After going over the always controversial top ten list for starting pitchers, it’s time to do the same for relief pitchers. This is an interesting list, with a lot of different prototypes include. In here, we have our traditional closers and set-up men, but we also have pitchers who are pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen. That makes it hard to compare one another, but I did my tried my hardest anyway to put together the best list possible. What is that list? Let’s discuss!
#10 David Robertson, Philadelphia Phillies
Projected Stats: 2.82 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 68 IP, 12.19 K/9, 3.25 BB/9, .88 HR/9
Volatility is a common theme amongst relievers. Therefore, consistency is a rare trait for a relief pitcher to have and should be highly valued. In every season since 2010, David Robertson has pitched at least 60 innings, and in every season since 2011, he’s had an ERA lower than 3.50. That consistency is remarkable and was a critical reason why the Philadelphia Phillies decided to sign the 33-year-old to a two-year contract. Robertson was up to his usual ways this past season, posting a 2.97 FIP. Though it’s concerning that his hard contact allowed raised to 33.1% and his BABIP allowed is low at .245, his LOB% of 67.1% suggests that his luck balanced out. Furthermore, his cutter velocity increased 1 MPH to 92.6 MPH, so it’s not like Robertson is declining in any particular way. There’s nothing Robertson cannot do well. His strikeout rate is high (11.76 K/9), while his walk and ground ball rates are also fine (3.36 BB/9, 45.3% GB). He may not have the upside that other relievers have on this lists, but he’ll guarantee you an ERA around 3.00 in every season. Frankly, I’d choose that over going through the year-to-year roller coaster that many relief pitchers put their teams through.
#9 Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Projected Stats: 2.86 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 56 IP, 14.13 K/9, 4.29 BB/9, .57 HR/9
From a former Yankee to a current Yankee, Aroldis Chapman comes in surprisingly low at #9. The 31-year-old is one of the most popular relievers in baseball thanks in large part to a triple digits fastball and has been one of the most feared closers in baseball for years. Plus, since 2012, he hasn’t had one season with a FIP over 2.56. So why does he rank so low? Well, despite posting a 2.08 FIP last season, Chapman regressed in a seriously concerning fashion. His walk rate skyrocketed to 5.26 BB/9, meaning at times New York couldn’t feel confident utilizing him in the late innings. Furthermore, his hard contact allowed increased to 34.5% and his fastball velocity decreased 1 MPH. He’s also dealt with injuries the past season and has barely been able to eclipse 50 innings, making him less valuable in terms of availability than every other player on this list. Still, Chapman is a dominant reliever at times and did post an unworldly 16.31 K/9 last season. I may be selling most of my stock on them, but he’s still deserving of a top ten spot based on his upside when healthy, though I could definitely see this being the last time he makes the list as his regression continues.
#8 Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
Projected Stats: 2.80 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 67 IP, 14.8 K/9, 4.53 BB/9, .74 HR/9
Though Chapman is the most well-known reliever on the Yankees, he’s actually not the best on the team. That title would belong to Dellin Betances, who has quietly become himself as one of the top relievers in baseball. With a career 2.32 FIP, he has a long track record of success, while he has the upside to get even better. 2018 was a promising year for the 30-year-old. He cut his walk rate in half (3.51 BB/9), maintained an elite strikeout rate (15.53 K/9), and kept his hard contact allowed rate (28.6%) in check. Furthermore, his BABIP allowed of .311 and his 1.95 xFIP proves that his success was legitimate, while more could definitely be in store for him heading into 2019. Betances may never be the type of pitcher that pounds the strike zone consistently. However, as long as he has average command, his filthy pitching arsenal will allow him to continue to have success for a long time. If the Yankees let him hit the open market after the 2019 season, he should break the bank. Rightfully so; he’s one of the most underrated relievers in the MLB.
#7 Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Stats: 2.56 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 68 IP, 11.82 K/9, 1.82 BB/9, 1.21 HR/9
From his first full season in 2011 to 2017, Kenley Jansen was arguably the most dominant relief pitcher in the MLB. During that span, he possessed a 1.85 FIP, while also compiling 244 saves. However, 2018 was a different story for the 31-year-old. Dealing with a heart issue, Jansen’s effectiveness dropped; he posted a career-worst FIP of 4.03. Considering Jansen’s second half FIP was two points higher than it was in the first half, it’s quite possible that the heart problem escalated during the later stages of the season. There are other reasons to be concerned about Jansen heading into 2019 as well. His cutter velocity dropped 1 MPH in 2018, while he posted career-worsts in whiff rate (26.1%), hard contact rate allowed (33%), strikeout rate (10.3 K/9), and home run rate (1.63 HR/9). Plus, a .234 BABIP helped his ERA look fine at 3.01 ERA, so it’s possible that he could have an ERA around 4.00 in 2019. Still, Jansen was so dominant before this past season, and since his first half stats were most promising, I’m willing to bet that a healthier Jansen can make a recovery. Even if he isn’t the sub-2.00 ERA type of pitcher he once was, he should once again be extremely reliable for the Dodgers and will be a big part of their success. The concerns drop him out of the top five, but Jansen’s past success allows him to stay on this list for now. How Jansen fares this season is a very intriguing storyline to watch next season.
#6 Craig Kimbrel, Free Agent
Projected Stats: 2.41 ERA, 2.51 FIP, 66 IP, 14.46 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, .89 HR/9
Heading into the offseason, it looked like free agent Craig Kimbrel was about to cash-in. The 30-year-old has a career 1.96 FIP, 333 career saves, and an amazing career 14.67 K/9. However, Kimbrel remains unsigned with just about two weeks left before the regular season starts. That’s likely due to a 2018 season in which he regressed to a 3.13 FIP, and was unreliable in the postseason. Furthermore, Kimbrel’s walk rate spiked to 4.48 BB/9, while his fastball velocity dropped 1 MPH as well. It wasn’t all bad for him last season though; his hard contact rate allowed decreased dramatically to 27.1%, while most of his underlying numbers remained well above average. At some point, Kimbrel’s production is bound to backslide. That’s a huge reason why he remains unsigned, as the signs of regression are evident. Nevertheless, he probably has one to two seasons left before that regression comes, so if any team can attain his services on a short-term deal, they should pounce on that opportunity immediately.
#5 Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
Projected Stats: 2.62 ERA, 2.61 FIP, 54 IP, 11.22 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, .91 HR/9
Every reliever on this list has at least one issue that could come back to bite them. For Sean Doolittle, that issue has constantly been injuries and durability. The 32-year-old hasn’t pitched over 52 innings since 2014, and only pitched 45 innings last season. Nonetheless, Doolittle’s production when healthy speaks for itself. He has a career 2.40 FIP and a 2.24 FIP over the past two seasons. Doolittle’s success stems from his ability to strike batters out while almost never allowing free passes, possessing an incredible 10 K-BB ratio. He also is one of the league’s best in inducing soft contact (28.4%), while his whiff rate was a career-best 30.5% last season. If Doolittle stays healthy, he’s arguably the best reliever in baseball. However, that’s been such an extreme issue. So although his numbers when healthy keep him in the top five, Doolittle cannot rank higher until he is finally able to pitch a full season.
