Monday, May 14, 2012

With Rivera Hurt, Who's Baseball's Best Closer?

Not only has Mariano Rivera been the best closer of his generation, he has been the best reliever baseball has ever seen. While Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner rivaled him for years, they were never quite at Mo's level. John Smoltz and Eric Gagne had a few pretty good years as well, but didn't last as long. Rivera and his cut fastball has dominated baseball over the last 18 years. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL and doctors found blood clots in his legs last week. Rivera may never pitch again. Its a bad turn of events for Rivera, but he's a first ballot Hall of Famer for sure and will join relievers Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage in the Hall someday.

For his career, Rivera is 76-58 with a record 608 saves, 2.21 lifetime ERA, and a 0.99 career WHIP. In the postseason he's been more dominant. Rivera is 8-1 with 42 saves, 0.70 ERA, and 0.76 WHIP in postseason play. Rivera was as important to the Yankees winning 5 World Series championships as anybody else on those teams. Earlier in his career, his cutter would break many bats and is still a very hard pitch to hit.

The Giants Brian Wilson is also out for the year, as is the Royals Joakim Soria and the Reds Ryan Madson. The Tigers Jose Valverde has been lights out the last few years, but is off to a slow start. Joe Nathan isn't quite the pitcher he used to be with the Twins, but is closing games for the Rangers now. Jon Axford of the Brewers had a huge year last year, but is off to a rough beginning this year. The Indians Chris Perez leads the AL in saves, but his ERA is currently almost at 4.00. The Mariners Brandon League and the Pirates Joel Hanrahan have been solid the last year plus, and it took both awhile to blossom into solid relievers. The Orioles Jim Johnson is off to the best start of any closer this year, but is in his first season in the role.

Right now, there are three relievers who could make the case for being the best in a watered down field of closers. Jason Motte became the Cardinals closer down the stretch last year, and played a big role in the championship run. Motte was shaky in his rookie year in 2009, but has developed secondary pitches since then. Since 2010, Motte has been lights out and is off to a good start this year. Motte also averages 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. However, Motte only has 18 saves during his career, and five more in the postseason. Its hard to proclaim him best closer already, but he's moving up the list and is likely to make his first All Star team this year.

Jonathon Papelbon left the Red Sox after last season's collapse and signed a deal with the Phillies in the offseason. Paps was dominant between 2006 and 2009, making 4 All Star teams and was the closer of the 2007 championship team. He had a off year in 2010 and was up and down in 2011. This season, he's been pretty sharp. Papelbon has one of the better career resumes after Rivera, saving 229 games with 2.33 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP for his career.

Finally, Craig Kimbrel of the Braves has to be considered one of the best in baseball right now. Since debuting in late 2010, Kimbrel has saved 58 games with a 1.87 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. He did fade late in the year last year for the Braves, but their whole team did. Kimbrel was named NL Rookie of the Year in 2011 after leading the league with 46 saves. Kimbrel's teammate lefty Jonny Venters is just as dominant, posting a 1.91 ERA since his debut in 2010. I'm not sure who is the best closer currently, but the Braves do have the best back end of the bullpen in the game right now with Kimbrel and Venters.

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