Moving on with our fantasy baseball rankings today, we now take a look at some relief pitchers who likely won’t be a major factor in save only leagues, but perhaps can give you double-digit holds. I say it every year but if you don’t happen to be in any leagues where holds are counted, I highly suggest you try to find one (or convince your commissioner to add them) as you are really missing out. The league is rapidly adapting to more of a closer-by-committee approach, making these leagues more relevant than ever before. In my opinion, it makes leagues more realistic because we all know the Nick Anderson’s and Devin Williams’s of the league are typically considered “better real life than fantasy” players.
My personal strategy when it comes to holds, especially at draft time, is to put a priority on the high-upside relievers over the safer, floor types. In reality, “safe” and “reliever” are like oil and water anyway. I’ll take a chance on someone who has shown an ability to miss bats at a high rate early on in the season and adjust as the year goes on. You may notice some names missing, but anyone who is competing for a rotation spot or expected to open the season on the injury list was left off for the time being. With that being said, let’s get to the rankings.
NOTE: All ADP’s mentioned are based on NFBC data from 01/01/2021 through 02/15/2021)
This really wasn’t a hard decision, as Devin Williams was far and away the best reliever in baseball last season on his way to winning NL Rookie of the Year and Reliever of the Year honors. Williams’ dominant 2020 led him to finish as the top reliever in xWOBA (.179), Whiff% (52%), SwStr% (22.3%), K% (53%), SIERA (1.56) and xFIP (1.09), among many other stats. Williams’ go-to offering is his changeup, a pitch that had just remarkable results last year (is a 12.8 pVAL good?). He threw 227 changeups, resulting in just 2 base hits, 5 walks, and 41 strikeouts.
While it’s only a 27 IP sample size, there’s no reason to believe the changes Williams made in 2020 won’t stick. He redefined his changeup, a pitch that in 2019 had an average of 32.6 inches of vertical drop and increased that number more than 8 inches to 40.9 inches in 2020. His 8.3″ vertical movement vs. AVG and 4.7″ horizontal movement vs. AVG both were the highest amongst pitchers who threw 160 or more changeups last season. It may just be the best pitch in baseball, and one that shouldn’t be going anyway anytime soon.
Tanner Rainey has a similar profile to James Karinchak, top-notch swing and miss stuff (47.3% Whiff, 21.5% SwStr, 42.7% K rate) which comes with some control issues. Rainey was able to reel in his command last season, finishing with a walk rate under 10% for the first time in his career. And if that number sticks, the upside here is through the roof. Armed with an upper 90’s fastball and an otherworldly slider (73% Whiff rate!), Rainey is a prototypical closer in waiting. His 2.30 SIERA was also 5th lowest among all qualified relievers. Brad Hand will open the year as the Nationals closer, but don’t be shocked to see Rainey get a chance to close out games at some point next season.
Despite being in a crowded, talented bullpen, Tyler Duffey emerged with 12 holds last season, the second-most of any reliever. He also delivered in all other categories (except wins) and is making a name for himself as one of the best setup men in baseball. Duffey’s curveball became his preferred offering last season, a pitch that gets plenty of hitters to chase (38% O-Swing). Duffey, as did many pitchers in 2020, saw a dip in fastball velocity so that is something to keep an eye on to make sure it’s not a trend. He also had plenty of BABIP luck, as his .212 mark is .101 points below his career average. Duffey’s role shouldn’t change this season, nor should his production.
No. 4: Trevor Rosenthal (Free Agent)
After being arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2019, Trevor Rosenthal returned to his old Cardinal form in 2020. Rosenthal’s ability to miss bats has never gone away, but it was nice to see him drop his walk rate to 8.8% while posting a career-high 41.8% K rate. His .210 xWOBA and 2.31 SIERA were also both good for top 10 among relievers in 2020. The only concern here is durability (39 IP over the past 3 seasons) and what his role may be on his new team. Still only 30 years old, Rosenthal would be a great bullpen piece for any team regardless of role, but he has been linked mostly to teams who already have closers.
