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Mound Musings: How to Find the Next Closer

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Talking Bullpens

Closing is an art that some embrace and others disdain; it's as simple as that. Some pitchers can thrive in the environment, and some, even those who seem to have the perfect tool box, just can't seem to get comfortable in the role. It is high stress, and typically results in maximum effort deliveries from those who are on the success path, so closing can be more prone to injury. In recent years, that injury risk seems to have drifted upward with every end game pitch while overall effectiveness has waned. For fantasy players, this trend has brought about the need to find a crystal ball - something to predict who will be next to take the ball in the ninth when a team's closer goes down. It's not always an easy prediction to make, so this is a good time to discuss some things to look for in the heir apparent to closing duties. Let's take a look.

Isn't the Primary Set-Up Role Closer Training?

Sometimes it is, but not always. Closing and work in the seventh or eighth innings each require different abilities, not to mention a different mindset. For example, some late inning relievers are particularly adept at dealing with hitters swinging from one side of the plate or the other, specialists in getting those hitters out, but vulnerable to hitters on the other side of the dish. The seventh- or eighth-inning guys might not have overpowering stuff, but they can be valuable in situations with men on base because they can often induce a groundball that could get their team out of a jam, and that set-up guy might not be durable enough to go three or four days in a row, which often makes managing his workload a priority.

Further, some managers like to have a trusted arm they can use when a game is on the line, but not yet to the ninth inning. The game is tied heading into the seventh inning, your starter is tiring, and the heart of your opponent's order is due up. Who wouldn't want a top flight relief pitcher available? And, there is that mindset. We've all probably experienced the horror of your closer entering a game with a lopsided score just to get some work in, only to see him pummeled for several hits, a couple of walks and a few runs. That's one side of the coin, but in many cases, the fact that your closer can become less effective in that scenario, is probably one of the reasons he is so good at doing what he's paid to do - finish games with his team maintaining a narrow lead. It's the adrenaline factor. When it's time to close it out, that pitcher gets amped up and everything gets a little more crisp, and his fastball has a little more hop. He is in the shutdown zone, and not every reliever ever gets there. That mindset isn't always easy to identify, but there are hints that a particular reliever might thrive in that environment.

Here are things to consider when evaluating the potential for closing duties:

Power pitches tend to do best in closing roles. It's not always the case, but finesse pitchers aren't as capable of reaching back for extra when they absolutely have to have a strikeout so a very high strikeout rate couple with a fastball that can be very hard to catch up to is a great starting point.

Don't overlook past experience. Managers like experience - sometimes to a fault. If the closer role comes open and there is a pitcher on the roster who has previously succeeded in the role, he is almost guaranteed a spot in the final consideration set.

Be wary of those relievers who always perform best in short, "retire one batter" scenarios. They might be highly visible, and it may seem like they are called upon when the game is on the line, but if the manager avoids using them against hitters from either side of the plate, closing is probably not their ideal calling. These pitchers often lack an effective weapon against opposite side of the plate hitters, for example, maybe they don't have a reliable change-up.

Composure. If things go wrong, and the reliever in question shows a tendency to unravel, closing might not be a suitable role. If an error behind him, a bad call on a pitch, or something like that causes obvious distress, a blown save could be devastating. The best closers are known for having short memories.

This goes along with the composure factor. If a base runner or two seems to light a fire under a reliever, while a mop-up assignment is a recipe for disaster, your guy might be a closer-in-waiting. Adrenaline is a big part of it, and when your guy seems to always get the call in "high leverage" situations, it's quite possible he will be considered when there is a need to fill the closer role.

Finally, closers often have to work three or sometimes four days in a row. You never know when you'll hit a stretch of games when your team carries a narrow lead into the ninth inning. If a reliever rarely pitches on back-to-back days and almost never three days in a row, they are probably not well suited to closing and need to have their workload managed closely. These guys can be very effective when not overworked, but their performance drops off significantly if asked to work too much and too often.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

Masahiro Tanaka made his MLB debut and there an awful lot to like about his stuff and his poise on the mound. I think he is a notch below Yu Darvish with regard to ceiling, but everything I see says he is a top-of-the-rotation fantasy starter. He's only going to get better.

Young southpaws often require time to master command, more so than their right-handed counterparts, but watching James Paxton has made me boost his expectations. Hopefully the strained lat which forced him from his most recent start won't significantly delay his journey down the path to fantasy dividends.

Regular readers know of my enthusiasm for Pirates righty Jameson Taillon so you can imagine how disappointed I was upon hearing he will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the 2014 season. The good news is recovery is almost always total these days so it just postpones the excitement. Keep him in mind.

Is Yovani Gallardo ready to be the pitcher so many (including me) thought he could be? I only saw a couple of innings but he was throwing strikes and appeared to have the focus he sometimes lacked in the past. I've seen these flashes before from him so I am not quite ready to jump, but I am interested.

I really have a hard time believing two solid starts will make Scott Feldman a hot commodity, but if you own him and someone offers a dog biscuit or more, quickly take it and run. He's still too hittable, he's not going to get you many strikeouts, and the Astros are still the Astros.

One of the most enjoyable outings I have watched on the young season was that of the Reds' Johnny Cueto last Saturday against the Mets. I have always liked his stuff and he looked healthy - always the question with him. If he can stay on the mound all season I would love to own him and I may see if I can arrange that.

I was pretty impressed with Yordano Ventura as he was coming up, and when he made his debut with Kansas City last season. In fact, I was intrigued enough to buy him in my home draft this spring, despite feeling perhaps his price tag was a little high. I may have been wrong - he might be a bargain at what I paid.

Lance Lynn has gone through a few stretches where everyone wanted a seat on his bandwagon, and I watched, and watched, looking for something to make me a believer. I never found it. He could be a decent starting pitcher, but I watched him again the other night, and I still can't find an "ace" in there.

This will be a regular feature in Mound Musings - observations of starting pitchers you might want to target or avoid as the season progresses. If you have someone you'd like to see covered in a future edition, throw his name out there in the comments below.

The Endgame Odyssey

As mentioned above, there are a lot of things to look for when searching for the next closer to surface and the musical chairs game at the back of many bullpens is just getting started. Bobby Parnell is now officially gone having Tommy John surgery so Jose Valverde is a long term option to close for the Mets - assuming of course he can do the job. Already the rumors are circulating regarding Joel Hanrahan, who will likely be looking to sign with a team fairly soon. ... Jose Veras of the Cubs has been awful - he wasn't a great option to begin with - and Pedro Strop has looked respectable. Look for Strop to officially claim the job soon, at least until Kyuji Fujikawa is ready to challenge him. ... J.J. Hoover was also a total flop in Cincinnati while filling in for Aroldis Chapman, so the recently activated Jonathan Broxton should step right in until Chapman returns. ... I watched the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez close out a game the other day and he looked pretty sharp. However, Jim Henderson has reportedly regained much of his lost velocity so a change could be on the horizon. ... Matt Lindstrom, on the other hand, did not look sharp, but with Nate Jones now on the disabled list the White Sox option cupboard is pretty bare. ... David Robertson made a surprise trip to the disabled list Monday with a pulled groin and Shawn Kelley got the first save opportunity. He's likely a better bet for chances than Matt Thornton while Robertson is out, but a deep sleeper to watch could be Dellin Betances. He has better closer tools when he throws strikes. ... It looks like Jim Johnson has yet to erase the brutal days in Baltimore from memory. The A's have several options to take over Johnson's role - Ryan Cook, Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle.