Brandon League Out as Mariners Closer

League has been dreadful this season.  He has nearly as many walks, 12, as he does strikeouts, 13.  His groundball rate is down significantly this year, and all-in-all, the negative peripheral stats have resulted in a 4.43 ERA and 1.62 WHIP.  Unfortunately for his fantasy owners, the ugly season line isn’t the result of some messy non-save work.  He has fumbled away the closer role by blowing four saves in 13 chances, including two in the last 10 days.  He has allowed multiple runs in three of his last four appearances, and manager Eric Wedge has decided enough is enough.

Wedge plans on getting League work earlier in the game in an attempt to right the ship.  He also hasn’t declared an interim closer, instead planning on playing matchups on a game-by-game basis.  Fantasy owners hate the closer-by-committee approach, but one pitcher may stand out from the pack.  Tom Wilhelmsen looks like the best reliever to back in this new closer arrangement.  His 4.44 ERA is nothing special, but his 3.17 xFIP suggests luck has played some part in the less than stellar mark.  The biggest culprits for the large disparity between his ERA and xFIP are his sky high BABIP, and his below average strand rate.  He has done himself no favors with a 20.6 percent line drive rate, but that is down slightly from last year, while his BABIP has risen 80 points.  His true BABIP level likely lies somewhere in between his .258 mark in 2011, and his .338 mark in 2012.  Wilhelmsen boasts an elite 11.10 K/9, a rate that ranks him ninth amongst pitchers with at least 20 innings under their belt, and an acceptable walk rate of 3.33 BB/9.  His batted ball data is exactly neutral in 2012, with identical groundball and flyball rates this year.  Adding in last year’s totals, he shows a flyball slant.  His ability to strikeout batters, and his home ballpark should alleviate any concerns about a propensity to induce flyballs at a higher rate than groundballs going forward this year. 

Wilhelmsen is a towering presence on the mound, standing 6-foot-6, and he features the classic closer power repertoire.  According to his Brooks Baseball player card, he is throwing both his four-seam fastball and his sinker, on average, in excess of 96 mph.  Those two pitches account for 68 percent of the pitches he has thrown in 2012.  He has been credited with throwing two sliders, a total that is small enough to make a misclassification a possibility, and has also thrown a change-up 13 times (three percent usage).  The pitch Wilhelmsen backs his heat with most frequently, by a wide margin, is his curveball.  He is willing to use the pitch against both left-handed and right-handed batters.  It is a swing-and-miss offering, and is used just a tiny bit less than his four-seam fastball when he gets opposing batters to two strikes.  His high strikeout rate isn’t a fluke, as all of his pitches have an above average whiff/swing rate, and he should be expected to continue to strikeout better than a batter per inning.

Wilhelmsen had a rough stretch of relief appearances in the middle of the month, allowing a run in four straight.   He appears to have since turned things around, making four scoreless appearances in his last five.  If he strings together a handful of clean save chances, it’s not out of the realm of possibility he earns the closer role for the duration of 2012, regardless of what League does.  Owners in need of saves should jump all over adding Wilhelmsen.  He is owned in five percent of Yahoo! leagues, 0.1 percent of ESPN leagues, and 74 percent of CBS leagues.