Major league baseball GMs will pay big money for a pitcher who can come in during a tough situation and get a strikeout with the bases loaded and the game on the line, preserving a one-run victory. Just ask Ruben Amaro, Jr., who dished out a record $50 million for four-time All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon, or the New York Yankees, who paid $35 million the other year for Rafael Soriano to pitch the seventh inning of ballgames.
The best relievers in the game don’t pitch much more than 60 or 70 innings per season but if used at the right time, those innings can amount to more than a handful of wins in the annual realm, which can really make the difference between whether a team is playing ball in October or watching their division rival compete for a World Series.
Each team employs about six to eight relievers at any given time, which leaves several hundred to pick from when the players on the disabled list are factored in. This won’t be a traditional list that just looks at the best closers and essentially ranks them; you will find more than your fair share of setup men and even the occasional LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) in with the selection of closers.
I’m not convinced that Fernando Rodney has turned it around, especially after five straight seasons of an ERA over 4.00. But he’s been nearly lights-out in 2012 to the tune of a 0.86 ERA, a ridiculous 0.733 WHIP and an astounding 8.60 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Rodney has saved 27 games in 28 chances and his numbers are up across the board in almost every pitching statistic. Time will tell if he has turned the corner and finally become a great closer or if he is just having a career year.
Ryan Cook pitched very sparingly in 2011, although nothing about his numbers—2.478 WHIP, 9.4 BB/9, and 7.04 ERA—suggested he would make the jump he has made so far in ’12.
Cook is 4-2 with a 1.70 ERA and he has allowed just 16 hits in 42.1 innings on the mound, numbers good enough to earn him an All-Star appearance. If those numbers project to a full season, Cook would set the single-season record for fewest hits allowed per nine innings (3.4) by a relief pitcher. He’s also striking out over a batter per inning and he’s really cut down on his walks.
Finding a consistently good relief pitcher is a tough task, but the San Diego Padres have one in Luke Gregerson. He has a 3.13 career ERA in four seasons and he’s striking out over a batter per inning.
Gregerson is 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA in 2012 and his 3.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio is right on par with his career averages, which makes him a terrific reliever.
Kyle Farnsworth posted a solid 2011 season as the Tampa Bay Rays’ closer, saving 25 games and posting a 2.18 ERA and 4.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He has barely pitched this season (7.50 ERA in six innings), but that shouldn’t keep him from a top-50 spot on this list.
It’s tough to fully evaluate Robbie Ross, considering he is just a rookie and his 6-0 record on the mound makes him look much better than he really is. But he’s had amazing success so far in the major leagues.
Ross has a 1.12 ERA through 48.1 innings. He doesn’t strike out many batters at all (just 5.4 K/9) but he also limits his hits and walks, keeps his home-run rate down, and he just doesn’t give up runs. And he’s a lefty, who is equally tough against both lefties and righties.
Grant Balfour has had a pretty good career as a relief pitcher. He played a key role in the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that went to the World Series and now he is a key part of the Oakland Athletics’ bullpen.
Balfour’s velocity and strikeout rate are both down a notch but he allows a very low percentage of hits. Batters are hitting just .232 against him over the last five seasons and he’s a terrific pitcher for a non-closer.
A two-time All-Star for the Cleveland Indians, Chris Perez is one of the more underrated closers in the game.
Perez is on pace for nearly 50 saves this season and he’s posting terrific numbers, with a 5.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 10.4 strikeout rate per nine innings.
After leading the league in saves three times—including a major-league record 62 in 2008—Francisco Rodriguez accepted a job with the Milwaukee Brewers last year as a setup man for John Axford. Now that Axford has struggled and lost his job as the closer, K-Rod will take over again (via The Columbus Dispatch).
Rodriguez isn’t quite the pitcher this year that he was in his prime, but he is still a good reliever. He has a 3.71 ERA, 8.7 K/9 rate, and he’s recorded saves in his first two opportunities as the closer (although six base runners allowed in two innings is pretty scary).
