There was a time, in a past not so far gone as to be forgotten, where ninth inning relief specialists were valued for all the wrong reasons. These players were referred to as "closers."
You may have heard the term before.
Anyway, baseball decision makers and fans alike would admire men who could regularly finish out a game on the mound. Accruing a save, officially counted as a statistic since 1969, had become something that people thought of as a tangible, repeatable skill. Men made quite the careers for themselves amassing saves, building legends and reputations, getting their own catchy theme music as they either sprinted or emerged sullenly from the pen, much like a professional wrestler would in the WWE. I have to admit, it's better from an entertainment standpoint to highlight the ninth inning and the pitcher who specifically comes out to throw in said inning, when the crowd in a tight ballgame is already emotionally invested and eager to wildly cheer heroes or lustily boo villains.
All of it is well and good, except for the fact that most of us have come to recognize that the drama of a closer entering a ballgame with a save on the line is somewhat manufactured.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but smart baseball folk finally caught on that a save wasn't really all that it had been built up to be, and thus, being a "closer" was not necessarily the cherished position it had become. For one thing, pitchers can earn a save despite having a horrible outing. Perhaps more importantly, on any given night, the highest leverage situation may not belong to the closer. With the rise of stats like "Win Probability Added" we are able to determine that Tim Spooneybarger's ground ball inducing double play in the sixth inning was more important than Ugueth Urbina's easy breezy 1-2-3 ninth against the 8-9-1 batters in the Expos lineup.
Accordingly in recent years we had seen teams de-emphasizing the closer position and the bullpen in general to some extent. Teams are more likely than ever to use a pitcher situationally rather than in a traditional setup/closer role, though they've been slow to abandon these titles altogether. The market for ace relievers, particularly compared to starters and position players, was not as lucrative.
Then the 2014 Kansas City Royals came along and the value of the relief ace has re-inserted itself into the marketplace. Call it the Wade Davis effect if you will. 2015 saw the Royals vision realized as they won a World Series off of a series of strengths: A lineup of solid contact hitters, stout defensive performances across the board, and a killer back half of the bullpen. Indeed, on the pitching side of things, the Royals proved that you don't need a great starting staff if you have a couple of pitchers who can bridge the gap consistently between the sixth and ninth innings. The New York Yankees also adopted this approach last year when they acquired Andrew Miller and paired him quite effectively with Dellin Betances. They doubled down on their relief ace corps by swooping in on Aroldis Chapman after the Reds deal with the Dodgers fell through.
Other teams have taken notice, and the major prospect hauls in the Craig Kimbrel and Ken Giles deals this past off season signals a significant shift in the valuation of relief aces.
Which brings us in long-winded fashion back to the Miami Marlins. A.J. Ramos and Carter Capps may not be thought of in the same category as the elites of the Yankees and Royals, particularly not around other fanbases who may not have been interested in watching an underachieving 71-91 Marlins squad, but they absolutely belong in the conversation.
After Steve Cishek bowed unceremoniously out of the closer scene early on, A.J. Ramos stepped in and performed admirably. Despite a mid-summer swoon, he ended up posting 1.1 fWAR over 70 plus innings, with a 2.30 ERA/3.01 FIP and 32 saves. Carter Capps, in an injury-shortened season, put up 1.3 fWAR and had an absurd 1.16 ERA/1.10 FIP over 31 innings pitched. Impressive numbers, but as always, digging a little deeper provides illumination on the subjects at hand.
A month ago, Brad Johnson of Fangraphs, in turn writing about something Jeff Sullivan picked up on, extolled the virtues of the Ramos/Capps tandem, and explained rather succinctly why they're amongst the elite:
Per Sullivan, Ramos had the highest swinging strike rate on an off speed pitch, minimum 200 pitches. Capps had the highest swinging strike rate on an off speed pitch, minimum 100 pitches.
One of the greatest pieces of news to come out of the off season for the Fish was when Marlins president Michael Hill told reporters that he expects there to be an open competition for the closer job this spring. It not only means that the Marlins aren't pigeon-holing Ramos and Capps into last season's roles simply because of "experience" (something you might expect them to do given past history), it also gives both pitchers a chance to up their respective games and thus increase their trade value.
We all want the Marlins to be successful, but sometimes things go wrong despite best intentions (see last year's injury situation). As it turns out, the Marlins do indeed have a couple of very interesting trade chips at the back end of their bullpen, pieces that may help restock a depleted farm system, should the need arise. Come July, I want to be talking about how Capps and Ramos are big contributors to an apparent Marlins playoff run. If we're not though, it's nice to know, thanks to a perceivable uptick in the relief ace market, that they may ultimately end up serving the franchise in another fashion.