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Closer Rankings: Will hurt guys get their jobs back fast?

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Four big closer names are on the mend, but will their teams ease them back into the role?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Holland is expected to be activated from the disabled list Tuesday. Within the next month, Kenley Jansen, Sean Doolittle and Jake McGee should be returning as well. With the way Brad Boxberger has been pitching, McGee might not be any sure thing to regain his closer role, but the other three ought to slide right back in.

Or will they? Just the other day, Don Mattingly said he wasn't necessarily going to use Jansen as his closer as soon as he returns. Wade Davis has filled in crazy well for Holland and could continue to do so. And it's not like Doolittle has a huge track record of extended success or the exact profile of a traditional save-getter (i.e., he's a lefty) that would lock him into a closer role long-term.

I was curious, then, how managers treat their just-returned closers. Sure, every injury is different, but by and large, these managers are slaves to routine, so I expect returning-from-injury guys to be handled largely the same way.

In the last six years, there have been 14 relievers who finished in the top 20 in the bigs in saves in a given season and spent DL time in that season. That's hardly a comprehensive listing of injured closers, but it works for my purposes.

Of those 14 (which comprises 16 DL stints, as Brian Wilson in 2011 and Brad Lidge in 2010 both hit the DL twice), only three didn't slide back into their roles immediately upon returning from the DL — Jason Grilli in 2013 and Huston Street and Ryan Madson in 2011. Grilli saw Mark Melancon save games for the Pirates for a couple weeks after his return from a forearm strain, with Grilli filling the setup role, before getting the saves again the last week or two of the season. Street, meanwhile, hit the DL with an upper arm strain in late 2011, but didn't get any more save chances down the stretch, instead serving as a setup man for Rafael Betancourt. Ryan Madson came back from a hand contusion to see Antonio Bastardo get the Phillies' first two saves before his own retaking of the job.

The other 11 guys — 13 DL stints — did pick right back up where they left off. The next thought, then, was if there was a common thread in the injuries that might reveal how the managers would proceed. In the paragraph before this, Grilli, Street and Madson all suffered injuries with their throwing arm. The other 11, meanwhile, saw much more variety:

Year Pitcher Injury
2014 David Robertson groin strain
2014 Aroldis Chapman facial surgery
2013 Huston Street lower leg strain
2011 J.J. Putz elbow inflammation
2011 Brian Wilson (2) ab strain; elbow strain
2011 Neftali Feliz shoulder inflammation
2010 Brad Lidge (2) elbow injury both times
2010 Andrew Bailey forearm
2009 Trevor Hoffman ab strain
2009 Brad Lidge knee
2009 Joakim Soria shoulder strain

In those 13 DL stints, six represented injuries to guys' throwing arms. Two of the guys with those throwing-arm injuries were hurt to start to season, and I'm comfortable saying start-the-season injuries are slightly different beasts.

(I'm tempted to slide the two shoulder issues off the list as well, but I think I'm tempted to solely because it helps me to a conclusion, and that isn't fair, so here's where we are.)

According to this admittedly small sample, then, here are the conclusions I can tentatively draw: Closers who hit the DL with ab or leg or ball-off-face injuries, when they get healthy, get their jobs back right away; seven guys from my search suffered those injuries, and all seven jumped right back to work upon their returns. Any sort of throwing-arm injury throws that off; in a sample of nine pitchers, three were eased back into the role, two had preseason injuries and five jumped right back into the role.

(I'll add in the obvious caveat: Guys who were eased back into the role to any significant degree might not have had the job long enough to amass enough saves to finish top 20 in their given year. Granted. But by and large, those are the lower-tier closers to begin with, and I think the general results would continue to align with what I've found so far.)

What does that mean for our 2015 returning closers? Again, every injury, every pitcher and every manager is different, but guys are such slaves to tradition that I more or less expect things to follow form. So these are the injuries of the four pitchers:

  • Sean Doolittle: He's been dealing with a rotator cuff tear. Like I said, I am tempted to treat shoulder injuries as different beasts from those to the rest of the arm, but I don't think that's fair, so let's say Doolittle might get eased back in.
  • Greg Holland: Holland's injury was a right pec strain, and he appears to be over it now. He'll get his job back with little or no delay.
  • Kenley Jansen: Despite what Mattingly has said, Jansen's injury was to his left foot, and no manager has shown any tendency to ease those guys back into work. I think Jansen takes his gig back right away, even considering how strong the Dodgers' bullpen has been without Jansen.
  • Jake McGee: That's a left elbow surgery, which could easily mean that's a return-to-the-role delay. And considering Brad Boxberger might have supplanted McGee by now even absent injury, McGee warrants a whole lot of wait-and-see caution.