Since 2010, Jason Motte has a 2.40 ERA and he’s finally been promoted to the closer role for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Motte is a really solid all-around pitcher in that he doesn’t give up a lot of hits or walks, he strikes out his fair share of hitters and he’s an absolute steal at $1.95 million this season.
Before his miserable 2011 season, Heath Bell had been a stud closer in San Diego, posting a 2.53 ERA and a 9.4 strikeout rate over his last five years. That’s why a rough start to the campaign is not enough to knock him off this list completely.
But Bell has been bad in Miami and he needs to figure it out. He’s blown six of his 25 save opportunities and if he keeps that up he could tie Brad Lidge’s unofficial record of 11 blown saves in one season (2009). Bell is also at 4.8 walks per nine innings and a 1.699 WHIP, so the Marlins better hope their $27 million closer can figure it out, and quickly.
Greg Holland wins the award for the best reliever that no one has ever heard of. He is 4-2 with a 3.25 ERA this season and he strikes out a ton of batters (13.3 K/9), which makes him one of the game’s best strikeout pitchers.
Holland is a righty but he’s essentially as effective as a left-handed specialist, as lefty hitters have a .192 batting average, .288 slugging percentage and .588 OPS against him in 2012.
Steve Cishek has had a really solid career since debuting in the major leagues at the age of 24 in 2010. He has a 6-2 record and 2.27 lifetime ERA in 99 innings.
Cishek is a strikeout pitcher and he gives up very few hits (7.1/9) and home runs (0.4/9), and if Heath Bell continues to struggle as the closer, Cishek could be ready to take over.
For his role, Eric O’Flaherty is an absolutely phenomenal pitcher. I didn’t rate him higher than 39th though because of the role in which he is used—he really only faces one or two tough left-handed hitters and his day is done.
O’Flaherty appeared in 78 games last year, though—nearly half of the ballgames for the Atlanta Braves—and he gave up just eight earned runs, for an 0.98 ERA. O’Flaherty has a 3.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio and he’s really tough against lefties like Ryan Howard or Chase Utley.
Joel Peralta isn’t having a great year in 2012 in terms of his ERA (4.38) but everything else would represent a career year—6.3 H/9, 2.2 BB/9, 10.5 K/9, 4.78 K:BB ratio and a ridiculous 0.946 WHIP.
The real problem is just that he’s given up too many gopher balls—opponents have gone yard against Peralta seven times in 37 innings, the same amount of home runs he surrendered last year in 67 innings. He has a 2.99 ERA and terrific 4.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2010.
After two terrific seasons as the closer, John Axford has taken a big step back in 2012. He went from a league-leading 46 saves in 2011, a 1.95 ERA and both Cy Young and MVP votes to losing his job as the closer this year.
Axford has a 5.17 ERA, a high walk rate (4.9 BB/9) and an awful home run rate (1.4/9), and he’s allowed runs in 35 percent of his appearances in 2012 compared to just 19 percent in 2011.
It took Jason Grilli about eight years after he was drafted to really settle into the major leagues and he certainly isn’t worth the number four overall selection.
But he is having a terrific season at age 35, his second straight as a great relief pitcher. Since 2011, Grilli has a 2.21 ERA and a ridiculous 93 strikeouts in 69.1 innings pitched. This season, his 13.7 K/9 rate is almost Craig Kimbrel-esque.
As a rookie in 2011, Javy Guerra had a terrific campaign, registering a 2.31 ERA, 21 saves and a 1.179 WHIP. He hasn’t been quite as good in ’12, but still, his 3.54 ERA isn’t too shabby and he hasn’t given up a home run in 123 batters faced.
It’s pretty rare for a closer to be as good as Jim Johnson without striking out a lot of batters. Johnson is leading the American League with 29 saves—and he’s done so in 31 chances.
Save for a consecutive-game stretch in which he gave up a total of eight hits and eight runs in 1.1 innings pitched, Johnson has been nearly unhittable. His numbers even with those awful games included are 6.3 hits allowed per nine innings, 1.9 walks allowed and a WHIP of 0.912, and that led him to make his first-ever All-Star Game in 2012.
