How to identify safe, risky closers

With Tristan H. Cockcroft still enjoying a well-earned week off, a call to the bullpen needed to be made. Luckily, yours truly was there to pick up the phone, and so I'm here to provide some relief efforts of my very own as we attempt to close out this July without incident.

When it comes to major league bullpens, managers don't like uncertainty. They want to have that one go-to guy to answer the call anytime a victory hangs in the balance, and they don't want to have any second thoughts about the decision. As long as the skipper feels "his guy" is doing a good job, he keeps his job, even if the entire stadium starts to feel sick to their stomach the moment the first notes of a less-than-dominant closer's entrance music emerges from the stadium PA.

Trying to guess what's going on inside a manager's head is virtually impossible. We can make educated guesses by what we see in the highlights and read in the box scores, but at the end of the day, no matter how many blown saves Santiago Casilla racks up, if Bruce Bochy decides that he'd rather continue to use Sergio Romo in a setup role, then there's nothing that Romo's owners can do but shake their heads in disbelief.

As a way of trying to play mind reader, I've found that there is one statistic that may do the trick. I call it FBA: the combined batting average of the first hitter that a reliever faces upon entering a game. After all, the quickest way for the boo birds in the stands to gain momentum and for the manager to start to question the status quo is to see his closer consistently struggle out of the gate.

FBA might well be a window into this thought process and a forecaster of change. Is it based on a very small sample size? Of course it is. But closers are all about the small sample size. In most cases they have no room for error, and one bad pitch is all it takes for a lead to vanish into thin air.

FBA foreshadowed the demise of Jonathan Broxton as the Los Angeles Dodgers closer in 2010 and last year it also predicted the rise of then-future closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. So what does it say about the rest of 2012? Let's take a look at the current slate of closers around the league and see if there are any unexpected collapses on the horizon, and if so, who might be affected.

Group 1: Security Blankets

Here are nine pitchers who have an FBA under .200, and as such, should be able to maintain a stranglehold on their respective closer jobs for the rest of the season, even if they experience a few bumps in the road.

Certain names, such as Aroldis Chapman, Fernando Rodney and Craig Kimbrel should not be surprising to see here. There's little chance any of their managers will remove them from their closer duties anytime soon. Additionally, reports of a possible Huston Street contract extension in San Diego are certainly validated by his inclusion in this group.

In the case of Santiago Casilla, his solid FBA might be part of the reason that even with his recent struggles -- five blown saves in his past 10 appearances -- Bruce Bochy has indeed stood firm. It doesn't guarantee the Giants skipper won't wake up the morning after the next blown opportunity and pull the trigger on Sergio Romo. After all, anything certainly can happen.

However, the Casilla example should be a reason for owners of Kenley Jansen and Ryan Cook to not panic too much should any further bumps in the road -- the pair have a combined nine blown saves this season -- occur.

Group 2: Only as Good as Today

This next group of pitchers each has an FBA in the "neutral zone" between .200 and .250. In this range, and with lurking competition, their jobs are only going to be as safe as their team's win-loss record.

In the past, potential trades have typically come from this neck of the woods, since there are always trusted (though clearly at varying levels) alternatives to be found on the staffs of the teams with closers in this grouping. With the addition of the extra wild-card spot in 2012, though, only Seattle can legitimately be considered to be a "seller" of these closers' squads, making deals for most of these arms very unlikely.

Still, the fact that these teams all have playoff aspirations only heightens the pressure on their managers to "win today." It might only take a few consecutive poor outings for someone such as Rafael Soriano or Tyler Clippard, neither of whom started the season as his team's closer, to be given a temporary vacation from the job.

This is especially true in Washington, where Drew Storen and his 43 saves from 2011 has finally rejoined the team and could easily step into his old role if Clippard suddenly struggles. That being said, there's no reason to expect any of these pitchers to be pulled from their jobs as long as their team keeps pace with the rest of the contenders.

Group 3: Only Game in Town

This next trio also rests in the FBA neutral zone, only the next-in-line candidates have not done much to make a lasting impression. We're tempted to call this the "Carlos Marmol Zone" because it always seems that the Chicago Cubs closer ends up falling into this group.

Though Marmol is a perfect 4-for-4 in saves over his past six outings, he's also walked seven batters in that stretch. FBA doesn't take first-batter walks into account because sometimes the situation calls for pitching around the first batter a reliever faces, and doing so would not negatively impact the manager's opinion of their closer.

In Texas, other alternatives to a somewhat slumping Joe Nathan "could" include Alexi Ogando or Neftali Feliz, but with the Rangers' rotation in disarray after Colby Lewis' injury and Roy Oswalt's back soreness, who knows where that pair may be needed. That leaves Ron Washington little to fall back on in the ninth inning going forward should the need for change arise.

Group 4: In Flux

This group is comprised of the jobs that are up in the air due to injuries, or (in the case of the Marlins) an opening due to the previous closer being completely ineffective and finally pulled from the job.

Yes, Heath Bell, we're talking about you and your .341 FBA. If you're wondering why Steve Cishek might emerge from the "committee" that was put in place after Bell's demotion, FBA may help you see the light.

Although Alfredo Aceves has done well in Andrew Bailey's absence, there's a good chance that Bobby Valentine might simply want to see what he's got in Bailey when he ultimately arrives at Fenway Park. Terry Collins, on the other hand, is probably counting the days until Frank Francisco is healthy, even though Bobby Parnell hasn't truly been as awful as the New York Mets' recent 1-11 slide, all with him as the closer, might imply.

Jared Burton's own injury history has Minnesota treating him with kid gloves, but my guess is that over time, if Matt Capps does not return from the disabled list promptly, Burton will end up being the Twins reliever to own for saves and not Glen Perkins.

Group 5: Danger, Will Robinson!

Here are the pitchers who simply have not been doing the job, at least not on the psychological level. This is where we most expect to see a changing of the guard at some point over the next two months.

Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies have won 8 of 11 and appear to have one last bit of fight in them, but Jonathan Papelbon has blown three saves since June 23. If the team continues to rebound and Papelbon can't shut the door on victories, Charlie Manuel might not have a choice.

The Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates are all having terrific seasons. That goes a long way toward a manager giving his closer leeway. If the tide turns, however, September might see Jose Valverde and Joel Hanrahan yielding their jobs down the stretch. The White Sox are probably the likeliest of the trio to make a change. They may be saying all the right things to keep Addison Reed's confidence up, but they acquired Brett Myers for a reason. Sometimes you have to use those insurance policies you've paid for.

Our good friend Jonathan Broxton has been the subject of many trade rumors, but there's a reason he hasn't been scooped up by a contending team just yet. Care to guess why he's both available and also not finding any takers?

Lastly, expect John Axford to retake the closer's job in Milwaukee sooner rather than later. Although he had a rough patch with five blown saves in a 30-day stretch, Francisco Rodriguez hasn't exactly been a rock for Ron Roenicke since taking over the closer's job.

As for Francisco Cordero, we would not be surprised to see him removed from the closer's job in Houston by the time we finish typing this sentence. Then again, at 30 games under .500, does it really matter to manager Brad Mills at this point?

Certainly, FBA is not an absolute measure of job security, but in the past it has served well to help identify pitchers who may be causing their managers to reach for the bottle of antacids, even when they do manage to keep the floodgates from opening.

If you're looking for where the next source of untapped saves are likely to come from, both for the rest of 2012 and beyond, look no further than the vultures circling above the walking dead of Group 5.


Note: AJ Mass' top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.