The life of a rookie is never easy.
That's why, when one comes along who's as special as Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, he deserves our attention and respect. And get it he will in this space; Kimbrel is the "Relief Efforts" first-half MVP.
The 22nd relief pitcher and 176th player picked overall in ESPN live drafts this preseason (average draft position: 174.8), Kimbrel currently finds himself atop the Player Rater at his position, 11 overall spots higher than Drew Storen.
Kimbrel on Tuesday even tied the rookie record for saves before the All-Star break, his 26 matching Jonathan Papelbon's number from the first half of 2006. With that, Kimbrel is on pace for 48 saves, which would shatter the full-season rookie record set last year by Neftali Feliz (40), not to mention 127 strikeouts, which would be the third most by a rookie reliever, per FanGraphs, trailing only Mark Eichhorn's 166 in 1986 and Dick Radatz's 144 in 1962. Only nine different relievers have recorded a season of 40-plus saves and 100-plus K's.
But it wasn't too long ago that Kimbrel's critics pointed out he wasn't even the most effective reliever within his own bullpen; the Kimbrel naysayers, this columnist included, claimed that Jonny Venters was the better Braves reliever and the one who should be closing games. But with a little over a half-season in the books, the stats now prove that debate could swing in either direction:
Obviously, the recent returns have had a lot to say about how narrow the gap between the two has gotten. Since he recorded a 1-2-3 inning against the New York Mets on June 16, coincidentally the same day I wrote in "Relief Efforts" that Venters was sneaking up on him in the Braves bullpen pecking order, Kimbrel has been lights-out, tossing 12 shutout innings and limiting foes to only three hits and one walk out of the 38 batters he has faced.
Now compare the two since that June 16 game:
This doesn't change my stance in that June 16 column that both relievers are worth owning in all fantasy leagues. It does, however, cement Kimbrel's status as the Braves' closer, barring some sort of unforeseen regression. His improved command -- 3.68 walks per nine, 63.9 percent strike rate -- bodes well for his prospects of keeping up his performance all year.
There's only one fear with Kimbrel, and it's the very one manifesting itself in Venters' recent slump: The Braves could be overworking the right-hander. Venters is the majors' leader in appearances (48) and relief innings (53), putting him on pace for 88 and 98, the former a number exceeded only 14 times in history. Kimbrel ranks second in appearances (45) and eighth in relief innings (44), putting him on pace for 83 and 81, the former a number exceeded by only four other rookies, per FanGraphs. Besides Venters' recent funk, Huston Street's monstrous April workload -- big league-high 15 appearances and 16 1/3 relief innings -- also teaches us a lesson about what can happen when a reliever is pushed too hard.
In other words, enjoy this rookie run but keep your fingers crossed that Fredi Gonzalez will be more conservative with Kimbrel's usage looking forward.
'Relief Efforts' All-Stars
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Kimbrel isn't the only reliever worthy of midseason hardware. Here are my two other deserving first-half fantasy All-Stars:
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals: Storen and Kimbrel share a common bond, and it's not merely their ages (they're both 23). No, it's that both of them were locked into closer partnerships -- the dreaded "closer-by-committee" -- at the onset of the season, except that unlike Kimbrel's situation, the Nationals weren't merely blowing smoke when they stated that plan. Remember, the Nationals handed Sean Burnett four consecutive save chances April 2-15, slotting Storen into a setup role until such time they deemed him ready to close. Well, ready to close he was by April 17, his first save opportunity of the season, and since that date he's 22-for-25 in save chances with a 2.92 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, the only knock against him three separate meltdown outings (May 23, June 5 and June 24) that served to balloon his ERA. Outside of those three, Storen has been excellent, vaulting himself to the No. 2 spot among relievers on the Player Rater, and generating a 55.2 percent ground-ball rate that helps make up for what has been a modest 6.55 K's per nine.
It's that diminished strikeout rate, however, that is a slight warning sign for Storen looking forward, and it could mean his ERA hovers near 3.00. He's capable of holding the job -- he has long been touted the Nationals' future in the ninth -- but his BABIP is .215, 18th-lowest among relievers, his well-hit average is .210, in the lower half among relievers, and he generates misses on only 17.7 percent of swings, well beneath the 23.1 percent big league average. The saves should be stable, but the ratios not necessarily, meaning the top 10 is a fair over/under cutoff.