#4 Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Stats: 2.49 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 79 IP, 14.19 K/9, 3.75 BB/9, .91 HR/9
After a run on traditional closers, we see a different prototype of a reliever come in at #4 on this list. That would be Josh Hader, who has become a symbol of what teams want of their relievers in today’s MLB. Hader’s ability to pitch multiple innings effectively out of the bullpen in a game – he pitched multiple innings in 33 of his 55 regular season outings – was instrumental in the Brewers being one game away from the World Series. While everyone tries to find the next Josh Hader, the 24-year-old has a bright future ahead of him. His 15.82 K/9 and 36.7% whiff rate illustrate how difficult it is to make contact against him; his fastball-slider combination is simply unfair. Still, Hader remains a little overrated at the moment. His hard contact allowed spiked to 39.4% last season, yet his .220 BABIP clearly does not reflect it. Luck was a huge piece in Hader’s incredible success last season; he’s more likely to have an ERA around 2.50 than below 2.00. Still, that more than fine for a reliever with his stamina, and he remains the most important part of a stacked Brewers bullpen. He could definitely rise in the future, but until he does, #4 remains a safe spot for him as we wait for him to prove his dominance from 2018 wasn’t from luck.
#3 Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Stats: 2.48 ERA, 2.56 FIP, 71 IP, 11.11 K/9, 2.86 BB/9, .59 HR/9
When discussing the top relief pitchers in the MLB, a name that rarely comes up is Felipe Vazquez. That’s a crime; his numbers light up neck and neck with any other reliever in football. The 27-year-old has a 2.45 FIP over the past two seasons and has pitched over 70 innings in the last three. Plus, unlike some of the other pitchers on this list, Vazquez’s success looks to be not only legitimate but not indicating his true talent. His BABIP allowed of .331 is extremely high, while his 1.33 GB/FB rate indicates that he’s giving up a lot of “ground balls with eyes”. This is contrary to Hader and Kimbrel, who are giving up a lot of hard fly balls. Furthermore, Vazquez raised his strikeout rate last season to 11.44 K/9, and there is nothing that he doesn’t do well. He may not be as flashy as Hader and Kimbrel, but he constantly gets the job done, which I believe makes him worthy of a spot in the top three.
#2 Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics
Projected Stats: 2.43 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 76 IP, 10.21 K/9, 2.75 BB/9, .56 HR/9
When the Nationals traded for Sean Doolittle, they thought they were getting one of the best relievers in the MLB. Ironically, he ended up not even being the best reliever in the trade. That honor would belong to Blake Treinen, who has flourished since being acquired by Oakland in that midseason trade in 2017. The 30-year-old was a sensation last season, with an unbelievable 0.78 ERA with a 1.82 FIP. Treinen is truly incredible. He’s sinker-slider combination is amazing, and is what makes him such an issue for opposing hitters. His strikeout raised to 11.20 K/9, while his walk rate improved to 2.35 BB/9. Plus, his 2.18 GB/FB rate was tremendous and makes his .230 BABIP allowed valid. Opposing hitters had a 43.8% chase rate against him with a 34.4% whiff rate, and there’s no reason to expect regression from him in 2019. There’s one reliever that I slightly prefer, but Treinen is definitely top two and could make a great case to be the top player on this list. The A’s got a steal, and they’ll continue to reap the benefits in 2019 and beyond.
#1 Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Projected Stats: 2.57 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 69 IP, 13.91 K/9, 3.13 BB/9, .96 HR/9
In his first move as Mets general manager this offseason, Brodie Van Wagenen made a trade with the Mariners, bringing in Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. With all due respect to Cano, one of the greatest second baseman of all time, Diaz is without a doubt the headline of the trade. The 24-year-old shined with Seattle last season, posting a 1.96 ERA, 1.61 FIP, and 57 saves. His strikeout rate was superb at 15.22 K/9, while his walk rate was cut in half to 2.09 BB/9. His 36.5% whiff rate was also outstanding, as were his 22.6% hard contact rate allowed and his fastball (13.8 runs above average) and slider (9.4 runs above average) combination. Unlike Treinen, Diaz’s .281 BABIP allowed also means that his dominance from 2018 will be easier to duplicate in 2019. I have no concerns with Diaz, and by acquiring him, the Mets now have the best reliever in baseball. Mets fans will love him in a hurry; a lead in the 9th inning likely guarantees a win for them now.