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Closer Rankings: It's Opening Day, wooooo

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Does a successful team equal a successful closer? Not as often as you feel like it should.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, Steve Cishek saves 34 games for the 62-win Marlins, while Jason Grilli saved 33 for the 94-win Pirates. In 2012, Chris Perez saved 39 games for the 68-win Indians, while Aroldis Chapman saved 38 for the 97-win Reds.

There has been no time in history in which Chapman was a worse pitcher than Perez. You could make arguments for Grilli over Cishek, but either way, at their peaks, both guys were fine. The Pirates and Reds were definitely better than the Marlins and Indians in their respective years.

In short, predicting saves is dang tough. A great pitcher on a great team might get a ton of saves, or the team might have so many blowouts he never gets the chance. A subpar closer on a bad team might lose his job, or he could be just good enough to tally up some saves as the team struggles to put anyone away in the games it does win.

Over the last five seasons, 82 pitchers have saved at least 30 games in a season while pitching the entire season with one team (because I didn't feel like parsing Huston Street's 2014 or Matt Capps' 2010). If you graph those saves against the total wins of their respective teams on a chart, you might expect to see an R-squared value (the coefficient of determination, roughly marking how consistently an increase in one number correlates with an increase in the other) to be at least in the neighborhood of 1, indicating that more wins would equate with more saves. You would, however, be very wrong, as the R-squared of that actual chart came out to about 0.086.

In short, there's some connection between the saves leaders and the team wins leaders, but it's not much of one.

I mean, you know this stuff. Craig Kimbrel is still an elite reliever, even if the Braves might struggle this year. The Nationals should be spectacular, but Drew Storen is more of a question mark. If Greg Holland pitches exactly as well as he did a year ago but has to spend a random month on the DL, his numbers go all out of alignment through no fault of the Royals, whether they win 95 games or 65. Heck, that's already true of Kenley Jansen.

So when I rank closers, it's only partially about the quality of the team, how many saves I expect them to get. Sure, all things being equal, I'm taking a reliever on a team I expect to go 97-65 over one I expect to go 66-96. But all things are friggin' never equal. Jerky things, bein' all unequal and junk. Projected wins/projected save opportunities come into account, but I'm a lot more interested in FIP, xFIP, K%, all that fancy stuff. As you probably guessed I was. As you should also be.

This is the return of the weekly closer rankings. Starting next week, these will appear on Mondays, but, you know, season starts Sunday, all that jazz. Each week, I'll offer two sets of rankings: The current-week rankings, which is a bet on a tiny sample but will take into account questionable roles and injuries and the like, and the rest-of-season rankings, which will let me consider the role of, for example, a returning Sean Doolittle or a Joe Nathan who might (or might not!) keep his role all season. I've included some thoughts after each guy as well.

