2015 Positional Power Rankings: Relief Pitchers (#1-15)

What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data below is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems, with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.

Yes, we know WAR is imperfect and there is more to player value than is wrapped up in that single projection, but for the purposes of talking about a team’s strengths and weaknesses, it is a useful tool. Also, the author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.

2015-positional-power-rankings-relievers

Look, I understand full well this is probably the least-anticipated part of the series. This is a look at only half of the teams, and it’s looking just at relievers, who pale in perceived importance relative to starters. Also contributing to this is the idea that relievers, and therefore bullpens, are almost hopelessly capricious and unpredictable. I’ll grant you that to a certain extent, but it’s also exaggerated — we have a decent idea of reliever and bullpen talent. Relievers don’t get injured a million times more often than starters. The biggest thing is that, because of the limited single-season reliever sample sizes, there’s just room for more variation around true talent. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have good forecasts. This is a worthwhile endeavor, and sometimes a strong or weak bullpen can make all the difference to a team’s postseason chances. Come with me on a journey! It is a journey with numbers and words, where we discuss the best of the projected bullpens.

#1 Royals


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Greg Holland 65.0 12.0 3.1 0.6 .303 79.8 % 2.38 2.40 1.9
Wade Davis 65.0 10.6 3.1 0.7 .300 78.8 % 2.67 2.87 1.2
Kelvin Herrera 55.0 9.2 3.1 0.6 .299 75.1 % 2.99 3.11 0.7
Luke Hochevar   55.0 8.8 2.6 1.0 .294 75.5 % 3.36 3.63 0.2
Jason Frasor 45.0 8.6 3.5 0.8 .300 74.6 % 3.55 3.71 0.0
Chris Young 40.0 6.1 3.1 1.4 .284 71.9 % 4.51 4.88 -0.3
Louis Coleman 35.0 8.4 3.7 1.1 .297 74.2 % 3.91 4.17 -0.1
Franklin Morales 30.0 7.2 3.7 1.1 .299 71.8 % 4.31 4.52 -0.1
Brandon Finnegan 25.0 8.1 2.8 1.0 .305 73.3 % 3.76 3.85 0.0
Brian Flynn 20.0 6.8 3.1 0.9 .305 71.7 % 4.03 4.10 0.0
Kris Medlen   15.0 6.5 2.2 1.0 .304 72.3 % 3.81 3.88 0.0
John Lamb 10.0 7.0 3.5 1.1 .302 71.5 % 4.38 4.54 0.0
Aaron Brooks 10.0 5.3 1.8 1.2 .303 68.4 % 4.53 4.46 0.0
Yohan Pino 10.0 7.1 2.4 1.2 .297 71.8 % 4.10 4.20 0.0
Michael Mariot   10.0 6.8 3.7 1.0 .301 70.6 % 4.37 4.46 0.0
The Others 6.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 0.0
Total 496.0 8.7 3.1 0.9 .299 74.7 % 3.46 3.62 3.4

Here’s a simple test of whether this is measuring anything. What we’re trying to do is project the best and worst team bullpens for 2015. If the process is sound, we basically know the Royals ought to rank No. 1. What do we see? The Royals rank No. 1. The process is sound! On the one hand, the Royals’ lead is slim — a fraction of one win. On the other hand, the Royals are in front of the runners-up by 13 percent. Baseball is going to feature many good bullpens. No bullpen stands a better chance of being really good than Kansas City’s, because this is just kind of what they do.

You know enough about Holland. He’s almost a perfect reliever. You know enough about Davis. He’s also almost a perfect reliever. Last year, Herrera had a strange drop in strikeouts, but his stuff was intact and he didn’t allow even a single dinger, so if we’re going to regress one thing, we have to regress the other. A wild card here is Hochevar, who was kind of Davis before Davis. He’s also Davis plus some recent Tommy John surgery, so we can’t just plan on Hochevar to certainly deliver anything, but if he comes back healthy in May, this unit could be truly disgusting. Hell, if you wanted, you could bump up the team projection a little more, just because the numbers don’t know what to do with swingman Chris Young.

This is a bullpen the Royals opted to keep together, despite rising costs. It could’ve made sense to deal Holland or Davis away, but given what just happened, you can understand the reluctance, and this is a very obvious strength. Plus, the Royals spent their extra money on Alex Rios, Kendrys Morales, and Edinson Volquez, so it’s not clear they would’ve benefited from making more space. The question is whether the Royals will be good enough again for this bullpen to really matter in the second half. They could be months away from a departure or two. In the meantime, the Royals aren’t fair. The rotation seems weak, but there’s enough talent in here to keep the pitching staff overall afloat.

#2 Rays


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jake McGee   65.0 11.3 2.6 0.7 .297 79.9 % 2.44 2.57 1.7
Brad Boxberger 65.0 12.1 3.6 0.8 .296 79.3 % 2.74 2.97 1.0
Grant Balfour 55.0 8.7 4.3 0.8 .291 73.7 % 3.68 3.90 0.1
Kevin Jepsen 55.0 9.5 3.4 0.8 .299 75.1 % 3.30 3.37 0.3
Kirby Yates 45.0 9.6 4.4 0.9 .299 74.9 % 3.62 3.87 0.0
Ernesto Frieri 40.0 10.8 3.7 1.2 .296 76.5 % 3.58 3.83 0.1
Jeff Beliveau 35.0 9.6 4.1 0.8 .300 75.3 % 3.39 3.66 0.0
Nate Karns 30.0 8.4 3.8 1.1 .298 72.7 % 4.10 4.24 -0.1
Alex Colome   25.0 6.7 3.9 0.8 .298 71.1 % 4.21 4.32 -0.1
Steve Geltz 20.0 9.5 4.1 1.0 .298 74.3 % 3.76 4.00 0.0
C.J. Riefenhauser 15.0 7.0 3.9 0.9 .299 71.5 % 4.25 4.40 0.0
Jose Dominguez 10.0 10.0 4.5 0.7 .303 74.3 % 3.55 3.63 0.0
Enny Romero 10.0 7.4 4.1 1.0 .300 71.7 % 4.27 4.43 0.0
Burch Smith 10.0 8.5 3.1 1.1 .300 72.8 % 3.91 3.98 0.0
Grayson Garvin 10.0 6.7 3.0 0.9 .301 71.0 % 4.02 4.07 0.0
Matt Andriese 10.0 6.2 2.8 1.0 .299 70.0 % 4.28 4.32 0.0
The Others 12.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 0.0
Total 512.0 9.6 3.7 0.9 .298 75.0 % 3.46 3.62 3.0

Welcome to the land of high fastballs. No, it doesn’t apply to everybody, but it very nearly does, as the Rays have a system and it’s a difficult one to argue with. At the top here is McGee, who’s probably been better than you realize, even if you’re a hardcore FanGraphs reader. Over the last three years, only these relievers have posted a higher WAR:

  • Craig Kimbrel
  • Aroldis Chapman
  • Greg Holland
  • Kenley Jansen
  • Sean Doolittle

And McGee does it just throwing a fastball all the time. I mean almost literally all the time — his rate last year was north of 96 percent. “But!”, you interject. “McGee is sidelined!” That much is true, as it seems he’ll miss about the season’s first month. But then there’s Boxberger. You know who had baseball’s third-highest strikeout rate last year? Brad Boxberger. At 42.1 percent, Boxberger’s strikeout rate was higher even than Javier Baez’s. So there’s some depth here, even with injuries in the rotation and the pen.

Frieri is an interesting gamble, since the better versions of him fit right in with a unit that lives on high heat. Odds are, he won’t keep allowing more than two dingers per nine innings. Balfour’s another bounceback candidate, although the addition of Jepsen further buries him on the depth chart. Without McGee, the Rays have enough good relievers to be fine. With him, they have enough good relievers to be excellent.

#3 Padres


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Joaquin Benoit 65.0 10.6 2.8 0.7 .293 78.7 % 2.63 2.81 1.3
Brandon Maurer 65.0 8.2 2.8 0.7 .305 72.4 % 3.53 3.39 0.6
Shawn Kelley 55.0 10.6 3.3 0.7 .307 76.6 % 3.04 3.02 0.7
Kevin Quackenbush 55.0 8.9 3.7 0.6 .303 73.4 % 3.41 3.42 0.2
Nick Vincent 45.0 9.1 2.8 0.8 .301 75.4 % 3.24 3.35 0.2
Dale Thayer 40.0 8.3 2.7 0.9 .300 73.4 % 3.56 3.63 0.1
Frank Garces 35.0 9.0 3.7 0.8 .303 73.9 % 3.56 3.65 0.0
Robbie Erlin 30.0 7.3 2.6 1.0 .305 71.2 % 3.96 3.87 0.0
Casey Kelly 25.0 7.6 2.4 0.8 .311 71.9 % 3.66 3.54 0.0
Leonel Campos 20.0 10.2 5.3 0.8 .308 73.1 % 3.93 3.91 0.0
Brandon Morrow 15.0 8.5 3.2 0.8 .305 72.5 % 3.68 3.54 0.0
The Others 18.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 468.0 9.0 3.2 0.8 .304 74.0 % 3.41 3.41 3.0

Did you know that Joaquin Benoit is coming off a 1.49 ERA? Of course you didn’t. Nobody cared. Nobody cared about last year’s Padres, and nobody was prepared to care about this coming year’s Padres, until, you know. Now, suddenly, everything matters, and while the Padres have drawn attention for all the thump they made a point of bringing in, they’ve also built what seems to be a hell of a collection of late-inning help. The moves in the bullpen haven’t been as sexy, but while it seems like the Padres have forever had pretty good relief, this could prove to be a shutdown group.

The door’s still open for Maurer to eventually return to starting, but for the time being, he’s a flamethrower who, a season ago, found his command and his confidence in the later innings. Kelley’s routinely been hurt by home runs and being hurt, but the healthy version should find the Petco dimensions to his liking, and he’s always thrown strikes. Quackenbush? Strikeout an inning. Vincent? Strikeout an inning. Thayer? Basically a strikeout an inning. One thing missing is a proven lefty, but Garces was able to get the job done in Double-A, and he seems to be earning the Padres’ trust.

With other wild cards around — Morrow, maybe Josh Johnson, maybe Kelly, and so on — the Padres could be brutal to face. The weaknesses are mostly in the field, but to take advantage of those, hitters will need to make contact first.

#4 Yankees


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Dellin Betances 65.0 12.2 3.6 0.7 .302 78.6 % 2.62 2.75 1.6
Andrew Miller 65.0 13.2 3.6 0.8 .305 80.1 % 2.59 2.73 1.4
Adam Warren 55.0 8.1 3.1 0.9 .298 73.1 % 3.72 3.83 0.2
David Carpenter 55.0 9.2 2.8 1.1 .303 74.7 % 3.58 3.67 0.3
Justin Wilson 45.0 9.2 4.5 1.0 .297 73.8 % 3.94 4.16 0.0
Esmil Rogers 40.0 7.3 3.1 1.1 .307 70.0 % 4.44 4.34 -0.1
Chase Whitley 35.0 7.3 3.0 1.1 .307 70.2 % 4.41 4.30 -0.1
Bryan Mitchell 30.0 6.6 4.4 1.3 .305 68.7 % 5.19 5.10 -0.2
Jose Ramirez 25.0 9.0 4.6 1.2 .301 73.2 % 4.35 4.59 0.0
Chasen Shreve 20.0 9.0 3.4 1.0 .305 73.7 % 3.77 3.79 0.0
The Others 47.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 482.0 9.4 3.6 1.0 .305 73.6 % 3.76 3.80 3.0