With the Blue Jays adding Kirby Yates, it unfortunately meant Jordan Romano would slot back into a setup role. Romano, similar to Devin Williams, shot onto the scene last season after a rough 2019 MLB debut. His 19.4% SwStr and 43.8% Whiff rates are certainly in the elite or near-elite category, while a 2.40 xFIP would have been good for 6th lowest, had he qualified (3 innings shy). Romano worked his fastball off of his “devastating slider“, and while he threw his slider 60% of the time, it was his fastball that was his out pitch (52.4% Whiff rate on a fastball!). All the tools are there for Romano to be a dominant reliever going forward, assuming health cooperates.
One of the first relievers to sign this offseason, Trevor May agreed to a 2 year, $15 million deal with the Mets back on December 1st. That’s looking like one of the best contracts of the winter so far, as the Mets are getting themselves a top setup man to work in front of closer Edwin Diaz. With 43% Whiff, 71.7% Z-Contact, and 32.3% K-BB rates, you may expect that May did most of his damage with his slider and changeup. It was his fastball, however, that he threw 48% of the time and which had a crazy 47% Whiff rate in 2020.
With the Adam Ottavino trade to the Red Sox, it may have finally freed up Chad Green to earn consistent hold opportunities. Green has typically been a great fantasy source for ratios and K’s, but now with only Zack Britton in front of him in the pecking order, Green may be ready to contribute with holds as well. After an up and down 2019 that saw Green “make 15 starts” as an opener, Green appeared strictly out of the bullpen last year and went back to his 2017-18 ways…almost. Green finished the season with a .221 xWOBA, and a career-high 15.2% SwStr rate. He may not have the K upside the others above him do, and he is prone to some blow-ups from time to time, but Green makes for one of the steadier relievers in holds leagues for 2021.
Equipped with an upper 90’s fastball and filthy slider, Pete Fairbanks is your prototypical late-inning reliever with plus swing and miss potential. Like Williams and Romano, 2020 was Fairbanks’ first “full” season and he did not disappoint. He finished with 16.7% SwStr, 37.7% Whiff, and 33.3% K rates while eventually working himself into a setup role behind Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo. While the arrow does seem to be pointing up for Fairbanks, it’s important to remember he’s already undergone Tommy John surgery twice (once in high school, then again in 2017-18) and the 2019 season was his first since 2016 with more than 60 innings pitched.
As much as I’d love to see Aaron Bummer (aka Zack Britton 2.0) take over as the White Sox as closer this season, he still presents great value in holds leagues setting up Liam Hendriks. Bummer is a ground ball machine, posting rates of 72.1%, 68.4% the past two seasons, but that’s not to say he can’t strike hitters out also. His 36.8% K and 35% Whiff rates last season, while likely to regress in 2021, shows he can still get K’s when needed.
Zack Britton has been a mainstay on these lists for going on seven years now, and has yet to show any signs of slowing down. Britton was fantastic for the Yankees in the first half of last season as he filled in for Aroldis Chapman, racking up 8 saves and finished the year with 11 SV+HLDs. A groundball specialist, Britton continued featuring his sinker more than 80% of the time last year, leading to a league-high 72% GB rate. A 21% K rate isn’t something to get excited about from a reliever, but it’s not like Britton can’t miss bats at a high rate. His slider, which has a usage rate under 20% since becoming a reliever, managed to have a 64.3% Whiff rate in 2020 and 61% in 2019. One wonders if Britton will continue to utilize the pitch more, given how effective it has been in small doses. Even if he doesn’t, Britton is about as safe an option as there is when it comes to holds leagues, we just can’t count on him to help with strikeouts…yet.
