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Some weeks, there really isn't much to talk about on the closer landscape. Last week in this space, I highlighted Craig Kimbrel's struggles, but with no expectation that he might actually lose his job at any point. It was the biggest story of the week, but it didn't really have a ton of potential to shake things up for Fantasy players.
And then there are weeks like this last one, where there is almost too much to talk about. Kimbrel's struggles have continued, but that barely rates as worthy of a mention amid the other things going on.
The biggest storyline remains the ninth-inning situation in Miami, where the Marlins not only have a new closer, but a new manager. With the move from Mike Redmond to former general manager Dan Jennings, one of the key things we wanted to see was just how the team's new hierarchy would approach the ninth inning.
After all, Jennings is the man who signed off on Steve Cishek's $6.7 million salary amid an offseason of trade rumors. Would Jennings be inclined to double down on his investment as manager, despite Cishek's major struggles? For Fantasy players who have been hesitant to buy into A.J. Ramos since Cishek's demotion, Jennings' vote of confidence has to be a good sign.
As for whether Ramos can do the job, I don't think there is a ton of concern about that at this point. Ramos has always been a strong strikeout pitcher, and he has taken that to another level, bumping his strikeout rate from 27.0 percent to 34.7.
Ramos has also increased his groundball rate to a career-high level, while inducing a career-low hard-hit rate of 19.0 percent. Given his consistently low home run rates and BABIP, the fact that Ramos induces weak contact shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
What is a very major and pleasant surprise is how he has cut his walk rate from 15.9 percent a year ago to 8.0 percent so far. We're still talking about a relatively small sample size here, but 20 innings and 75 batters faced isn't insignificant either. Especially since he is throwing 44.3 percent of his pitches in the strike zone this season, compared to an abysmally low 39.5 in 2014.
With the kind of stuff Ramos has, working in the strike zone shouldn't be something that presents a ton of risk. Especially since he has taken to throwing his changeup, a true out pitch, more than ever.
Throughout his career, Ramos threw the changeup 14.6 percent of the time, per BrooksBaseball.net, and he had great success with it. Opposing hitters managed an .096 average against the changeup, with a truly absurd swinging strike rate of 27.0 percent. He has upped that swinging strike rate to 38.2 percent so far, while throwing the pitch on a full quarter of his offerings.
Cishek did a solid job over the years as Miami's closer, and the team's investment in him means the Marlins should be looking to get him back into the role when he figures out whatever it is that is wrong. However, he has still given up five hits and a walk without a strikeout in his two outings since being pulled from the closer's role, so it doesn't look like that is on the horizon.
And, with how well Ramos is throwing it right now, Cishek may not get a chance.
Enrique Burgos, Diamondbacks
"It's going to make it harder on us now in the ninth. We have more guys who can pitch in the ninth. It's fantastic." That is what manager Chip Hale told reporters Tuesday, after he gave Burgos his second save opportunity in a row. The team removed Addison Reed from the closer's role last week, and hasn't named an official replacement, so Hale's coyness isn't really appreciated by Fantasy owners. Initially, it seemed like submariner Brad Ziegler would get the first shot, though I did note that it seemed hard to imagine the team fully committing to Ziegler. He just doesn't fit the mold for a ninth-inning fireman, what with his quirky deliver and low strikeout rate. Burgos, on the other hand? Now that's a closer. Armed with a fastball he can easily deliver in the high-90's and what Hale referred to as a "snapdragon slider," Burgos definitely fits the bill, even if he sometimes doesn't seem to know where the ball is going. He has racked up massive numbers of strikeouts and swinging strikes, and probably has the most upside of the team's available options. If you're speculating, this is the guy you want to jump on.
Last week's stats: 4 2/3 IP, 9 K, 3 H, 2 BB, 1 R, 2 S
Pat Neshek, Houston
Luke Gregerson's hold on the closer's role may not be too strong, based on how long it took the Astros to bestow the title on him during the spring. There isn't much indication he is on thin ice yet, but his recent struggles could change things. And, if Gregerson does falter -- beyond his current 4.08 ERA -- Neshek could be there to pick up the pieces for the Astros in the 9th, as he did in locking up his first save of the season Tuesday after Gregerson allowed two runs. Neshek has been stellar yet again this season, striking out nearly a batter per inning, and he has yet to walk any of the 55 batters he has faced. This is all in line with what he did last season, when he posted a 1.87 ERA en route to making the All-Star game. Unlike Gregerson, the 34-year-old Neshek has very little experience as a closer, but that might not matter too much if Gregerson falters again. Neshek is someone to keep an eye on.
Last week's stats: 3 1/3 IP, 2 K, 1 H, 0 BB, 0 R 1 S
Neftali Feliz, Rangers
Feliz's K/9 is a bit higher this season than last, but that isn't necessarily indicative of an increased ability to rack up strikeouts, as his 17.9 strikeout rate indicates. He is striking out more batters per inning than last season solely because he is facing more batters per innings; his strikeout rate has only increased from 17.2 percent. Paradoxically, his inability to get outs has made him look like a slightly better pitcher, at least by K/9. In reality, Feliz remains a shockingly contact-oriented pitcher, which is bad news for his chances of being an effective pitcher. Feliz blew his third save in nine tries last Saturday, and now sits at a 5.09 ERA and 1.75 WHIP, unsustainable numbers in a high-leverage role. With Shawn Tolleson looking like a much more effective pitcher, it seems like only a matter of time until Feliz is moved out of the role.
Last week's stats: 3 1/3 IP, 0 K, 3 H, 3 BB, 3 R, 1 S, 1 BS
Brad Boxberger, Rays
With the return of Jake McGee from injury, Boxberger's stock was supposed to be on the way down. However, McGee has been used in non-save situations in each of his first two games back, while Boxberger got the only save opportunity since McGee's return. Boxberger's hold on the role is probably shaky, or at least shakier than it should be, given how good he has been in the role. With 21 strikeouts to six walks in 15 innings, it's hard to see how the Rays take him out of the closer's role, especially given how hesitant they have been to definitely call McGee their closer. At least for the time being, Boxberger looks like a solid option in your lineup.
Last week's stats: 2 IP, 3 K, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 2 S
Cody Allen, Indians
Allen has been tagged for 11 runs in 15 1/3 innings, leading to a 6.46 ERA that makes him look like a sure-fire candidate for demotion sooner rather than later. However, he also gave up eight of those 11 runs in two games, both of which occurred more than a month ago at this point. On April 20, Allen barely looked like a major-leaguer, with an 18.00 ERA to go along with six walks in four innings of work. In 11 games since, he has a 2.38 ERA with 15 strikeouts and only four walks in 11 1/3 innings. It was easy to write him off -- in fact, I did -- but Allen has more than righted the ship in the month since, and looks like a much less shaky option for the ninth as a result. With the rest of the bullpen in Cleveland struggling, it seems unlikely that Allen will lose the job at this point.
Last week's stats: 4 1/3 IP, 6 K, 0 H, 1 BB, 0 R, 3 S