Last year’s Yankees bullpen posted the very highest bullpen strikeout rate in baseball history. True, there’s no more David Robertson. True, there’s no more Shawn Kelley. But there is a brand-new Andrew Miller, and he gives the Yankees half of an impossible one-two punch that you might notice is projected to be worth the same 3.0 WAR for which the whole bullpen is projected. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, and there are other useful parts here, but there’s no arguing the strength. The biggest question has been who ought to close. Not because there are no appealing options; because there are two of the best options in baseball.

One legitimate worry, if you want to call it that: last year, Betances racked up 90 innings. I’m not saying that’s too many innings. Rather, that’s great! That’s great usage of a dominant arm. But now he’ll probably be used more conventionally, which will shift innings from Betances to somebody else, and then those innings will be expected to be worse, all in the name of dedicating guys to set roles. I don’t want to criticize too heavily what hasn’t yet happened, but it’s easy to see Betances’ innings total suffering, which is a shame. His 2014 was a thing of beauty.

Shreve ought to be a fun guy to keep an eye on. He arrived in the deal for Manny Banuelos, and while the lefty isn’t exactly on the verge of being the next Miller, his previous year was a big step forward. In 2013, Shreve struck out 16 percent of hitters in the minors. Last year’s numbers: 35-percent strikeouts, from Double-A through the majors. He looks like a sharp acquisition, and this is the sort of depth that should keep the more middle innings from being a nightmare.

#5 Reds


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Aroldis Chapman   65.0 15.9 3.6 0.6 .300 86.9 % 1.67 1.84 2.5
Sam LeCure 65.0 8.1 3.5 1.0 .297 73.3 % 3.81 4.00 0.0
Jumbo Diaz 55.0 9.1 3.5 0.9 .297 74.1 % 3.55 3.70 0.2
Manny Parra 55.0 9.1 3.7 0.9 .298 74.6 % 3.61 3.75 0.2
Tony Cingrani 45.0 10.3 3.8 1.1 .291 78.2 % 3.39 3.83 0.2
Burke Badenhop 40.0 6.2 2.3 0.8 .297 73.3 % 3.50 3.78 0.1
Dylan Axelrod 35.0 7.2 2.7 1.3 .299 71.6 % 4.29 4.41 -0.1
J.J. Hoover 30.0 9.9 3.8 1.2 .287 76.7 % 3.64 4.04 0.0
Raisel Iglesias 25.0 7.8 5.8 1.2 .293 71.9 % 4.93 5.12 -0.1
Pedro Villarreal 20.0 6.8 2.7 1.2 .297 70.9 % 4.28 4.40 0.0
Sean Marshall   15.0 8.6 3.5 0.9 .302 74.6 % 3.55 3.88 0.0
The Others 20.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 0.0
Total 470.0 9.4 3.5 1.0 .298 75.2 % 3.53 3.73 2.9

This isn’t a tough one to figure out. The Yankees bullpen projects to get its WAR from two relievers. The Reds bullpen projects to get its WAR from one. That the Reds also rank this high tells you enough about the ability of that one weapon, as if you need to read even another word about Aroldis Chapman. He’s exactly what you’d expect him to be. Velocity isn’t everything, but only to a point. Chapman’s around that point, and on certain days he’s beyond it. On those days, there’s just nothing to be done. I will never understand how major-league hitters who step in against Chapman don’t just automatically piss themselves. Maybe they do. Maybe they all do.

Without Chapman, it’s a weak group. Without a band, you’ve got a terrible concert. There’s no sense pretending like Chapman isn’t the biggest part of this, and though he could also become trade bait midseason should the Reds not succeed, then it doesn’t much matter what’s left, since you’d be talking about the bullpen of a last-place rebuilder. I’m trying to imagine trade proposals rolling in for an available Chapman. I’m trying to imagine a team trying to get Chapman and Johnny Cueto rolled all together.

The most fun wild card here is Cingrani. Marshall’s the bummer. When Marshall was last healthy, he was outstanding, but, shoulders. On Cingrani, no matter what you think of his bullpen conversion, it’s hard not to figure he’ll be good at it. As a starter, he got strikeouts, and that was without a second pitch. Now he won’t even really need a second pitch. Maybe Cingrani will ascend to the role of setup guy, and the Reds will feature back-to-back lefties. Maybe Marshall will be healthy, and Parra will bounce back, and the Reds will just go southpaw-southpaw-southpaw-southpaw. It’s not not something to look forward to.