This is the first year a good closer has actually mattered to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it’s nice that they have Joel Hanrahan on their roster this year.
Hanrahan has 67 saves and a 1.967 saves and a 1.95 ERA since 2011, and he’s given up just 22 hits in 37.1 innings pitched this season.
Vinnie Pestano is having a lights-out season and it would be nice if the All-Star Game voting recognized terrific non-closers like Pestano.
He has a 3-0 record, 1.56 ERA, 5.4 hit rate, 11.4 strikeout rate and 0.967 WHIP this season, and that really should have made him an All-Star. Pestano’s major league career includes a 2.10 ERA through 107.1 innings, plus a ridiculous 12.0 strikeout rate.
Since 2009, Mike Adams has been nearly unhittable. He has a 1.64 ERA through 208 innings, he’s striking out over a batter per inning, and his hit rate is at just 5.9 per nine innings.
The reason he isn’t ranked higher, though, is because he’s been uncharacteristically off in 2012. After allowing just 5.4 hits per nine innings from ’09 through ’11, Adams has allowed slightly over one hit per inning so far this season, and his strikeouts are at just 7.9 even though his career rate is 9.1.
Joaquin Benoit has long been one of the most underrated setup men in the game, posting a 2.38 ERA and absurd 4.51 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2010, numbers that suggest he could be a very dominant closer if given the opportunity.
Benoit has a 3.00 ERA this year but his other numbers are better than that—he has a very low hit rate (7.0/9), high strikeout rate and he doesn’t walk many batters.
Joakim Soria hasn’t pitched yet in 2012 after tearing a ligament in his right elbow but he’s a very valuable closer when he is healthy.
In his first four major league seasons, Soria had a 2.01 ERA, a 6.4 hit rate, a 4.01 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 0.988 WHIP. Those are numbers that rivaled Mariano Rivera for dominance in the last several years before he dropped off last year (4.03 ERA).
Jordan Walden is just 24 years old and he has all the tools to be one of the game’s best closers within a few years. He throws in the upper nineties, along with a good slider.
Walden has a 3.13 career ERA, 34 saves and 125 strikeouts in 103.2 innings pitched. He had some trouble closing games in 2011 (10 blown saves), but he has the stuff to one day settle down and be an elite closer, à la Craig Kimbrel. His velocity has dropped off since he debuted in 2010, but that could be because of the injury that just landed him on the DL.
Since 2007, Jose Valverde has gone under the radar despite leading the league in saves three times, posting a 2.85 ERA and striking out over a batter per inning.
Last year, Valverde converted all 49 save chances, leading the American League with 75 games and 70 games finished. His 2.24 ERA was the second-best single-season total of his career, and he will likely reach 25 saves for the sixth consecutive season in 2012. What is a serious cause for concern about Valverde though is his rapidly-declining velocity since 2007: 12.6 K/9, 10.9, 10.4, 9.3, 9.0, 8.6 and 6.4.
Since 2010, Matt Belisle is a workhorse among all major league relievers. His 20 wins over the last three seasons leads all relievers, and his 215 innings pitched is second-best in the business.
Belisle has a 2.89 ERA during that span despite pitching in Colorado. This year, he has a 1.78 ERA outside of Colorado, and if he pitched in a ballpark like San Diego he would probably be regarded as one of the game’s best relief pitchers.
The Washington Nationals have themselves a really good relief pitcher in Tyler Clippard, a 27-year-old who has a 2.61 ERA since 2009. Clippard also has some terrific peripheral numbers—5.7 H/9, 10.7 K/9 and just a 1.053 WHIP.
This year, Clippard has taken over the role as the closer with Drew Storen injured, and he’s done really well in his new job.
Jonny Venters is going to give the Philadelphia Phillies nightmares for the next decade or more. He has struggled in 2012 (4.45 ERA, 11.4 H/9, 1.794 WHIP), but the two seasons prior to that were phenomenal—Venters posted a 1.89 ERA in 171 innings and struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings.
