Oct 13, 2011; St. Louis, MO, USA; Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher John Axford throws a pitch in the ninth inning of game four of the 2011 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The Brewers won 4-2. (Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE)

Ranking the NLC Closers: Axford, Madson, Hanrahan Hover Above Others

Over the past few years, the position of closer has come under a little scrutiny only because some believe the position is overvalued when it comes to the all mighty dollar. Sabermetrics has somewhat changed some views…and that’s not a bad thing. Every team wants maximum performance for their money. Fans want the same. A weird balance, no?

Look at what Francisco Cordero posted as his WAR from 2011: 2.3. Now, look at the guy who many of this generation deem as the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera: 3.5. One win. And both Coco and Mo took home a nice paycheck in 2011. Rivera made $14.9 million while Cordero made $12.1 million. One win = $2.8 million? Of course, Rivera has a better track record. His highest WAR for a season is an astounding 5.4 back in 1996. He has also posted a WAR of 4+ in three other seasons (1997, 2004, 2008)!

Well, the closers of the National League Central will “welcome” a new member for 2012: Cincinnati’s Ryan Madson. I believe that may shake things up a little.

1. John Axford, Milwaukee
For 2011 I thought Axford was the top closer in the National League. That guy in Atlanta (Craig Kimbrel) and Axford posted the same number of saves (46), but Kimbrel blew more saves (8). Axford only blew two…one coming on Opening Day.

His fly rate jumped in 2011, but so did his ground ball rate. The line drive rate dropped over 4%. Walk rate and strikeout rates both decreased, so contact may be the slightest of concerns. The strikeout/walk ratio did go up.

I had questions about Axford going into 2011, but he answered them. Every last one.

2. Ryan Madson, Cincinnati
Madson had a fine 2011. He got lost a bit in that his former club, the Philadelphia Phillies, had a pretty good starting staff. You can look at his save total (32) and think that’s low. Considering the Phils did struggle offensively, that’s partially correct. Madson only blew two saves.

Madson made having Brad Lidge as the closer a thing of the past. Same for Coco Cordero.

Kind of a reverse from Axford in that Madson’s groundball and flyball rates fell while line drive rate increased. Sometimes, those line drives and GABP can make for a poor outcome.

3. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh
Simply nasty. There’s no other way to describe Harahan. He blew 4 saves last season: two to the Reds, one to Milwaukee and the other to Houston.

Throwing in the high 90’s doesn’t hurt your game especially since Hanrahan can manipulate a little movement on those.

One thing to watch for 2012 is if he can get back to striking out hitters. While Hanrahan’s 2011 K/9 of 8.00 isn’t bad, it’s the lowest since 2007. He did lower his BB/9, a lot though. I guess you could say…”push”.

4. Carlos Marmol, Chicago
Maybe established himself as a definition of “regression” due to the 2011 he posted. Before last season, some thought he was the best closer in the division. That nasty slider was something to watch.

How times have changed.

Two words: walk rate. It’s deplorable. For Marmol’s career it’s 5.88. Last year, it was actually lower at 5.84. Marmol used to be able to counteract those walks with whiffs. Not near as much last season. And not nearly enough.

5. Jason Motte, St. Louis
If Motte can build off his 2011 postseason, the Cards have something special at the backend of their ‘pen. With the other arms in the pen, if Motte were to struggle (and I don’t suspect such), new skipper Mike Matheny does have a couple of others in a pinch. The bigger question will be if there are struggles, how long will Matheny keep sending him out there in save situations?

A bonus was the contact rates fell 1.5%.

Can’t beat him if you can’t him.

6. Brandon Lyon, Houston
Has never been spectacular in the closers role. Four saves with four blown hardly strikes fear into any opposing hitter.

I would love for Houston to try someone else in this role. I said try.


1. Axford
2. Madson
3. Hanrahan
4. Marmol
5. Motte
6. Lyon

Putting Axford on top was easy. So was putting Lyon as #6. It was after these that created “issues”.

I did struggle (only internally) with Madson and Hanrahan. I considered a switch, but of the top three, Madson entered more games in high leverage situations and performed better in those situations than Hanrahan. High leverage games in Philly? His former home park plays a role in that (albeit slightly) as well. Madson will be used to throwing in a hitter’s park.

My biggest inner-struggle was (believe it or not) that of Marmol and Motte. As in days. I went back and forth with these two multiple times. I “settled” on Marmol primarily due to a “proven track record”. In no way would I be surprised if Motte has a better 2012 than Marmol. I could easily have them reversed and still be happy. That’s how close the two are in my feeble mind.

Another position where the division has some darn good players.

I guess the bottom line is this: If you’re playing the Brewers, Reds or Pirates, gets your runs early because your shot late in games aren’t that good. In fact, they’re downright miserable.


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Tags: Baseball Brandon Lyon Carlos Marmol Chicago Cubs Cincinnati Reds Closers Houston Astros Jason Motte Joel Hanrahan John Axford Milwaukee Brewers MLB National League National League Central NL Central Pittsburgh Pirates Ryan Madson St Louis Cardinals

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