#6 Cardinals


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Trevor Rosenthal 65.0 11.4 3.7 0.6 .305 77.6 % 2.73 2.87 1.3
Jordan Walden 65.0 10.5 3.8 0.7 .302 76.4 % 3.12 3.16 0.8
Matt Belisle 55.0 7.0 2.4 0.7 .304 72.3 % 3.52 3.51 0.2
Seth Maness 55.0 6.2 1.7 0.7 .302 72.8 % 3.39 3.51 0.2
Randy Choate 45.0 7.6 3.1 0.6 .297 71.0 % 3.52 3.59 0.1
Carlos Villanueva 40.0 8.0 2.5 0.9 .302 73.1 % 3.59 3.61 0.1
Kevin Siegrist 35.0 10.4 3.9 0.8 .299 76.5 % 3.26 3.45 0.1
Marco Gonzales 30.0 7.9 3.0 0.9 .298 74.2 % 3.58 3.81 0.0
Keith Butler   25.0 7.7 3.7 0.8 .301 72.1 % 3.91 3.99 0.0
Joseph Donofrio 20.0 8.5 3.5 0.8 .301 73.5 % 3.56 3.70 0.0
Nick Greenwood 15.0 5.2 2.6 0.9 .300 69.9 % 4.23 4.32 0.0
Samuel Tuivailala 10.0 10.6 4.6 0.7 .307 75.3 % 3.39 3.43 0.0
The Others 24.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 484.0 8.6 3.2 0.8 .303 73.8 % 3.44 3.51 2.6

In case you forgot how last season went:

It was that kind of season for Rosenthal — doing just enough, and doing absolutely no more than that. Which was puzzling, given that his repertoire itself seemed fine, but Rosenthal was shaky from beginning to end, and, say, here’s a quip from the top of his current FG player page:

RotoWire News: Rosenthal is examining his approach to the closer role this year, including the possibility of pitching exclusively from the stretch, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. (3/4/2015)

So, there are questions, is the point. Rosenthal should be steady; last we saw him, Rosenthal was not steady, and so the Cardinals can’t afford to give him too long of a leash. But as long as the talent is there, you have to believe in it. And, just in case something goes awry, the Cardinals were sharp to get Walden included in the Jason Heyward trade. Walden has what would’ve once been considered a “big fastball”. Now it’s just a “fastball”, but he remains a more than adequate handcuff, so it’s not like this has to be Rosenthal or bust.

Overall this is a bullpen with depth to cancel out questions at the top. A Seth Maness fun fact: two years ago, he issued six unintentional walks. Last year, he issued eight. Against righties, he’s at 72 strikeouts and seven walks, with three out of five balls in play on the ground. As is the norm with these guys, lefties pose a bigger problem, but that’s why there’s Randy Choate. That’s why there will forever be Randy Choate.

#7 Braves


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Craig Kimbrel 65.0 13.8 3.1 0.5 .302 83.4 % 1.86 1.98 2.3
Jason Grilli 65.0 10.5 3.1 0.8 .306 77.2 % 3.00 3.08 1.2
Jim Johnson 55.0 7.2 3.3 0.7 .310 71.2 % 3.82 3.78 0.0
Luis Avilan 55.0 6.5 4.2 0.7 .298 71.7 % 4.03 4.26 -0.3
Ryan Buchter 45.0 9.8 6.3 0.9 .302 73.2 % 4.36 4.56 -0.4
Andrew Mckirahan 40.0 8.1 3.4 0.9 .303 72.6 % 3.76 3.83 0.0
Manny Banuelos 35.0 8.5 3.9 0.9 .295 73.3 % 3.83 4.08 -0.1
Juan Jaime 30.0 11.5 6.2 0.7 .308 75.2 % 3.71 3.80 0.0
Mike Foltynewicz 25.0 8.1 4.2 1.0 .300 71.7 % 4.27 4.34 0.0
Luis Vazquez 20.0 6.9 4.1 0.9 .305 70.1 % 4.46 4.44 -0.1
Cory Gearrin   15.0 7.7 3.9 0.6 .307 73.1 % 3.67 3.84 0.0
The Others 46.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 496.0 9.2 4.0 0.8 .305 73.7 % 3.64 3.72 2.5

Look at the top of this bullpen. Already, it’s projected to be pretty good. That’s what you’d expect — it’s got Craig Kimbrel in it. Last year, the top three relievers combined to be worth 2.0 WAR. The season before that, they combined to be worth 4.7 WAR. The season before that, they combined to be worth 5.6 WAR. Kimbrel is an unbelievable closer! Grilli has recently been a very good closer. Johnson was a fine closer not even that long ago, and he signed with Atlanta figuring the coaching staff would be uniquely able to help him out. This is a group with big upside, even ignoring the younger and the lesser-known.

It’s also an upper-third bullpen on a bottom-third team, and there’s a half-decent chance that, come midseason, Kimbrel will find himself on the same market as Aroldis Chapman. Not that Kimbrel would fetch nearly as much, given his contract terms. I kind of understand the Braves’ plan, but this is going to be a weird and unpleasant transition season, which takes some of the fun out of Kimbrel’s dominant innings. As much as you want to be able to appreciate awesome baseball independent of the context in which it takes place, it won’t be the same when Kimbrel goes 1-2-3 to lift the Braves to 37-58. Maybe I’m getting off track. The bullpen shouldn’t be a liability. The rest of the team will be more of a liability. Jason Grilli wrote a terrible book. To be honest, I can’t help but hold that against him. So I’m biased, but it’s Jason Grilli’s fault.

#8 Phillies


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jonathan Papelbon 65.0 8.7 2.3 0.9 .299 74.6 % 3.30 3.36 0.9
Ken Giles   65.0 11.7 3.6 0.8 .305 78.1 % 2.86 2.91 1.2
Jake Diekman 55.0 11.0 4.6 0.7 .315 74.8 % 3.40 3.31 0.5
Justin De Fratus 55.0 7.8 3.0 0.9 .302 72.4 % 3.82 3.91 0.1
Cesar Jimenez 45.0 7.3 3.9 0.9 .301 72.0 % 4.08 4.19 0.0
Luis Garcia 40.0 8.6 4.2 0.8 .306 72.1 % 3.94 3.90 0.0
Andrew Oliver 35.0 11.2 5.7 0.8 .303 74.5 % 3.76 3.84 0.0
Miguel Gonzalez 30.0 7.9 3.6 1.0 .300 71.1 % 4.22 4.19 0.0
Ethan Martin 25.0 8.3 4.6 1.1 .301 72.3 % 4.40 4.51 -0.1
Elvis Araujo 20.0 7.8 5.1 1.1 .304 71.2 % 4.73 4.82 -0.1
The Others 52.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 487.0 9.1 3.9 0.9 .306 73.2 % 3.79 3.79 2.5

