American Association Closers – In Whom Do You Trust?
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier looks at the ever-evolving status of the closer’s role as only a small number of teams have a dependable closer they can depend upon to finish off games.
It Used to Be Like Clockwork
It used to be automatic. There were a group of 8-10 closers in the American Association each year who could be depended upon to provide outstanding relief in the most pressure filled part of the game. A group who would produce 15-plus saves with three or four topping the 20 save plateau.
In 2017 there were four who topped the 20 save plateau with Cleburne Railroaders Winston Abreu leading the pack with 25. In 2018, Wichita Wingnuts closer Daniel Tillman led the league with 27 saves and three closers had at least 21. In 2019, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks closer Geoff Broussard led the league with 28 and there were four relievers who had 24 or more saves. The Covid shortened 2020 season did not have a reliever reach 20 saves, as each team only played 60 games, but four relievers had at least 12, led by Sioux Falls Canaries Keaton Steele and St. Paul Saints Jameson McGrane with 16. In 2021, there was just one reliever who topped the 20 save plateau, as James Pugliese of the Lincoln Saltdogs led the American Association with 25, but there were seven who reached double-digits. Last year, RedHawks closer Alex DuBord led the league with 23 with one other reliever eclipsing the 21 mark, but eight relievers had at least 10 saves.
Those are some pretty solid numbers, especially if you were playing American Association fantasy league baseball, but this season it looks like no more than four relievers will top 10 saves and only one will record 20. The door is definitely not being shut on rallies as 15 games have been lost when teams were leading after seven and eight when leading after eight. It is leaving many to wonder, who can be depended upon to shut the door?
Nate Hadley, Milwaukee Milkmen
Call him Mr. Dependable at this point, as Milwaukee Milkmen right-hander Nate Hadley has been the most dependable of the closers who are still in the league. Fargo-Moorhead right-hander Reid Birlingmair would have that title as he had seven saves in his first nine appearances, but had his contract purchased by the Texas Rangers, opening the door for Hadley to become the top closer.
The right-hander got off to a tough start, giving up four runs in his first three appearances, but has been almost automatic since, giving up just three total runs over his last 13 appearances, a span of 13.2 innings. He leads the league with nine saves, but has also blown two, including taking the loss on June 17 when he gave up three runs in two-thirds of an inning to the Railroaders. The Milkmen are on their way to a 60-plus win season and Hadley will almost assuredly reach 25 saves.
Brian Schlitter, Chicago Dogs
Brian Schlitter served as both the setup guy and closer last season, saving seven games while going 4-1. This season he has taken over the closer’s job and has been great, recording seven saves in 17 appearances with a 2.64. The righty has allowed five total runs this season, with three of those coming in one outing, ironically against the Railroaders back on May 23.
Schlitter could very well reach 20 saves, but he will face a different kind of challenge. The Dogs have been bipolar this season, going on prolonged streaks of success followed by major slumps. He may simply not get enough opportunities to finish off close contests.
Charlie Hasty, Sioux Falls Canaries
Sioux Falls Mike Meyer loves to have a dominant closer and Charlie Hasty has been good. He is tied for second in saves and has been brilliant over his last three outings, allowing no runs on just three hits in three innings. That has earned him three straight saves. The righty has been scored upon in just three of his 18 appearances, giving up three runs in two of those outings and one in the other.
For Hasty, he has two challenges. First, he will pitch half of his games in the Birdcage, a notorious hitters’ park. The second is if he will get enough chances to reach 20 saves. The Canaries are looking better in recent weeks, but are competing in the ultracompetitive West Division. His chances at a big save year will depend almost exclusively on if his team can win more than 40 games.
Daniel Bies, Kane County Cougars
There are many clubs who have tried several in the closer’s role, including the Cougars. Keith Rogalla had an opportunity and saved a game but lost three. Logan Nissen has two, James Reeves one, and Spencer Van Scoyoc also has two saves. It looks like Manager George Tsamis has settled on Daniel Bies. He has four saves and has allowed just one earned run in 22.2 innings, posting a 0.40 ERA.
At 6-8, 250, Bies is formidable on the hill and the Cougars will be in the thick of the East Division race, so he will receive plenty of opportunities to close out games. He could be the dark horse in the race to be the top closer.
Alex DuBord, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks
The RedHawks had the top closer in Birlingmair, but he is gone. Tanner Riley then looked great at first, but he has struggled recently. The work of Riley and Birlingmair allowed Alex DuBord to complete his rehab, but the recent struggles push DuBord to be ready now. He led the league in saves last season (23) and has one this year. DuBord has also recorded three straight scoreless appearances and looks to be at full strength. That is good news for the RedHawks as he is going to receive plenty of opportunities to finish off games for a team that will win 65 games.