His hit rate of 6.0 is ridiculous, and he’s a lefty which makes him a nightmare for division mates like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Bryce Harper. Venters has allowed just a .196 batting average and .260 slugging percentage to lefties since debuting in 2010.
Ernesto Frieri was one of major league baseball’s best-kept secrets when he was traded from the San Diego Padres to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim earlier this season.
He then established himself as a dominant reliever, going his first 13 appearances without allowing a run—or a hit. He faced 50 batters and struck out 27 of them. None of them got a hit. He did walk 10—a high total—but those were the only opponents fortunate enough to reach base against him. Frieri has a 2.06 ERA in 135.2 major league innings, a ridiculously insane 5.8 hit rate per nine innings and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Since 2008, Matt Thornton has been the best relief pitcher in major league baseball, according to Wins Above Replacement. Thornton is a left-handed pitcher who isn’t dominant; he’s just consistently good.
Thornton’s ERA over the last four seasons: 2.67, 2.74, 2.67, 3.32 and 3.86 this year. He strikes out a batter per inning and he’s tough to hit against lefties (.229 lifetime mark).
J.J. Putz has had an up-and-down career but when he’s been good, he’s been really, really good. He was an All-Star in 2007 with the Seattle Mariners, posting a ridiculous 1.38 ERA, 4.6 hit rate and 6.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Putz struggled in his lone year with the New York Mets, but now he’s a top closer again. Putz saved 45 games last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, registering a 2.17 ERA. This year, he’s at just a 4.06 ERA, but everything else about his numbers (1.161 WHIP, 4.43 K:BB ratio) suggests his earned run average will go down dramatically.
Brian Wilson became almost a cult hero during the 2010 World Series run when he and his legendary beard became a national name.
Wilson has bounced back to earth in a big way though, and he’s out for all of 2012 after his early-season injury. His stats last year were a huge decline from the previous season, as he walked a full two batters more per inning, struck out significantly fewer, gave up more hits, and posted an ERA a full 1.30 higher.
Wilson since 2009 though has still been a top-tier closer: 2.56 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
This is the fifth straight season Darren Oliver has lowered his ERA, and it’s down to a miniscule 1.23 this season.
Oliver is remarkably consistent. His home run rate since ’08 has been 0.6, 0.6, 0.6, 0.5 and 0.5. His walk rate has been 2.0, 2.7, 2.2, 1.9 and 2.2. And he strikes out enough batters to post a strikeout-to-walk ratio of over four for the third straight year.
Drew Storen has a chance to be one of the absolute best relief pitchers in the game. He’s not there yet—and he will need to return at full form after his injury—but he was a highly-sought-after prospect.
Storen was drafted in the first round back in 2009 and he tore through the system, reaching the major leagues by 2010 after posting a ridiculous 0.56 ERA in 56.2 minor league innings. Storen saved 43 games last year and posted a 2.75 ERA. He’s a strikeout pitcher, he keeps his walks down and he doesn’t give up a lot of hits at all.
I tried to evaluate just Alexi Ogando the reliever here, not Ogando the starter, although he’s valuable enough that he can do both.
Ogando was 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA as a starter last season, and as a rookie reliever in 2010 he posted a 1.30 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched. This season, Ogando is 1-0 with a 2.63 ERA in 32 games and he has struck out 37 batters to just nine walks.
Ryan Madson has long been one of the more underrated relief pitchers in the game, largely because he has thrived as a setup man without getting the opportunity to close.
The knock on Madson has always been that he can’t close, but last year he converted 32 of 34 saves, posted a 2.37 ERA and struck out over a batter per inning. Since 2007, Madson has a 21-13 record, 2.89 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning in over 300 frames on the mound. This year, he’s missed the entire season with an injury but he should be back strong for 2013.