Right-Now Rankings

Rank Player Team Thoughts
1 Aroldis Chapman CIN An 0-3 record and a 2.00 ERA out of a closer in 2014 is ... I mean, it's meaningless, but whatever meaning it has doesn't pop your eyes. But he also had a 1.20 xFIP and 17.67 K/9, which, holy damn crap.
2 Craig Kimbrel ATL You can't bet against Kimbrel. But the Braves are on a downward trajectory, and after 185 saves the last four years, you have to wonder about Kimbrel's usage. Closers burn bright and fast.
3 Greg Holland KCR Betting on great relievers to stay great year to year is a dodgy proposition. Of the three uber-elite guys, he scares me the most, with a three-year-low BABIP last year.
4 Steve Cishek MIA He doesn't have the name value of some of the other guys here, but the Marlins are improved, and his MLB FIP has literally never been above 3.22, and only above 2.52 once.
5 Drew Storen WAS Sure, this is partly a "Nationals are good" ranking. But after an up-and-down career so far, I expect Storen to be mostly up this season.
6 David Robertson CWS I've yet to understand why he hasn't gotten more credit for being flippin' great. Career 2.82 xFIP in 393.1 innings.
7 Mark Melancon PIT Someday we'll read a book about the dark cloud that hung over the 2012 Red Sox. Melancon was one of the victims. And he's been spectacular since.
8 Glen Perkins MIN I legitimately forgot him in my first pass through the rankings. And that's not based on talent. He's very good, just not exciting and not on a good team.
9 Trevor Rosenthal SLC He was wildly inconsistent last year, and his final numbers were buoyed by an unsustainable 3.2 HR/FB rate. Still, he's good, and so is his team.
10 Huston Street LAA His results were outstanding last year, but his ERA was two runs below his xFIP, and he's never really shown the ability to string health and productivity together for a long time. Tread lightly.
11 Cody Allen CLE The similarities between his 2013 and 2014 stat lines are, frankly, astonishing, except for his BABIP, which fell 40 points last year. You have to assume that normalizes. He'll be fine. He might not be super special.
12 Brett Cecil TOR He wasn't great through 2012, but dude has been electric the last two seasons as a 26-/27-year-old. I think he'll be a more-than-adequate closer.
13 Joaquin Benoit SDP I doubt most people would realize he turns 38 in July. And his xFIP hasn't been below 3.02 since 2010 in Tampa Bay.
14 Jonathan Papelbon PHI His HR/FB rate last year was obscenely low, which accounts for a 2.04 ERA and a 3.50 xFIP in 2014. That'll balance out a bit this year, and the Phillies sure ain't helping matters.
15 Zach Britton BAL As good as his 2014 was, it was buoyed by a .215 BABIP that ought to get worse.
16 Brad Boxberger TB It was under the radar, but he had 14.47 K/9 last year and a 1.95 xFIP. He might grab the closer role and not let go.
17 Fernando Rodney SEA He's 38 now, he's only had one truly exceptional year in his career, and Danny Farquhar is pretty good.
18 Tyler Clippard OAK Of his 34 career saves, 32 came in 2012 for Washington. This will only be his second real shot at the role, and it might only last a couple weeks.
19 Dellin Betances NYY I'm just not scared off by his spring. They say he's splitting the role to start, but I expect him to be fine and eventually be named the main guy.
20 Luke Gregerson HOU It was cute that the Astros pretended there was a chance someone other than him would be the closer to start the year.
21 Hector Rondon CHC He just turned 27 and had a surprisingly good year last year. He'll give up a few more homers this year, but he also has an improved team around him.
22 Santiago Casilla SFG He's 11 years and 439 innings into a career with fewer than 8 K/9. He's never had an xFIP under last year's 3.45. That's just not spectacular in 2015.
23 Andrew Miller NYY Repeat after me: Never sign a reliever for more years than he's been effective as a big-leaguer (h/t Joe Sheehan). Miller should be fine, but we've seen his career year.
24 Joe Nathan DET The Tigers will give him every last opportunity to save the games. And heck, he did save 35 last year and strike out 8.38 per 9. I dunno, things are possible, I guess.
25 Chris Hatcher LAD Certainly looks like he's the guy while Kenley Jansen is on the mend. This off a year with 9.64 K/9 and a 2.78 xFIP.
26 Francisco Rodriguez MIL The Brewers hated that they had to bring him back, but they couldn't find a better option.
27 Neftali Feliz TEX He'll keep getting better the further he gets from surgery, but he struck guys out on a LaTroy Hawkins-ian pace last year.
28 Edward Mujica BOS He's going to fill in for Koji Uehara while the closer is out. Which is all well and good, but you show me the last time he was a seriously above-average reliever.
29 Addison Reed ARI Bad pitcher, terrible team, no reason to give him an extended look. He won't be a closer all year.
30 Jenrry Mejia NYM Whatever. I had to have 30 names.

