2020 MLB Top Ten: Relief Pitchers

We’ve finally reached a conclusion to the top-ten MLB positional ranking lists! Though there will be a top-five designated hitter list, relief pitcher is the last position warranted of a top-ten position, and by no means was the easiest saved for the end. In fact, this has to be the toughest list that I’ve had to put together, as over 40 players were considered for a spot on this list, while several high octane relievers were excluded. Since it’s such a volatile position, you’re essentially betting on very small sample sizes when it comes to making this list. For instance, the #2 player on this list last year, Blake Treinen, didn’t even rank within the honorable mentions, and for the most part, there are a lot of new faces on this top-ten list. So, who are the ten relievers than I’m betting on to have the best seasons next year? Let’s take a closer look at my list!

Stats Used (via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs):

xwOBA= Expected Weighted On Base Average

xSLG= Expected Slugging Percentage

xFIP= Expected Fielder Independent Pitching. It very similar to FIP, as it coverts a pitcher’s Ks, BBs, and HRs to a ERA number, but unlike FIP, it normalizes home run rate and is thus a more stable statistic.

SIERA= Skill Interactive ERA

Before we get to the top ten, let’s go over the players that just missed the cut:

  • Giovanny Gallegos (STL) had an excellent season last year, but will need to repeat that success before he can be included on this prestigious list.
  • Aaron Bummer (CHW) does an excellent job inducing ground balls, but his low strikeout rate gives me some pause before putting him on the top-ten list.
  • Diego Castillo (TB), Jose Alvarado (TB), and Colin Poche (TB) are all filthy relievers for the Rays that could be on this list next season, but they all are unproven at the moment.
  • The same can be said about James Karinchak (CLE), who I expect to miss bats at a lethal rate next season, while the Indians’ closer, Brad Hand, will look to bounce-back after a rough second half last season.
  • Emilio Pagan (SD) was a dominant reliever for the Rays last season, but his left-on-base rate was very high, and I’m not sure he’ll sustain that level of success next season.
  • Matt Barnes (BOS), Brandon Workman (BOS), and Jose LeClerc (TEX) all strike batters out at a marvelous rate, but all of them have command issues.
  • Roberto Osuna (HOU) is a very solid reliever for the Astros, but he’s posted xFIPs in the mid 3.00s in each of the past two seasons.
  • Will Smith (ATL) really struggled down the stretch last season, and quietly, he wasn’t great versus right-handed hitters.
  • Ken Giles (TOR) changed his pitch usage and was fantastic for the Blue Jays last season, but he just missed out on a spot on this list to players I slightly preferred.

#10: Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres

pomeranz
Photo Cred: AP News

Age: 31

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (74 IP): 6.08 ERA, 5.31 xFIP, 8.03 K/9, 5.35 BB/9, 5.10 SIERA, -0.4 fWAR

2019 Stats (104 IP): 4.85 ERA, 3.88 xFIP, 11.86 K/9, 3.81 BB/9, 3.68 SIERA, 0.7 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.46 ERA, 2.21 xFIP, 14.98 K/9, 2.76 BB/9, 2.50 SIERA, 1.6 fWAR

Judging by his 2018 and 2019 statistics, you’re probably wondering Drew Pomeranz is doing on this top-ten list, and perhaps most importantly, why the Padres gave him a four-year contract worth $34 million. Well, as I mentioned before, you’re always betting on small sample sizes when placing players on this list, and no player personifies that better than Pomeranz. After failing as a starting pitcher with a 4.72 xFIP, he was moved the bullpen by the Giants right before the trade deadline, and was soon after acquired by the Brewers in a shocking move- Milwaukee had to give up one of their better prospects in Mauricio Dubon. Well, it’s safe to say that both teams were correct in valuing Pomeranz as a reliever. In 28.2 innings pitched out of the bullpen, the 31-year-old posted an absurd 1.67 xFIP, which came with an insane 15.7 K/9 and 2.51 BB/9. As is usually the case with failed starters, Pomeranz dominated by decreasing his pitch usage to a simple fastball-breaking ball mix, and was able to maximize on his fastball velocity. Those are very sustainable methods of success, and if he pans out, San Diego will have gotten a magnificent left-handed reliever with the ability to pitch multiple innings. That’s a very valuable prototype, so although it was a risk, I think general manager AJ Preller struck gold with that contract; 28.2 innings isn’t a lot, but it was enough to convince me that Pomeranz is one of the game’s top relievers.

