Worrying (or not) about some important closers

Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel has 22 saves and is holding opponents to a .147 batting average through Thursday.

Sometimes I worry that baseball’s become too easy for pitchers.

I know, I know … They’re working hard and they’re throwing hard and it doesn’t seem easy to them and who the hell is Rob Neyer to make light of what’s always been a difficult job and always will be.

I know it’s hard. But one of the things that makes sports so compelling is uncertainty. Would you watch an NFL team play a high school team? I wouldn’t. Not for more than two or three plays, anyway. Because we would know exactly what’s going to happen. For the same reason, it’s not usually all that much fun watching pitchers hit.

Well, lately it seems that when there’s a closer on the mound, everybody hitting’s like a pitcher. Los Angeles Dodger closer Kenley Jansen’s struck out 56 (non-pitchers) in 34 innings. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel’s struck out 53 in 30 innings (in an off-year for him!). Texas’ Joakim Soria’s got 35 strikeouts and three walks. Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman has struck out 54 percent of the batters he’s faced.

These guys do, in fact, make it look easy.

So I get to worrying … and then I notice Detroit’s Joe Nathan’s 6.28 ERA. And Angels right-hander Ernesto Frieri’s 6.39 ERA. And Baltimore’s Tommy Hunter’s 5.18 ERA. And Tampa Bay’s Grant Balfour’s 5.52 ERA. And Chicago White Sox stopper Ronald Belisario’s 5.35 ERA. And suddenly I’m not worrying so much. While apparently it’s easy for Kimbrel and Chapman to strike out oodles of great hitters, it’s still not so easy to find oodles of Kimbrels and Aroldises.

Today I’m more interested in the Nathans and the Frieris of the world. Those two, along with Hunter and Balfour, pitch for good teams with postseason aspirations. So when they perform wildly worse than their projections and expectations, it’s worth wondering if they should still hold their jobs.

Let’s start with Nathan, who signed last winter for two years and $20 million, and has that 6.28 ERA along with five blown saves. Is he a complete bust?

In those terms, yes. So far. And I do think there’s some reason for concern. Nathan used to throw 95. Now he’s more often throwing 92. On the other hand, he’s been unlucky on balls in play and potential home runs, and his real performance suggests and ERA at least two runs lower than his actual performance. Not that an ERA around 4.00 would be any great shakes, either. Nathan’s strikeout rate is down significantly this season … but is the difference significant, considering he’s thrown only 29 innings? Not really. He probably isn’t the pitcher he once was, and he’s never going to be a Kimbrel or Chapman again. But he should be good enough.

Frieri? Same story! Well, almost. His walk rate’s actually lower than it’s ever been. But he’s been victimized by a slightly elevated BABiP allowed and a wildly inflated home run rate. Repertoire-wise, the only real difference seems to be that he’s throwing fewer fastballs and more sliders, but it’s actually the fastballs that have been getting hit. When a pitcher with Frieri’s somewhat checkered history has a 6.39 ERA, it must be terribly tempting to demote him, to either the minors or a lower-leverage role in the big club’s bullpen. But again like Nathan, while Frieri simply isn’t a top-shelf closer – he’s always walked too many guys — he’s probably two or three runs better, in a fundamental way, than his ugly ERA.

As for Hunter … no, he’s not really a 5.18 pitcher. But he’s really not a closer, either. He’s essentially a replacement-level pitcher, whether starting or relieving, and the decision to install him as a high-leverage reliever might reasonably be questioned. So let’s question it. Actually, at this point there’s no point; Hunter was demoted to lighter duties more than a month ago. Once-hot prospect Zach Britton has taken over as the Orioles closer, and he’s better-suited to the role than Hunter. Sometimes these things just need a while to sort themselves out.

And Balfour? Well, he’s just one of the many reasons for the Rays’ shocking demise. Of course there’s some irony here, as Hunter got the closer’s job in Baltimore after the Orioles reneged on their free-agent deal with Balfour, on the grounds that he wasn’t fully healthy. Balfour’s agent protested vociferously! Then Balfour signed with the Rays, and has pitched exactly like someone who’s not healthy. His strikeout rate’s down some, his walk rate way up, and all his pitches are two miles an hour slower than last year.

Now, you would think that if the Orioles really spotted something serious, the Rays would have spotted it, too.

Yes, you would think. So now I don’t know what to think.