Ranking the Top 10 Closer/Setup Man Combos in MLB
Having reliable pitchers to insert into the eighth and ninth innings of a close game is essential for Major League Baseball teams that have World Series hopes.
In modern times, we calls these pitchers setup men and closers.
The closer role has evolved greatly over the last 100 or so years. Just ask B/R Lead Writer Zachary Rymer, who recently took a look at the history of the closer and noted that these days, closers are “mass produced and might as well come shrink-wrapped.” I wouldn’t disagree.
Clubs have also continued to mold solid relief pitchers into guys that can come into the game and preserve a lead before the closer comes into the game. Teams have emphasized shortening the game by having dominant relievers available in the pen.
Closers and setup men are treated much differently than other pitchers in the bullpen, and for good reason. There’s a lot more pressure on them to pitch well in high leverage situations.
Let’s take a look at the best combos in baseball today, examining which teams are in the best position to win a game with a lead heading into the eighth inning.
*All statistics in this article were obtained via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Statistics at the bottom of each slide are from 2013. All contract information was obtained via Cot’s Contracts. All injury information was obtained via Baseball Prospectus.
Boston Red Sox: Andrew Bailey (CL) and Joel Hanrahan (SU)
The Boston Red Sox haven’t found a permanent closer since the departure of Jonathan Papelbon and have traded for a new one in each of the last two offseasons.
First, Boston traded for Andrew Bailey, but he was sidelined for most of the 2012 season with a thumb injury. This past winter, the Red Sox traded for Joel Hanrahan. But he started to pitch poorly and eventually found himself on the disabled list. Upon his arrival back to the team, Bailey had taken the job back. For the time being, Bailey will handle the ninth inning duties. Both, however, are capable of saving 25-35 games per season.
San Francisco Giants: Sergio Romo (CL) and Santiago Casilla (SU)
Sergio Romo may be one of the bigger names in terms of closers, but he hasn’t been the ninth inning guy for that long, nor has he had many saves over the course of his career.
When Brian Wilson was forced to miss last season due to Tommy John surgery, Romo and Santiago Casilla took over. Romo finished the season with 14 saves and a 1.78 ERA in 69 games. He’s nearly matched last year’s total already this season with 10 saves. Casilla, now the Giants setup man, saved 25 games last season while posting a 2.84 ERA in 63.1 innings of work.
Oakland Athletics: Grant Balfour (CL) and Ryan Cook (SU)
The Oakland Athletics have a very good trio of relievers at the back end of their bullpen with Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolitte. Dating back to last season and through the first month of 2013, the three have been rock solid.
Cook was the closer for the bulk of last season before Balfour took over. Balfour is currently the Oakland closer while Cook and Doolittle take turns in the eighth inning. In a year and a month, all three have sub-2.80 ERAs in at least 58 innings of work apiece. Balfour has 27 saves while Cook has 14 and Doolittle has one.
10. Arizona Diamondbacks
Closer: J.J. Putz
Setup Man: David Hernandez
J.J. Putz has really made a nice career for himself as the closer for the Seattle Mariners and the Arizona Diamondbacks; he also had short stints with the New York Mets and Chicago White Sox.
Putz’s is now in his third year with the Diamondbacks, putting together back-to-back great seasons the two years prior. He saved 45 games in 60 games his first season and saved another 32 last year. He posted sub-2.90 ERAs in each of those seasons to go along with strikeout rates of 9.47 and 10.77 per nine innings, respectively.
David Hernandez has gotten better and better since coming up with the Baltimore Orioles back in 2009. Traded to the Diamondbacks in the winter of 2010, Hernandez found himself in a new role. He posted a 3.38 ERA in 74 games in 2011 and a 2.50 ERA in 72 games last season. Needless to say, he seems comfortable in the eighth.
9. Los Angeles Dodgers
Closer: Brandon League
Setup Man: Kenley Jansen
This past winter, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Brandon League to a three-year deal to become the team’s full-time closer going forward, taking the job from Kenley Jansen.
