With the return of baseball just under a month away, it’s the perfect time to remind everyone of the premier players in the game. See the Starting Pitcher rankings here. Now it’s time to look at the back end of a staff, the all-important stoppers. While relievers don’t earn many Wins Above Replacement, their impact is mainly in the WPA category. Win Probability Added looks at the increase or decrease in win probability that a player brings when he’s in the game. Among pitchers, three of the top ten leaders in WPA were relievers in 2019. Even if they’re in the game for an inning, the pitchers on this list make their presence felt.
(2019 stats – GF=Games Finished – and pitch mix)
1. Kirby Yates (1.19 ERA, 15 K/9, 51 GF – Fastball, Splitter)
After bouncing around the league for years without much success, Yates has found a home in San Diego. The 32-year-old established career bests in every important metric last year, including K/9, BB/9, and HR allowed (only 2 in 60.2 innings). One of the few pitchers that still throws a splitter, hitters only managed a .153 average off the diving pitch. Unless he somehow loses control of that filthy offering, his place is solidified among one of the top relievers in the game. And with the shortened season coming up, the splitter should cause even more trouble for hitters scrambling to get their timing back.
2. Liam Hendriks (1.80 ERA, 13.1 K/9, 41 GF – Fastball, Slider, Curve)
In the past, the Athletics have executed a specific strategy with their closers. By using them in a way that inflated their number of saves (a mostly irrelevant stat that is overvalued by classical baseball minds), the A’s also inflated their trade value. Then, they swapped their closers for top prospects, before starting the process all over again with another hard-throwing guy. It’s worked with Huston Street, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Madson, and Sean Doolittle, among others.
Why is this important? Because that’s what the A’s thought they were going to do with Hendriks – another hard-throwing guy. But his 2019 was better than any of those other relievers’ best seasons. He came out of nowhere to earn 3.5 WAR in only 85.1 innings. Now VP Billy Beane has a tough choice on his hands. Although his robotic protocols instruct him to trade any reliever that has been with the team for a few years, he might go with manual override on this one.
3. Josh Hader (2.62 ERA, 16.4 K/9, 46 GF – Fastball, Slider)
A close third to Hendriks on this list, Hader appeared to have taken a step back in 2019. Although his stuff didn’t falter, his home run rate nearly doubled. It’s kind of sad how many homers were hit in 2019. Popping 30 dingers was pretty easy. 58 players reached 30 last year, up from 27 in 2018, and 20 in 2015. The point is that Hader didn’t really take a step back in 2019, the aerodynamics of the baseball just took a step forward. Josh’s signature 97 mph fastballs at the top of the zone got less ride because of the lowered seams, and his slider was flatter.
All that aside, Hader dominated, nearly striking out two batters per inning. Pair that with a career-low walk rate. He’s a quickly maturing pitcher. In 2020, look for less overthrowing, more two-inning outings, and more close Brewers wins. Assuming good health, Hader will soon claim the torch from Craig Kimbrel as the closer of this decade.
4. Roberto Osuna (2.63 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 56 GF – Fastball, Slider, Change, Cutter)
Quietly one of the most consistent pitchers in the league, Osuna’s poise on the mound is nearly unmatched. That kind of no-nonsense approach was evident in his age 20 and 21 seasons, when he allowed just two earned runs in 14 postseason appearances with the Blue Jays. In recent years, that attitude has turned into a no-baserunners approach. He has by far the lowest career walk rate of anyone on this list, and his career WHIP is a ridiculous 0.908. Although his K-rate is surprisingly low for a guy who can touch 100 with his heater, he’s excellent at inducing weak contact. His pitch mix and ability to be accurate with a variety of deliveries (Johnny Cueto style) mean that he projects to be a premier closer for years to come.
5. Aroldis Chapman (2.21 ERA, 13.4 K/9, 53 GF – Fastball, Slider)
If the rumors going around are true, Chapman is now a slider-first, washed up closer. Looking at his fastball velocity graph, it’s easy to see a decline. There’s no doubt that we’re seeing fewer flashes of 103. But does it matter? The stats, along with a hitter’s approach, say no. Chapman kept his HR rate extremely low, and lowered his walk rate from 2018. His K rate remained high, indicating he can still blow the ball by most hitters – even if it’s 98 instead of 101. Plus, his slider usage increased to 31 percent.
But the slider isn’t his out pitch, it’s just a threat. Slipping in at an average of 12 mph less than his fastball, Chapman can keep hitters off balance. His refined number two has kept him relevant during a time where each team has two relievers with a similar arm.
6. Will Smith (2.76 ERA, 13.2 K/9, 52 GF – Fastball, Slider, Curve)
An underrated closer last year, die-hard statisticians might have him higher on this list. Smith was tied for the lead in WPA with 5.6 in 2019, meaning every time he took the mound, the Giants had a 5.6 percent better chance of winning the game. Impressive! Hitters only managed a .118 average against his devastating slider, the pitch he got 74 percent of his strikeouts with.
Signed by the Braves for three years, Smith will be expected to perform in high leverage situations – as the Braves hunt for their first World Series appearance since 1999. The now-retired Bruce Bochy helped them out there: Smith was inserted into the fourth-highest leverage situations among relievers last year. To put it one way, he’s battle-tested.
The Best of The Rest
Taylor Rogers just misses the top 6, but probably won’t next year. Brad Hand makes the most of his modest velocity with one of the best curves in the bigs. Look for Kenley Jansen to rebound, cutters above the zone never go out of style. If Edwin Diaz can hang his slider less, he’ll get more than halfway back to 2018 form. And don’t forget about setup men like Nick Anderson, Emilio Pagan and Seth Lugo – their K/BB rates were all outstanding in 2019.
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