Huston Street isn’t nearly as good as the 0.98 ERA he’s put up in San Diego’s pitching park but he also wasn’t nearly as bad as the 3.00-plus ERA he posted for three straight seasons in Colorado’s hitting park.
Street’s career ERA is 2.98 but he has a road earned run average a full 43 points lower than at home. Street is having by far the best year of his career, as he’s given up just 10 hits and no home runs in 28.1 innings, and he’s struck out 38 batters.
Sean Marshall has long been one of the most underrated relief pitchers in the game, and the sabermetric numbers support that.
Marshall has a 5.9 WAR since 2010, the tops in the game of any relief pitcher. He has a 2.52 ERA and an absurd 2.14 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a component of what his ERA should be given his peripheral statistics) and he has a high strikeout rate compared to a low walk rate. And he’s a tough lefty, which makes him a good option to close should the Cincinnati Reds want to let Ryan Madson walk in free agency this season.
The Texas Rangers got a great deal when they acquired Koji Uehara in the trade from the Baltimore Orioles last summer.
Uehara has been a terrific relief pitcher so far, and he has remarkable control despite throwing a fastball that barely reaches 90 miles per hour. Uehara has an unbelievable strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.0 this season and 7.5 for his career) and he is allowing just 5.5 hits per nine innings in ’12.
Scott Downs has been maybe the best left-handed reliever in baseball over the past six years, although no one really seems to know it.
Downs has a 2.12 ERA since 2007, and he’s been pretty consistent: 2.17, 1.78, 3.09, 2,64, 1.34 and 1.67. His velocity is dropping and he’s down to fewer than seven strikeouts per nine innings, but he is still an effective pitcher who limits his walks, his hits allowed, and he’s really tough against lefties (.185 batting average, .476 OPS vs. him in 2012).
It’s pretty nice for the New York Yankees that their third option at closer has a 1.66 ERA and a 9.5 strikeout rate.
Soriano is certainly being paid enough for his services (three years, $35 million) and he’s living up to it so far. He has a 2.62 ERA and 3.24 strikeout ratio for four different teams since 2006.
Rafael Betancourt has really flown under the radar over the last handful of seasons, but he’s one of the top relievers in the game.
Betancourt has an 8-4 record and 3.21 ERA since 2010, and he’s done that in the pitcher’s nightmare ballpark of Coors Field. Betancourt’s finest statistic is his incredible strikeout-to-walk ratio—he posted a 11.13 mark in 2010, making him the only relief pitcher in baseball history with a strikeout-to-walk ratio in the double-digits and at least 80 strikeouts.
This year, Betancourt “only” has a 3.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio but he’s also issued an unusually high number of intentional walks (4). His real strikeout-to-walk ratio would be 7.00, on par with his typically phenomenal totals. He’s also got a pretty ridiculous 0.54 road ERA.
For the first third of the season, Aroldis Chapman was having the greatest season of any closer—probably ever. His stats through June 6: 29 IP, 0.00 ERA, 7 H, 9 BB, 52 K, plus a 4-0 record and six saves in seven chances. His only blown save was courtesy of an unearned run, and Chapman managed to strike out 48 percent of the hitters he faced.
Since then, Chapman has really settled back down to earth (you could even say he’s been hit hard), but a 1.58 ERA, 0.701 WHIP and a 6.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio is still the stuff of a guy that not many hitters would want to face. Chapman’s career: 2.56 ERA, 4.2 H/9, 14.5 K/9 and 2.93 K:BB ratio.
Fortunately for the New York Yankees, when Mariano Rivera finally decides to retire, the Yankees have a terrific closer in the waiting with David Robertson.
He was a phenomenal setup man in 2011, posting a 4-0 record, 1.08 ERA, 5.4 hit rate, 0.1 home run rate, and 13.5 strikeout rate. He made the AL All-Star team and earned both Cy Young and MVP votes—as the setup man. This year, Robertson is at it again (although he’s been hurt some): 2.20 ERA and fantastic 14.1 K rate.