At some point, Papelbon is going to be moved. It’s essentially a lock, as, eventually, another general manager will hold his nose and take his spoonful. It might be the best-available medicine for a bullpen in trouble. The Phillies won’t lament the loss, for three reasons. One, it’s Jonathan Papelbon, and most people would look forward to an opportunity to not hang out with him every day. Two, it’s the Phillies, and they’re going to suck, so, who cares? And three, Ken Giles. Used to be, Giles struck out everyone he didn’t walk. Last year, the same held true in the majors, except that he also trimmed his walks, allowing him to increase his strikeouts, and the end result was an ERA reading 1.whatever. When Giles is the closer, he’ll be a good one. Maybe or probably a great one. Giles is a core piece of the future, and that tells you something about both the state of the Phillies and the state of Ken Giles.

Diekman is less of a core piece, but he’s still a reliever who just last season reached triple-digit strikeouts, so that’s fantastic. He looks a little like prime Matt Thornton. And my favorite player in here has to be Oliver. Not because he’s the best — he’s very clearly not the best. But he is the best experiment. He has the stuff to make millions. He’s not yet particularly old. Three years ago, he ranked in the worst 2 percent in walk rate among professional pitchers. Two years ago, he ranked in the worst 1 percent. Last year, he again ranked in the worst 1 percent. This spring, in 11 innings, Oliver has 10 walks and 20 strikeouts. His innings aren’t going to be boring. His innings are going to be long. Like, probably, a lot of Phillies games, albeit in a different way.

#9 Athletics


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Tyler Clippard 65.0 9.7 3.4 1.0 .281 79.1 % 3.07 3.61 0.6
Ryan Cook 65.0 9.2 3.6 0.7 .294 75.3 % 3.26 3.48 0.4
Dan Otero 55.0 5.2 1.9 0.7 .300 72.0 % 3.49 3.67 0.1
Sean Doolittle   55.0 11.0 2.1 0.8 .293 81.0 % 2.36 2.57 1.0
R.J. Alvarez 45.0 9.8 4.1 0.7 .298 75.6 % 3.33 3.57 0.2
Fernando Abad 40.0 7.9 2.7 0.9 .292 76.0 % 3.25 3.65 0.1
Eric O’Flaherty 35.0 7.0 2.9 0.8 .297 73.2 % 3.58 3.82 0.0
Evan Scribner 30.0 8.6 2.4 0.9 .298 73.8 % 3.42 3.48 0.0
Eury De la Rosa 25.0 7.6 4.0 0.9 .298 72.4 % 4.07 4.26 0.0
Jesse Chavez 20.0 7.8 2.9 1.0 .302 72.2 % 3.90 3.95 0.0
Sean Nolin   15.0 7.2 3.4 1.0 .298 71.6 % 4.08 4.17 0.0
Kendall Graveman 10.0 5.1 2.6 1.0 .297 69.6 % 4.30 4.38 0.0
Chris Bassitt 10.0 6.5 4.7 1.0 .298 70.4 % 4.73 4.94 0.0
Drew Pomeranz 10.0 8.1 3.9 1.0 .294 73.0 % 3.99 4.22 0.0
The Others 28.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 508.0 8.4 3.1 0.8 .296 74.6 % 3.44 3.65 2.3

Here’s something you probably couldn’t guess. I say that because I couldn’t have guessed it, and following baseball statistics is literally my job. Last year’s leader in relief innings was New York’s Carlos Torres. In second, the other New York’s Dellin Betances. And in third? Oakland’s Dan Otero, who appeared in 72 games and threw a little shy of 90 frames. Nearly 90 frames, with nearly 50 strikeouts. There’s a reason you don’t know anything about Otero — he doesn’t do anything to make himself known. He just kind of pitches until he doesn’t, and he doesn’t do enough to get himself yanked in a hurry, so he’s like reliable filler. Dan Otero is instant rice for a man on a budget. He meets the minimum needs, providing cheap fuel, and he also works as a part of a larger and tastier dish.

Otero, of course, isn’t the highlight of this unit. He’s just among the most curious members. Doolittle is the star, and he should be a star again soon, but an injury setback got a lot of people worried. Thankfully for Oakland, in the meantime they can rely on Tyler Clippard, who is differently excellent and who has established a track record of beating his peripherals on account of his sky-high pop-up rate that Oakland should do little to suppress. Me, I’m also fond of R.J. Alvarez. The walks can get away from him a little bit, but, you know how these guys go. The strikeouts make up for the walks, until at some point they don’t. What I don’t like is that R.J. Alvarez’s full name is Roy Emilio Alvarez. My first name starts with a J. I’m pretty familiar with what a J looks like. It doesn’t look a lot like an E. This is not an easy mistake to make.

