B/R MLB 300: Ranking the Top 30 Relief Pitchers of 2016
It's only appropriate that the Bleacher Report MLB 300 nears its finish with a look at the guys who finish games. It's time for the top relief pitchers of the 2016 Major League Baseball season.
Many relief pitchers are good at what they do in some way, shape or form, but we're focusing on the 30 most dominant arms of them all. Since even they're used sparingly, we're disregarding the "Workload" section we used for starting pitchers and limiting relief pitchers to 80 possible points:
- Control: 25 points
- Whiffability: 30 points
- Hittability: 25 points
Before we move on, here's a reminder that this year's B/R MLB 300 is different from past versions in a key way. Rather than use the events of 2016 to project for 2017, the focus is strictly on 2016. Think of these rankings as year-end report cards.
For more on how the scoring and ranking work, read ahead.
How They're Ranked
In order to qualify for this list, a relief pitcher needs to have made at least 40 appearances in 2016.
The scoring is based mostly on statistics and data from Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant. The numbers, plots and graphs at these sites leave few blind spots when looking at each player's performance, allowing for analytical scouting reports that cover the following:
Control: We know the average reliever walked 3.5 batters per nine innings and found the strike zone with 44.5 percent of his pitches. However, we also know these are the bare-minimum guidelines for determining what kind of control a reliever has. We're also interested in how well each reliever executes his pitches, basically meaning we'll be considering command as well as control.
Whiffability: This is where we're interested in how well each reliever misses bats. The reliever average of 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings is a guiding star, but we'll also look at swinging-strike percentages (SwStr%) in relation to the 11.1 MLB average for relievers. This is a gateway into looking more into the quality of each pitcher's stuff and how he uses it.
Hittability: Missing barrels is arguably as important as missing bats. This is where we look at how each reliever manages contact. Ground balls (45.3 average GB%) and pop-ups (9.9 IFFB%) are preferred in addition to low exit velocities (89.1 mph average). Keeping the ball in the yard (1.0 HR/9) is also a plus.
The individual scores are meant to mimic the 20-80 scouting scale while also taking sample sizes into account. Perfect scores are reserved for players who have excelled throughout the entire season. Anything else is a judgment call.
Last but not least: If any two (or more) players end up with the same score, we'll make another judgment call on the player (or players) we'd rather have.
30. Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
G: 67 IP: 68.0 K/9: 11.5 BB/9: 3.6 HR/9: 1.1 ERA: 2.51
To an extent, it's odd that Cody Allen's walk rate went backward in 2016. He's made himself prone to walks in the past by only flirting with the zone using a pattern of high fastballs and low curveballs. He eased up on that pattern this year, working more down with the former and more up with the latter. And with a 46.3 Zone%, he found the zone more. He didn't getting hitters to chase as many of his pitches, posting just a 29.9 O-Swing%, but he deserved better than the walk rate he finished with.
Allen's 11.5 K/9 didn't match last year's 12.9, but both his strikeout rate and his 14.0 SwStr% are still very good. His curveball suffered from his altered location pattern, drawing whiffs at a lower rate. But it was still one of the best swing-and-miss curveballs thrown by any reliever, and putting it in hitters' minds as a possible strike pitch opened the door for him to blow them away with his 94-95 mph heat.
Since it didn't result in fewer walks, Allen might want to rethink throwing more pitches in the strike zone. He was killed to the tune of a 94.1 mph exit velocity on pitches in the zone. His fastball bore the brunt of the damage. Moving lower with it killed the pop-up habit (15.4 IFFB%) he had in 2015. As such, his new ground-ball rate (45.6 GB%) just wasn't worth it.
Allen served up too much hard contact in 2016, a reality of him changing his approach with his fastball and curveball. But both pitches still missed plenty of bats, allowing him to limit the damage.
29. Tyler Thornburg, Milwaukee Brewers
G: 67 IP: 67.0 K/9: 12.1 BB/9: 3.4 HR/9: 0.8 ERA: 2.15
Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus has raised concerns over Tyler Thornburg's posture, a product of him being part of a Milwaukee Brewers organization that's an "over-the-top factory that has encouraged the spine-tilting." This doesn't so much affect his ability to throw strikes (44.6 Zone%) as it does his ability to throw precise strikes. He too often found the middle of the zone in 2016, especially against right-handed batters. This forced Thornburg to get by on the quality of his stuff. Speaking of...
Thornburg's rate of 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings was backed by a career-high 12.0 SwStr%. He attacked hitters with his fastball more often. And why not? It sat at 94.1 mph with some of the best rising action among relievers. It's a solid swing-and-miss fastball in its own right, and it in 2016 it set up a curveball that gained some depth and turned into a really good swing-and-miss secondary.
Not surprisingly given its velocity and rising action, Thornburg's fastball had a hand in producing a rock-solid 15.4 IFFB%. But he was hittable despite that. Batters knocked him around to the tune of 89.4 mph in exit velocity and an alarming 36.3 percent hard-hit rate. He couldn't get away with anything in the strike zone, which is where his imprecise location really hurt him.
Thornburg had a good dynamic going between the vertical action on his fastball and the downward action on his curveball, making him tough to hit. He's not a command artist, however, and he was hit harder than his low home run rate indicates.
28. Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox
G: 57 IP: 53.0 K/9: 14.1 BB/9: 5.1 HR/9: 0.7 ERA: 3.40
More than ever, living with Craig Kimbrel in 2016 meant living with walks. He doesn't play around with his pitch selection, leaning on his heater for about 70 percent of his offerings. But his fastball command is unpredictable. Although he maintained his arm slot well this year, that doesn't change the fact that his mechanics aren't very fluid. That leads to many misfires and downright non-competitive pitches, and more so this year than in years past.
