In the wildly unpredictable sport of baseball, perhaps the most unpredictable animals of all are relief pitchers, and closers in particular. Closers pitch in so few innings per year that it can be hard to gauge just how effective they really are, and they tend to max themselves out in their appearances, so they tend to be more susceptible to injuries. For every freak like Mariano Rivera who lasts a billion years and never has a bad year, there are dozens of Derrick Turnbows, guys who blow the league away one season and then fall apart and into obscurity the next.
Even the best closers have surprisingly short shelf lives. Remember Eric Gagne's magical 2003 Cy Young season? Just four short years later, he was a Mitchell Report-addled mess and a source of endless jokes for Red Sox haters. It doesn't help that a lot of people still think a closer's effectiveness is gauged by save totals, which is basically out of a pitcher's control.
Still, however hard it may be to completely forecast relievers, we can search for warning signs. We can look for little things like reduced velocity, strikeout rate, and higher contact rate to see who is at a higher risk of slumping in the ensuing years. Sometimes it's not hard at all. If you thought that Ryan Franklin was going to be an All-Star closer for ten years, I've got a totally real video of Sasquatch to sell you, never mind that he's wearing a wrist watch and making lunch plans on his iPhone.
After the jump, four closers (who are actually good) who appear to be at a higher risk to implode and lose their jobs.
1. Brian Wilson
If wacky facial hair and insanity were fantasy categories, Brian Wilson would be a perennial first round pick. Sadly, in this more grounded fantasy world, Wilson's status as a top closer is becoming dubious. After his stellar 2010 season, capped by postseason heroics and unwelcome public appearances by his leather-clad friends, Wilson suffered through an injury-marred, walk-plagued season in 2011. After setting a career high with 11.2 K/9 in '10, Wilson's strikeout rate plummeted to a career-low 8.8 last year. This was coupled with a completely unacceptable 5.1 BB/9 rate and a drop in velocity. Not good signs.
Wilson is already battling injuries to start this Spring, which is a tad ominous given his troubles last year. Did the heavy workload down the 2010 stretch and extra October innings that year conspire to ruin his arm? His diminished peripheral numbers seem to indicate yes. The Giants will probably be in a bunch of low-scoring games this season, so he could still be mediocre and rack up a lot of saves, kind of like in his 2008 season. With Wilson starting to get expensive and with Heath Hembree making his way up the organizational ladder, I'd say Wilson's days with the Giants are numbered, no matter how many times he dresses like a sea boat captain.
2. Jose Valverde
Valverde finished the season 49 for 49 in save situations, earning the snarky moniker "best closer in baseball" from more saber-inclined wags across the Internet world. Despite the perfect record in saves, Valverde wasn't the best anything in baseball, and he looks like a risk for a sharp decline. The reason? Stop me if you've heard it, but he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career and his walk rate is entering red light territory.
Oh, and he'll be 34 when the season starts. Valverde has had a long, solid career (I had no idea that he's led the league in saves three times) and should be at least serviceable, but if he keeps walking more and striking out less, as the Beastie Boys said, something's got to give. Last year his BABIP with runners on was .225. Career, it's .252. Don't expect another perfecto season in 2012.
3. Carlos Marmol
Lost in all the furor about Marmol's skyrocketing ERA and his league-leading blown save total was that he actually cut his walk rate, which had been his major bugaboo since he came into the league. Granted, it was still a hideous 5.8 per nine innings, but baby steps, people.
More alarming was his sinking strikeout rate, which fell from an insane 16.0 K/9 to 12.0 last year. Now, that's still darn good, but if you're going to walk this many batters and put this many runners on base, your strikeout numbers better be comfortably residing in the loony bin. Since Marmol's strikeout rate sits at 11.7 per nine for his career, and since he still has all kinds of control issues, a Mitch Williams-in-a-bad-year, ugly-as-sin season is an all-too real and all-too terrifying possibility.
4. Brandon League
Closers who don't strike out upwards of eight batters per nine innings rarely last very long. Remember our good friend Ryan Franklin? Quite simply, if you aren't coming in to pitch the ninth breathing fire and blowing the ball past batters, it's easier for them to bunch a few doink hits together and suddenly your "star" closer is looking at a pile of blown saves and a trip to the doghouse.
League scores all kinds of points for arm tattoos and wacky hair, but his inability to strike people out anymore makes him a shaky long term option as a closer. He thrives on pinpoint control, but I'd rather take my chances on a rabid-looking flamethrower than a ninth-inning guy who relies on deception and mystical powers.