#10 Dodgers


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
J.P. Howell 65.0 8.4 3.9 0.7 .292 74.6 % 3.43 3.73 0.1
Joel Peralta 65.0 9.6 2.8 1.1 .296 75.6 % 3.40 3.54 0.6
Chris Hatcher 55.0 9.1 2.6 0.9 .304 74.0 % 3.37 3.33 0.4
Kenley Jansen   55.0 13.0 2.7 0.7 .303 81.6 % 2.26 2.29 1.1
Juan Nicasio 45.0 7.9 2.8 1.0 .301 73.0 % 3.82 3.89 0.0
Pedro Baez 40.0 7.8 2.9 1.0 .292 73.4 % 3.75 3.99 0.0
Paco Rodriguez 35.0 9.9 3.7 0.8 .297 75.7 % 3.33 3.47 0.0
Yimi Garcia 30.0 9.6 2.6 0.8 .300 75.3 % 3.13 3.20 0.1
Brandon League   25.0 6.2 3.4 0.6 .306 70.6 % 3.94 3.94 0.0
Mike Bolsinger 20.0 8.1 3.0 0.8 .307 73.3 % 3.64 3.68 0.0
Sergio Santos 15.0 9.6 3.9 0.9 .302 72.1 % 3.79 3.61 0.0
Daniel Coulombe 10.0 9.4 5.1 0.9 .302 73.5 % 3.96 4.11 0.0
Total 460.0 9.2 3.1 0.9 .299 74.8 % 3.38 3.48 2.2

Finally, I have an excuse to talk about Chris Hatcher. Hatcher was very quietly a part of the Dee Gordon trade, and he’s by no means the key piece the Dodgers got back, and he’s also 30 years old, with fewer than 100 big-league innings, so there’s not much of a track record here. But if you look at what Hatcher just did, you think, perhaps, he could turn into a key component of a bullpen that might otherwise struggle to support Kenley Jansen when he comes back. Five times as many strikeouts as walks? Check. Adequate rates of grounders and dinger suppression? Check. Three pitches? Check. Success against hitters on both sides? Check. Hatcher does everything, and while he doesn’t do everything great, the overall combination ought to make him stable and reliable. He should help fill the void. He should help prevent the void.

Still, things will probably feel a little void-y until Jansen makes his healthy return. He’s going to miss at least the first month, but you could also argue that’s the least-important month, and maybe somehow that means Jansen will have more bullets available in October, for which the Dodgers might already be planning. Peralta was more effective than you thought just last year, though there are some lingering questions about a little shoulder discomfort. Santos has felt a lot of discomfort over the years, but the whiffs have been there this month, so he’s got big if unreliable upside. Brandon League decided to start avoiding alcohol, but those watching him can never afford to make the same decision. Alas, League is going to be out for some time, which is an absence the Dodgers probably don’t mind. You can see the potential for vulnerability here. Yet, when Jansen is back, the Dodgers will have one of the true premier closers, with a rotation that ought to be able to mostly work deep. What’s that you said about vulnerability, again?

#11 Pirates


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Mark Melancon 65.0 8.7 1.8 0.5 .305 76.6 % 2.59 2.70 1.3
Antonio Bastardo 65.0 10.2 4.0 0.7 .298 76.8 % 3.17 3.38 0.6
Tony Watson 55.0 8.8 2.3 0.7 .298 75.7 % 2.95 3.13 0.6
Jared Hughes 55.0 6.3 3.0 0.7 .301 72.0 % 3.66 3.89 -0.1
Radhames Liz 45.0 6.3 3.7 0.8 .301 71.1 % 4.13 4.23 -0.2
John Holdzkom 40.0 10.5 4.3 0.7 .305 76.0 % 3.18 3.28 0.2
Arquimedes Caminero 35.0 8.6 3.8 0.8 .304 73.1 % 3.80 3.87 0.0
Vance Worley 30.0 6.3 2.0 0.8 .312 70.7 % 3.82 3.66 0.0
Bobby LaFromboise 25.0 6.9 3.2 0.7 .304 71.5 % 3.84 3.84 0.0
Stolmy Pimentel 20.0 7.3 3.3 0.9 .301 72.3 % 3.95 4.06 0.0
Rob Scahill 15.0 7.4 3.2 0.8 .305 72.1 % 3.84 3.88 0.0
Casey Sadler 10.0 5.8 2.2 0.9 .303 69.8 % 4.07 4.02 0.0
The Others 37.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 497.0 8.1 3.2 0.7 .304 73.5 % 3.52 3.59 2.2

Meet the closer who looks least like a closer, and most like a mild-mannered single purveyor of office solutions you dismiss as being too boring until you get older and realize you’re stuck with a semi-professional skateboarder who tries unsuccessfully to catch fish with his bare hands every time you go for a walk in the forest:

Melancon’s strikeout rate around a batter an inning isn’t actually that much better than the reliever average these days, but he’s got this trick, see: he just about never issues walks, even though he just about never throws pitches in the middle of the zone. Last year, Melancon generated by far the highest O-Swing% in the league, living around the edges mostly with his fastball and cutter, and while I’m sure some of this had to do with the abilities of Russell Martin, a lot is also just Melancon, and it’s not like Francisco Cervelli is going to be that much worse of a receiver. Melancon isn’t Mariano Rivera, but he’s quite good in a somewhat unconventional way. He doesn’t look like a closer, and he doesn’t pitch like a closer, but he gets results like a closer, so, he’s a closer, on what ought to be a damn good baseball team.

Somewhat similar to Melancon, Hughes is another king of generating swings at pitches out of the zone, but he doesn’t get the strikeouts, so he doesn’t get the same level of respect. Watson is a lot better than Hughes, and in fact Watson is among the better relievers in the sport, coming off a sub-2 ERA and a 1.5 WAR. Watson is actually the strongest challenger for Melancon’s role, should the formerly shaky reliever return to being shaky again. Watson also doesn’t get much respect. People just might not notice the Pirates’ pitchers. People just might not notice the Pirates, beyond Andrew McCutchen. There’s so much more here than Andrew McCutchen. One thing the Pirates have is a couple stars. But, also, they’re littered with depth. It’s no less true in the bullpen than anywhere else.