#9: Liam Hendriks, Oakland A’s

hendricks
Photo Cred: New York Times

Age: 31

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (24 IP): 4.13 ERA, 4.56 xFIP, 8.25 K/9, 3.75 BB/9, 4.29 SIERA, 0.1 fWAR

2019 Stats (85 IP): 1.80 ERA, 3.21 xFIP, 13.13 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, 2.58 SIERA, 3.9 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.16 ERA, 3.15 xFIP, 13.39 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 2.64 SIERA, 2 fWAR

Coming into the 2019 season, the A’s were expecting Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino to carry their bullpen, similarly to how they did in 2018. Alas, both struggled mightily, yet in the end, Oakland clearly didn’t suffer- they still won 97 games. How did they do so? Well, for starters, Liam Hendriks simply emerged as a superstar reliever. He may have not been as dominant as his 1.80 ERA would indicate, based on his 3.21 xFIP, but still, the 31-year-old’s overall numbers were incredible. His .229 xwOBA allowed was the second-best among relievers on this list, and since he threw 85 innings, he had the highest fWAR. Plus, all of his improvements, and process of doing so, are rather logical. Hendriks’ sinker was always a non-productive pitch, and finally last season, he ditched it, and became a fastball-breaking ball pitcher. Although not throwing the sinker likely was the reason why he induced far less ground balls, his strikeout rate and walk rates both got better, which is a fantastic trade-off. In fact, he only got better as the season progressed, so although his 85 innings pitched seems like a lot, he did seem to manage it well. I don’t expect him to be able to pitch 80+ innings against next season, but nevertheless, there’s no reason for me to believe that Hendriks can’t mostly replicate his 2019 production- this #9 spot may ultimately be too low of a ranking for him.

#8: Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

edwindiaz
Photo Cred: SNY

Age: 25

2019 Rank: 1

2018 Stats (73.1 IP): 1.96 ERA, 1.78 xFIP, 15.22 K/9, 2.09 BB/9, 1.49 SIERA, 3.5 fWAR

2019 Stats (58 IP): 5.59 ERA, 3.07 xFIP, 15.36 K/9, 3.41 BB/9, 2.63 SIERA, 0 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.68 ERA, 2.59 xFIP, 15.31 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 2.34 SIERA, 1.9 fWAR

When the Mets acquired Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano in exchange for a package that included outfield prospect Jared Kelenic, it always appeared to be likely that the move would backfire for them. However, even if it was a high price to pay, Diaz was supposed to be as much of a lock as a reliever could to be dominant, which is why he was the consensus #1 player at the position entering the year. Instead, Diaz showed exactly why you shouldn’t never overpay for a reliever- they’re just too unpredictable. Diaz was undoubtedly worse last season, as his xFIP was great, but far from the 1.78 number he posted in 2018. However, it was the substantial rise in ERA that frustrated Mets fans, as he became so unreliable to the point that New York couldn’t even count on him at all. Now, a .377 batting average on balls in play allowed, .344 wOBA compared to .277 xwOBA allowed, as well as a 26.8% HR/FB rate all indicate that he’ll be much better next season, to the point that he has to be on this list. Yet, I’m not sure the 25-year-old will ever get back to his 2018 form. After all, Diaz did legitimately regress in terms of command, and since he ranked in the 2nd percentile in hard-hit rate (45.3%), his xwOBA allowed on balls in play (.417) suffered significantly. In more simple terms, when he couldn’t strike out batters, it was almost certain that the end result wouldn’t be pretty for him, which is something that concerns me. After all, I’d prefer not to hedge my bets on a one-dimensional reliever, which is what Diaz is in danger of becoming; there are enough signs of a bounce back for me to keep him on this list, but I don’t think he’ll magically become a star again, so consequently, he falls seven spots on this year’s edition of the list.

