New closers giving ninth innings a fresh look

New closers giving ninth innings a fresh look

A familiar face connected with a familiar sound this week when all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman joined other Major League Baseball dignitaries in ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Around baseball these days, not all the saves leaders ring a bell for everyone the way Hoffman did with "Hell's Bells" blaring for his home appearances en route to his record 601 saves.

Several new faces are starting to ring up serious saves in 2011, some building on short but strong resumes, others venturing into the ninth-inning waters for the first time this year.

Oh, there is the saves record's famous pursuer, Yankees great Mariano Rivera -- at 575 and counting. And Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, last year's American League Rookie of the Year, is working his way back up the charts. Former All-Star closers like J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez are back at the top, along with some of the familiar faces in today's lineup of ninth-inning strong-arms, like the Giants' bearded man, Brian Wilson.

But other current saves leaders are new to the national stage. Leo Nunez of the Marlins entered Thursday leading the Majors with 19 saves, and isn't yet a household name. However, he already reached the gold standard of 30 saves last year and has 75 to his credit, so he has some ninth-inning credentials.

A few others have yet to hit the 30-save mark, but they're well on their way. Here's a look at some of the faces of the ninth inning becoming more familiar as they ring up more saves:

Craig Kimbrel (Braves), 18 in 2011/19 career: Kimbrel experienced a baptism by fire last year when an injured Billy Wagner wasn't able to pitch in the National League Division Series, and he has taken the reins from there.

His 18 saves already are the most to be recorded by an NL rookie before the All-Star break (Yhency Brazoban of the Dodgers had 15 in 2005), and he should make a run at the Major League rookie mark of 26 set by Boston's Jonathan Papelbon in 2006.

"It's still pretty cool to me to even have the chance [to be a closer] this early in my career," says the 23-year-old Kimbrel.

John Axford (Brewers), 16 in 2011/41 career: Axford ascended to the closer's role a little ahead of schedule last year because of Hoffman's struggles and converted 24 of 27 opportunities, for the most saves by a Brewers rookie. After overcoming control issues earlier this season, he has converted each of his last 13 save opportunities.

"I think his makeup allows him to not get messed up [mentally]," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "His stuff is electric. It is. His fastball up high is really tough to hit, his curveball is nasty and he's got a great slider."

Chris Perez (Indians), 15 in 2011/47 career: Closing games for the biggest story in the Majors means a bigger spotlight, but Perez isn't a total newbie. Now at 15-for-16 for the year, he's one of the cornerstones of the Tribe's success.

Perez built up some late-innings experience with the Cardinals before being traded to Cleveland in 2009, but it wasn't until he took over for Kerry Wood last year that he has been a full-time closer, knocking down 23 in 27 chances. He also started a scoreless-innings streak that he ran all the way into this season, ending at 26 1/3 innings in April.

Jordan Walden (Angels) 13 in 2011/14 career: At 23, Walden emerged after veteran Fernando Rodney left the door open, and he's becoming more and more comfortable in the role. In just his second season as a reliever, Walden has the right stuff -- a high-90s fastball, slider and developing changeup.

"He's got an opportunity to grow into one of the top closers, certainly, in our league," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's had a couple of saves get away, but there's going to be a learning curve with any young player."

Drew Storen (Nationals) 12 in 2011/17 career: Storen made a name for himself two years ago -- by being drafted -- and now he's saving games in the big leagues. A first-round pick in 2009, Storen entered 54 games last year and this year has established himself as a ninth-inning ace, converting 12 of 13 chances.

"We could not be happier with the job he has done. He has been outstanding," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.

Others are new to the saves scene but have been around a while. Seattle's Brandon League is new to the closer's role though he has more than 250 appearances in six-plus seasons. Ditto the Phillies' Ryan Madson, who has filled in for Brad Lidge before, and the Pirates' Joel Hanrahan, assuming the closer's role for the first time.

How many of baseball's new closers will get to the 30-save plateau this year? That will depend on many factors, starting with whether their teams win enough games.

Incidentally, Hoffman set the all-time standard with 14 seasons of 30 or more saves, and Rivera is at 13 going on 14.

So those fresh faces of the ninth have a long way to go before they're that familiar.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.