On the plus side, Kimbrel still has lightning in his arm. Although both are short of their peak whiffability, his fastball and curveball remain tough to put a bat on. His fastball at 97-98 mph has explosive life, and his curveball is still a ball on a string that gets whiffs better than any other relief curveball. These weapons allow him to live on as an elite SwStr% (15.8) and strikeout artist.
Worse, Kimbrel got hurt pretty bad when he didn't miss bats. He's not as good as he used to be at keeping his fastball down. Hitters let him know how much they appreciated that by hitting it at an average of 91.2 mph. This is a big reason why his soft- and hard-hit rates were worse than usual. His career-worst 40.8 pull percentage is another red flag, as hitters are most dangerous to their pull sides.
Kimbrel still has the wicked stuff to miss bats, which keeps him out of trouble more often than not. But with poor control and a fading ability to miss barrels, he's no longer a flawless reliever.
27. David Phelps, Miami Marlins
G: 64 (5 GS) IP: 86.2 K/9: 11.8 BB/9: 4.0 HR/9: 0.6 ERA: 2.28
David Phelps' walk rate is misleading. He had no trouble finding the strike zone, posting a 47.6 Zone%. That's a benefit of having an arsenal that's over 80 percent four-seamers, two-seamers and cutters, which he can locate to both sides of the zone. The catch: While he does have a nice fluid delivery, his release point dropped over time in 2016 and dragged his walk rate along for the bumpy ride.
Phelps' strikeout rate spiked in 2016, but not because he was missing a ton of bats. His SwStr% finished at just 9.8. He's more about freezing hitters for looking strikeouts. His ability to spot his heat is the key factor there, as is the movement of said heat. His two-seamer, in particular, can look Greg Maddux-esque on a good night. His cutter isn't shabby either.
Phelps specialized in neither ground balls (46.2 GB%) nor pop-ups (7.7 IFFB%), otherwise known as the two most convenient means of limiting damage. And yet, limiting hard contact was something he did just fine with 87.5 mph exit velocity and a career-low 25.8 percent hard-hit rate. While it's not difficult to hit his stuff, putting the barrel on it is another issue.
An oblique injury and a few spot starts helped hide Phelps among fellow dominant relievers. But make no mistake, his good command and arsenal of moving hard stuff made him a tough matchup.
26. Sam Dyson, Texas Rangers
G: 73 IP: 70.1 K/9: 7.0 BB/9: 2.9 HR/9: 0.6 ERA: 2.43
It's not by accident that Sam Dyson walked fewer batters than the average reliever. Everything flows from an uncomplicated, low-effort delivery that he repeats well. Not surprisingly, he was an aggressive strike thrower with a 47.6 Zone%. He threw the right kind of strikes, too, keeping his sinker and his other weapons at and below the knees. Given that, even his low walk rate doesn't do him justice.
Dyson has the arsenal of a swing-and-miss pitcher, packing mid-90s heat and throwing both a slider and a changeup. But neither his strikeout rate nor his 8.3 SwStr% make the grade. Despite the fact his slider has elite glove-side run, neither it nor his changeup performed well as a swing-and-miss pitch. One of his fundamental problems was getting hitters to expand the strike zone, as his O-Swing% fell from 35.1 to 29.3.
It may be possible to make contact against Dyson's pitches, but that contact mostly just kills worms. His sinker and changeup in particular are excellent ground-ball pitches, leading to an overall 65.2 GB% that ranked with the best of the best among relievers. He also rocked a 15.6 IFFB%. The catch is that he didn't stifle hard contact like he did in 2015, allowing average exit velocity of 90.1 mph.
The book on Dyson got around in 2016, allowing hitters to erase some of the dominance he enjoyed last year. However, hard-throwing relievers with good command who get ground balls and pop-ups are always going to get it done.
25. Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
G: 79 IP: 80.1 K/9: 11.4 BB/9: 3.4 HR/9: 1.0 ERA: 2.58
It's a small miracle that Hector Neris posted not only a low walk rate, but a 46.1 Zone% as well. Over half his pitches in 2016 were split-finger fastballs, many of which dipped below the zone. He got away with this because he set those up well with the fastballs he did use, putting them in hittable areas up in the zone. Thanks to that, he got hitters to chase nearly half the splitters (46.0 O-Swing%) he put outside the zone. Bottom line: He knows what he's doing.
Neris' strikeout rate is backed up by one of the highest SwStr% rates of any reliever at 15.4. It helps to have heat that sits at 94.1 mph, but this was all about the splitter. Neris threw it a ton, and it got more than its share of whiffs. His location patterns played into that, but it's the kind of pitch that doesn't need to be perfectly located to miss bats. Like a Koji Uehara splitter, it seems to stop in its tracks and fade just as it's reaching the hitting zone.
Neris should get pop-ups from his fastball and ground balls from his splitter. But, he finished with modest ground-ball (41.9 GB%) and pop-up (9.4 IFFB%) rates. His exit velocity was an unspectacular 89.7 mph, and his soft-hit (17.1 percent) and hard-hit (29.0 percent) rates were equally unspectacular. The takeaway, as it usually is, is that guys who only play around with the zone are prone to getting hurt when they miss.
Neris got a lot of mileage out of his extreme splitter usage in 2016, mainly using it to miss plenty of bats. If he can one day find better command, he may also be able to miss barrels.