Blake Treinen had a nice season with the Dodgers, and earned himself a second contract with the team, but like Britton, his nasty stuff doesn’t translate into a high K rate. For someone who finished with a 41.2% O-Swing last year, it’s hard to understand how he only managed a 22.9% Whiff and 20.6% K rate. That’s not to say he isn’t effective, as his pitch to weak contact plan of attack clearly works, it just leaves you wanting more from a fantasy perspective. So just like with Britton, Treinen is a safe, reliable option for holds leagues, but just don’t count on him to help much with strikeouts.
I don’t think anyone would have expected to hear Evan Marshall’s name in the conversation for best curveball last summer, but here we are. Marshall’s curveball finished with a CSW rate of 50.4%, the highest in all of baseball. With a whiff rate of 58.5% and .108 xWOBA against, why did he only throw this pitch 16.7% of the time in 2019? Marshall’s pitch usage breakdown last season was fascinating, throwing his fastball/sinker just under 30% of the time, while his changeup remained his go to offering (38.6%) and he upped his curveball to 31.6% usage. This, predictably, led to a career-high O-Swing, with his 41.8% O-Swing ranking second among qualified relievers. Even in a stacked White Sox bullpen, Marshall should continue to see plenty of hold opportunities.
Although the ERA won’t show it, Scott Barlow has been improving ever since debuting in 2018 and may be on the verge of a breakout campaign. Barlow set career highs with a 16.6% SwStr, 37.6% Whiff, and 31.2% K rates, all while lowering his walk rate from 11.9% in 2019 to 7.2% last year. Barlow should return to a setup role again in 2021, and could take over the closer role at some point should Greg Holland falter or get traded. Barlow led the league in scoreless outings in 2020 (25), and if it weren’t for two rough outings last year (9/2 vs. CLE, 9/19 vs. MIL) would be talked about as one of the elite setup men in baseball. Despite the sneaky deep Royals bullpen, it was Barlow’s 9 SV+HLD that led the Royals in 2020.
The Brewers have found themselves a third relief ace in Freddy Peralta so long as he actually sticks in that role. The Brewers dished out an early extension to Peralta so perhaps they will give him another look in the rotation, but after 3 seasons it looks like he’s best out of the bullpen. Peralta relies heavily on a 93 MPH fastball, a pitch that is surprisingly effective, even with the high usage rate and lower velocity than most relievers. He was able to elevate the pitch more last season, and combined with improvements to his curveball, led to career-highs in Whiff (39.8%) and K (37.6%) rate. The only issue with Peralta is how will he be used? As a starter, long reliever, or will he get a chance to earn double-digit holds? Teams typically can sustain (for fantasy purposes) 2-3 consistent holds relievers, and Peralta shouldn’t fall behind anyone else in that bullpen besides Williams and possibly Brent Suter.
No. 15: Jonathan Hernandez (Texas Rangers)
Continuing the trend of young, 1st or 2nd-year relievers to breakout, Jonathan Hernandez was the Rangers’ best reliever in 2020, while also leading the league in innings pitched by a reliever with 31. Hernandez utilizes three plus pitches; an upper 90’s sinking fastball, a slider to put away right-handed hitters, and a changeup to finish lefties. This ability to miss bats didn’t result in a ton of strikeouts (24.8% K rate), but that should come with time at the rate he gets whiffs with his secondary pitches. Hernandez should be locked in as Jose Leclerc’s top handcuff, and with how the Rangers plan on using him (2-3 innings a game), should find himself at the top of the IP leaderboard for relievers again.
No. 16: Victor Gonzalez (Los Angeles Dodgers)
While it’s only a 15 game sample size, Victor Gonzalez has the makings of a future relief ace, thanks in large part to his devastating slider. Gonzalez’s slider was fantastic against hitters from both sides of the plate and finished 2020 with absurd 56.6% Whiff and 40.9% PutAway rates. The pitch helped lead Gonzalez to a near 40% O-Swing (39.7%), as hitters frequently chased the pitch out of the zone. Gonzalez paired the slider with a heavy sinker that garnered a 67.3% GB rate, which was the second-highest mark amongst qualified relievers. It remains to be seen what role Gonzalez will have in the Dodger bullpen, but he should be called upon to set up closer Kenley Jansen more often than not.
