Want cheap saves? This season, look no further than the American League West.
Within the past month, three of the four AL West squads have turned their closer jobs over to fresh faces -- you'll understand why "jobs" is plural in a bit -- one of them to a pitcher who has been the third most-added player in ESPN leagues over the past week: Ryan Cook of the Oakland Athletics.
Cook's arrival as Athletics closer has been a long time coming, and it's one of the more encouraging, under-the-radar promotions of the season to date. The "afterthought" in this past winter's Trevor Cahill deal -- though the Athletics might disagree with that label -- Cook has been one of the surprise relievers of 2012, managing a 0.59 ERA that ranks second among qualified relievers, a 0.85 WHIP that ranks ninth and 11 holds, good for 14th in the majors.
Though initially the Athletics described Cook's closer status as a one-third share of a committee with Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, he is the only one of the three to have garnered a save chance since manager Bob Melvin's June 9 "committee" announcement. Cook is 4-for-4 in save chances with 4 2/3 shutout innings, a 0.86 WHIP and seven strikeouts in five appearances since that date; he has since earned Melvin's "sole closer" label, that announcement officially coming this past Sunday.
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.
Cook's example demonstrates why, in a committee arrangement, the smartest play for fantasy owners is to invest in the reliever with the best combination of recent success plus skills, as that's often: A) The reliever who gets the first save chance in said committee; B) The reliever most likely to convert said save chance; and C) The reliever most likely to get the next and all future ones, having earned his manager's trust with his initial saves success.
In the past 30 days, Cook has a 2.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 12.00 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, which compares favorably to former closer Fuentes' 12.79 ERA, 2.10 WHIP and 4.26 K's-per-nine ratio in seven appearances during the same time span. Frankly, it's puzzling why Melvin didn't grant Cook a chance sooner; at the time Melvin stripped Opening Day closer Balfour of his job (around May 1), Fuentes had a 4.00 ERA compared to Cook's 0.00 (zero earned runs in 11 innings).
Sing the regression song about Cook if you wish -- he has a .134 BABIP, 92.6 percent left-on-base rate, a 2.73 FIP and 4.10 xFIP that makes an increase in his ERA and WHIP a virtual guarantee -- but the key to his season-long prospects was capturing the job before his year reached said regression point. Cook's leash should be longer now that he has converted four saves in a row, and besides, Fuentes' 4.73 FIP and 4.11 xFIP hint that he hardly deserves another chance anyway, while Balfour, the next most likely candidate, has 3.86/4.20 numbers in those categories, which suggests he might also regress a bit in ERA/WHIP.
Available in 39.4 percent of ESPN leagues, despite a 39.8 percent increase in ownership during the past week, Cook looks like quite the smart investment, with perhaps a chance at top-20 fantasy closer value from today forward.
Two states north, Brandon League's hopes at recapturing the Seattle Mariners' closer role that earned him the No. 15 spot among relief pitcher-eligibles on the 2011 Player Rater have taken a hit in the past month and not necessarily because of anything he has done since his demotion from the closer role.
No, it's Tom Wilhelmsen's performance in League's stead that might have locked down the long-term role for the former. An ex-bartender who was out of baseball for five seasons (from 2004-08), Wilhelmsen has been quite the find for the Seattle Mariners the past two years, sporting a 3.15 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 9.70 K's-per-nine ratio in his first 57 career big league appearances. A setup man for the team to begin the season, Wilhelmsen has managed a 1.98 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 11.20 K's-per-nine ratio in the past 30 days to become the obvious choice to close over League.
Wilhelmsen is 5-for-5 in save chances since taking over, including 11 2/3 shutout innings in his past nine appearances, with 14 K's and two walks. Examining his game logs, it appears his command has become sharper and his stuff more difficult to hit with the more experience he gains. During that 30-day span, he has a 60 percent rate of pitches thrown within the strike zone, a 28 percent swing-and-miss rate and a 56.7 percent ground ball rate. In 21 appearances before that this season, he had 55, 25 and 38.7 numbers in those categories.
League, meanwhile, has a 2.53 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 10 appearances since being demoted, solid stats, but shy of Wilhelmsen's. League also has another problem: His sinker, his most relied-upon pitch, continues to fail him, with opponents managing .417/.462/.458 triple-slash rates against him during that span. Until he improves his location, he's hardly a threat to steal his job back from Wilhelmsen.
The most widely available of the closers discussed in today's column, Wilhemsen is still out there in 45.6 percent of ESPN leagues. He's well worth scooping up based upon his recent stretch of success.
Moving to Anaheim er, Los Angeles, Ernesto Frieri has, over the past seven weeks, made himself into one of the most attractive, yet frustrating, fantasy relief pitchers in the game. Since his May 3 acquisition from the San Diego Padres, Frieri has 19 2/3 shutout innings, a 0.81 WHIP, 16.02 K's-per-nine innings ratio, seven saves in as many chances and five holds for the Los Angeles Angels.
But here's where the "plural" comment from earlier comes into play: Frieri isn't necessarily the Angels' sole closer. Manager Mike Scioscia has employed a maddening lefty-righty combination including southpaw Scott Downs, who hasn't been much less productive than Frieri this season (0.39 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, six saves in eight chances and 12 holds in his 26 appearances).
Frieri, though, has the skills that profile him as a top-10 fantasy closer from today forward if only Scioscia makes a firm commitment to him as "the guy." Since 2010, Frieri has a 2.00 ERA and 12.14 K's-per-nine ratio in 126 innings; those rank seventh and third, respectively, among relievers with at least that many innings during that time span. He also has a 40 percent miss rate on swings this season, which ranks second in the majors behind only Aroldis Chapman (41%).
Frieri remains inexplicably available in 8.8 percent of ESPN leagues, but his skills make him a clear must-own in any format. He's ranked only 12th this week, but with the promise of every remaining save, he'd make a legitimate case for the top five.