24. Derek Law, San Francisco Giants
G: 61 IP: 55.0 K/9: 8.2 BB/9: 1.5 HR/9: 0.5 ERA: 2.13
Derek Law's delivery is straight out of a gag reel of funky reliever deliveries, but he's consistent with his release point anyway. That helped him find the strike zone frequently with a 47.5 Zone%. He can also move his fastball all around the zone to keep hitters on their toes, and he can also spot the arm-side corner at the knees with his slider. Pretty good for a guy with a cartoon delivery.
Law is just an OK strikeout pitcher in part because he lacks a signature pitch. He throws a slider, a curveball and an occasional changeup, none of which is the sort of overpowering secondary offer possessed by the top swing-and-miss relievers. His fastball, which sits at 92.8 mph, is another non-overpowering pitch. What he got by on in 2016 is more the combination of these pitches, using different speeds and varying spins to manage a passable 10.3 SwStr%.
Law's everything-but-the-kitchen sink arsenal was better for missing barrels than missing bats. The only pitch that didn't get ground balls was his curveball, which made up for that by getting pop-ups. Thus, his 50.3 GB% and 11.6 IFFB%. He needed these things, as his 89.1 mph exit velocity and 31.6 hard-hit percentage are good reflections of how he's not great at stifling loud contact.
I sense that this rookie succeeded in part due to an incomplete scouting book on him. However, his funky delivery and diverse repertoire won't make that scouting book easy to write.
23. Kyle Barraclough, Miami Marlins
G: 75 IP: 72.2 K/9: 14.0 BB/9: 5.5 HR/9: 0.1 ERA: 2.85
Kyle Barraclough's control issues stemmed partially from his pitch selection. He split his fastball and slider usage almost in half. The latter is not a pitch he threw for strikes, putting more pressure on him to locate his fastball well. He wasn't great at that, finding the zone with barely more than 50 percent of his heaters. This points to another issue: His delivery isn't easy to repeat. It has great torque, but he throws across his body without great balance.
Barraclough's strikeout rate slightly overstates how tough he is to hit. His SwStr% finished in the good-not-great range at 13.8 percent. Still, there's no doubting the quality of his stuff. His fastball sits at 95-96 mph, and his slider has good two-plane break that made it one of the better swing-and-miss sliders out there. He'll also drop an occasional changeup that, while not great, is a solid show-me pitch.
The garden-variety four-seam fastball is good for getting pop-ups. Barraclough's is good for getting ground balls instead, leading to his solid 52.1 GB%. He also finished with better than average 87.8 mph exit velocity. And where many pitchers specialize in good exit velocity by getting hitters to chase their pitches, Barraclough has good enough stuff (and enough funky deception) to stifle exit velocity within the zone. He was also incredibly tough to pull this season, allowing him to further limit damage.
There's no ignoring how big a problem Barraclough has with walks. But with stuff that's good for missing both bats and barrels, he had what he needed to downplay that problem.
22. Will Harris, Houston Astros
G: 66 IP: 64.0 K/9: 9.7 BB/9: 2.1 HR/9: 0.4 ERA: 2.25
With an arm slot that's not very consistent, Will Harris hits the strike zone less often than he used to. However, he doesn't need to fill up the zone to get strikes. He works off a cutter that he spots on both sides of the plate and a curve he buries below the knees. This forces hitters to expand the zone, and his career-best 33.8 O-Swing% speaks to his success getting them to do that in 2016.
This was a good swing-and-miss year for Harris. Beyond his strikeout rate, he posted a career-best 13.2 SwStr%. The key was going to his curveball more often. It's a pitch with solid two-plane break that, while not elite, is as consistent as they come with its ability to draw whiffs. With better-than-ever velocity at 92-93 mph, Harris' cutter isn't too shabby in its own right.
Between the movement of each pitch and the way he locates them just out of reach, Harris emerged as an elite ground-ball artist with a 58.0 GB%. But that only served to minimize the effect of his struggle with hard contact. He got touched up to the tune of 90.4 mph in exit velocity, with the main problem being that he just couldn't overpower hitters within the zone.
Harris comes from the Mark Melancon school of relief pitching: kill 'em with cutters, curveballs and good command. And he's not much worse than Melancon is at pulling it off.
21. Ken Giles, Houston Astros
G: 69 IP: 65.2 K/9: 14.0 BB/9: 3.4 HR/9: 1.1 ERA: 4.11
Ken Giles is prone to shaky fastball command due to a delivery that's not entirely fluid. And this year, he chose to go heavy on the sliders. It's no wonder his Zone% declined from 46.0 to 42.1. But credit where it's due, he got most of his control struggles out of the way early on. He was more consistent with his release point starting in June, with one benefit being more strikes via a 42.8 O-Swing%.
Giles was not only one of the top strikeout artists among relief pitchers, but one of the best swing-and-miss artists as well with an absurd 19.9 SwStr%. Despite the fact he throws in the upper 90s, this had little to do with his fastball. It had everything to do with his slider. It has wicked late bite that tricks many hitters into going fishing. True of many sliders, to be sure, but none gets whiffs like this one.
It's pretty much impossible to hit Giles' slider, which held hitters to an .093 batting average. His fastball, on the other hand, wa very hittable. It's hard, but it's also straight. That makes it easy for hitters to get under it, and they averaged 91.5 mph in exit velocity off of it. He had neither the ground-ball (39.6 GB%) nor the pop-up (9.1 IFFB%) rate to make up for that.
Giles' 4.11 ERA doesn't capture how good he was after a rough first month, much less how difficult it is to make contact against him. However, any contact against him did tend to be good contact.