Full-Season Rankings

Rank Player Team Thoughts
1 Aroldis Chapman CIN The first three guys ...
2 Craig Kimbrel ATL ... are so damn ...
3 Greg Holland KCR ... good.
4 Drew Storen WAS R-squared value or not, if a team wins 100-plus (as I project the Nats to do this year), the primary closer ought to do a lot with that.
5 Steve Cishek MIA Was his 11.57 K/9 last year a real jump, or a blip?
6 Mark Melancon PIT He just turned 30. I suppose he could be a "burn bright and fast" guy, but I remain in.
7 Trevor Rosenthal SLC He's ranked as an obvious fantasy starter, and he should be, but man, if he were my No. 1 reliever, i would not feel safe.
8 Kenley Jansen LAD He's the one injured guy we know beyond any reasonable doubt will get his gig back when he's healthy.
9 David Robertson CWS As good as he is, I don't remotely understand the love for the White Sox entering the season, so his opportunities might be limited.
10 Huston Street LAA Not that Street is a real candidate to lose his job,but next time you're bored, go look at Joe Smith's 2014 stat line.
11 Glen Perkins MIN If the Twins and Perkins are serious about using him more flexibly and not solely in save situations, it's smart baseball, but it could hurt his fantasy value.
12 Cody Allen CLE His leash is super long, even if he struggles. Bryan Shaw and Scott Atchison are not realistic closer options for a theoretical contender.
13 Joaquin Benoit SDP All else fails, at least he's still on the Padres and working in that home park/
14 Zach Britton BAL You'd like to see a few more strikeouts in this era.
15 Dellin Betances NYY I expect him to seize the full-time closer role sooner rather than later, but I can't say for sure, which is why I don't have him any higher.
16 Koji Uehara BOS FIP climbed from 1.61 in 2013 to 3.09 in 2014, with similar regressions across the board. And he turned 40 on Friday.
17 Brett Cecil TOR If he does struggle to start, look for Miguel Castro or Roberto Osuna to step up. Or this could be a Rafael Soriano landing spot if they want experience.
18 Jonathan Papelbon PHI I mean, if they haven't traded him yet, we can probably assume he'll be a Phillie all year.
19 Fernando Rodney SEA To be fair, he got really unlucky with BABIP last year, giving up .330. If that balances out, he'll be good.
20 Sean Doolittle OAK If you could tell me 100 percent he's the closer upon his return, I'd have him higher. But if Tyler Clippard surges to start the year, there's a chance Doolittle goes back to setup man.
21 Hector Rondon CHC If the Cubs can make all those people happy and make the playoffs, Rondon will definitely outperform this rank.
22 Jake McGee TBR See Sean Doolittle. Brad Boxberger could steal himself a role. It's in the realm of possibility.
23 Luke Gregerson HOU The one worry I have is that he's going from a career in San Diego and Oakland to one in Houston. Still, he's been terribly underrated.
24 Santiago Casilla SFG More or less, this is the last spot where I could see myself relying on a guy in a normal fantasy league. Below this are flyers or super-deep-league plays.
25 Joe Nathan DET His ERA climbed from 1.39 to 4.81 last year, which is alarming, but when you see his xFIP only climb from 3.27 to 4.14, it's much less crazy.
26 Francisco Rodriguez MIL Last year's stat line was crazy, with a minuscule BABIP but an obscene HR/FB rate. I wouldn't want to trust him.
27 Neftali Feliz TEX The Rangers aren't going to be nearly as bad off as they were last year. But the bullpen might be at a five-year low.
28 Addison Reed ARI I mention above that I'm not sure Reed keeps the job all year. Working in his favor is that the first replacement, Brad Ziegler, doesn't really profile as a closer. Evan Marshall, maybe?
29 LaTroy Hawkins COL He's likely to get a handful of saves, sure. He won't strike anyone out, ever, and why wouldn't the Rockies look to Adam Ottavino at some point?
30 Jenrry Mejia NYM Bobby Parnell will probably get his role back when he's healthy, but who knows. It's not like his own track record is exceptional.