Major League Baseball's Top 10 Emerging Set-Up Men Under 30
One of the most unheralded roles in baseball happens to be the guy who hands the ball off to the closer—the set-up man.
Unless you're in a fantasy league that counts "holds" as a scoring category, chances are you're not paying much attention to the other guys towards the back-end of the bullpen, other than the closer.
It seems as though the only time these guys get any attention is when they blow a lead.
I mean, when do we ever see a set-up man on Sportscenter or Baseball Tonight getting credit for earning a hold?
Saves? Of course.
A good percentage of the current closers in baseball were at one time, set-up men.
And the best of the best are sometimes only an injury away from getting their shot at the closer's role, so it's not a bad idea to keep tabs on the successful ones.
Here are my top 10 emerging set-up men under 30 years old in Major League Baseball.
10. David Hernandez, D-Backs
The 26-year-old right hander has solidified himself as the primary set-up man behind veteran closer J.J. Putz.
After being groomed as a starting pitcher through the Baltimore organization, Hernandez was traded to Arizona in a package deal for third basemen Mark Reynolds.
Hernandez has clearly benefited from the transition to the bullpen in the desert. Having less of a workload allows Hernandez to dial it up on his fastball, which has risen to an average of 94.4 miles per hour this season. His best pitch, a plus slider, has been biting better than it ever has in his career.
Check out his game log, the D-Backs have won 10 consecutive games in which Hernandez has appeared in.
Hernandez tends to lose command at times and his high BB/9 ratio could eventually blow up in his face. But for now, the plus slider and increased velocity on his fastball have been bailing him out from submitting those free passes.
If the oft-injured Putz gets hurt anytime soon, Hernandez will be the first in line for save opportunities.
Current MLB Line: 27.1 IP – 1.65 ERA – 31 K’s – 1.32 WHIP - .190 BAA – 8 Holds
9. Al Alburquerque, Tigers
The hard throwing Dominican right-hander didn’t pitch in 2008 after undergoing shoulder surgery and missed two months last season with Colorado’s Double-A team because of migraines.
After signing as a free agent in November 2010, Alburquerque has filled the role this season the Tigers hoped Joel Zumaya would. And with Joaquin Benoit’s recent struggles, Leyland has been going to the 24-year-old more and more in late game situations.
Alburquerque leads American League relievers in strikeouts per innings, with 16.4 for every nine innings; that’s nearly two per inning.
He regularly touches 97 with his fastball and possesses an electric slider that falls off the table. His slider is the best I've seen this season. It's almost cartoonish looking to watch it live.
During a seven-day span from May 24-31, he picked up three consecutive wins for the Tigers.
If he can stay healthy and keep his poise on the mound, sky is the limit for Alburquerque in his new late inning role.
Current MLB line: 19.2 IP - 2.75 ERA - 35 K - 1.12 WHIP - .134 BAA – 2 Holds
8. Sean Marshall, Cubs
The 28-year-old southpaw has been one of the few consistent bright spots for the Cubs over the last season and a half.
After years of shifting him back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen, the Cubs are finally leaving Marshall in the set-up role he excelled in last season, when he held the opposition scoreless in 66 of 80 appearances, limiting the hitters to a .210 average.
His bread and butter pitch is a big-sweeping breaking ball in which he’s been able to command low in the zone. And Marshall uses the Zito-esque curveball more than ever now that he’s in the pen.
Another contributor to his success has been an increase in the velocity of his fastball from around 87 when he was a starter to around 90 as a reliever.
We’ve also seen a much-improved groundball rate from Marshall—more than 50 percent of the balls put into play off him last season were induced groundballs—which can be attributed to the above factors.
Marshall signed a two-year deal for $4.7 million in January, avoiding arbitration.
Current MLB Line: 25.1 IP - 1.07 ERA - 24 K’s - 1.18 WHIP - .247 BAA - 11 Holds
7. Antonio Bastardo, Phillies
Bastardo has quickly emerged as arguably the second best left-handed reliever in the National League behind Jonny Venters.