#7: Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins

taylorrogers
Photo Cred: Twinkie Town

Age: 29

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (68.1 IP): 2.63 ERA, 2.94 xFIP, 9.88 K/9, 2.11 BB/9, 2.81 SIERA, 1.9 fWAR

2019 Stats (69 IP): 2.61 ERA, 2.84 xFIP, 11.74 K/9, 1.43 BB/9, 2.63 SIERA, 2.1 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.57 ERA, 2.77 xFIP, 10.72 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 2.79 SIERA, 2 fWAR

For whatever reason, there always appears to be a couple of relievers that randomly go under the radar, despite posting much better numbers than more popular players. One player who appears to fit that bill is Taylor Rogers, who has been spectacular over the past two seasons for the Twins. Not only has he proven to be consistent by posting nearly identical numbers, but the 29-year-old made subtle changes in 2019, and in turn, was able to strike more batters out while walking fewer. Essentially, he became a two-pitch pitcher, altering his slider usage from 12.4% to 45.5%. It clearly complemented his sinker well, as he improved his ground ball rate (50.6%), and perhaps even most encouragingly, added an extra 1 MPH to his sinker (95 MPH). Plus, he’s not just a strikeout or command artist, as not only is he prolific at inducing ground balls, but he also suppressed hard contact (29.7% hard-hit), so overall, there isn’t any major blemish. Judging by a lack of change in his swinging strike rate and zone rate, I’m sure his K-BB numbers are completely legitimate, but nevertheless, he’s established himself as a sub 3.00 xFIP reliever. Add that to his ability to get both righties and lefties out, and it’s clear he’s a lethal weapon for the Twins, and if they’re going to make a World Series push in 2020, Rogers will be at the center of it all in the postseason. That’s something that I’m hoping can become reality- it’s time for him to earn the recognition he deserves.

#6: Seth Lugo, New York Mets

lugo
Photo Cred: New York Post

Age: 30

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (101.1 IP): 2.66 ERA, 3.48 xFIP, 9.15 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 3.36 SIERA, 1.5 fWAR

2019 Stats (80 IP):  2.70 ERA, 3.24 xFIP, 11.70 K/9, 1.80 BB/9, 2.78 SIERA, 2.3 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.59 ERA, 3.11 xFIP, 11.89 K/9, 1.68 BB/8, 2.49 SIERA, 2.5 fWAR

In 2017, Seth Lugo served as a #5 starter/swingman for the Mets, starting 18 games and posting a respectable 4.18 xFIP in the process. However, he had major struggles when facing batters for a third time, so though he did start 5 games for them in 2018, he was essentially a reliever. That was a success, but by adding Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Justin Wilson, and Luis Avilian, it’s clear that Lugo was not expected to be the Mets’ most reliable reliever by their own front office. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Lugo’s strikeout rate rose once again, and at the same time, he was also able to improve on his walk rate in the process. Furthermore, .234 xwOBA allowed ranked in the 99th percentile, and most significantly, he was dominant as the season progressed- in the second half, he induced far more ground balls and soft contact. Moving forward, I’d like to see Lugo alter his pitch mix, as I believe doing so could make him an elite reliever. Right now, he’s only throwing his curveball 23% of the time, but with 100th percentile spin, it’s one of the top pitches in all of baseball. Doing so could raise his strikeout rate even further, but even if he doesn’t, Lugo has established himself as a terrific multi-inning relief weapon, which is super valuable in today’s game. Based off of how he finished his season, I’m expecting an even better year from the 30-year-old in 2020.