While Gonzalez’s rookie season showcased just how good his slider is, Codi Heuer’s did just the same. Heuer is similar to Gonzalez, just from the right side and he throws his sinker just a little bit harder, averaging 97.6 MPH. However, Heuer relied on his sinker much more than Gonzalez, despite having a slider with a ridiculous 66.7% Whiff rate. I’d love to see Heuer bump his slider usage from 25% to closer to 40% next season, which should in turn lead to a nice uptick in strikeouts. As I mentioned with Peralta earlier, despite a crowded bullpen, Heuer should slide in as the 2nd or 3rd set up option, which should lead to plenty of holds opportunities.
A lot of the same can be said about Josh Staumont, however, Staumont comes with a significantly higher walk rate. Able to get plenty of swings and misses on both his curveball and fastball, Staumont just needs to harness his control to fly up near the top of this list. While others have done this (see Tanner Rainey) it’s fair to be skeptical of Staumont ever doing so, as he has never had a walk rate under 11.4% at any level since making his professional debut in 2015. In fact, his 14.3% BB rate in 2020 was actually an improvement over every minor league stop by a fairly significant margin. The stuff is there for him to be elite, but a walk rate closer to 10% is needed for him to truly take that next step.
John Gant dealt with a groin injury last season, that clearly sapped some of his velocity as he was down 2+ MPH across the board as he tried to pitch through the pain. Gant was still able to appear in 15 games and “set” career lows in ERA (2.40) and WHIP (1.07). A former starter not too long ago, Gant is one of those rare relievers who actually uses a five-pitch mix, with his bread and butter being his sinker and changeup. No matter how the Cardinals pitching staff winds up, Gant should be a fixture at the back end of games and be a reliable source of holds.
No. 20: Mike Mayers (Los Angeles Angels)
Similar to Evan Marshall, Mike Mayers is another great example of a reliever beginning to utilize their best-offspeed pitch as their primary offering, and to wonderful results. While with the Cardinals from 2016-2019, Mayers was going to his fastball about 60% of the time, and getting very average at best results. With the Angels last year, Mayers dropped his fastball usage by almost 30%, while utilizing a new cutter 24.2% of the time. Now throwing his slider more than any other pitch (39.6%), Mayers set career bests in almost every category and wound up closing out games for the Angels down the stretch. With no reason to expect that trend to change, Mayers is a great option in holds leagues in 2021.
No. 21: Emilio Pagan (San Diego Padres)
After a breakout 2019 that saw Emilio Pagan as the Rays de facto closer, Pagan was traded to the Padres last winter and things did not work out quite as well. It was really more just a rocky start to the season, as Pagan fared much better over his last 11 IP (1.64 ERA, .64 WHIP) than in his first 11 (7.36, 1.46). His fastball wasn’t nearly as effective, and judging by heat maps from 2020 and 2019, he seemed to be missing the plate with his cutter much more often last year. Perhaps that was a result of his bicep injury, and while I do like his chances of bouncing back this season, I’m not sure if we can count on the K rate and swing and miss numbers that we saw in 2019. Pomeranz or Melancon seem to be the favorite for saves in this bullpen, but Pagan will surely be the mix, potentially leading to another annoying timeshare.
Austin Adams has teased us for the past few years with an electric fastball/slider combo but has unfortunately had trouble staying healthy. Adams was limited to just 4 innings in 2020, so let’s look at his 2019 to see why Adams is worth your attention in holds leagues. Only 4 relievers with a minimum of 30 IP had a K rate higher than 40% in 2019, with Adams ranking 2nd behind Josh Hader at 42.1%. His slider, which comes in around 89 MPH with a spin rate over 2800 RPM’s, finished that year with a 48.4% Whiff rate. There’s risk inherited when drafting Adams given his injury history, but if he is able to finally put together a full season, the reward will be well worth it.
