The Los Angeles Angels have what managers would call a good problem: an abundance of quality late-inning relievers.
To think, a little over a month ago -- April 27, to be specific -- their bullpen was crashing down. At the start of that day, the Angels sported the majors' fewest saves (1), most blown saves (5) and third-worst ERA (4.96). Their closer, Jordan Walden, the No. 13 pure relief pitcher in fantasy baseball per our preseason rankings and No. 15 in terms of average draft position, had just blown an ugly save the afternoon before, surrendering a pinch-hit, walk-off home run to Brandon Allen. Despite it being Walden's first blown save of the season, it bloated his ERA to 8.31 and earned him a demotion from the closer role.
Since that date, things have certainly looked up for the Angels.
Walden has been outstanding since being demoted. In 12 appearances since, he has two wins, four holds, a 0.73 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and .122 BAA. Walden has 12 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings, and the only black mark is that he has issued six free passes. But performance-wise, he's pitching like someone deserving of another opportunity as the team's closer.
The problem, however, is that two other Angels have pitched better than Walden since that date.
Between Scott Downs and Ernesto Frieri, the Angels have a two-headed monster of a closer, meaning that besides the difficulty fantasy owners face sorting out which might close on any given night, it's anyone's guess when or if Walden might ever sniff another save chance. Take a look at the stats:
Downs, since April 27, has compiled 11 shutout innings with a 0.73 WHIP and .154 BAA, going 5-for-5 in save chances while tallying five holds.
Frieri, acquired from the San Diego Padres on May 3, has 12 shutout, hitless innings for the Angels and a 0.83 WHIP. He has converted both of his save chances and added three holds.
Examining the saves breakdown between Downs and Frieri, be aware that on eight occasions thus far, Frieri entered the game in a later stage than Downs, including in both of his saves and four of their past five common appearances. Downs does have an equal number of saves to Frieri since May 23 (2), so it seems that manager Mike Scioscia is perfectly content picking between the two on any given night depending on the matchups.
In the long term, though, Frieri might have an edge in terms of fantasy value. And as a pitcher available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues (60.6 percent, to be exact), he might be one of the best saves bargains available.
No, Frieri isn't going to extend his shutout, hitless streak all season. But he does have an underrated skill set, and it's worth noting that he has 16.35 K's per nine to date, tops among relievers this season. Through 117 big league appearances over four seasons, Frieri has a 2.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 12.12 K's per nine, and most importantly, his performance with the Angels demonstrates that he's no Petco Park product. Remember, he had a 2.20 ERA in 57 career appearances at Petco. Here's the fun counterargument: Frieri has a 2.00 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 60 career games at the other 29 big league ballparks.
For another statistic that supports Frieri's cause as a smart long-term investment, related to pitchers with strikeout rates as high as his: In the past three seasons, there have been 16 instances of a reliever throwing at least 25 innings with a K's-per-nine ratio of 12 or greater before the All-Star break. Ten of them managed a lower second-half ERA, and the group collectively managed a lower second-half ERA (2.43) than first-half (2.54). Arguably, the only pitcher from 2009-11 who qualifies and significantly declined in overall fantasy value during the season's second half was Jonathan Broxton (his 2010 second-half collapse year).
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.
Between Downs and Frieri, fantasy owners should squeeze a fair share of value out of the Angels' bullpen, and Walden's owners -- most of them stashing him on AL-only benches -- might find themselves waiting all year.
Hold out hope?
Walden's mention brings to light the many ex-closers -- highly ranked relief pitchers two short months ago who have since lost their jobs -- battling to restore their status as top save-getters. Walden is one of the most productive relievers in the group but is one of four relievers we had ranked in our top 25 who have since been demoted. Let's take a quick look at the other three relievers' quests to recapture past glory:
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners: He was the most recently demoted closer in our preseason top 25, having been removed from the closer role Saturday, and his team's bullpen state might represent the polar opposite of that of his division rival, the Angels. In the month of May, the Mariners' 3.89 relief ERA ranked 20th, they're tied for the fewest saves (3), and their four blown saves rank among the 10 highest totals in the majors. What supports League's candidacy to recapture his closer role at some future point is a lack of outstanding alternatives within the Mariners' bullpen. The only one of the team's six active relievers with an ERA lower than four is Charlie Furbush (3.57). Tom Wilhelmsen is the most natural fill-in for League in the short term, but even he has questionable ratios (4.26 ERA and 1.38 WHIP this season).
League's problem, however, isn't easily fixed overnight. As an extreme ground-baller rather than a strikeout artist, his command needs to be pinpoint, and this season it simply has not been that. There's no more telling statistic than the fact that 71 percent of League's sinkers have been thrown in the upper two-thirds of the zone (what our pitch-tracking tool describes as "up" or "middle"), whereas during his outstanding 2011, that percentage was just 60. League has also thrown his sinker in the strike zone 10 percent less often this season than last.
Ultimately, League is the Mariners' best option when he's throwing well, meaning he'll probably be reinstated the moment he recaptures a feel for his sinker. But that'll take time, meaning you might be waiting a few weeks.
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs: Like the Mariners, the Cubs might not have many viable alternatives to Marmol, one of fantasy baseball's most valuable closers just two short seasons ago. Still, his command has been so poor, merely hoping to outlast his weak competition might not be enough to assure him future saves. Among relievers who have faced at least 50 batters this season, Marmol has the majors' lowest swing (33 percent) and strike (54 percent) rates, and his 46 percent rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone ranks beneath the major league average (49 percent). Opposing hitters know they can sit back and wait for their pitch, considering how infrequently he throws a strike, and it's for that reason his slugging percentage allowed has risen each of the past two seasons, his strikeout rate dropping accordingly. Marmol, fresh off the disabled list, surrendered two walks in an inning in his first appearance back on Wednesday.
While Marmol might appear to be the most obvious projected Cubs leader in saves from today forward, why couldn't it be James Russell? Russell has been one of the team's most productive relievers to date, with a 1.54 ERA and 1.37 WHIP, and in his past six appearances, he has six shutout innings without a walk. As uncommon as it might seem for a manager to pick a left-hander to close and as strong as Marmol's reputation is as the Cubs closer, Russell might be a sneaky source of saves from that bullpen. Don't be so quick to assume Marmol's future is bright.
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers: Like Walden, Guerra has been outstanding since being demoted from the closer role, totaling 11 1/3 scoreless innings with a 1.06 WHIP and .195 BAA in 12 appearances. But like Walden, Guerra might have two relievers he'd have to outperform in his quest to recapture his former gig. Kenley Jansen, since taking over, has four saves, a 1.13 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in eight appearances, while Josh Lindblom has a 1.80 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and .194 BAA in his past 10. Most notably, while Lindblom has made each of his past nine appearances in the eighth inning of a game or later, Guerra has generally been working the middle frames; he has, on four occasions, come on in the seventh inning and three times in the sixth or earlier.
Guerra's skill set makes him a worthwhile NL-only source of ERA and WHIP, but he'd probably need some sort of extended slump from both of the men now ahead of him to get another chance in the ninth. Plan accordingly.