Closers dominate as pitchers rule 2011

Closers dominate as pitchers rule 2011

Mound domination is usually viewed through the eyes of starting pitchers. In 1968, the talk was about Denny McLain's 31 wins and Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA -- not about Phil Regan's 25 saves or Wilbur Wood's 88 appearances.

Nevertheless, relievers are an undeniable accessory to the crimes being committed this season against Major League hitters. They clearly play a far bigger role than, for instance, they did in that 1968 season, during which teams averaged 45 complete games. Thus far in 2011, teams are averaging five complete games.

The slack, obviously, has been picked up by bullpens. And the men at the end of them greatly influence team success.

Saving Grace
Rating MLB closers on a 5-3-1 basis for one-, two- and three-run saves
Closer (last rank) Team Pts Saves
1. Kimbrel (3) ATL 126 40
Axford (2) MIL 126 37
3. Wilson (1) SF 115 35
Bell (4) SD 115 35
5. League (10) SEA 113 31
Valverde (15) DET 113 37
7. Putz (13) ARI 106 32
8. Storen (7) WAS 104 34
9. Hanrahan (5) PIT 98 32
10. Nunez (9) FLA 95 33
Perez (8) CLE 95 27
12. Cordero (16) CIN 94 28
13. Rivera (12) NYY 93 33
14. Marmol (21) CHN 92 30
15. Street (6) COL 91 29
16. Walden (11) LAA 90 26
17. Santos (14) CHA 90 26
18. Papelbon (17) BOS 83 29
19. Soria (26) KC 71 23
20. Madson (24) PHI 69 23

Closers have a starring role in this sequel Year of the Pitcher. Twelve have already posted 30-plus saves. With only ordinary efforts, by the end of the season that number will hit 18 -- matching the most 30-save closers since 2006.

It can also be safely presumed that, with an overall decline in offense resulting in tighter games, closers are also working harder than normal. For the 12 who have already hit 30, 38 percent of their saves have been one-run jobs; even without historical context, that seems like an impressively high ratio of max-pressure assignments.

Who, in the big-number world of contemporary closing, is doing the best job in the toughest conditions? Shooting for a qualitative slant on closers, a month ago we ranked them on a 5-3-1 points system for saves of one, two and three runs.

This update in those rankings reflects quite a change in the standings.

Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel has leaped into a tie for the lead with another young closer, the Brewers' John Axford. Kimbrel's feat actually may rank behind other accomplishments of the rookie stud: In the course of the month, he broke Todd Worrell's 1986 National League rookie record of 36 saves, tied Neftali Feliz's MLB rookie record of 40 -- and did not allow a run.

Kimbrel, in fact, has not been scored upon since June 12. In 32 appearances and 31 2/3 innings since, he has nearly five times as many strikeouts (55) as hits allowed (12). Now there's a mound of trouble for NL batters.

Kimbrel is one of two rookies making a big impact among closers. The Los Angeles Angels' Jordan Walden ranks 16th with 90 points off his 26 saves, nearly half of which (12) have been of one run.

The month's most dramatic move on our list, however, does not belong to Kimbrel. Detroit's Jose Valverde stormed from No. 15 to a tie for No. 5 with an amazing month that keyed the Tigers' pull-away in the AL Central. Valverde posted 10 one-run saves among his 11 in the month -- including nine straight within a 14-day stretch.

That's quality.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.