No. 23: Wander Suero (Washington Nationals)
Wander Suero seems to have followed after Kenley Jansen’s cutter heavy approach, throwing the pitch over 80% of the time in 2020. While he won’t overwhelm with velocity (91 MPH), he was still able to produce a career-high 15.6% SwStr rate last season. Suero also does a good job getting swings out of the zone (36.6% O-Swing) as well as limiting contact while working in the zone (73.9% Z-Contact). Suero should return to a setup role for the Nationals, where his 25 holds over the past two seasons are tied for 20th among all pitchers in that time span.
Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier has flashed swing and miss stuff ever since joining the team in 2017, but he has yet to be of much help in the ratio department. Brasier’s best pitch is his slider, which earned a 46.5% Whiff rate in 2020, and given how often his fastball is hit around, might be a pitch he’d want to consider throwing more often. With a total of 29 holds over the past 3 seasons, Brasier should remain in a setup role in a shallow Boston bullpen.
Andrew Miller, who turns 36 this May and has dealt with numerous injuries, was better than expected in his 13 innings last season, but can we trust him for this upcoming season? The short answer to that is, probably, but Miller’s not the pitcher he was back in 2016-17, as his velocity has been in free fall over the past 4 seasons, and his effectiveness slowly with it. While he doesn’t get hitters to chase anymore (26.5% O-Swing in 2020), his slider is still a plus pitch and continues to induce weak contact. Miller has settled into an above-average reliever, but one who should continue to see plenty of hold and possibly save chances as long as health cooperates.
It’s hard to argue against throwing a 98 MPH sinker, but like many others on this list, Miguel Castro could stand to use his two offspeed pitches a little bit more in 2021. Castro threw his sinker 50% of the time in 2020, and the pitch got pummeled (.354 AVG, .563 SLG), whereas his slider produced a 48.3% Whiff rate and .197 xWOBA. While not as successful, Castro’s changeup has had pretty good results against left-handed hitters as well. Sinkers are cool, and they work sometimes, but perhaps someone like Castro would fare better throwing heaters up in the zone to go with that slider/changeup combo.
No. 27: Phil Maton (Cleveland Indians)
After showing promise during his initial call up for the Padres back in 2017, Phil Maton has been mostly an afterthought since, dealing with injuries and bouts of inconsistency. Maton has been much better since landing in Cleveland back in July of 2019, and while the 4.57 ERA and 1.34 WHIP from 2020 make him look non-rosterable on the surface, there are plenty of underlying numbers to get excited about here.
First of all, Maton dealt with a .412 BABIP in 2020, obviously a number that is not sustainable. He also posted career highs in SwStr (17.1%) and K-BB (27.1%) rate. Maton has 3 potential plus offerings in his fastball, curve, and cutter/slider all three of which had Whiff rate over 30% last year. Maton may not throw in the mid to upper 90’s like most back-end relievers, but he has great spin rates and excels at inducing weak contact. While I wouldn’t rule him out as an option to close, Maton more than likely will settle into a middle relief role to begin the season, but should wind up with a fair share of hold opportunities as the season progresses.
No. 28: Felix Pena (Los Angeles Angels)
Felix Pena finally settled in as a full-time reliever last year, and while the results on the surface seem pretty average, Pena’s elite slider is still something to keep an eye on in 2020. The pitch had a 56.5% Whiff rate and as we’ve seen and mentioned with other relievers, it would benefit Pena to throw it more often than his fastball/sinker, which has been hammered the past two seasons. Until we see a change, however, Pena remains just a middle-tier hold option with upside for now.