20. Dan Otero, Cleveland Indians
G: 62 IP: 70.2 K/9: 7.3 BB/9: 1.3 HR/9: 0.3 ERA: 1.53
With a career 1.4 BB/9, not walking guys is Dan Otero's thing. He has a nice, fluid delivery that he can repeat. He doesn't fill up the strike zone despite that, posting just a 43.7 Zone% this season. Otero's thing is to use his bread-and-butter sinker to toy with the arm-side corner of the zone. Some pitches catch the corner. Others get hitters to chase (38.3 O-Swing%). Either way, strikes happen.
Swings and misses, on the other hand, are not what Otero is after. His sinker accounted for almost 80 percent of his pitches in 2016. With velocity that sits in the low 90s, it's not the kind of pitch that'll blow anyone away. His best swing-and-miss offering, such as it is, is his slider. But it's not good enough to boost his SwStr% (7.5) or his strikeout rate.
This is how Otero beats hitters. His sinker's movement and location pattern were very successful in getting hitters to hit ground balls for a 62.3 GB%, one of the highest marks among relievers. These weren't sharply hit ground balls either. Otero finished among the leaders at limiting hard contact. And at an average of 87.8 mph, he didn't allow much exit velocity either.
Otero isn't an exciting reliever due to his lack of exciting stuff. But there's no denying his effectiveness. He comes in and throws strikes and stifles loud contact, leading to a well-deserved 1.53 ERA.
19. Alex Colome, Tampa Bay Rays
G: 57 IP: 56.2 K/9: 11.3 BB/9: 2.4 HR/9: 1.0 ERA: 1.91
Alex Colome struggled with his control as he was coming up through the minors. Now he has a higher release point that he's consistent with. This allows for improved fastball command to both sides of the plate. He's also become a master at toying with the glove-side corner with his cutter, causing hitters to dramatically increase the rate at which they go fishing. Between his 43.9 Zone% and 34.4 O-Swing%, he got plenty of strikes in 2016.
Colome finished with a high strikeout rate and a 15.1 SwStr% to back it up. His four-seamer is a good one with velocity in the mid-90s, but his cutter is the star of the show. It can be a true cutter with late, sharp arm-side run just as it's entering the hitting zone, and it can also look like a traditional slider. Between that and his location pattern with the pitch, it's not surprising that it got whiffs as well as any other relief cutter.
Also not surprising is how Colome's cutter was really good at securing ground balls. It's the top reason he finished with a career-high 47.1 GB%. His four-seamer was more hittable, getting knocked around at an average of 91.6 mph and a .473 slugging percentage. Colome also finished tied for the highest pull rate of any qualified reliever. Despite his ground ball habit, he flirted with plenty of damage.
Hittability issues aside, Colome's command and nasty cutter make him one of the more unheralded relievers in the business.
18. Brad Brach, Baltimore Orioles
G: 71 IP: 79.0 K/9: 10.5 BB/9: 2.9 HR/9: 0.8 ERA: 2.05
Brad Brach isn't normally associated with good command, but he achieved it in 2016 by being more consistent with his release point. Considering the herky-jerky nature of his mechanics, that's no small accomplishment. His reward was a higher rate of pitches in the strike zone at 41.6 percent. To boot, he did well to work lefties away and righties at the knees with his four-seamer, setting them up to provide him with a career-best 35.3 O-Swing%.
Brach's improved command didn't compromise his ability to get hitters to whiff. His strikeout rate understates that, as he finished with a career-best 14.8 SwStr%. It helped to be working with career-best fastball velocity at 94.5 mph. That helped it become a more reliable whiff pitch. His slider and changeup also got whiffs. None of the three is a truly outstanding swing-and-miss pitch, but it's not often you see a reliever with three good ones.
Brach got neither ground balls (41.5 GB%) nor pop-ups (8.2 IFFB%) as well as he got whiffs. But in general, he was tough to square up. His average exit velocity finished at 87.9 mph, easily better than the MLB norm. He got a good amount of soft contact on swings outside the zone, but it's a testament to his deceptiveness that he was also good at slowing exit velocity within the zone. This makes it easier to swallow how easy it was to pull the ball against him.
Brach's stuff and funky delivery always gave him a good reliever profile. Turns out all he needed was some command. Rough second half aside, he did become a better pitcher in 2016.
17. Addison Reed, New York Mets
G: 80 IP: 77.2 K/9: 10.6 BB/9: 1.5 HR/9: 0.5 ERA: 1.97
Addison Reed found his stride after a mechanical tweak late last season. This year, yet another tweak took his release point higher than ever. This resulted in much-improved fastball command, as his 67.0 Zone% with his heater is easily the highest of his career. Because fastballs account for over 70 percent of his pitches, he found the zone more than every qualified reliever not named Kenley Jansen.
Predictably, Reed's frequent visits to the strike zone made it easier to get ahead of hitters and force them to expand the zone. His O-Swing% went from 25.5 to 31.7. This benefited his slider, which was back to being a reliable swing-and-miss offering. Neither his slider nor his fastball qualifies as elite at getting whiffs, however. Hence his good-not-great 11.7 SwStr%.
Lots of strikes combined with non-overpowering stuff equals more hittability than Reed's home run rate lets on. He didn't get ground balls (39.5 GB%) or pop-ups (5.4 IFFB%), and posted average exit velocity of 89.8 mph. His one quality was how tough he made it to pull the ball with just a 31.5 Pull%. Hitters could hit him, but they generally had to do damage the hard way.
Reed has adjusted his mechanics and found new life as a premiere strike-thrower who, while not quite as untouchable as his 1.97 ERA suggests, certainly wasn't easy to hit.