League was traded at the July deadline last season in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers that went to the Seattle Mariners. He saved 15 games total, six with Los Angeles in 28 appearances. A year prior, he saved 37 games for the Mariners, a career-high. He also set a new career high with a 1.2 WAR that season. It’s also worth mentioning that 2011 was his first year as a closer.
Jansen, on the other hand, saved 25 games for the Dodgers in 2012, striking out 13.7 batters per nine innings. Although he was only the closer for a portion of that season, Jansen has been a great reliever since making his debut in 2010. Including this season, he has a 2.14 career ERA in 159.2 innings of work.
8. Washington Nationals
Closer: Rafael Soriano
Setup Man: Drew Storen
The Washington Nationals have had a pretty good bullpen the last few seasons, but that didn’t stop them from making one major change this past winter. Instead of sticking with Tyler Clippard as the team’s closer, the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano.
In 2011, Drew Storen was Washington’s closer, saving 43 games in 73 appearances. But elbow surgery sidelined him for the bulk of the 2012 season, which led to Clippard taking over in the ninth. Storen, however, still pitched well in the 37 games he appeared in last year, posting a 2.37 ERA across 30.1 innings of work.
Now, Storen is the regular setup guy as Clippard usually comes in to pitch in the seventh inning. Soriano, of course, has the ninth. Soriano has been great as a closer over the course of his career. He’s saved at least 40 games twice and in the three seasons where he’s been the primary ninth inning guy, he’s never posted an ERA higher than 2.97.
7. Kansas City Royals
Closer: Greg Holland
Setup Man: Kelvin Herrera
Last season, believe it or not, the Kansas City Royals had the best bullpen in baseball in terms of WAR. That’s mainly because Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera established themselves as two of the top relief pitchers in the game. No, that’s not a joke.
Holland has only been in the league for two full seasons and has pitched extremely well in each. In 2011, he posted a 1.80 ERA in 46 games and 60 innings while striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings. Last season, he saved 16 games and posted a 2.96 ERA across 67 games and 67 innings. He also raised his strikeout rate to 12.22.
Herrera also hasn’t been in the league very long. He made his major league debut back in 2011, but only pitched in a pair of games. Last season, though, he appeared in 76 games and threw 84.1 innings, posting a 2.35 ERA. He’s not a huge strikeout pitcher like Holland, but does have very good command and doesn’t walk many batters.
6. Philadelphia Phillies
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Setup Man: Mike Adams
The Philadelphia Phillies don’t have much homegrown talent toward the end of their bullpen like some of the other teams on this list, but they sure know how to piece things together. Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams are both great at what they do.
Before coming to the Phillies after the 2011 season, Papelbon was a fantastic closer for the Boston Red Sox. He saved at least 30 games in six consecutive seasons while appearing in at least 59 games each year. Outside of a 3.90 ERA in 2010, his single season ERA never topped 2.94 and also had a few years below 2.00.
Adams, on the other hand, has been one of the better eighth inning guys the last couple of years. With the San Diego Padres from 2008 through 2011, Adams had three seasons with sub-2.00 ERAs and had a 2.48 ERA his first year with the club. Since, with the Texas Rangers up until this offseason, he’s allowed a few more runs, but has still been dominant.
5. Cincinnati Reds
Closer: Aroldis Chapman
Setup Man: Jonathan Broxton
The Cincinnati Reds have flirted with the idea of converting Aroldis Chapman into a starting pitcher, but that would mean losing one of the best closers in baseball. The Reds were pondering the idea because their setup man, Jonathan Broxton, was once a good closer himself.
Chapman is one of the toughest pitchers in the game to hit considering he consistently throws in the high 90s. Including this season, he has a 14.14 strikeouts per nine innings rate and a 2.18 ERA. Last season, he saved 38 games as his first shot at the closer role. Not to mention that he posted a 1.51 last year as well in 71.2 innings of work.
Broxton has been a full-time closer four times in his career, saving more than 20 games in three of those campaigns. His ERA hasn’t been that consistent over the course of his career, but currently owns a 3.18 for his career in more than 450 innings of work. So if Chapman does eventually move to the rotation, the ninth inning should be in good hands.
4. Baltimore Orioles
Closer: Jim Johnson
Setup Man: Pedro Strop
The Baltimore Orioles have an up-and-coming tandem of relievers that are stymying opposing hitting late in games. Jim Johnson has been around a while, but has finally found what he’s good at, and Pedro Strop is developing into a star reliever and a closer for the future.
Johnson hadn’t really been a closer until last season. He certainly proved that he could handle the job, though, saving 51 games for the Orioles. He pitched in 71 games, tossed 68.2 innings and posted a 2.49 ERA, the second lowest of his career. It will be tough to top last season’s performance, but Johnson has already looked sharp in 2013.
Strop didn’t get his first full season in the majors up until last season, throwing in a combined 45 games the three previous years. He took on a much bigger workload in 2012, appearing in 70 games and throwing 66.1 innings. Although he suffered with command for nearly the entire season, he rarely allowed anyone to score, which is the main point of being a reliever.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
Closer: Fernando Rodney
Setup Man: Joel Peralta
The Tampa Bay Rays may not have a large payroll by any means, but they do have one of the top pairings in the bullpen in Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta. The combination of them in the eighth and ninth inning, however, didn’t start until last season.
Rodney joined the Rays last season and turned head after head as he continued to disallow any opponent to cross the plate. In 76 games and 74.2 innings, Rodney saved 48 games and posted a 0.60 ERA, which was by far the lowest in baseball. Although Rodney has been around the block, it’s easy to say he had a breakout year in 2012.
Peralta has been with five different teams since 2005, but seems to have found a good home in Tampa Bay. The past two seasons have been good ones for the right-hander as he’s stayed healthy and managed to appear in at least 70 games in each of them. He has very good command, rarely walking batters and striking out around eight per nine innings.
2. New York Yankees
Closer: Mariano Rivera
Setup Man: David Robertson
Let me start off by saying that it was extremely difficult not putting the New York Yankees’ combo higher than it currently sits. Mariano Rivera is the best closer of all-time and David Robertson is quickly becoming one of the more reliable eighth inning guys.
Rivera has more saves than any other player in the history of the game. He’s saved at least 40 games in eight seasons, totaling more than 600 over the course of his storied career. Oh, and he also has a career ERA of 2.21, which is insanely low. Unfortunately, however, this will be Rivera’s final season in baseball as he’s now over 40 years old. He still pitches like he’s 25, though.
Robertson couldn’t handle the closer duties when Rivera hurt his knee last season so he’s primarily been the eighth inning guy for the bulk of his big league career. His best season came in 2011 when he posted a 1.08 ERA in 66.2 innings of work. Last season, he appeared in 65 games, tossed 60.2 innings and posted a 2.67 ERA.
1. Atlanta Braves
Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Setup Man: Eric O’Flaherty
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Atlanta Braves bullpen. There is an abundance of dominant young talent that is by far the best in baseball. Craig Kimbrel is already a star and behind him are several dominant relievers. Eric O’Flaherty, though, usually has the eighth inning for himself.
Kimbrel got his first real shot at the big leagues just two years ago when he appeared in 79 games, pitching 77 innings and posted a 2.10 ERA while saving 46 games. He then proved that 2011 wasn’t a fluke, pitching even better last season.
In 63 games and 62.2 innings, Kimbrel posted a 1.01 ERA while saving 42 games. Oh yeah, and he has also averaged 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of his career. Not bad, right?
O’Flaherty is currently in his eighth big league season and his fifth with Atlanta, having pitched for the Seattle Mariners the other three. He has gotten better and better each season and posted a 0.98 ERA in more than 70 innings back in 2011. Last season, he posted a 1.73 ERA in 57.1 innings.
Needless to say, it’s very difficult to pull of an eighth or ninth inning comeback against the Braves.