Here’s a crazy stat that is likely to surprise you, Pierce Johnson finished 2020 with the 5th highest CSW rate at 38%. Johnson was magnificent in his return to the states, providing the Padres with 20 quality innings out of the bullpen. Utilizing his curveball 54% of the time, Johnson earned a 48.1% Whiff and 37.9% PutAway rate on the pitch, which also had one of the higher spin rates in baseball. Johnson’s 96+ MPH sinker also got plenty of whiffs, leading to a combined Whiff rate of 40% for the season, good for 12th best among qualified relievers. Johnson should get more high-leverage opportunities with Kirby Yates and Trevor Rosenthal not around but still has Drew Pomeranz, Emilio Pagan, and possibly Austin Adams and Mark Melancon in front of him.
Robert Stephenson was a wise trade target of the Colorado Rockies this offseason and should fit in nicely setting up Daniel Bard. The simple philosophy when it comes to finding pitchers that work in Colorado tends to be either high groundball rates or high K rates. Stephenson brings the latter, as the starter turned reliever’s 18.9% SwStr rate since 2019 is the 4th highest in all of baseball. Like others before him on this list, his fastball has been abused throughout his career, which led him to start throwing his slider close to 60% of the time over the past two seasons. We can’t completely throw out his 10 innings in 2020, but he did deal with a back issue which surely didn’t help, and neither did his ridiculous 50% HR/FB rate. He allowed 11 hits all season, 8 of which were HR’s. That’s just not a sustainable rate. Still, it is a little worrisome that he is moving to Coors now given his FB and HR rates, but the immense K upside makes Stephenson worth a look in deeper holds formats.
In Rafael Dolis‘ first season back in Major League Baseball since 2013, the veteran righty proved he belonged finishing with a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings of work. Dolis’ primary offering is his mid 90’s sinker that gets plenty of weak contact and groundballs, but his two offspeed offerings proved to be plus strikeout pitches in 2020. Both his slider and splitter had Whiff rates over 50%, making Dolis a weapon against both left-handed and right-handed hitters. The biggest concern with Dolis would be his 14% walk rate, as he likes to keep those offspeed pitches off the plate as much as possible. He could probably stand to use those pitches as strikes early on in counts more often, giving hitters different looks, but it’s tough to argue against what made his 2020 so successful. After earning 5 saves and 7 holds last year, Dolis will be back in a setup role where he should see plenty of hold chances for a Blue Jays team on the rise.
Jorge Alcala proved in 2020 that he has more in his arsenal than just an upper 90’s fastball, as the young right-hander flashed two potential plus secondary pitches in his slider and changeup. While he didn’t have issues walking hitters, Alcala didn’t exactly have consistent command of his pitches, which could limit his upside if continues. With the Twins losing half of their bullpen this offseason, Alcala should be in line to see some holds chances this year after failing to pick up a save or hold in 2020.
While he may not throw all that hard for a potential back-end reliever, Cody Stashak’s plus command and slider give him a chance to be a high-quality setup man for the Twins. Stashak’s slider already makes him a great matchup against right-handed hitters, but he may need to develop a changeup to find more consistent success against left-handed hitters. Stashak’s elite command and slider whiff ability should lead to him surpassing the 5 holds he earned last year by a wide margin, and make him a nice late-round holds option.
It’s amazing to think someone who throws a 100 MPH sinker can only manage a 15.2% Whiff rate and 6.2% SwStr rate, but Brusdar Graterol did just that last season. Strikeouts are not Graterol’s aim however, and he’s mightily effective just working that sinker in the zone and getting groundballs. Graterol is kind of like a souped up Mark Melancon at the moment, however, there is definitely some strikeout upside there if he were to throw his slider more. I just don’t think he will be eager to after how useful he was for the Dodgers last season at being an efficient outs machine.