16. Matt Bush, Texas Rangers
G: 58 IP: 61.2 K/9: 8.9 BB/9: 2.0 HR/9: 0.6 ERA: 2.48
It's not just Matt Bush's walk rate that proves he had no trouble throwing strikes as a 30-year-old rookie. He also rocked a 49.0 Zone%. He made it easy on himself by throwing nearly 70 percent fastballs. He also didn't complicate things with his location patterns. He liked to challenge hitters around the middle with his fastball. Not a bad idea, and a good way to tunnel his slider and curveball.
Neither Bush's 8.9 K/9 nor his 13.1 SwStr% are eye-popping by relief pitcher standards, but they are indeed pretty good for a guy who conducts so much business in the strike zone. The quality of his fastball is to thank for that. It sits at 97 mph and can climb even higher, and with decent vertical action to boot. That allowed for a double-digit whiff rate on it in 2016, a mark that his slider and curve also hit.
Although Bush stays low in the zone, his reliance on his four-seam fastball made it easy to get under the ball against him. But in helping to induce a 15.1 IFFB%, his fastball also made it hard not to get too under the ball. That and the sheer electricity of his stuff allowed him to stifle hard contact even within the zone, leading to 86.3 mph exit velocity and an impressive 23.4 soft-hit percentage.
A life as a dominant reliever isn't what Bush had in mind when he was a young shortstop who went No. 1 overall in the 2004 draft. But after all he's been through, that he has a major league career at all is something he's no doubt thankful for.
15. Pedro Strop, Chicago Cubs
G: 54 IP: 47.1 K/9: 11.4 BB/9: 2.9 HR/9: 0.8 ERA: 2.85
The way Pedro Strop has gotten better at limiting walks over time corresponds with how much more consistent he's gotten with his arm slot. And this year, he did it despite throwing more sliders than fastballs. His fastball command isn't great; it's more in the line of "just find the zone" than "locate within the zone." But that's good enough to set up his slider, which was money at drawing swings outside of the zone. With just a 40.7 Zone%, his 35.7 O-Swing% was a saving grace.
Strop excelled not only at getting strikeouts, but at drawing whiffs with a 16.3 SwStr%. Being able to sit in the mid-90s with his heat helps. But to repeat a familiar refrain, it's all about his slider. It has good tight break and, coming in around the mid-80s, solid velocity differential from his fastball. Thus, it's one of the best at missing bats.
Strop's two primary pitches are his sinker and slider, both of which got ground balls better than half the time they were put in play. That's how he finished with a 58.5 GB%. That figure helps alleviate some of the concern over his 89.6 mph exit velocity being nothing special, although it also helps that he finished with a solid 21.3 Soft% and 24.1 Hard% even despite his less-than-stellar exit velo.
He's the less heralded part of the trade that brought Jake Arrieta to Chicago, but Strop continues to be a dominant reliever for the Cubs. All it's required is better control of his excellent fastball-slider combo.
14. Nate Jones, Chicago White Sox
G: 71 IP: 70.2 K/9: 10.2 BB/9: 1.9 HR/9: 0.9 ERA: 2.29
Nate Jones has a funky delivery that he's not perfect at repeating. He throws strikes anyway, posting a 46.9 Zone%. He hit the zone with his two-seamer more than usual in 2016, working away from both lefties and righties. That made it that much easier for him to get hitters to chase his slider, which he consistently buried off the glove-side corner to help boost his O-Swing% to a career-high 35.5.
Jones throws his sinker at 96-97 mph, but it's more for missing barrels than missing bats. As it is decreed for most relievers by the Great Fireman Bible, the big swing-and-miss pitch in Jones' arsenal is his slider. It doesn't have the devastating movement of a Ken Giles or a Pedro Strop slider, but it does have sharp late action. That's enough to make it one of the better swing-and-miss sliders. His 10.2 K/9 rate is good, but his 14.3 SwStr% is even better.
You'd think a sinker/slider guy would specialize in getting ground balls. Not Jones, who finished with a modest 45.9 GB%. He also wasn't a big exit velocity guy, holding hitters to just 91.1 mph on average. There's a pretty good 21.1 soft-hit percentage hiding underneath that, however, and Jones also saved face with a 14.0 IFFB%. His hittability was a mixed bag, but that's better than a negative.
That we're singing Jones' praises at all is a cool story after Tommy John surgery sidelined him for most of 2014 and 2015. He reminded us what he can do with his strong command and power stuff.
13. Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals
G: 72 IP: 72.0 K/9: 10.8 BB/9: 1.5 HR/9: 0.8 ERA: 2.75
Kelvin Herrera finished with by far the best full-season walk rate of his career. He maintained a mostly consistent release point for a chance. He also trusted his four-seamer more and found more consistency around the arm-side edge with it. He not only threw strikes with a 46.4 Zone%, but also continued to make hitters expand the zone with a 35.7 O-Swing%.
Normally one of the hardest-throwing relievers in MLB, Herrera's fastball actually lost some zip in 2016. It "only" sat at 97.1 mph instead of at 98-99. But its whiff rate didn't suffer too much despite that, and Herrera's overall SwStr% finished at a career-high 15.2. Whereas his fastball was good at getting swinging strikes, his changeup and slider were great at getting them.
Herrera has nasty stuff, but it's better at missing bats than missing barrels. He no longer gets ground balls (44.2 GB%) or pop-ups (8.3 IFFB%) like he used to, and his exit velocity was merely average at 89.1 mph. That would have been a lot worse without the extra swings outside the zone that he got, because it wasn't so tough to hurt him within the zone.
Herrera still has the lethal power stuff you want a late-inning reliever to have. The difference this year was that he threw more strikes, allowing him to get even better as a strikeout artist.
