The closer’s role was highly coveted earlier in the season, as multiple relievers went down and left rotations with a hole to fill. Those last three outs have caused some debate among fans, writers, and analysts all over. Some see those outs as the toughest, and some disagree. Regardless, the closer’s role has become one of considerable importance to any successful team. Here’s a list of the top five closers in baseball today, in my opinion.
1. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Check the radar gun. Go ahead, take a look. Now, check again. Ok, good. I’m not the only one seeing a triple digit number.
Aroldis Chapman is the best and most intimidating closer in baseball. The numbers are ridiculous. Chapman has pitched 49.2 innings of work, getting hit 22 times, while amassing 94 strike outs. Look at that number again. Ninety Four strike outs, in less than 50 innings of work. That’s more K’s than Jered Weaver (115.2 innings), Ryan Vogelsong (129.2) and Kyle Lohse (136.6). In addition, Chapman has been almost impossible to score on, with a 1.45 era, and going 29 innings at one point without surrendering a single run. What’s perhaps just as impressive as the 100mph fastball is Chapman’s command of that pitch. The Reds’ closer has allowed just 14 men to walk onto base on balls in his 49.2 innings of work.
The Cincinnati Reds have seen some troubles at their starting rotation, with Johnny Cueto being the only can’t-miss ace on hand. With Chapman, the back-end of the Cincinnati bull-pen is something most Reds fans aren’t worried about.
2. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
There are few things that a pitcher does that simply devastate a hitter. One of those things is variety. Craig Kimbrel essentially has two pitches: an exceptional heater (97-100mph) and a hard slider (avg 85-87mph).
Obviously we’re not talking about Yu Darvish variety here. But think about it: you’re a hitter and you just got done taking a 98 mph high fastball to load the count. As the pitcher sets, you tense up, looking for another heater in the zone. Except you don’t get the heater, the ball starts out of the strike zone and sits right back in the corner. The gun says 85, the board says “K”. That’s what facing Craig Kimbrel in the 9th is like.
In fact, Kimbrel has been obfuscating hitters as soon as his rookie campaign started. The Braves’ hurler won Rookie of The Year honors, led the National League in saves (46), and finished with 127 strike outs…in, I repeat, his rookie year…as he turned 24.
In 40 innings of work, Kimbrel’s 2012 has been phenomenal thus far, collecting 30 saves, while striking out 67. The Braves’ unquestioned closer looks to improve on his amazing rookie campaign.
3. Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
If there are Rays fans, or baseball fans in general, who are upset with Rodney not being ranked 2nd, I want to tell you…I don’t blame you. Fernando Rodney had been part of a somewhat closer-by-committee situation as Kyle Farnsworth went down earlier in the season.
Though Rodney’s 2012 doesn’t sport numbers as imposing as Kimbrel’s or Chapman’s, he has no doubt been one of the elite closers in 2012. Through July 30th, Rodney boasts a saves count of 30 so far on the season. The Rays’ closer has also shown a knack for repelling runs, getting tagged for a mere 4 earned runs in 46.2 innings of work. Considering the arena the Rays play in (Tropicana Field or “The Trop”), along with the division they play in, that earned run total for Rodney looks even more impressive. Facing 138 batters, the Rays’ closer allowed nothing but four runs. No matter how you slice it, that is incredible.
Rodney is a great ground ball pitcher, locating his heater very well in that ground-out-inducing lower portion of the strike zone.
4. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Hanrahan was the target of considerable attention around April this season. As relief pitcher after relief pitcher went down, Hanrahan’s name began to be tossed around in several trade rumors. In fact, Hanrahan is still a sought after commodity. Aside from being among the only above-average closers available at one point in time, Hanrahan’s talent and composure keep him at a level comparable to top-class relief pitchers.
Much like Kimbrel (and, admittedly, most closers), Hanrahan has two pitches in his utility belt: A fastball (96-99mph) and a hard slider (85-88mph). And much like Kimbrel, Hanrahan locates both of these pitches very well. His particular location skills are more than impressive, they’re essential. Outside of a 1-2 count, that high 90′s fastball is Hanrahan’s primary pitch.
The Pirates’ closer has collected 31 saves on the season so far, tops in the majors. Though showing a few command issues (21 walks in 41 innings), Hanrahan has struck out 47 batters on the year, and remains among the best closers in baseball.
5. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jansen’s place on this somewhat exclusive list might puzzle some. To be fair, Jansen is not exactly a household name when closers come to mind. In fact, there was a point in time when fellow Dodgers reliever Javy Guerra was considered the top man for the 9th inning job.
With that being said, consider why you might not have heard of Jansen until this year. Up until 2009, Jansen was a catcher, playing in the Dodgers’ minor league system. Reportedly, Jansen had impressed when he played for the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic. He threw, literally, a strike to third that caught a daring runner. It must have left quite an impression on the Dodgers’ staff because shortly after, Jansen’s conversion from catcher to pitcher began. In fact, Jansen is currently playing through his first full-fledged season in the majors, and he’s impressing every step of the way.
Jansen was named the official closer after Javy Guerra started to struggle earlier in the season. The result was fantastic. Jansen struck out hitter after hitter, showing masterful control early on, with his fastball / slider combo. One of Jansen’s few faults is his habit of hitting too much of the strike zone, resulting in his 10 earned runs and 18 walks on the season. But when you consider that was accrued over 47.2 innings of closer’s work, we’re just nitpicking.