The danger with small sample sizes -- remember that we're still only 7.4 percent of the way through the season -- is that fantasy owners get jumpy at the slightest change in a player's statistics.
Perhaps there's no greater position at which that's truer than closer. To a degree, it's understandable; 12 of the 30 incumbent closers already have a blown save, and eight closer positions are currently in the hands of a pitcher who was not projected to be there at the beginning of spring training. Change has been the name of the game at closer, but in defense of the patient approach at the position be aware that the leading relief pitcher in terms of innings has 10. The leading starting pitcher has 27 1/3. Understand now how small the relief-pitching samples are?
Let's make an example of two specific closers: Brandon League, this week's No. 10 relief pitcher, and Heath Bell, No. 11. We could debate for hours the merits of either closer, but the fantasy owner who looks solely at year-to-date numbers might say, "It's crazy to say Bell, who has blown two of three save chances with a 9.00 ERA, is effectively as valuable as League, who is 5-for-5 with a 0.00 ERA!"
The truth is that at this stage of the season, there are only two things fantasy owners should examine regarding their closers: job security and, more importantly, skill set, and whether any changes in that might have a long-term impact on their fantasy potential. League and Bell both have job security -- remember that Bell has a shiny, new $27 million contract that assures him a lengthy leash -- and neither has displayed any substantial shift in skills since 2011. (That said, Bell certainly requires more scrutiny between the two, hence the lower ranking.)
To help you along, let's examine six relievers whose skills have shown a marked change since the 2011 season. As a result, these six could soon find themselves moving substantially higher or lower in future Relief Efforts rankings.
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.
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds: The most obvious and the most substantial skills improvement, at least statistically speaking, belongs to Chapman, who shockingly remains locked in a setup-relief role despite clearly possessing either starter or closer skills. There is no more telling statistic than this: He hasn't walked a single batter in eight regular-season innings and, counting spring training, has a 0.72 walks-per-nine innings ratio, worlds improved upon his 5.67 walks-per-nine ratio in 2010 and 2011 combined.
What Chapman has changed has been his willingness to pound the zone: He has thrown 68 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, the highest rate of any qualified reliever and quite an improvement upon his 45 percent rate of 2010-11, and because he possesses such electric stuff he can get away with throwing strikes at a higher rate than an average pitcher. Chapman's fastball has averaged 96.4 mph, down from 98.1 from 2010-11, but as that still ranks him fifth among qualified relievers it's still one of the most difficult pitches to hit.
Whether the Reds will recognize they're wasting Chapman by using him for approximately two innings every third day is unclear, but at his rate of progression he might force their hand -- more likely with a future rotation opening than at closer, where Sean Marshall is more than capable. But Chapman can help even those in larger mixed leagues with his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts contributions, and he's a must-stash considering what he could do granted a larger opportunity.
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants: The Giants' new closer, Casilla has always been a ground baller, sporting a 52.3 percent rate from 2009-11. But this season, he has stepped that number up to the "extreme" class: He has a 66.7 percent ground ball rate that ranks ninth among relievers who have faced at least as many as the 20 batters he has. At the same time, his strikeout rate has dropped, from 7.84 per nine innings last season to 3.86 this season, and when that happens fantasy owners tend to get worried about a pitcher's long-term prospects.
In Casilla's defense, however, the change appears directly related to increased reliance upon a two-seam fastball, a pitch that typically (for anyone) generates a healthy number of ground balls. Per PitchF/X numbers via FanGraphs, Casilla has thrown a two-seamer 51 percent of the time, after scarcely throwing the pitch at all from 2009-11, and our pitch-tracking tool notes that he has limited opposing hitters to .188/.316/.188 triple-slash rates in 19 plate appearances that ended with any fastball. Casilla's strikeout total might suffer a noticeable amount as a result of the change, but it could also keep him more productive in his new role, especially over the course of the year.
Now that Casilla appears "the guy," there's every reason to believe he might be a top-20 fantasy closer [e] and right off the waiver wire for some owners.
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays: Another new closer, Rodney shares a similar skills change to Casilla in that he appears to be leaning more on a two-seam fastball, albeit not to the extent Casilla is. Most importantly, Rodney is throwing strikes: He has a 2.08 walks-per-nine innings ratio after never once in his career registering lower than a 3.48 number in the category in a single year.
Per FanGraphs, Rodney has thrown two-seamers 29 percent of the time, and the results have been three ground outs in six plate appearances thus far -- a minuscule sample, yes, but remember that Rodney has faced only 14 batters all year. This could prove important for the right-hander, being that his average fastball velocity, clocked at 95.4 mph last season, has slipped slightly this year, to 94.8. If he's throwing with greater command and generating ground balls more than 50 percent of the time, he might well hold up as a lower-tier fantasy closer.
Brett Myers, Houston Astros: He's an obvious inclusion as he had to alter his arsenal as he made the switch from starting back to closing. Sure enough, Myers is throwing fewer fastballs -- from 30 percent of the time to 15 percent -- but he's also relying more on a cutter than ever, throwing it 21 percent of the time to date, as well as his curveball, which he has thrown 41 percent of the time.
While the cutter is a plus for Myers against left-handed hitters, it's good to see him relying more upon his curveball in his new role. Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Myers has limited opponents to .174/.200/.231 triple-slash rates in 497 PAs that have ended with the pitch, underscoring it as his most valuable pitch. There are worries that Myers could be traded to a team with a more locked-in closer, costing him a demotion to a less-valuable-in-fantasy setup role, but so long as he mans the ninth inning for the Astros, he could be a sneaky-good, low-end value.
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates: This shouldn't be interpreted as advice to panic, but in addition to the hamstring injury that cost him a save opportunity on Wednesday, he's showing slight regression in skills since last season. His fastball has lost a couple ticks, averaging 95.7 mph after 97.0 in 2011; he has served up fly balls 66.7 percent of the time, up from 30.1 percent a year ago; and he's leaning more on his slider, throwing it 28 percent of the time, up from 17 percent. Remember, of course, that this is a four-game sample.
Hanrahan posted back-to-back shaky outings in San Francisco this past weekend -- he allowed two runs in one inning of a non-save chance on Friday and walked two batters in an inning, yet converted the save, on Sunday -- and with his hamstring issues he bears watching in the coming days. Juan Cruz has apparently emerged as Hanrahan's primary handcuff, picking up saves in each of the past two games, so NL-only owners might want to grab Cruz to stash in the short term.
Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres: It has taken Cashner only seven appearances to establish himself as a must-have handcuff for Huston Street owners -- provided their leagues are deep enough to afford said owners the bench space. Cashner's stuff has been electric in relief for the Padres; he has kicked his fastball velocity up to 98.4 mph, second-fastest among qualified relievers, and his slider has generated a swing-and-miss six times out of 10 (60 percent) thus far.
Command is a question for Cashner -- he has walked seven batters in 6 2/3 innings and has 41 free passes in 71 2/3 career big league frames -- but if he can rein that in even slightly, he'll be at the front of the list to close should Street be either injured or traded at some point this season. NL-only owners might also be able to squeeze some value from Cashner in ERA and strikeouts in the short term.