No. 35: Emmanuel Clase (Cleveland Indians)
After being the headliner in the deal that sent Corey Kluber to Texas, Emmanuel Clase failed to get on the mound for the Indians in 2020 following a back strain and subsequent PED suspension. Clase, similar to Graterol, throws 100 MPH, however he pitches to contact instead of trying to miss bats. Clase mainly features his 99+ MPH cutter, and just like Graterol, induces a ton of groundballs. Clase should be a nice bridge option to get the ball to James Karinchak for the Indians but just don’t expect a ton of counting stats in what’s likely to be his first full season.
Similar to Hicks, Reyes Moronta missed all of 2020 as he was rehabbing his way back from a major arm surgery he suffered in 2019, albeit a torn labrum for Moronta. Moronta has great stuff, featuring an upper 90’s fastball and wipeout slider but has had trouble keeping his walk rate down (13.6% career rate). Coming back from an injury such as this one will certainly be a test for Moronta, and as with Jordan Hicks, the Giants may play it safe and keep Moronta in more of a middle relief role, at least early on in the season. However, no one has quite the upside Moronta does in the Giants bullpen.
It was nice to see A.J. Minter rebound in 2020 after a disastrous 2019 and following the departures of Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Darren O’Day, he should be in line for more high leverage work again. While he may never live up to the strikeout upside he flashed in his first call up back in 2017, Minter’s cutter/slider does a fantastic job at limiting hard contact and after retooling the pitch last season, now gets more groundballs. He’s definitely a name to keep an eye on in all holds leagues this season.
No. 38: Joely Rodriguez (Texas Rangers)
In his return to Major League Baseball, Joely Rodriguez impressed in 2020 despite being limited to only 12.2 IP due to a hamstring injury. When on the mound, Rodriguez was able to get a steady diet of groundballs from his sinker/changeup combination and finished the year with a 32.7% K rate despite having a true plus whiff pitch. Rodriguez should slot into a setup role for the Rangers in 2021, but it would be nice to see him produce more swings and misses on his offspeed pitches before moving him up the list.
Brent Suter’s transition to the bullpen has worked out spectacularly for the Brewers, as the soft-tossing lefty has been super efficient with his fastball/changeup combination. I question how long that will last, however, as his fastball averaged 85.4 MPH last season and his changeup 81.1 MPH. A 4 MPH difference in pitches, especially at that velocity, isn’t likely to be successful at this level, but Suter does counteract the velocity with his extension (7.35 ft). Nonetheless, Suter’s changeup still garnered a 52.6% Whiff rate in 2020, as the veteran’s command of the zone remains top-notch. Despite starting 4 games over the final month of last season, expect Suter to slot into a setup/middle relief role with potential to be a valuable holds league asset.
While his path to saves is a bit murkier than his brother Taylor, Tyler Rogers could hypothetically get the first crack at closing out games for the Giants. More than likely, Gabe Kapler and the Giants will continue with a committee approach as they did last year, mixing and matching based on matchups. Rogers won’t help boost your strikeouts, but he rarely walks people and does a great job missing barrels (just 1 barrel in 136 career PA). After Trevor Gott led the team with a whopping 4 saves last year, it’s safe to say predicting usage out of this bullpen will be a fool’s errand in 2021.
After washing out as a starter, Matt Wisler has turned himself into a promising reliever, relying on his slider more than 80% of the time to get strikeouts or generate weak contact. Wisler was used as an opener some by the Twins last season, but now in San Francisco, Wisler could wind up in a high leverage late-inning role, and quite possibly in the closer mix. It’d be nice to see Wisler bring his walk rate back under 10%, but it’s understandable given his slider usage and the fact he needs to be careful with where he locates his underwhelming fastball, as his heat map indicates.
It was an up and down first season in Washington for veteran reliever Will Harris, who finished 2020 with a 3.06 ERA despite a 1.70 WHIP. Harris, who hadn’t seen his walk rate over 6.1% since 2015 saw that number skyrocket to 10.7% last year as he had difficulties locating his cut fastball. Perhaps this was a result of the groin strain that sidelined him to begin the year, but for a pitcher like Harris, these types of command issues can be detrimental. Harris should still be a big part of this Nationals pen assuming he’s healthy, and given his track record, I’ll take him over Daniel Hudson as the 3rd setup option behind Rainey and Suero.