#5: Nick Anderson, Tampa Bay Rays

nickanderson
Photo Cred: The Athletic

Age: 29

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats: N/A

2019 Stats (65 IP): 3.22 ERA, 2.44 xFIP, 15.23 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 2.21 SIERA, 2.1 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.73 ERA, 2.26 xFIP, 16.02 K/9, 2.26 BB/9, 2.07 SIERA, 2.4 fWAR

Since it’s such an unpredictable and unique position, there’s always a reliever every year that literally comes out of nowhere, only to dominate as a late-bloomer. For Nick Anderson, there is a realistic chance he’s the best reliever in all of baseball. Between the Marlins and Rays, the 29-year-old posted a terrific 2.21 SIERA and 6.11 K-BB ratio, but it’s what he did in Tampa after being traded that really is intriguing. In 21.1 innings with the Rays, he went on one of the greatest stretches I’ve ever seen: 17.3 K/9, 0.88 BB/9, 1.19 xFIP.  Judging by Tampa Bay’s success with pitching acquisitions in the past, I’ll buy into that success,. Yes, he allows a lot of hard contact (9th percentile hard-hit rate), but he payed for that in the form of a .347 batting average on balls in play allowed, and when you’re missing bats at that rate, does it even matter? His ability to strike batters out while also staying in the zone with nearly half (48.6%) of the time is incredible, and with that, I’m all-in on Nick Anderson moving forward. He completely personifies the Rays as under-the-radar, yet lethal, and if anything, I’m expecting him to be even better this season.

#4: Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros

pressly
Photo Cred: Star Tribune

Age: 31

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (71 IP): 2.54 ERA, 2.58 xFIP, 12.80 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 2.39 SIERA, 1.8 fWAR

2019 Stats (54.1 IP): 2.32 ERA, 2.21 xFIP, 11.93 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, 2.55 SIERA, 1.5 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.48 ERA, 2.30 xFIP, 12.21 K/9, 2.28 BB/9, 2.41 SIERA, 2.4 fWAR

Sometimes, a pitcher can have all the pitches he needs to be a superstar, but is simply not maximizing on his abilities possibility. Finding these types of players is always the ultimate goal for teams on the trade market, as it’s the best way to get steals. Between Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and others, the Astros have had their fair share of success with this model, but of all their “projects”, only one remains on the current team- Ryan Pressly. Upon being acquired by the Twins at the 2018 trade deadline, the 31-year-old was flat out dominant, and that carried over into 2019. In fact, his 38 inning scoreless streak was the longest by a pitcher since Brad Ziegler’s 39-inning streak in 2019, and even when the streak was snapped, he still prevented runs at an elite rate. So, what changed for Pressly, who was simply a middle relief option for the Twins? Well, even though his fastball has 97th percentile spin, it’s never been a very effective pitch for him, but he was throwing in over 40% of the time. With Houston, that’s changed, as he’s now throwing his curveball as much as his fastball- it has 100th percentile spin, and using it more has led to much better results. With excellent K-BB numbers, as well as the ability to limit hard contact (81st percentile exit velocity allowed), Pressly is a pitcher without a real flaw, and in my opinion, is the most under appreciated reliever in all of baseball. The Astros are obviously not a well-liked team, but they’re going to be a true World Series contender, and Pressly’s contributions will play a major role in their ability to win one-run games.

#3: Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

chapmanaroldis
Photo Cred: Bleacher Report

Age: 32

2019 Rank: 9

2018 Stats (51.1 IP): 2.45 ERA, 2.58 xFIP, 16.31 K/9, 5.26 BB/9, 2.51 SIERA, 1.8 fWAR

2019 Stats (57 IP): 2.21 ERA, 2.86 xFIP, 13.42 K/9, 3.95 BB/9, 3.10 SIERA, 2.1 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.44 ERA, 2.75 xFIP, 14.04 K/9, 4.19 BB/9, 3.02 SIERA, 2.4 fWAR

Ever since he entered the league as a flamethrower, there was a general concern with Aroldis Chapman as he got to the later stages of his career; could he still be dominant when his velocity declined? To summarize, the answer appears to be an emphatic “yes”.  For the second straight season, the 32-year-old saw his fastball velocity (98.1 MPH) decline, and once again, he was able to adapt. Chapman mainly relied on his fastball, even throwing it 81% of the time as recently as 2016. This season, however, his usage of the pitch is down to 59%, and to compensate for that, he’s throwing far more sliders (31%). Based on runs above average, that slider (8.2) is actually now his best pitch, and even though his strikeout rate regressed, he did so while improving his walk rate. Also, despite still being amongst the game’s harder throwers, Chapman still remains proficient in limiting hard contact (94th percentile hard-hit rate), so it’s not as though he was simply relying on strikeouts to drive all of his value anyways. Even with his velocity decrease, Chapman remains one of the top relievers in the sport, which is why the Yankees signed him to a three year, $54 million extension shortly after the season. It’s definitely a risky move, but at least on the short term, their World Series aspirations certainly grow more likely with him at the back-end of their bullpen.