Jonathan Papelbon wasn’t worth the $50 million deal he signed and he may not have quite deserved the All-Star appearance he earned this season, but he’s been a dominant closer since he debuted in the major leagues.
Papelbon has a 2.42 lifetime ERA, a 1.029 WHIP and a 4.49 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he’s actually been much worse in recent years than earlier in his career.
A comparison of his numbers:
2005-2009: 1.84 ERA, 0.980 WHIP, 4.49 K:BB
2010-2012: 3.43 ERA, 1.115 WHIP, 4.49 K:BB
It’s ironic that the strikeout-to-walk ratio remains the same, which just means he’s giving up a higher percentage of hits than ever before. He’s also increased his walks—while increasing his strikeouts. But overall, there haven’t been more than a handful of relievers in the game better than Papelbon in the last several years.
Besides Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen is probably the best strikeout pitcher in the game.
Jansen has a 2.07 lifetime ERA, a strikeout rate of 14.6 batters per nine innings and he has allowed only 4.6 hits per nine innings. Jansen walks too many batters (4.2/9) but he doesn’t give up a lot of hits at all and he’s thriving as the closer this season, with a 1.97 ERA.
I don’t normally like to put players this high when they’ve made such a jump from one year to the next, but the thing about Joe Nathan is that he has been a superb closer before.
Nathan has a 2.11 ERA this season with 46 strikeouts to just five walks in 38.1 innings, and his 9.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best of his career. Nathan has completely rebounded from the surgery that forced him to miss the 2010 season and he’s pitching better now than he even did in his prime.
Nothing against Brian Wilson—who is a fantastic closer—but the San Francisco Giants need to make Sergio Romo their closer.
Romo is out of this world for a setup man. He has a 0.62 ERA this season in 29 innings, and he has struck out 35 batters to just eight walks. He’s allowed only 21 baserunners in 29 innings for a 0.724 WHIP and he has a career WHIP of 0.870.
Romo is 19-8 with a 2.09 ERA in his career and he has a strikeout rate of 10.8 batters per nine innings in his five-year career.
I feel almost un-American not putting Mariano Rivera first on my list, and it’s not just because of his injury. There’s a better option.
But that doesn’t mean Rivera hasn’t been lights-out over the last decade-and-a-half, because he certainly has. Rivera is like a fine wine, as he seems to absolutely get better with age.
Check out these numbers:
1996-2002 (Age 26-32): 2.21 ERA, 1.016 WHIP, 3.42 K:BB
2003-2007 (Age 32-37): 1.97 ERA, 1.005 WHIP, 4.76 K:BB
2008-2012 (Age 38-42): 1.72 ERA, 0.825 WHIP, 6.72 K:BB
How does that even happen? Factor in his insane postseason numbers and you have the greatest closer who ever lived.
Craig Kimbrel edges out Mariano Rivera for the top spot on this list, and Kimbrel would probably be No. 1 even if Rivera had pitched the full season.
Kimbrel has put up some of the most outrageous numbers for a closer I can ever remember. He was better than Rivera in 2010 (even though Kimbrel pitched very sparingly). He was better in 2011. And even if Rivera had pitched in 2012, I doubt he could have been better than Kimbrel.
Kimbrel struck out 40 batters in just 20.2 innings back in 2010, and followed that up with numbers last year that made him an All-Star and the league Rookie of the Year, while also garnering Cy Young and MVP votes—he posted a 2.10 ERA, led the league with 46 saves, allowed just 5.6 hits per nine innings and posted a 14.8 K rate.
Kimbrel has been even better this year. He’s leading the league in saves (28) again, his 1.42 ERA is even lower than last year and his strikeouts are at 15.2 per nine innings. He has a chance to break the single-season reliever record for fewest hits allowed per nine innings in a season. And he’s effective enough against lefties that he could even be a left-handed specialist (lefties are 4-for-64 with 34 strikeouts against Kimbrel this season with a .063 batting average and .252 OPS).
Kimbrel is still just 24 years old, but check back in 15 years and there’s a good chance Rivera’s career save record may no longer be standing.