Troubled with injuries and ineffectiveness in the last two seasons, the 25-year-old has matured and blossomed into the go-to guy out of the pen for the Phillies in 2011. And with J.C. Romero just turning 35 and losing velocity, Bastardo couldn't have arrived at a better time.
Considering Bastardo was brought through the minors as a starting pitcher, he’s done a commendable job adjusting to his new role in the pen.
He’s consistently staying in the low 90’s with the fastball and commanding his off-speed pitches.
In 292 minor league innings, Bastardo only allowed 218 hits and fanned 335 batters. That type of track record would have earned him a spot in just about any other rotation around the league.
Bastardo has been a blessing for the Phillies in the back-end of their bullpen and is second behind Venters among the national league left-handed leaders in strikeouts with 29.
Current MLB line: 23 IP - 1.17 ERA - 29 K’s - 1.00 WHIP - .143 BAA - 5 Holds
6. Eduardo Sanchez, Cardinals
Sanchez broke onto the scene at the expense of Ryan Franklin and the bullpen struggles after dominating minor league hitters from 2008-2010.
The 22-year-old Venezuelan made his major league debut in Mid-April and immediately turned heads with his mid-90’s fastball with movement and devastating slider, eventually earning a shot at the closer’s role.
Unfortunately, the fastball and slider specialist began struggling with his command and saw his velocity dip to the low 90’s, which concerned Duncan and LaRussa enough to replace him with Fernando Salas.
He took the demotion in stride and has since worked through his issues to become a fixture in the set-up role.
Sanchez reminds me quite a bit of another Venezuelan reliever, Francisco Rodriguez of the Mets . Standing only 5'11", 170-pounds, Eduardo just oozes confidence and is savvy on the mound, like K-Rod did at his age.
One thing's for sure, Sanchez has the stuff and makeup to be a closer.
Current MLB line: 25.2 IP - 2.10 ERA - 31 K’s - 1.09 WHIP - .176 BAA - 7 Holds
5. Vinnie Pestano, Indians
Pestano has quickly emerged as the anchor of Cleveland's successful bullpen—not to take anything away from left-hander Tony Sipp, who has also done a commendable job.
The 26-year-old out of Cal State Fullerton uses his deceptive arm angle and above-average stuff to dispose of hitters.
His fastball usually sits low to mid 90’s, which is typical at the major league level, but it’s the movement on Pestano’s ball that separates him from others.
Pestano has late life on his fastball—sometimes it flashes late and jumps—and other times it has wicked tail and sink into right-handed hitters.
Given his experience in the closer’s role at Fullerton and in the minors, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see this bulldog closing down the road.
Current MLB line: 21 IP - 1.29 ERA - 27 K’s - 0.90 WHIP - .153 BAA - 6 Holds
4. Sergio Romo, Giants
Known as one of the team’s “Beards,” Romo gained notoriety during the Giants’ World Series run last season.
After making his debut late in 2008 at the age of 25, Romo has gradually climbed his way up the bullpen ladder and into the setup role for closer Brian Wilson, earning 21 holds in 2010.
The 28-year-old doesn’t blow anyone away with his velocity, but he works ahead, throws strikes and is very deceptive with his motion.
Romo’s best pitch is a frisbee slider that he uses from a couple different arm angles, and it's deadly on right-handed hitters.
In 147.1 career Major League innings, Romo has fanned 172 batters and held his opponents to a .190 average.
If Brian Wilson were to ever get hurt again, I’d imagine Bochy would hand the ball off to Romo to shut the door. Must be nice to have that type of insurance on your closer.
Current MLB Line: 18.1 IP - 2.45 ERA - 29 K’s - 0.76 WHIP - .167 BAA – 8 Holds
3. Tyler Clippard, Nationals
Clippard originally came up through the Yankees system, where he made his major league debut before being traded to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo.
