Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Closer post-mortem 2014


Francisco Rodriguez screwed my fantasy team this year.  Photo via

Francisco Rodriguez screwed my fantasy team this year. Photo via

This post is somewhat driven by fantasy baseball, where one of the typical pitching categories is “Saves,” and the constant churn of closers has become a huge detriment to most fantasy baseball players.  I’m no exception; this year I drafted who I presumed was going to be the closer for Milwaukee (Jim Henderson), only to watch him be replaced the day before the season started, inexplicably and without warning, by Francisco Rodriguez, who subsequently earned 40+ saves for the guy in my league who vulture waiver-wire picked him up.  (We eventually found out why; Henderson gave up 10 runs in 11 innings before going under the knife for “Labrum & Rotator Cuff Debridement.”  Ugh).

My research shows that just 13 of the 30 teams in the MLB this year started and ended the season with the same closer.  That’s a pretty amazing churn of players.  So I put together a tracking XLS.

Team Switch during 2014 season? 2014 Closer, start of season 1/2 point Closer End of Year Closer Most Saves 2014 full season # Saves for Team Leader in 2014
Ari Addison Reed Addison Reed Addison Reed Addison Reed 32
Atl Craig Kimbrel Craig Kimbrel Craig Kimbrel Craig Kimbrel 47
Bal Yes Tommy Hunter Zach Britton Zach Britton Zach Britton 37
Bos Yes Koji Uehara Koji Uehara Edward Mujica Koji Uehara 26
Chc Yes Jose Veras Hector Rondon Hector Rondon Hector Rondon 29
Cin Yes J.J. Hoover Aroldis Chapman Aroldis Chapman Aroldis Chapman 36
Cle Yes John Axford Cody Allen Cody Allen Cody Allen 24
Col LaTroy Hawkins LaTroy Hawkins LaTroy Hawkins LaTroy Hawkins 23
Cws Yes Nate Jones Ronald Belisario? Jake Petricka Jake Petricka 14
Det Joe Nathan Joe Nathan Joe Nathan Joe Nathan 35
Hou Comm. Chad Qualls Chad Qualls Chad Qualls Chad Qualls 19
KC Greg Holland Greg Holland Greg Holland Greg Holland 46
LAA Yes Ernesto Frieri Joe Smith Huston Street Huston Street 17
LAD Kenley Jansen Kenley Jansen Kenley Jansen Kenley Jansen 44
Mia Steve Cishek Steve Cishek Steve Cishek Steve Cishek 39
Mil Yes Jim Henderson Francisco Rodriguez Francisco Rodriguez Francisco Rodriguez 44
Min Glen Perkins Glen Perkins Glen Perkins Glen Perkins 34
NYM Yes Bobby Parnell Jennry Mejia Jennry Mejia Jennry Mejia 28
Nyy David Robertson David Robertson David Robertson David Robertson 39
Oak Yes Jim Johnson Sean Doolittle Sean Doolittle Sean Doolittle 22
Phi Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon 39
Pit Yes Jason Grilli Mark Melancon Mark Melancon Mark Melancon 33
Sdp Yes Huston Street Joaquin Benoit Joaquin Benoit Joaquin Benoit 11
Sea Fernando Rodney Fernando Rodney Fernando Rodney Fernando Rodney 48
Sfg Yes Sergio Romo Santiago Castilla Santiago Castilla Sergio Romo 23
Stl Trevor Rosenthal Trevor Rosenthal Trevor Rosenthal Trevor Rosenthal 45
TBR Yes Grant Balfour Jake McGee Jake McGee Jake McGee 19
Tex Yes Neftali Feliz Joaquim Soria Neftali Feliz Neftali Feliz 13
Tor Casey Janssen Casey Janssen Casey Janssen Casey Janssen 25
Was Yes Rafael Soriano Rafael Soriano Drew Storen Rafael Soriano 32

Now, technically the Reds never “switched” their closer; they just knew that Aroldis Chapman was coming back after a brief stint on the D/L.  And the Astros show Chad Qualls in all the positions, but they clearly were going with a committee for most of the season.  So you could argue against those two teams, but that still leaves half the league switching their closer mid-season.  Other teams stuck with the same guy all year (Detroit with Joe Nathan) despite awful numbers (4.81 ERA on the season for Nathan), so you could argue that they *should* have switched.

The Nats were no exception; they started the year with Rafael Soriano, who was one of the league’s best for half the season.  By September, the Nats had dumped Soriano for their *previous* closer in Drew Storen, who then dumped the bed in his only two post-season appearances (blowing the save in Jordan Zimmermann‘s epic 8 2/3 shutout innings, and then allowing two hits and a run in a non-save situation the next night).

What does this mean?  For “real” baseball, not much that we didn’t already know.  Closers are judged mostly on high-leverage short-sample sizes, where one blow-out inning destroys ERA and WHIP numbers for a month.  Its a ridiculous statistic that has far too much credence in the modern game.  And its even more ridiculous that a mediocre “closer” with a ton of saves earns more than a middle-to-late innings reliever with a ton of “holds” and great numbers.  But this is our system.

For “fantasy” baseball, the take away again is kind of known: closers are a crapshoot.  Try to get a couple of “known” closers in the 5th-8th rounds, grab a couple of fliers on people later on, but be sure to be incredibly proactive on the waiver wires in the last week of spring training/first week of the season.  A lot of these personnel changes happened in early April and then stuck the rest of the way through (quick examples being Milwaukee as described above and the New York Mets, who saw presumed closer Bobby Parnell blow out his elbow on practically the first day of the season and have Tommy John surgery on 4/8/14).


6 Responses to 'Closer post-mortem 2014'

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  1. I keep meaning to give some love to this post, but the discussion in the previous one has taken on a life of its own.