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates: Any of the three relievers profiled today would be worthy MVPs, and that Hanrahan was picked 27th among relief pitchers in the preseason (ADP: 202.8) certainly backs up his candidacy. He's the No. 3 reliever on the Player Rater -- these names in order have fittingly gone 1-2-3 -- ranks third in the majors in saves (25), has the seventh-best ERA (1.37) and 13th-best WHIP (0.94) among qualified relievers, and has done it despite being a member of the Pirates, who rarely get any respect due to having won fewer than 70 games in each of the past six seasons. Hanrahan is a huge reason for the Pirates' success -- they're three games over .500 beyond their midway point -- as the team is a perfect 41-0 when leading after eight; they won 95.0 percent of their games they led after eight from 2008-10 combined, and never more than 53 such games they led after eight in any of those individual years.
Hanrahan's 56.5 percent ground-ball rate supports a .262 BABIP and diminishes the prospects of regression, though his 84.3 percent strand rate says some is in order. But it's not any "luck" factor that's the most significant worry with Hanrahan: It's the chance he'll be traded by the July 31 non-waiver deadline, winding up a setup man for another squad and robbing him of most of his fantasy appeal. Root for the Pirates to keep winning if you're a Hanrahan owner; it's a worry, but doesn't mean you should sell at even 80 cents on the dollar.
The comeback kids?
Two slow-starting relief pitchers have experienced an uptick in fantasy value recently, and could be on the verge of major breakthroughs. One was a top prospect and favorite sleeper in the preseason, picked 30th overall among relievers (ADP: 218.1) despite little track record to speak of, while the other was fantasy's best relief pitcher in his most recent full season in 2009. Let's start with the former:
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds: His stock is presumably on the rise after he notched his first career save Wednesday, but don't let that persuade you that more are coming in the near future. That one was a product of a Francisco Cordero blown save in which the Reds eventually won in 13 innings, Chapman merely the last man standing when the team finally had another save chance to dole out in extras. Despite the blown save, Cordero is 8-for-9 in save chances with a 1.50 ERA in 12 appearances since June 1, so his job isn't in jeopardy, but it's not unthinkable that it could be in time, being that in three of his four full seasons in the National League, he has had an ERA and WHIP higher in the second than first half (2.80 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in the first half from 2007-10 combined, 3.49/1.42 in the second). History of weaker second halves, of course, hardly makes it an automatic; add 0.69 to his ERA and 0.17 to his WHIP so far and he's still a 2.38/1.05 pitcher, ratios plenty good enough for him to keep the closer role all year.
So why Chapman then? Simple: He looks much more like the dominant setup man forecasted in the preseason in his first four outings of July than he did in his four outings directly preceding his disabled-list stint for a shoulder injury. The stats tell it all: four shutout innings, seven strikeouts, .077 opponents' batting average, 37.0 swing-and-miss percentage and, perhaps most importantly, 99.1 mph average velocity with his fastball (compares well to his 99.4 number of 2010). At this pace, Chapman should swiftly move back into the primary setup role to Cordero, re-establish himself as a top handcuff, and rank among the most valuable middle relievers in all of fantasy moving forward.
Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins: You read that right, he was fantasy's No. 1 relief pitcher in 2009, at least according to our Player Rater formula. Nathan's performance initially upon his return from Tommy John surgery at the beginning of the year was lackluster, but after a 30-day DL stint plus a minor league rehabilitation assignment, he has returned much closer to the top-shelf talent he was before surgery. Consider that in Nathan's past four outings, he has averaged 92.9 mph with his fastball, up from the 91.3 he averaged before landing on the DL, and much closer to the 93.5 he averaged in 2009. In addition -- and perhaps it's related to his restored velocity -- his breaking pitches (curveball and slider) have been especially effective during that time, as opponents are hitless in eight plate appearances that have ended on either, with four K's and a 40.0 swing-and-miss percentage that compares favorably to his 41.5 rate of 2009 (29.4 before his DL stint this year).
And if you've been paying attention to that Twins bullpen this month, surely you know that Matt Capps, Nathan's fill-in, has allowed five runs on nine hits in 1 2/3 innings in three outings, and has fallen out of favor with manager Ron Gardenhire. To that end, Glen Perkins, he of the 1.78 ERA and .205/.271/.250 rates allowed to lefty hitters, has notched each of the Twins' past two saves. Any of the three could be a safe bet for the next save chance. The most total chances from today forward? Nathan is a smart pick and in fact I'd predict him to save at least twice as many games as the No. 2 name in the category from today forward.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.