The 26-year-old right-hander has been an absolute steal for Washington as he continues to anchor the bullpen.
Despite starting six games with the Yankees in 2007 and two for the Nationals in 2008, Clippard was converted to a relief pitcher for the 2009 campaign.
Clippard has quickly established himself as one of the best set-up men in the game.
At 6’4”, 200-pounds, Clippard has gradually increased his velocity to where it’s consistently in the low 90’s, and in return has seen his contact percentage drop. Even though he tops out at 93, his big stride and arm action make it seem more like 96, and his awkward delivery creates even more deception.
He's got four quality pitches in his arsenal, but his bread and butter pitch, in my opinion, is that nasty circle change-up (as you can tell from his grip in the above picture). When hitters get up there with that change-up in the back of their heads, that deceptive fastball jumps on them even quicker.
In 223.1 career innings, he’s compiled 247 strikeouts and held batters to a .209 average and since 2010, he’s recorded 36 holds.
His 13 holds so far this season are good for second overall in baseball, behind Colorado's Rafael Betancourt, with 14.
Clippard reminds me quite a bit of Ryan Madson, although not quite as tall. I wouldn't be surprised to see him make the transition to closer with another club in the future, since Drew Storen is blocking his path in Washington.
Current MLB line: 34.2 IP – 2.08 ERA – 42 K’s – 0.92 WHIP - .179 BAA – 13 Holds
2. Daniel Bard, Red Sox
After being drafted late in the first round by Boston in 2006, Bard posted disastrous results in his first season as a starter in 2007, and by the end of the season was moved to the bullpen.
Remaining in the bullpen in 2008, Bard posted a 1.51 ERA and compiled 107 strikeouts in 77.2 innings of work, and he was named the Boston Red Sox 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
The 25-year-old right-hander has a smooth delivery with an effortless fastball that sits around 96, though he can dial it up to 100 every now and again. He’s got a nice biting slider mixed in with a slurve. He also has a seldom used cutter, change and two-seam fastball in his arsenal.
Bard made his MLB debut in May 2009 and has continued to dominate hitters. In 154.1 career innings of work, he’s fanned 169 batters while holding opponents to a .190 average.
Boston’s closer of the future ranked third in MLB last season with 32 holds and is two behind the league leader this season, with 11.
Keep an eye on Jonathan Papelbon, as he’s given up seven runs in his last 5.1 IP. You never know, there could be an underlying issue, such as an injury.
Current MLB line: 30.1 IP - 2.97 ERA - 30 K’s - 0.89 WHIP - .190 BAA - 11 Holds
1. Jonny Venters, Braves
After being drafted in round 30 out of junior college in 2003 by Atlanta and spending much of three seasons (2006-2008) rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Venters was barely a blip on the baseball radar.
Today, the 26-year-old possesses the most dominant sinkerball in the game.
What makes Venters so special is his versatility, meaning he’s just as dominant against right-handed hitters as he is against left-handed hitters. He can throw a four-seamer that rises and a two-seamer that has ridiculous sink, and he also possesses a breaking ball with a nice wrinkle that he can keep hitters honest with.
A lot of the top-notch sinker pitchers throw two-seam fastballs in the low 90's (varies with grip and finger pressure). But Venters’ two-seamer reaches the mid-90’s, and that extra 2-3 miles per hour with just as much sink makes a world of a difference at this level, which is why Bobby Cox nicknamed it the “super sinker” last season.
He’s great at utilizing his sinker when he needs a groundball, but he can also rack up a strikeout when the situation calls. Venters has fanned 128 batters in 118.2 innings of work and has held opponents to a ridiculous .140 average.
And more importantly, he’s earned 36 holds in 111 appearances.
Current MLB line: 35.2 IP – 0.50 ERA – 35 K’s – 0.76 WHIP - .140 BAA – 12 Holds