12. Mark Melancon, Washington Nationals
G: 75 IP: 71.1 K/9: 8.2 BB/9: 1.5 HR/9: 0.4 ERA: 1.64
Mark Melancon doesn't walk guys because he has a nice, smooth delivery that he repeats fairly well. And yet, he's also a guy who doesn't specialize in filling up the strike zone. He posted just a 42.8 Zone% in 2016. What he does instead is toy with hitters using his cutter, playing with the glove-side edge against lefties and both edges against righties. This results in a nice mix of actual strikes and strikes earned on swings outside the zone, as reflected by his 35.6 O-Swing%.
Melancon was a pretty good whiff artist back in 2013 and 2014, but hitters have since gotten better at laying off and making contact with his curveball. It's still a strong secondary pitch, however, boasting elite downward action that makes it all but impossible to touch when Melancon gets it down. Without that, Melancon wouldn't have managed a solid 11.0 SwStr%.
Hitters make enough contact against Melancon, but his command of his very good cutter-curveball combination makes him tough to square up. He continued to get ground balls with a 54.2 GB%. He also limited loud contact, posting 85.5 mph exit velocity that put him among the best of the best. Hidden in there is one of the best soft-hit rates of any reliever at 30.2 percent.
Melancon isn't overpowering, but he's awfully deceptive with an arsenal that earns him enough whiffs and more than enough quiet contact.
11. Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays
G: 72 IP: 74.0 K/9: 10.0 BB/9: 1.7 HR/9: 1.1 ERA: 2.68
Roberto Osuna limited walks the old-fashioned way: by throwing lots of strikes with a 48.7 Zone%. His delivery has a fair number of moving parts, but it helps that he leans heavily on his fastball without worrying about being too precise with it. He aims to hit the zone, and that's about it. That works to set up his slider, which he's good at burying below the knees around the glove-side corner.
Osuna took the next step as a whiff artist in 2016, boosting his K/9 rate with a 15.1 SwStr%. Having a fastball that sits 95-96 mph with good rising action never hurts where swings and misses are concerned. What helps more is putting more trust in a wicked slider that's one of the best at missing bats. His location pattern is a factor with that. So is its sharp, late movement.
If Osuna didn't strike a batter out, there was a good chance he'd get him to hit a pop up. He finshed among the elites with a 20.5 IFFB%, primarily through the use of high fastballs. He could be hit hard despite that, however, averaging 89.3 mph in exit velocity with a 37.0 hard-hit percentage. In a related story, hanging sliders are a real pain in the you-know-what.
Osuna built on his breakthrough 2015 season in 2016, establishing better control and missing more bats. He doesn't get enough credit for being one of the best relief aces in the sport.
10. Seung Hwan Oh, St. Louis Cardinals
G: 76 IP: 79.2 K/9: 11.6 BB/9: 2.0 HR/9: 0.6 ERA: 1.92
Seung Hwan Oh's delivery, in which he seems to jump at the hitter, is one that he repeats better than you'd expect. And he showed in 2016 that he can get strikes in two ways: with a 43.9 Zone% and a 36.6 O-Swing%. It's all part of a typical design: Locate fastballs in the zone and get hitters to chase off-speed. The former is key, as he was good not just at putting his heat in the zone, but spotting it away from lefties and righties.
Between his strikeout rate and his superb 18.0 SwStr%, Oh's ability to miss bats translated very well to his new surroundings. He doesn't have overpowering velocity, sitting in the 92-93 mph range. But that didn't bar him from getting whiffs on his fastball, which played up thanks to his deceptive delivery. He also had a very strong swing-and-miss slider and a solid changeup as well.
Oh was better at missing bats than at missing barrels. He specialized in neither ground balls (40.0 GB%) nor that much in pop-ups (10.7 IFFB%). He was also prone to hard contact in most of the strike zone. His ability to get hitters to chase allowed him to downplay that, but only to the extent that he averaged just 89.2 mph in exit velo with a 34.2 hard-hit rate on the side.
"The Final Boss," indeed. Oh may not light up radar guns, but he throws strikes and misses a ton of bats with his mix of good stuff and deception.
9. Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals
G: 45 IP: 43.1 K/9: 9.8 BB/9: 3.3 HR/9: 0.0 ERA: 1.87
Free passes usually aren't as big of an issue for Wade Davis. He didn't have any notable trouble with his release point, nor did he switch up his pitch selection. The key difference was how he used his cutter less for strikes and more as a chase pitch off the glove-side corner. Since hitters hung steady with a 29.0 O-Swing%, that didn't have the desired effect. But if nothing else, Davis still prefered challenge time all the time with his fastball.
Without as many strikes or a higher chase rate, it's no wonder Davis "only" struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings. The fact that his SwStr% finished at an A-OK 13.1, however, reflects how his stuff is still terrific. He worked at 94.9 mph with his fastball and 91.8 mph with his cutter with a nasty curveball on the side. All three pitches managed double-digit whiff rates. His cutter is one of the best for whiffs, and is still a looker.
This was the second year out of three that Davis didn't allow a ball to go over the fence. He held hitters to 86.5 mph in exit velocity and was once again among the leaders in soft (26.4) and hard (22.7) contact rates. He also got both ground balls (48.6 GB%) and pop-ups (11.1 IFFB%). Every which way you slice it, he's an extremely tough pitcher to hit well.
Davis wasn't as absurdly dominant in 2016 as he was in 2014 and 2015, in part thanks to issues with his control. But he was still throwing pitches that look like special effects, and they still worked.
