had no idea. So, since apparently there are two leagues, I figured I’d tackle the National League this week. Instead of getting into a flowery intro about the importance and unheralded nature of relief pitching, I think we might as well just dive right in. Shall we?
Hunter Strickland, Giants
A converted starter, most of us remember him as the guy turning around to watch Bryce Harper’s lasers fly over the wall in the 2014 playoffs. However he also provided a steady presence in the season’s final days, giving up only five hits and no runs in nine appearances while striking out nearly 12 per nine innings.
Since his call-up, Strickland has been pegged as the “next guy” in San Francisco, as it seemed his stuff could easily surpass that of Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. Well, those two are still around, but it’s easy to make the case that Strickland could be the best closing option of the three moving forward. Strickland spent the beginning of 2015 in Triple-A, most likely to shake out the cobwebs of his playoff homer spree. In the subsequent 51 innings from the Giants’ pen, he flashed productive, approaching on dominant numbers. Striking out nearly a batter per inning (which maybe we’d like to be higher, but I guess we won’t be greedy), he also produced a 2.45 ERA with a cFIP of 86, indicating impressive baseline skills. Perhaps Strickland’s calling card however, is his near elite walk rate (1.75 walks per nine), which translated nicely to a tidy 0.86 WHIP.
Strickland mostly relies on a fourseam fastball and slider, both at plus speed. He also sprinkles in a sinker and change, although each at less than six percent of pitches. His fastball sits at 98 mph and gets nearly 18 percent whiffs, or more than three times league average. That is good. His mix gets groundballs a little bit less than league average, which obviously isn’t ideal for a reliever, but luckily he plays in a cavernous home park, where fly balls go to die. At age 27, Strickland presents a solid current play for ratios while also possessing the allure of a future closer role. Now might be a good time to get in the Strickland business.
Arquimedes Caminero, Pirates
Caminero has several factors in his favor: 1) Ray Searage, the magical wizard of pitching awesomeness, 2) He throws really, really, really hard, and 3) I mean come on, the dopest name. Everyone is aware of Tony Watson in the Pirates’ pen, but Caminero has quietly become perhaps a more interesting option to close games, especially when incumbent closer, Mark Melancon’s salary creeps higher into eight digits. Well, Caminero has been as quiet as possible for someone that touches 103 mph on the radar gun.
Caminero’s rates weren’t great in 2015. His 3.62 ERA was about average. Same goes for his 1.23 WHIP. His 3.87 DRA doesn’t really point to him being unlucky or indicate that he’s bound for a breakout. Even his 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings are only slightly above average, at best. So what’s the big deal? Is this guy only a cool name that throws hard? I’m glad you asked.
In August 2015, Caminero unveiled a new toy in the form of a 97 mph sinker. To that point, he leaned heavily on his fourseam fastball, to the tune of nearly 70 percent usage. Since the shift, Caminero got groundballs around 70 percent of the time with the sinker. Thus far this season (SSS ALERT, RING THE SIREN), he’s completely changed his pitch mix, relying more on his sinker and cutter than the fastball. If the results can match those of last year, he could be looking at a much better groundball rate, which in turn could significantly boost his rate stats. The higher sinker usage could also help with his strikeout rates. Last year, the sinker got 7.86 percent whiffs, a number that is above league average. Increased usage could lead to increased whiffs, which could lead to increased strikeouts which could lead to a more awesome pitcher. It’s simple math.
With Melancon in his last year before free agency, and Watson being a lefty (don’t ask me why this matters, but for some reason it seems to), Caminero could be the guy for the Pirates in the very near future. If his improvements with the sinker continue, and Ray Searage continues to sprinkle his magic dust on Caminero’s right arm, big things could be in store for the Dominican.
Shawn Kelley, Nationals
Kelley is already a bit of a journeyman at the age of 31, having played for four teams since his debut in 2009. This offseason he was one of the few players that would take money from the Nationals to the tune of three years and 15 million dollars. It seemed a bit lofty at the time (and to be honest, might still be), but Kelley finds himself one injury or teammate choking away from being the closer in Washington.
Kelley has had good stuff for awhile, but he really put things together for the Padres in 2015, striking out 11 per nine innings with a 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. His 2.72 DRA indicates that the numbers are probably legit, and a 74 cFIP, puts Kelley in the upper echelon for measured talent.
Kelley’s name atop reliever lists could be a little puzzling, since he doesn’t boast overpowering stuff. Until 2015, Kelley had basically been a two-pitch pitcher, with almost a 50/50 split between a 93 mph fastball and 83 mph slider. Both pitches however produced above average whiff percentages. In 2015, he leaned on the changeup a little more, throwing it 17.7 percent of the time, up from under five percent the previous season. This too produced an above average whiff rate. One reason for Kelley’s success: he boasts a better than average zone contact rate by nearly ten percent. This leads to him being able to miss a little more in the zone and not be as hurt by it. Is it sustainable? It’s hard to say for sure, but his whiff rates seem to indicate that it can be, at least for the time being.
Kelley is a little older, but his non-reliance on top shelf velocity could help him maintain his stuff for a longer period of time. With Papelbon a free agent after the season, and no immediate threats to take over the closer role in the meantime, Kelley could be a sneaky pick up this year for ratios and strikeouts, with the promise of saves as early as 2017.
Bonus Round: Stash Edition
Carter Capps, Marlins
This one is a bummer. Here are a few stats to show just how much of a bummer we’re talking about: In 2015, Capps led baseball in strikeouts per nine innings (16.9) and cFIP (42). He allowed contact in the zone only 67 percent of the time, nearly 20 percent lower than league average. His swinging strike rate was 25.4 percent. League average is 9.5 percent. Capps got hitters to swing and miss A QUARTER OF THE TIME.
Capps’ quirky, jumpy delivery (and potentially not legal?) helped him ramp up the fastball to sit at 99 mph and touch 102 mph. He followed that up with an 84 mph curveball, which just seems unfair. The fastball and curve combo got swings at pitches outside the zone nearly 42 percent of the time, which 102 mph before the 84 mph curve tends to do. This number was also tops in the league with Luke Gregerson.
The bad news is obviously that Capps went under the knife for Tommy John surgery early this Spring. If there’s a silver lining for fantasy owners, it’s that his stock is probably the lowest it will get. If Capps can approach his previous skill level when he comes back next summer, you’ll be looking at a potential juggernaut on the Wade Davis, Aroldis Chapman level. If that happens, you’ll be glad you purchased at the current price.
Adam Ottavino, Rockies
Ottavino was a chic pick to break out before last season, and the pick looked like it was going to pay off before he too succumbed to those three fear-inducing letters, TJS. In his last full season of work, he displayed a cFIP of 80, well above average and struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings.
And now for another edition of “Fun with Small Samples”! In 2015, Ottavino struck out 13 hitters in 10.1 innings, and gave up zero earned runs. He also ditched his change, which was below average by whiff rate, in favor of a cutter, which also helped him to increase his groundball rate from 47 percent to 63 percent. Referring back to the opening of this paragraph, yes it’s a small sample, but any time you can throw more groundballs in the Coors Field launching pad, that’s a good thing.
Maybe most importantly, before going down with injury, Ottavino was the closer in Colorado. Sure, Jake McGee has that role now, but adding Ottavino just adds depth and another Proven Closer™ to the mix. Reports currently have him throwing off a mound, which puts his return anywhere from May to August of this season. In dynasty leagues, he’ll be worth a look, for this year and beyond.