#12 Cubs


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Hector Rondon 65.0 9.0 3.0 0.7 .303 73.7 % 3.35 3.26 0.9
Pedro Strop 65.0 9.9 3.8 0.6 .303 74.8 % 3.17 3.24 0.8
Jason Motte 55.0 8.5 2.8 1.1 .299 74.3 % 3.73 3.85 0.1
Neil Ramirez 55.0 10.5 3.9 0.8 .301 77.0 % 3.24 3.43 0.4
Phil Coke 45.0 7.7 3.2 0.8 .316 71.2 % 3.92 3.70 0.1
Tsuyoshi Wada   40.0 7.9 2.6 1.0 .303 73.5 % 3.76 3.85 0.1
Jacob Turner   35.0 6.4 3.0 1.0 .312 69.0 % 4.57 4.29 -0.1
Justin Grimm 30.0 8.8 3.2 0.7 .306 73.1 % 3.48 3.43 0.1
Edwin Jackson 25.0 7.7 3.2 1.0 .315 69.6 % 4.38 3.99 0.0
Drake Britton 20.0 6.6 4.2 0.9 .303 71.6 % 4.37 4.50 0.0
Zac Rosscup 15.0 10.8 5.2 0.8 .304 75.8 % 3.62 3.77 0.0
The Others 35.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 485.0 8.6 3.4 0.9 .307 73.0 % 3.74 3.70 2.2

A link available on a handful of player pages seen here:

2/10/2015 – Meet the Surprisingly Dominant Back End of the Cub» by August Fagerstrom (FanGraphs)

Well, that’s too bad. Let’s go to completion:

Meet the Surprisingly Dominant Back End of the Cubs Bullpen

There you go. Last year, with no one paying attention, the Cubs cobbled together a pretty good group of relievers. There’s been a little bit of shuffling, but many of the key pieces are back, with a brand-new Jason Motte. Well, no, that’s not quite right. It’s more like a factory-refurbished Jason Motte. And Motte hasn’t exactly had the most encouraging spring, but it seems the stuff is mostly there, so he could earn more trust in the coming weeks. Without an effective Motte, the Cubs ought to get enough out of Rondon, Strop, and Ramirez. If Motte, though, rediscovers most of what he used to be, then this could go from fine to terrific. In some way the bullpen is a little like the Cubs overall. Right now, it seems in the vicinity of average, but with just one break or two, you’ve got something in the upper class. Maybe you could argue that things thin out fast, but for how many bullpens is that not true? Few bullpens have great options for sixth innings. A great option for sixth innings wouldn’t be throwing sixth innings.

#13 Nationals


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Drew Storen   65.0 8.0 2.4 0.8 .302 74.5 % 3.32 3.43 0.5
Craig Stammen 65.0 7.8 2.7 0.7 .306 73.1 % 3.46 3.45 0.5
Aaron Barrett 55.0 9.5 3.3 0.6 .307 74.7 % 3.15 3.11 0.6
Tanner Roark 55.0 6.6 1.9 0.9 .296 73.1 % 3.47 3.66 0.2
Blake Treinen 45.0 6.5 2.2 0.7 .307 71.6 % 3.61 3.61 0.1
Matt Thornton 40.0 7.2 2.5 0.6 .303 73.0 % 3.25 3.40 0.1
Xavier Cedeno 35.0 9.6 3.4 0.7 .306 75.6 % 3.20 3.30 0.0
Taylor Jordan 30.0 6.3 2.2 0.8 .307 71.1 % 3.82 3.82 0.0
Casey Janssen   25.0 7.1 2.1 0.9 .297 73.9 % 3.45 3.64 0.0
The Others 38.0 7.9 4.0 1.0 .324 69.7 % 4.73 4.40 -0.1
Total 453.0 7.7 2.7 0.8 .305 73.1 % 3.51 3.55 1.9

Did you know that the Washington Nationals have a bullpen? You might know that now, but come May or June or July, you might not remember that. Neither, perhaps, might the Washington Nationals relievers. The rotation is just stupid strong, with Tanner Roark as an unlikely sixth starter, and while the Nationals want to keep Roark stretched out in case they ultimately need him to start, it’s hard to imagine a long reliever in the Washington bullpen, because how long will these assignments really be? A long reliever here might be asked to retire two batters. The starters might well do everything else.

Which isn’t a problem. The Nationals project to have a fine bullpen, but it’s not a great one, and among all current bullpens, only the Twins project to have a lower K/9. They project to have a lower K/9 by precisely 0.1. There are good-enough relievers here, but there’s no true shutdown reliever, unless you want to potentially count Treinen. Treinen is basically unknown, and mostly untested, but he sort of has a right-handed version of Zach Britton’s sinker, and we saw what Britton just accomplished. So there’s some chance Treinen emerges as a bullpen ace. Failing that, Storen has closed before and he’s more than capable, but you’re going to see some late leads blown. Thankfully for the Nationals, they’ll have a lot of late leads.

#14 Mariners


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Fernando Rodney 65.0 9.7 3.8 0.6 .307 74.9 % 3.27 3.26 0.7
Tom Wilhelmsen 65.0 8.6 4.0 0.8 .292 73.2 % 3.61 3.74 0.2
Charlie Furbush 55.0 10.2 3.0 0.9 .300 76.2 % 3.14 3.24 0.5
Danny Farquhar 55.0 9.9 3.1 0.7 .305 75.6 % 3.05 3.09 0.5
Yoervis Medina 45.0 8.9 4.3 0.7 .302 73.1 % 3.67 3.79 0.0
Dominic Leone 40.0 8.8 3.4 0.8 .301 73.8 % 3.45 3.55 0.1
Tyler Olson 35.0 6.6 2.6 0.9 .301 70.7 % 4.01 4.03 0.0
Carson Smith 30.0 8.3 3.4 0.7 .301 73.7 % 3.51 3.59 0.0
David Rollins 25.0 7.5 3.5 1.0 .302 71.5 % 4.14 4.21 0.0
Lucas Luetge 20.0 8.0 4.1 0.9 .301 71.7 % 4.13 4.17 0.0
Mayckol Guaipe 15.0 7.4 2.4 1.0 .300 71.7 % 3.85 3.91 0.0
Mike Kickham 10.0 7.3 3.8 0.9 .306 70.8 % 4.26 4.20 0.0
Mike Montgomery 10.0 6.2 3.6 1.0 .296 70.3 % 4.42 4.58 0.0
Rafael Perez 10.0 6.8 2.2 0.9 .302 71.7 % 3.79 3.84 0.0
Total 477.0 8.7 3.5 0.8 .301 73.5 % 3.54 3.62 1.8