8. Luke Gregerson, Houston Astros
G: 59 IP: 57.2 K/9: 10.5 BB/9: 2.8 HR/9: 0.8 ERA: 3.28
Low walk rates are part of the Luke Gregerson experience even despite the fact he doesn't pound the strike zone or maintain a consistent release point. No matter what happens, he remains a master at playing with the arm-side corner with his sinker and the glove-side corner with his slider. This allows him to be elite at getting hitters to expand the zone. That's not an easy way to get strikes, but he pursues it as well as anyone.
Gregerson may not have finished with the highest strikeout rate, but he did finish with the highest SwStr% of any reliever at 20.1. This is partially owed to the rate at which he gets hitters to go fishing. But this is also another year to urge appreciation of Gregerson's slider. It's not known as one of the best swing-and-miss pitches in baseball, but that's precisely what it is. Looks cool, too.
All those swings at sinkers and sliders outside the zone? Yup, that'll get you ground balls. With a 60 GB%, Gregerson got plenty of those. At 24.5 percent, he also had one of his best soft-hit rates. However, he's not perfect. Gregerson did make mistakes, and they got crushed. This year, that meant a just-OK average of 88.3 mph in exit velocity and one of his worst ever hard-hit rates at 28.0 percent. And because he doesn't throw hard, his 43.4 Pull% is just the latest in a long-standing bad trend.
Gregerson has quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball for a while now. So it went in 2016, as he was still throwing strikes, missing bats and getting lots of ground balls.
7. Edwin Diaz, Seattle Mariners
G: 49 IP: 51.2 K/9: 15.3 BB/9: 2.6 HR/9: 0.9 ERA: 2.79
Edwin Diaz doesn't have a very fluid delivery to home plate, and his arm slot dropped as he got more exposure in his rookie season. But with a 47.5 Zone%, he found the strike zone at a good rate anyway. One thing that sets him apart is his command of his slider, which he didn't start using as a chase pitch below the knees until toward the end of the year. He's spent the bulk of his rookie season throwing both fastballs and sliders for strikes.
Diaz posted not only one of the highest strikeout rates among relievers, but an 18.5 SwStr% that was also elite. He was perfectly capable of blowing hitters away in the strike zone with his 97-98 mph heat. Then there's his slider, which was among the best swing-and-miss sliders thrown by any reliever. With mid-to-high 80s velocity and sharp break, it certainly looks the part of an elite swing-and-miss slider.
Here's the problem with Diaz's fastball: It's hard, but also straight. As the .292 average and five homers against it vouch, it could be hit. Despite that, it wasn't easy to square up Diaz in general. His fastball got its share of pop-ups, leading to an 11.8 IFFB%. And at 88.0 mph, the contact off him didn't tend to be too loud.
Diaz isn't a flawless reliever. But with a big fastball and an even bigger slider, he fills the most basic job description of a shutdown reliever: strike hitters out.
6. Jeurys Familia, New York Mets
G: 78 IP: 77.2 K/9: 9.7 BB/9: 3.6 HR/9: 0.1 ERA: 2.55
Jeurys Familia wasn't good at limiting walks and, surprise, not that good at finding the strike zone with just a 42.1 Zone%. It's not because he's bad at repeating his delivery. He's actually good at that. What holds him back is the sheer movement on his pitches. His sinker and slider, in particular, are difficult pitches to throw strikes with, so he needs batters to help him out by expanding the zone. It's a good thing they usually did in 2016. His 38.4 O-Swing% was an elite mark.
Familia deserved better than the modest strikeout rate he finished with, as his 14.9 SwStr% wa well above average. His sinker did a good amount of the heavy lifting, sitting at 96.2 mph with wicked movement that occasionally made it look like he was throwing splitters. Next to that, he also throws one of the best swing-and-miss sliders around. That gives him two elite weapons, and he can also get batters with an occasional four-seamer or splitter.
Lots of movement combined with few strikes makes for a tough pitcher to square up. Familia not only finished with a 63.3 GB%, but average exit velocity of 86.2 mph as well. He also led all qualified relievers in soft contact at 31.7 percent, and was also among the hard contact leaders. He also made it tough to pull the ball, allowing just a 33.7 Pull%. Every which way, he was extremely tough to hit.
Familia might have the nastiest arsenal of pitches of any reliever, and it serves him well missing both bats and barrels. Heaven forbid he ever start throwing strikes more consistently.
5. Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
G: 73 IP: 73.0 K/9: 15.5 BB/9: 3.5 HR/9: 0.6 ERA: 3.08
Since emerging as a dominant force in 2014, 2016 was the worst Dellin Betances has been at finding the strike zone. But that had more to do with his breaking ball eclipsing his fastball as his primary pitch than anything else. He actually maintained very good command of his breaking ball, consistently spotting it right around the knees. That played well in contrast to his high fastballs. However, his 5.6 BB/9 rate in the second half does reflect how his control deteriorated as his arm slot sagged.
You're looking at the guy with the highest K/9 rate among all relievers. You're also looking at the 2016 king of spin rate. That comes from a four-seam fastball that's 97-98 mph with explosive late action, making for a terrific swing-and-miss heater. His curveball, meanwhile, has outstanding glove-side run and is even better at drawing whiffs. Looks sweet, too. And because Betances can also freeze hitters with these weapons, even his 15.4 SwStr% does indeed understate how dominant he was in 2016.
Both of Betances' primary pitches can get ground balls and pop-ups, leading to a 53.9 GB% and a 15.8 IFFB%. It's also no surprise that he gave up an average of just 86.9 mph in exit velocity. He also collected a 25.7 soft-hit percentage. One flaw is that he was not unhittable within the zone. Another is a 41.7 Pull% that was higher than he's used to.