#2: Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres

yates
Photo Cred: San Diego Union Tribune

Age: 32

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (63 IP): 2.14 ERA, 2.64 xFIP, 12.86 K/9, 2.43 BB/9, 2.26 SIERA, 1.8 fWAR

2019 Stats (60.2 IP): 1.19 ERA, 2.25 xFIP, 14.98 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, 2.05 SIERA, 3.4 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 1.87 ERA, 2.45 xFIP, 13.45 K/9, 2.30 BB/9, 2.29 SIERA, 2.4 fWAR

After acquiring Pomeranz and Pagan this offseason, the Padres clearly have one of the premier bullpens in the MLB. At the end of the day, though, the centerpiece of at all is Kirby Yates, who has established himself as a premier talent over the past two seasons. After being designated for assignment by the Angels at the beginning of the 2017 season, Yates, 30 at the time, seemed to be at a crossroads of his career- he always had been a solid reliever, but could never stick with one organization. Then in 2018, he introduced a new split-finger fastball, and simply put, it’s transformed him into a star. The pitch works perfectly with his normal fastball, and by relying just on those two pitches, his strike out rates have risen every year. Now, the fact that his swinging strike rate (15.6%) and zone rate (40.6%) have decreased make me skeptical about some of those results, but nevertheless, he appears to be maximizing the effectiveness of his pitching arsenal much better. When you add it all together, Yates’ .224 xwOBA ranked in the 100th percentile, which does justice illustrating how fantastic he was in 2019. Even if he regresses slightly, he’ll still be amongst the top relievers in the MLB, and at 32-years-old, will look to build on his value before entering free agency.

#1: Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

hader
Photo Cred: jsonline.com

Age: 25

2019 Rank: 4

2018 Stats (81.1 IP): 2.43 ERA, 2.05 xFIP, 15.82 K/9, 3.32 BB/9, 1.70 SIERA, 2.6 fWAR

2019 Stats (75 IP): 2.62 ERA, 2.36 xFIP, 16.41 K/9, 2.38 BB/9, 1.78 SIERA, 2.3 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.40 ERA, 2.14 xFIP, 16.79 K/9, 2.76 BB/9, 1.83 SIERA, 2.6 fWAR

As mentioned with Pomeranz and Lugo, there’s been a recent shift in how teams utilize their bullpen; many teams are no longer saving their best relief pitcher for the final three outs, and are valuing those who can pitch multiple innings. Well, sports are all about copying off of one another, and in my opinion, this new way of thinking is due in large part to the success of Josh Hader. The 25-year-old “only” pitched 75 innings last season, but he did so while pitching two to three innings at a time, and obviously did so at a very high level. Not only has his strikeout rates improved every year, but his 22.7% swinging strike rate legitimizes that changes, and to his credit, his command has also gotten better in every season. At the same time, he also did a much superior job getting hitters to chase at pitches out of the zone (39.2%), despite throwing his fastball 84.1% of the time, which shows how truly presiding of a force he is on the mound. Obviously, Hader can struggle allowing hard contact, as he ranked in just the 4th percentile in exit velocity allowed last year, but since contact only comes 61% of the time. With his ability to be lethal versus righties or lefties and pitch multiple innings, Josh Hader is a critical reason why a Brewers team that doesn’t invest much in their rotation has been so competitive over the past two seasons. Want to know how they had a .600 winning percentage on one-score games? It’s clear they’ve built their team to thrive in those sorts of games, and it all starts with having easily the game’s best reliever.

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