The closer position is one of the most volatile in baseball. Approximately half of the 30 pitchers who begin the year with the closer role will not be closing things out by season’s end. That’s a statistical fact. Closers get injured, traded, or removed from the role for a variety of reasons, inefficiency being number one.
It’s too early to predict who will get traded, and injuries can happen at any time. However, it’s never too early who may lose the job due to struggles – that’s what today’s article is all about. Most teams have a good idea who their closer will be in April. Here are my predictions on some of the closers that may lose the role by this summer.
Corey Knebel: Milwaukee Brewers
2017: 39 saves, 1.78 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 126 strikeouts
I can hear the Milwaukee fans now. I am well aware of the fact that Knebel was tied for fourth in the league in saves. He was also tied with Craig Kimbrel for the most strikeouts among relief pitchers. And yes, he throws a blistering fastball (97.4 MPH). All of these things combined with his age (26) and pedigree (Round 1 in 2013) paint an encouraging picture. I will not attempt to discount anything he did in 2017. I will, however, point out a few omitted facts that don’t show up on the back of his baseball card.
One of my main concerns with Knebel is control. For the second straight season he walked more than four batters per nine – 4.74 to be exact. That wasn’t the highest total among relievers – 13 other pitchers had a worse BB/9. Of those 12, eight had an ERA over 4.00 and only two had an ERA below 3.00. There are a few former closers, but none of them finished as the closer. The second concern: fly balls. Knebel has a fly ball rate of 44.7 percent. Fly ball pitchers can be scary, even more so in Milwaukee. Add a few untimely free passes in front of those fly balls, some of which will go for home runs, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Fernando Rodney, another reliever with a 95-plus MPH fastball, made a career out of this, albeit not a pretty one.
The Brewers built an offense that is poised to win now. While the team may see Knebel as its future closer, early struggles that cost Milwaukee games could lead to a change. Even if that change is temporary, a lights-out performance by his replacement could leave Knebel playing setup man until the 2019 season begins. We saw this in Houston with Ken Giles. He eventually straightened things out and regained the role, but he had to work for it and prove himself.
Brad Ziegler: Miami Marlins
I think even Brad Ziegler knows his days are numbered in Miami. He is on the second year of a two-year, $16 million dollar deal. If not for a 4.79 ERA and 1.55 WHIP I’m sure the Marlins would have dealt him this winter. In addition to being a contract casualty this summer, he is also 38 years old and not part of the Marlins’ rebuilding plan – whatever that may be.
The future in Miami is Kyle Barraclough. He is arbitration-eligible through 2022 which gives the Marlins the financial restraints they covet. He also has several years of major league experience so the team knows what it has. On the flip side, Barraclough has control problems similar to Knebel’s. His 5.15 BB/9 is an improvement over last season, but still way too high. He does induce a few more ground balls which will help, but with an inexperienced infield behind him that may not be a good thing. With an 11.36 K/9 in the minors and a 12.09 major league average, he will generate a lot of strikeouts regardless of his role.
Fernando Rodney: Minnesota Twins
While I am not a Rodney fan, I will give credit where credit is due. The soon-to-be 41-year-old can still generate a lot of strikeouts. He posted a K/9 of 10.57 in 2017 and has been over 10 in four of the last five seasons. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher, averaging over 50 percent in all but one season since 2009. He hasn’t lost much zip on his fastball, averaging just over 94 MPH the last four seasons.
The problem with Rodney, as I hinted at when discussing Knebel, is control. His BB/9 last season was 4.23 – much better than the 5.10 we saw in 2016 and slightly below his career 4.43 mark. He can also be very hittable at times: Over the last five years he has two with a hit-per-nine over 9.0 and three years below 7.0. While he is a ground ball pitcher, he has had some bad luck on home runs in two of the past three seasons.
There is a reason Rodney is now on his sixth team in the last five years, and he has not lasted more than two seasons with any club since he left the Tigers in 2009. The Twins have put together a sneaky-good team that could surprise some people in 2018. If everything falls into place, the last thing they will want (or need) is an aging reliever blowing games for them. Or maybe Rodney will do well and the Twins falter, in which case he will be trade bait in July. Either way, I don’t see Rodney finishing the year as the closer for the Twins, or any other team for that matter.