This is hardly conclusive, granted. But if you believe in managerial tendencies — and lord have they given us no reason not to believe — then Holland and Jansen will be closing again right away, while Doolittle and McGee will offer slightly longer waits.

On to the rankings. Remember, two lists: Right-Now and Rest-Of-Season:

Right-Now Rankings

Rank Player Team Last Week Thoughts
1 Aroldis Chapman CIN 1
2 Craig Kimbrel SDP 2 He's struggled of late, but I'm not worried yet.
3 David Robertson CWS 5
4 Joakim Soria DET 4
5 Andrew Miller NYY 7 I think Dellin Betances is a better pitcher long-term, but man is that a shaky belief for now.
6 Huston Street LAA 6
7 Drew Storen WAS 9 In the last week: Four innings, one baserunner, no runs.
8 Trevor Rosenthal SLC 8
9 Koji Uehara BOS 11 Bounced right back from his blown save to strike out five in his next two innings, with no baserunners.
10 Glen Perkins MIN 10
11 Zach Britton BAL 13
12 Greg Holland KCR NR Despite what I said above, I think there is at least a chance the Royals ease Holland back in.
13 Jonathan Papelbon PHI 15
14 Francisco Rodriguez MIL 21
15 Jason Grilli ATL 16
16 Hector Rondon CHC 19
17 Jeurys Familia NYM 17
18 Brad Boxberger TAM 18
19 Steve Cishek MIA 14 Season stat line: 8.1 IP, 7 K, 12 baserunners, 8.64 ERA.
Stat line since first two outings: 7 IP, 6 K, 6 baserunners, 3.86 ERA.
20 Luke Gregerson HOU 22 If I believed in the Astros as realistic contenders, Gregerson would rank higher. But this team will regress.
21 Mark Melancon PIT 20 The results have improved of late, but the overall pitching hasn't, really.
22 Wade Davis KCR 3 Even if he isn't getting saves, he's elite. If Holland isn't quite ready? He's top five.
23 Fernando Rodney SEA 23
24 Santiago Casilla SFG 24
25 Tyler Clippard OAK 28 He'd have had to pitch at a Wade Davis level to supplant Doolittle and he definitely hasn't.
26 Dellin Betances NYY NR Got his first save last week. Probably won't get a lot, but he's still great.
27 Cody Allen CLE 27
28 Brett Cecil TOR NR I think he'll keep the job for a while, but so far his primary credential is "hasn't been Miguel Castro."
29 John Axford COL NR Looks like Adam Ottavino is going to be out frustratingly long. Axford's been good so far, but it's not like his track record is exceptional.
30 Addison Reed ARI 30

Rest-Of-Season Rankings

Rank Player Team Last Week Thoughts
1 Aroldis Chapman CIN 1 10.2 innings. Eight baserunners. 19 strikeouts. No runs. Dude's a dang beast.
2 Craig Kimbrel SDP 2
3 David Robertson CWS 4
4 Joakim Soria DET 3 After two baserunners in his first 7.2 innings, has allowed five in his last four. Still not worried, but it's at least worth watching.
5 Andrew Miller NYY 9
6 Greg Holland KCR 6 This time next week, he'll probably be back in the top three. I just want to see it first.
7 Huston Street LAA 5 Street more-or-less marks the end of the best group of closers. A lot would have to happen to bring someone below this (save Kenley Jansen) above these guys.
8 Drew Storen WAS 11
9 Trevor Rosenthal SLC 8
10 Kenley Jansen LAD 7 It must be nice to have a bullpen pitching as well as the Dodgers' is without someone as good as Jansen throwing a pitch yet.
11 Glen Perkins MIN 10
12 Koji Uehara BOS 12
13 Zach Britton BAL 14
14 Steve Cishek MIA 13
15 Jonathan Papelbon PHI 17 I'll believe he's being traded when it happens, but he'll definitely be a closer, whatever team he's on.
16 Francisco Rodriguez MIL 24 I don't think I'll ever feel confident in ranking Rodriguez, but he's been really good so far.
17 Hector Rondon CHC 19
18 Jeurys Familia NYM 18
19 Jason Grilli ATL 15
20 Sean Doolittle OAK 23
21 Brad Boxberger TAM 28 Okay, I give. I don't think Jake McGee is any sort of guarantee to get his job back.
22 Luke Gregerson HOU 20
23 Mark Melancon PIT 21
24 Fernando Rodney SEA 26
25 Wade Davis KCR 22 I'd take Davis' elite non-saves over the question marks that are the guys below him.
26 Santiago Casilla SFG 27
27 Cody Allen CLE 29
28 Dellin Betances NYY NR Betances is basically Wade Davis with a slightly shorter track record.
29 Brett Cecil TOR NR
30 Addison Reed ARI NR No faith he keeps this job, but gotta rank 30 guys, ya know?