Betances has one of the best fastballs and one of the best curveballs and an idea of what he's doing with both. Don't read too much into his 3.08 ERA, as 2016 was another dominant season for the big right-hander.
4. Aroldis Chapman, Chicago Cubs
G: 59 IP: 58.0 K/9: 14.0 BB/9: 2.8 HR/9: 0.3 ERA: 1.55
Aroldis Chapman didn't finish with the lowest walk rate of his career by accident. The sheer violence with which he delivers the ball has led to inconsistent release points in the past. Not this year, and that allowed him to fill up the strike zone at the same rate as the elites with a 52.3 Zone%. It didn't hurt that 80 percent of his pitches were fastballs. After getting away from his fastball a bit in 2014 and 2015, he apparently remembered just how amazing it is.
Chapman maintained fastball velocity in the triple digits and, with it, an elite swing-and-miss rate on his heater. His slider was also elite at missing bats. However, both his 14.0 K/9 rate and his 18.6 SwStr% were just OK by his standards. This is the downside of his improved control. He increased his rate of pitches in the zone, but his rate of contact within the zone (69.2 Z-Contact%) went up with it.
Chapman's fastball has some vertical movement in addition to its lethal velocity, making it good for feeding a 12.1 IFFB%. And for the most part, it makes it very hard to square up any time he puts it above the knees. That was the driving force behind his solid exit velocity of 88.3 mph. And with a 33.0 Pull%, he made it tough to get out in front. It's no wonder he served up only two home runs all year.
Chapman is proof that throwing almost nothing but triple-digit heat is good business in the relief pitching racket—you know, just in case anyone needed further proof of that.
3. Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
G: 69 IP: 67.0 K/9: 9.9 BB/9: 2.4 HR/9: 0.1 ERA: 0.54
Zach Britton rarely threw the ball in the strike zone, posting just a 38.6 Zone%. But that obviously wasn't a recipe for disaster. All he had to do was spot his sinker somewhere around the knees, and he would either get a low strike or get the hitter to expand (37.0 O-Swing%). He could keep that up all year because he was consistent with his delivery, repeating his arm slot better than ever.
At 17.2, Britton finished with one of the top SwStr% rates among all relievers. The fact that he could do that while throwing his sinker over 90 percent of the time proves just how good it is. It has overpowering velocity at 96-97 mph, as well as the kind of sharp, late movement that makes it the stuff of GIFs. It was the best swing-and-miss sinker thrown by a reliever by a long shot. And when he did throw a curveball, it also got the job done.
You may be surprised to hear Britton wasn't that great at stifling exit velocity. At 91.7 mph, his was worse than average by plenty. But whatever. His sinker earned him a categorically absurd GB% of 80.0, and he was elite both at collecting soft contact and limiting hard contact. Check and mate.
Britton probably won't win the American League Cy Young, but he's about as good as they say he is. He can throw strikes, miss bats and, most of all, limit the damage when the ball is put in play.
2. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
G: 71 IP: 68.2 K/9: 13.6 BB/9: 1.4 HR/9: 0.5 ERA: 1.83
Two things made Kenley Jansen's walk rate possible. One is a very clean set of mechanics that make it easy to maintain a consistent arm slot. Another is the fact that over 90 percent of his pitches are fastballs. It's no wonder he pounded the strike zone more than any other reliever with a 53.2 Zone%. And with his bread-and-butter cutter, he claimed ownership of the arm-side edge of the zone.
Jansen's whiffability is about as predictable as his pitch selection, as he's been rocking 13-plus strikeouts per nine innings and a 16-plus SwStr% rates like clockwork over the last three years. As easy as it is to predict he'll throw a cutter, it's a lot like Mariano Rivera's cutter: Even though hitters know it's coming, they can't hit it. Who can blame them? I mean, just look at this thing.
With just a 30.0 GB%, it once again wasn't hard to get under Jansen's cutter. But that was the extent of the bright side for opposing hitters. It was easy to get too under it, as he helped himself to a 15.5 IFFB%. He also averaged just 87 mph on batted balls, with much of that quiet contact coming within the strike zone. That was his cutter at work.
The Rivera comp is at once way too easy and entirely valid for Jansen. He has good command of a nasty cutter, and it brings him plenty of whiffs and quiet contact.
1. Andrew Miller, Cleveland Indians
G: 70 IP: 74.1 K/9: 14.9 BB/9: 1.1 HR/9: 1.0 ERA: 1.45
Andrew Miller sent his walk rate further south than it had ever been even despite the fact that three out of every five pitches were sliders. He's more consistent with his release point than he used to be, and an ongoing benefit of that is better fastball command. Elsewhere, hitters just can't lay off his slider. He rarely throws it in the zone, but it doesn't matter. It's the primary reason he's as good as any reliever at getting hitters to expand. Between his 46.8 Zone% and 40.5 O-Swing%, he earned lots of strikes.
You're going to look one up anyway, so here's a link to Miller's slider making a hitter take a silly swing. It does indeed have that kind of spin. And while it actually didn't have an elite swing-and-miss rate, it had a very good one that was amplified by how often he threw it. That's the No. 1 reason he finished with an elite 16.4 SwStr%, not to mention an outstanding strikeout rate.
Sliders are good at getting ground balls, so it's not surprising that Miller's excessive slider usage helped result in a 54.3 GB%. He also managed very good exit velocity at 87.7 mph. And even more so than usual, he limited hard contact with just a 23.4 hard-hit rate. All he had to do to avoid loud contact was keep the ball down, which he did extremely well.
Miller probably has the best slider in baseball, and this season we saw what he's capable of when he feels like unleashing it again and again with good command. Behold the best relief pitcher in baseball.