Samuel Adames, Winnipeg Goldeyes
Samuel Adames has great stuff and has four saves for the Winnipeg Goldeyes but has also blown two. He has allowed a single run in four of his 15 outings, including two of his last four. A 2.20 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 16.1 innings is great, but 16 hits and seven walks allowed are a concern. Adames will struggle to reach double-digits as the Goldeyes are going to be battling to stay out of the cellar in the West.
Steffon Moore and Matt Cronin, Lincoln Saltdogs
Lincoln is another team trying to figure out their closer situation. The problem is they have two guys with great stuff, but both have been inconsistent. This has led Manager Brett Jodie to have to use four other pitchers to close out games while his righty-lefty combination of Matt Cronin and Steffon Moore try to figure it out.
Moore was brilliant for the first half of last season, but bottomed out just before the All-Star break. He was dominant to start this season, giving up just one run in his first seven appearances, but has been scored upon in four of his last seven outings. In three of those games he blew saves.
Cronin got off to a terrible start, giving up four earned runs in two of his first three outings. He has allowed at least one run in five of 15 outings and has blown four games. This Lincoln team could be a serious contender in the West, but not until the bullpen figures it out.
Sean Rackoski, Sioux City Explorers
The enigma this year is Sioux City Explorers right-hander Sean Rackoski. The righty has been involved in 11 of the team’s 36 games, going 4-3 with four saves. He has an outstanding ERA (2.38), however, he has allowed runs in seven of his 16 outings. The problem has been that he has had to appear in a lot of extra-inning games, and has allowed the zombie runner on four of those occasions. Rackoski has blown three saves this season.
One of the advantages the right-hander has is that he is the “man” for Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery. Rackoski is going to get the ball in the ninth 99 percent of the time. The challenge he faces is that his team is struggling, and he may not get many chances to close out games. He may be earning a lot more victories in relief.
DJ Wilkinson, Gary SouthShore RailCats
It was supposed to be Matt Leon closing out games for the RailCats, but he struggled and DJ Wilkinson has taken over the role. Wilkinson leads the team with four saves and has a 1.53 ERA. He has been scored upon in only three of his appearances and opponents are hitting .119 against him.
The problem for Wilkinson is that Gary SouthShore has fallen down and simply cannot get up. His ability to earn 10 saves is going to depend upon how many lives these RailCats have. Also, look for him to be a sought after commodity should Gary fall out of the playoff race. He may reach the 10 save plateau but in a different uniform.
Patrick Weigel, Kansas City Monarchs
The Kansas City Monarchs were another team trying to figure out who their closer was going to be. Alex Valdez was slated to take the job, but began the season on the disabled list and has not looked great since returning, allowing 11 runs in eight innings.
Patrick Weigel looks like he is the guy now. The righty has three saves and has not been scored upon in seven straight appearances. Kansas City is going to win a lot of games and Weigel is going to get the ball in the ninth almost every time a save is needed. He should reach 10 saves, but will likely not get to 15.
Lake Country DockHounds
This is the one team who have not figured out who they would like to close out games. Four different pitchers have at least one save but only one, Keisy Portorreal, has two. He has earned both saves in long relief, and will likely not be the guy in the ninth, at least not for now.
New DockHounds Manager Ken Huckaby has two who could fill the job, both of whom have one save. Jojanse Torres has a 2.02 ERA in 12 appearances, but has given up runs in three of his last four outings. Augie Voight has only appeared in seven games, and was roughed up in his first two outings, allowing four runs, but has not been scored upon in his last four appearances, a span of 7.2 innings. Voight has often been used for multiple innings, so he may not be being groomed for the closer’s role.
Nick Gardewine, Cleburne Railroaders
The Railroaders tried four different hurlers in the closer’s role, and none earned the confidence of Manager Logan Watkins. So, the team brought back last year’s closer, Nick Gardewine, and he already has a save in his first two appearances. Cleburne is going to win at least 50 games, so Gardewine is going to have save opportunities. However, joining the team late keeps him from reaching double-digits.
Who is the Top Reliever?
Barring any injuries, transfers, or signings, Hadley is going to finish with the most saves. His team is rolling and has one of the best starting staffs in the league. Schlitter will reach 15 and Weigel, Hasty, and Bies will make 10. If Moore or Cronin can be consistent, one has the chance of reaching 12.
By Robert Pannier