Ranking the NLC Closers: Jason Motte Takes the Top Spot

The National League Central loses, arguably, its best closer in Aroldis Chapman as he moves to the starting rotation. However, its crop of closers is still a strong one. In this article, I will attempt to rank these pitchers by who I expect to perform best in 2013. This does not necessarily mean that the higher up closers will get more saves than the lower level guys- this is just a listing of who I expect will put up the best overall numbers. There are many factors that go into save numbers- most notably team performance. I want to remove the influence of the pitcher’s team from the equation. Therefore, I’ll be using 2-year numbers on FIP and xFIP mainly for these rankings. I believe that this is the best gauge for actual past performance, as well as a good indicator for future performance. So, with that in mind, here are my National League Central closer  rankings:

Photo by Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

1. Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals.

2-Year FIP: 2.80

2-Year xFIP: 3.14

Without Aroldis Chapman closing, Motte is an easy choice for the number one reliever in the central. Motte does just about everything right- he keeps the ball on the ground well (40.7% GB rate in 2012) as well as racks up the strikeouts (10.75 k/9 in 2012.) He also does a great job at keeping the basepaths empty, with a WHIP below 1 in each of the last two seasons. He wasn’t the dominant force that Chapman, who was arguably the second best reliever in baseball last year was, but he is still a solid pitcher. He’s a prototypical fireball pitcher, averaging 97.1 on the radar gun last year with his four seam fastball, while also utilizing an effective cutter and two seamer. He should get plenty of save opportunities behind the Cardinals’ potent offense and above average pitching staff.

Reliever Grade: A+

Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

2. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers.

2-Year FIP: 3.24

2-Year xFIP: 3.07

Placing Axford here was a bit of a hard decision for me. His numbers are pretty comparable to the number 3 closer on this list, so it was a tight  call. I went with Axford here because his numbers are skewed by a disastrous 2012 season that appears to, given the information we have, be an aberration. In 2011, Axford was arguably a top 3 closer in baseball, posting a 1.95 ERA with 46 saves. His advanced metrics were also very good, with a FIP and xFIP of 2.41 and 2.85 respectively. His problem wasn’t strikeouts last year, as he actually struck out more hitters in 2012 (12.07 k/9) than he did in 2011 (10.51 k/9) nor was his problem a decrease in velocity, as he threw his fastball an average of .6 mph faster in 2012 than he did in 2011 (96.1 mph.) His main problem last year was a huge spike in walks, as he walked 5.06 hitters per 9 innings, as opposed to 3.05 in 2011. His WHIP was an ugly 1.44, and he gave up 1.30 home runs per 9 innings. The reason that I am giving him the slight edge over the number 3 closer is because he still has great stuff. His fastball was impressive last year, and his off speed stuff was still great (hitters only hit .205 off of his curveball and a minuscule 0.63 off of his slider. ) However, the main reason that I have him here is that I wholeheartedly believe that 2012 was a fluke, and that he will be one of the top relievers in baseball again in 2013. He should have plenty of leads to protect, as the Brewers offense is more than capable of scoring runs, while their bullpen in front of Axford is much improved with the additions of Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny, and Burke Badenhop. In my opinion, Axford is a solid bet to return to form, due to his great career numbers and dominating stuff.

Reliever Grade: A

Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

3. Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates.

2-Year FIP: 3.05

2-Year xFIP: 3.11

With the Pirates trading away Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, they will turn to Jason Grilli to close for the first time in his major league career. After struggling as a member of the Detroit Tigers, Grilli finally settled down in 2011 and turned out the best year of his career. Then, in 2012, he built on 2011 and had an even better year. Grilli was a strikeout monster last year, fanning an impressive 13.81 hitters per 9 innings, while keeping his walks down at respectable 3.38 per 9, resulting in a good 1.14 WHIP. I chose to place Axford over Grilli because Axford’s career numbers are more impressive, and because Grilli still has to prove to the league that his outrageous 13.81 k/9 rate was no fluke. Grilli doesn’t throw as hard as Motte or Axford, averaging 93.6 on the radar gun while throwing his fastball over 71 percent of the time. I also chose Axford over Grilli because of his closing exeperience. While I don’t necessarily believe in the whole “proven closer” argument, there’s no denying that experience is crucial to success. If Grilli can keep his FIP and xFIP where they’ve been over the past two seasons, while sustaining his high strikeout rate, he really can be one of the premier relievers in the game.

Reliever Grade: B

Photo by Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports

4. Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs. 

2-Year FIP: 3.76

2-Year xFIP: 4.09

The Cubs have stated that the closer’s job is Marmol’s to lose, despite the presence of Kyuji Fujikawa, who is essentially the Mariano Rivera of Japan. The man absolutely owned Japanese hitters, posting a career 1.36 ERA and 202 saves as a member of the Hanshin Tigers. Marmol does one thing very well- he is an elite strikeout pitcher, with a career strikeout rate of 11.73 (with a 11.71 mark in 2012.) However, he also does another thing very well- he walks hitters at an enormous rate, posting a career 6.03 BB/9 (with an atrocious 7.32 mark in 2012.) Marmol’s bread and butter is his slider, which he threw nearly 50 percent of the time last season. Hitters only managed a measly .172 average off of this pitch, which he throws at about 85 mph on average. If only he was able to limit his walks, then he would be an elite reliever. However,  wildness has always been a part of Marmol’s game, and there’s no reason that should change now. It’s likely he’ll do what he always seems to do in 2013- strikeout a ton of hitters, walk a ton of hitters, and rack up a decent save total and ERA.

Reliever Grade: C

Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

5. Jonathan Broxton, Cincinnati Reds.

2-Year FIP: 4.33

2-Year xFIP: 4.15

Ah, Jonathan Broxton. Broxton is an interesting case. He has already gone from a premier setup man to a premier closer to a washed up reliever to a decent setup man again, and he’s only 28 years old. An arm injury derailed his career in 2010, and he was never really the same. His velocity dropped from an average of 97.5 in 2009 (while constantly touching the 100s, even up to 102) to an average of 95.3 in 2010 with another dip to 94.0 in 2011. In his heyday, Big Brox was a premium strikeout pitcher who could be consistently counted on for 11+ strikeouts per 9 innings with no questions asked. He seemed to have a renaissance in 2012 with Kansas City, posting a 2.27 ERA with 23 saves at the all star break before being traded to Cincinnati where he was an equally solid setup man.  However, Broxton’s return might have been more smoke and mirrors than an actual return to form. His WHIP in Kansas City was an ugly 1.40 (which is a WHIP more commonly associated with seasons like John Axford’s in 2012) which indicated that his success might have been more lucky than skillful (really- an ERA in the low 2’s with a WHIP in the 1.40’s is ridiculous.) His WHIP was better in Cincinnati, with a mark of 1.03. However, what turns me off from Brox is his declining strikeout rate. In total, he only struck out 6.98 hitters per 9 innings, which is a mediocre number…for a starting pitcher. For a reliever, 6.98 is really bad. His strikeout rate is by far the worst in the division. This is even more problematic by the fact that Broxton is not a finesse pitcher- he still threw his fastball at a rate of over 60 percent, with an average velocity of only 94.8 mph. A fastball pitcher whose fastball has run out of juice is never a good combination, which appears to be what Broxton is at this point in his career. Unless he has a sudden return to form, it appears that he will be a mediocre replacement for Aroldis Chapman.

Reliever Grade: D