    A discussion of closers and fantasy baseball is perfect, as closers have become an ingrained, overpriced, artificial construct. If Stanton or Freeman is batting in the 7th or 8th, it would make sense to have your best pitcher facing those guys at that time. Billy Beane used to profess to believe that, until he blew a lot of bucks on closers last year.

    Anyway, with the save tremendously overvalued, in both the real and fantasy worlds, you have a reality where Clippard may be valued in arbitration at half as much as Storen, even though their skills sets and effectiveness are pretty similar. So why do teams continue to overpay for closers? Maybe Rizzo and Matt W. learned a lesson from the Soriano experience, although I have my doubts. Certainly Williams has a long winter to ponder better patterns of bullpen usage.


    18 Nov 14 at 8:35 pm

  2. Yeah … there’s now 66 comments on the Purke post. Amazing. I posted this just to get rid of the content frankly; I made the XLS at the end of the season to prove a point in an email argument with my fellow fantasy baseball players … and was like, “hey I can make a post out of this!” 🙂

    Beane’s acquisition of Johnson is the most inexplicable move he’s ever made.

    I’ve liked to think that the Nats have “figured out” late inning reliever usage, thinking that Clippard is our best arm and thus is NOT going in the 9th and being saved for useless 3-run lead “save opportunities.” But everything we’ve learned about Williams screams “old school” player usage and lineup construction, and i think the bullpen alignment follows in suit.

    Someone asked Law his thoughts on Williams winning Mgr of the year and his response (paraphrased) was something like “well, he couldn’t construct a lineup, couldn’t handle the bullpen, mishandled Harper and barely used any defensive shifting, but other than that he was great.”

    Todd Boss

    19 Nov 14 at 8:27 am

  3. Law’s schtick is snark, I get that. Still, to address his points:

    (1) Even assuming that “he [MW] couldn’t construct a lineup,” lineups really don’t matter all that much. And although Williams was regularly roasted for batting Span leadoff, he sure came out of that smelling like a rose.
    (2) Stipulated that MW mishandled the bullpen in Game 4 of the NLDS (the move in Game 2 was quite defensible, it just didn’t work), as we hashed out the other day the playoffs don’t matter for the award. For the regular season, not only did Williams get good work out of the bullpen, he got them to the postseason with enough work to keep them sharp and yet still well rested. (source: That suggests that he has some chops in handling a bullpen, Law to the contrary notwithstanding.
    (3) As for Harper, what really held Bryce back in 2014 was injuries – which you can’t in any meaningful manner attribute to Williams (especially given Bryce’s established ability to get injured on his very own). Suffice it to say that the players, and even Bryce, have MW’s back on how he handled Harper. The outrage tends to increase the farther away from the clubhouse one gets.
    (4) It’s amusingly ironic for MW to get lambasted for not using shifting, because he tried to implement it early in the season and it flopped. His players didn’t like playing in unfamiliar positions, and the Nationals were a bottom five team in defensive efficiency for the first several weeks of the season. But Williams listened to his players and relented – and the Nationals became a solid defensive team, enough to bounce back to #15 in defensive efficiency by the season’s end. And for that Williams gets criticized.

    Williams sure made rookie mistakes in his rookie season as manager. FWIW, for anyone listening he has owned those mistakes and pledged to learn from them. Although he deserves some credit for getting the Nationals through a regular season where he lost two of his starters and much of his lineup with injuries for significant parts of the season, I’m not sure that adds up to “MoY.” OTOH, I’m not sure there’s a manager with a better argument in the NL for MoY on the regular season (and even in the postseason Bochy made some odd moves, but was essentially bailed out by a combination of Bumgarner’s postseason-for-the-ages and Sandoval raking). And if there’s no clear alternative, everyone should just let it go.

    John C.

    19 Nov 14 at 1:15 pm

  4. I think Keith Law was spot-on.

    This is not to say he won’t get better and smarter, but it was amateur hour out there a lot of the time.

    Mark L

    20 Nov 14 at 11:22 am

  5. Meh. Most of the things that MW gets roasted for are things that virtually every MLB manager does. Which is why fans of most teams hate the managers of the team or teams they root for. Fortunately for Williams, his competition isn’t the insightful fans, it’s the other clueless managers.

    Many Nats fans will never forgive Williams for being right about batting Span leadoff.

    Williams did a lot of stuff wrong last year, for which he gets a lot of flaming. Some of it is even justified (I would have done my lineups differently; the difference between me and most fans is that I acknowledge that lineups matter very little). MW also did a lot of stuff right last year, for which the response is mostly echoing silence.

    John C.

    20 Nov 14 at 1:45 pm

  6. I have been critical of Williams, but I don’t think he was terrible in the regular season. I might question Rizzo a bit in hiring such an inexperienced manager for a win-now team, but I’d give Williams a B- for the regular season. My comment on MoY a few posts back was about the award, not so much about him. I think he started poorly and got better, which is to be expected for a rookie with little overall experience. His lineups were fine, to me. Bullpen use got better by the end of the season. I guess I am a little concerned about how he treated Harper, but none of us really know what happened behind the scenes, so I am ok if Harper is ok.

    But putting MoY aside, I do think he did a very poor job in the playoffs. I could give some examples, but just fundamentally, he managed it like it was the regular season, when a short series is a very different mindset. He should have been optimizing each circumstance in order to get to the next stage, but instead he stuck with his guys in their regular season roles. I don’t think it cost us the series and I am pretty sure if and when he gets another chance at the playoffs, he’ll learn from it. But I don’t think that is the point. He should have been trying to increase our odds of winning the series at each opportunity, and I don’t think he did that.


    20 Nov 14 at 4:21 pm

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