Relief pitchers are likely the toughest players to evaluate on a baseball team during any given season.
Standard pitching statistics come up far short in analyzing which relievers are succeeding in providing, well, relief. Wins have no correlation to a reliever’s performance and saves are only good for telling us which pitcher pitches last. That’s it. A low ERA is never negative but does not reflect how a reliever handles inherited runners.
Fan perspective and media coverage also skew how we judge relievers. A player’s reputation, “clutch” performances and playing in a big market will lead people to some false conclusion about which relievers are effective.
By looking at statistics that are more accurate in judging reliever performance, though, here are the 10 best relievers so far during the 2011 season.
Fernando Salas filled a gaping hole for the St. Louis Cardinals in the closer’s role when he took the job in May. Previous closer Ryan Franklin bled runs and cost St. Louis too many games. Beyond saves though, Salas ranks 10th amongst relievers because of his ability to keep batters off base.
Unlike closers like Jose Valverde and Brian Wilson, Salas does not make saves “interesting” nor “torturous.” Salas has a WHIP of 0.86 and has only 11 walks in 44.0 innings. While closers can often pitch themselves into and out of trouble, over the long term a WHIP and a habit of giving up walks will lead to runs, blown saves and losses.
Daniel Bard is the best reliever on the Boston Red Sox. Why the Red Sox continue to use Jonathan Papelbon as closer perhaps speaks to problems in the way that baseball teams are managed or the psychology of being a team’s closer. The sabermetric community though finds reasons supporting Bard closing for the Red Sox.
Bard has pitched more innings than Papelbon (44.0-36.2) and appeared in more games, yet has given up one-third fewer hits (24-36) and six fewer runs (11 to 17). And this is after Bard struggled in the early part of this season; he rebounded by not giving up a run in June or July (thus far).
Bastardo (left) with Catcher Carlos Ruiz
The Phillies have struggled to find health and consistency in their bullpen this season, but Antonio Bastardo has been the one constant throughout. The Philadelphia southpaw has dominated righties (.190 OBP) and lefties (.234) this season. Also, even though his strikeout rate has dropped from last season (12.54 K/9 in 2010, 10.19 K/9 in 2011), Bastardo’s walk rate as also dropped (4.34 BB/9, 3.57 BB/9).
David Robertson emerged as a viable option out of the New York Yankees' bullpen over the past couple of seasons but leaped to a new level of success this season.
Robertson has been striking out batters at an outstanding 14.12 K/9 and strands 87.5 percent of the runners he has inherited.
Most telling about his success this season is that it has come with his batting average on balls in play which has remained at roughly his career average (.325 in 2011, career .330). This likely means that Robertson’s improvement in 2011 is not attributable to a few fortunate plays but rather to improved pitching.
Robertson’s emergence means even more to the Yankees this season with Joba Chamberlain out with a serious elbow injury and 42-year-old Mariano Rivera no longer able to pitch multiple innings consistently.
The Cinderella Pittsburgh Pirates have been a great story this year, and one of the key characters to the Pirates success has been their closer, Joel Hanrahan.
After winning the job after the 2010 season, Hanrahan has improved this season by focusing more on limiting walks (3.36 BB/9 in 2010, 1.73 BB/9 in 2011) and pitching to get ground balls (GB% 42% vs. 54.5%). It's perhaps unlikely that the Pirates will continue their push towards the playoffs into August and September, but count on Hanrahan to provide effective relief for the foreseeable future.
While Padres’ closer Heath Bell gets most of the attention in the San Diego bullpen, Mike Adams has been the Padres best reliever in 2011. Assuredly this is no knock on Bell, as Adams has duplicated his stellar 2010 this season by continuing to strand inherited base runners (83.6% LOB% in 2010 vs. 85.6% in 2011) and not allow runs (1.76 ERA in 2010 vs. 1.26 ERA in 2011).
With the July 31 trade deadline approaching, Adams is a likely trade chip for the Padres and should garner plenty of interest amongst teams looking for a solid setup guy.
Craig Kimbrel (Right) with Catcher Brian McCann
Craig Kimbrel is another exhibit in how deceptive saves are as a statistic.
The Atlanta Braves’ closer has blown five saves this season yet has improved his walk rate from last season (3.75 BB/9 vs. 6.97 BB/9) and his ground ball rate (28.1% to 42.3%). Kimbrel’s blown saves seem mostly attributable to bad luck stemming from a BABIP of .309. Atlanta’s combines Kimbrel with his setup man (to be mentioned later) to form a near unbeatable setup-closer tandem.
Ranking Mariano Rivera third will cause debate both amongst people who feel this is too high and amongst those who feel that this is too low.
The “too high” people would argue that Rivera is bettered by many other relievers in stats like wins against replacement (fifth amongst relievers), strikeouts per nine innings (63rd) and xFIP (23rd).
The “too low” camp would argue that Rivera is the best reliever ever, which he probably is. This list though is about the 2011 season so far and ranking Rivera third is a reflection of the fact that he is still a topflight pitcher at age 41.
The Washington Nationals’ reliever was named to the All-Star team this season with some controversy. Many felt that there were more deserving Nats than Clippard, namely Jordan Zimmerman. Regardless, he has been one of the best relievers in all of baseball this season.
Amongst relievers, Clippard ranks third in innings pitched, 11th in strikeouts per nine innings and first overall with a 100 percent stranded runners rate. Some of his numbers are not likely to be replicated in future years, but the stats say Clippard has been as good as relievers get this season.
The second half of the Braves bullpen tag-team, Jonny Venters, has been the best reliever thus far in 2011. Venters has a WHIP under 1.00, an ERA under 1.50 and has pitched 57.1 innings thus far.
The biggest indicator of Venters’ success though has been his WAR numbers. Venters’ 2.8 wins above replacement makes him the lead WAR Warrior amongst relievers. Combining Kimbrel’s WAR number (1.8) gives the Braves an unheard of 4.6 wins better than replacement level from just their closer and setup man.