Last year, no bullpen had a lower ERA than the Mariners’. Last year, no bullpen had a higher strand rate than the Mariners’. So, probably, you won’t see the same low ERA, but while the Mariners lack an upper-tier closer, they compensate with unusual depth. Which isn’t to suggest that Rodney is a problem, but he might easily become a problem, and even then, the Mariners have plenty of options. They actually had to send Carson Smith to the minors, and Smith is probably good enough to pitch some teams’ eighth innings. Everyone is just a little bit shaky, but no one is intolerably shaky, which means few innings are comfortable but few innings are painful. The Mariners feel sufficiently confident in Wilhelmsen and Furbush to feature both of them in a 2015 team commercial. That doesn’t say nothing about them.

The big sleeper surprise here is Olson. Olson won the competition to be the Opening Day second lefty, and while he’s never been considered much of a prospect, he’s posted good-enough numbers as a starter, and this spring in relief, he’s got 15 strikeouts and 15 fewer walks. When PITCHf/x has picked him up, he’s shown a fastball at just right around 90, but it comes with a lot of sink, and half the time he’s thrown this Frisbee slider that gives him a classic arsenal in an unexpected uniform. The Mariners were always going to have some sinker/slider second lefty. No one thought it’d be Olson, but here we are, and Olson has a neat story to tell whoever might care about him. Probably, a lot of people care about him. Seems like he’s loved. Call it a gut feeling.

#15 Astros


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Luke Gregerson 65.0 8.2 2.5 1.0 .306 73.1 % 3.65 3.65 0.5
Pat Neshek 65.0 8.5 2.3 1.1 .301 75.4 % 3.56 3.71 0.6
Chad Qualls 55.0 7.1 2.2 0.9 .317 69.4 % 4.03 3.65 0.2
Tony Sipp 55.0 10.4 3.6 1.0 .301 75.3 % 3.50 3.59 0.3
Josh Fields   45.0 10.1 3.2 0.9 .313 73.7 % 3.53 3.36 0.3
Jake Buchanan 40.0 5.0 2.2 1.0 .315 67.8 % 4.66 4.36 -0.2
Will Harris 35.0 9.4 3.4 0.9 .313 73.4 % 3.77 3.66 0.0
Joe Thatcher 30.0 8.0 2.7 1.1 .316 72.7 % 4.06 4.06 0.0
Kevin Chapman 25.0 8.9 5.4 0.9 .311 72.3 % 4.36 4.32 -0.1
Samuel Deduno 20.0 7.3 4.3 0.9 .310 69.4 % 4.56 4.45 -0.1
James Hoyt 15.0 9.1 3.8 0.9 .305 72.4 % 3.85 3.77 0.0
Alex White 10.0 6.6 4.0 1.1 .312 68.4 % 5.00 4.76 0.0
Darin Downs 10.0 8.1 3.9 0.8 .309 70.3 % 4.18 4.01 0.0
Brad Peacock   10.0 7.9 4.1 1.4 .309 69.6 % 5.06 4.90 0.0
Roberto Hernandez 10.0 5.8 3.2 1.2 .300 68.5 % 4.80 4.81 0.0
Total 481.0 8.3 3.0 1.0 .309 72.2 % 3.92 3.85 1.5

Over the last three years, no bullpen has had a worse ERA than the Astros’. Only two bullpens have been worth more WPA than the Orioles’. The Orioles, it’s been said, have exceeded projections in large part because of outstanding late-inning relief. The Astros, meanwhile, have been a late-inning disaster, in keeping with their non-late-inning disastrousness. So maybe it’s startling to see the Astros on this list, and the Orioles not on this list. Well, for one thing, the Astros and Orioles are actually tied in projected bullpen WAR. And for another, the Astros went and got themselves better.

When Gregerson and Neshek signed, it seemed like part of a ploy — the Astros, maybe, were planning to move them for prospects at the deadline, since the price for good relievers goes way up. It still seems like a possibility, since the Astros remain considerably worse than a few of their rivals, but it seems like the Astros intend to transition to not being awful, which would suggest they want to keep their relievers around. If they do that, they should have pretty good relievers. Hell, Josh Fields? There’s been little reason to care about Josh Fields, and he’s been a member of some of the bad units, but last year he exceeded 30-percent strikeouts. And he’s not even one of the most important ones here. The Astros, not improbably but definitely unexpectedly, have cobbled together some talent and depth. Maybe they’ll trade it. Or maybe they’ll just be an average or slightly below-average baseball team. For all their flaws, Houston’s actual on-field product is no longer so easily dismissed. It’s time to prepare for mostly acceptable baseball.

We hoped you liked reading 2015 Positional Power Rankings: Relief Pitchers (#1-15) by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jheff
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Jheff

“At 42.1 percent, Boxberger’s strikeout rate was higher even than Javier Baez’s.”

That was unexpected and hilarious