Which is the real Carlos Marmol: His 2010 or his 2011?
We talk so often about the folly that is paying for saves, that it's a category easily filled during the regular season, but it's a truth that the reliable, high-strikeout save-getter is a true rarity in baseball.
Did you know that in the history of the game, there have been only 29 instances of a closer managing 30-plus saves and 100-plus K's; 10 instances of 40 and 100 -- including Craig Kimbrel's last season -- and that only one pitcher has ever accomplished 40/100 on more than one occasion (Eric Gagne, from 2002-04)?
That's why when fantasy owners hear the name Carlos Marmol, they become victims of his siren song.
Marmol has precisely two things going for him:
• The ability to strike out 100 hitters. He whiffed 114 in 2008, 138 batters in 2010 and 99 last season and has averaged 108 during his five years as a big league reliever.
• He's "a closer," which sounds silly until you consider that there are still some managers in this game who believe that once stuck, the label always sticks.
Unfortunately, the first one fuels unrealistic expectations for him from his fantasy owners, a sort of be-all, end-all method of valuation, and it's primarily tied to what is his only true swing-and-miss pitch: the slider. The second one, meanwhile, provides no measure of skill and no sustainability over a long-term period, therefore it is one of the primary reasons we stress the volatility of the saves market.
Marmol, in reality, is a pitcher with more warts:
• His command is atrocious. Pick your measure: His 5.84 walks-per-nine-innings ratio of 2011 ranked fifth-worst among qualified relievers; his 5.67 walks per nine the past five seasons combined is easily worst in baseball (by almost a full walk at that); and among relievers with at least 70 appearances in a season in the history of the game, he has the worst (7.91, 2009), 14th-worst (6.03, 2010) and 19th-worst (5.84, 2011) seasons in that particular category. Meanwhile, in the past three seasons combined, he has thrown strikes 60.5 percent of the time, compared to the 62.5 percent major league average, and has coaxed opposing hitters into swinging just 38.4 percent of the time (45.2 percent MLB average).
• He serves up way too many fly balls for a pitcher with his command, his rate 46.8 percent on all balls in play the past three seasons combined. That is not a good thing when you walk that many hitters and call Wrigley Field your home.
• He increased his manager's antacids intake, having tied for the major league lead in blown saves (10) last season, and totaled 22 in the category the past five years combined, ranking 16th in the game during that span.
Granted, the latter, like saves, isn't an especially good measure of skill, but if saves production catches the manager's eye, blown saves production certainly isn't going to put the pitcher any more in his manager's good graces.
Marmol's problems run a little deeper, delving into his performance using our pitch-tracking tool. Last season, his issues weren't entirely tied to the walks; remember that his 5.84 walks per nine actually represented the second consecutive year that he had improved his number in the category.
The problem was Marmol's fastball lost velocity and command. The following chart illustrates his distressing decline with that particular pitch:
* Ranked last in the major leagues
Now, you might think that not a big deal for Marmol, who gets the stats fantasy owners crave -- specifically strikeouts -- with his slider. But the importance of those numbers is that Marmol's complete ineffectiveness with his fastball contributed to a disturbing trend of opposing hitters to sit back and key on his slider. Though his slider remained effective, it wasn't quite as overpowering last season as the one before it, as the following chart demonstrates:
Throw in the recent hand injury, one in which he experienced cramps in his right hand a week ago, as well as his miserable spring performance to date (6 1/3 innings, 7 runs, 4 walks), which could be related, and Marmol is looking every bit as risky entering 2012 as he did a year ago. He's going to first need to prove his health, then show he has recaptured some of his lost fastball velocity, then show at least marginally improved command. Those are three significant steps, ones practically impossible to make within the few remaining days in the spring training season. The first one is perhaps the only one he has a realistic chance at completing.
Let's assume for a second that Step 1 is as far as Marmol gets. If so, he'll remain a pitcher with every bit as steep a downside as he possessed during 2011, and with new management in Chicago and perhaps a shorter leash as a direct result of last year's performance, a demotion from the closer role might not be far off. And if you're a seasoned fantasy owner, you know that middle relievers with WHIPs north of 1.30 are not valuable assets, no matter how many K's they generate.
Ultimately, you shouldn't be treating Marmol as an automatic as save-getters go, and if you're pressed to acquire him in the late rounds you'll need to either handcuff him or acquire insurance for the category, as well as be prepared to cut him the instant his season begins to derail.
Who might be that handcuff, at least among Chicago Cubs relievers?
Primary setup man Kerry Wood is the obvious choice, being that he has more stable ratios the past four seasons combined (3.50 ERA, 1.27 WHIP); has "closer experience," including for the 2008 Cubs (34 saves); and was re-signed in January specifically to serve as Marmol's caddy and emergency replacement. Wood might not be the strikeout source that Marmol is, but everything else about him as a possible finisher would at least lower fantasy owners' blood pressure.
But let's throw out the name of a potential sleeper, if you're either in an uber-deep NL-only league or want a name to track during the early weeks of the regular season: Rafael Dolis, who has opened eyes in Cubs camp thus far.
Dolis has drawn comparisons to Marmol in the past, if only because, like Marmol, he's capable of dialing up his fastball into the high 90s, plus he possesses a slider that can generate swing-and-misses. Unfortunately, like Marmol, Dolis has some issues with command, having averaged 4.50 walks per nine during his minor league career. The difference between the two is that Dolis' slider isn't as dominating a strikeout pitch; he's more of a ground baller who leans on his fastball. We're not talking about a 100-K reliever here.
Dolis' spring, however, has been far more impressive than those turned in by Marmol and Wood, and it should practically guarantee him a roster spot come Opening Day: 7 shutout innings, 2 hits allowed, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts. It might put him in the seventh inning at the season's onset, and since that means a mere Marmol implosion and Wood injury away from being the Cubs' closer, it should at least keep him on your radar.
In summary, don't overpay for strikeouts from your closer. Heck, the answer to the Marmol question might not even be either 2010 or 2011; it's 2011 if it must be either, but the truth might be something even worse than that!