I’m still a big believer in Mychal Givens as a reliever, but things didn’t go well after being sent to the Rockies late last August. It’s obviously a tough place for any pitcher, but Givens actually had more trouble on the road than at Coors following the move. Givens still has 3 above average at worst pitches, but now being in Colorado he may need to produce more swings and misses out of them to survive. Givens is a fly ball heavy pitcher (37% career GB rate) who outside of 2019 hasn’t exactly been a strikeout maven. He’ll likely open the year as Daniel Bard’s top handcuff, but just beware of the volatility.
Despite his ERA rising almost 4 full points last season, Adam Ottavino was actually not as bad in 2020 as one might think. Under the hood, it was actually very similar to his 2019, but I just can’t help but imagine landing with the Red Sox hurts his value. He will likely be working to set up Matt Barnes, and continue to post good strikeout rates, but expect a dip in holds and he’s far from guaranteed to help with ratios at this point. Ottavino’s sinker/slider combo can still be lethal, so I understand not wanting to give up on him quite yet.
No. 45: Pedro Baez (Houston Astros)
Coming off a not particularly great season, Pedro Baez sure seems lucky to get a two year, $12.5 million dollar deal this offseason from the Astros, where he will assumedly work the 8th inning to get the ball to closer Ryan Pressly. Baez’s 5.73 xFIP was a career-worst by a large margin, and he really struggled to strike anyone out last year, with his 8.6% K-BB rate one of the worst among all relievers. He was a bit better in the playoffs (23.3% K-BB rate, 4.52 xFIP) in 7.2 innings so perhaps we can chalk up the down year to the groin strain that affected him early in the season. Baez has been a staple on this list since I’ve been covering relievers and that shouldn’t change now that he is in Houston, but it’d be nice to see Baez go back to missing bats at the pace he was at from 2015-2019.
Injuries limited Andrew Chafin to just 9.2 unproductive innings in 2020 between the Cubs and Diamondbacks, but Chafin was one of the more productive relievers in baseball from 2017-2019. Chafin’s slider in particular is a devastating pitch, never having a whiff rate under 47% since 2015. Chafin uses two fastballs, a two-seamer/sinker primarily against right-handed hitters, and a four-seamer he likes to keep away from lefties, although neither one has been particularly friendly to him. Re-signed by the Cubs earlier this month, expect Chafin to find himself in a setup role to begin the season.
Connor Brogdon impressed in his first taste of Major League action last season with a 2.90 SIERA, 16% SwStr, and 38.6% K rate over 11.1 innings. Brogdon’s changeup earns 60 grades, and for good reason, but it looks like he’s found a legitimate 3rd pitch in his cutter. Albeit a small sample size (just 29 thrown) the pitch earned a 43% Whiff rate and .191 xWOBA as he buried the pitch on the outside corner to right-handed hitters. The additions of Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado are a boost to this bullpen, but I’d imagine Brogdon is still a big part of their late-inning plans.
Jake Diekman will likely get the first chance to close out games for the Athletics in 2021, but who will be next in line behind him? It could be Burch Smith, who was impressive before a flexor strain ended his 2020, which also lands him in the high-risk for TJS category. Lou Trivino is another option but is still just 2 years removed from an awful 2019 and didn’t exactly light the world on fire in 2020.
Enter J.B. Wendelken who has quietly been one of the team’s most effective relievers over the past 3 seasons. He doesn’t miss a ton of bats but his 5 pitch mix keeps hitters off balance and suppresses hard contact. I’d expect him to open the year in a setup role of some sort, with potential to close out games at some point if Diekman falters or is traded.
While I’m not a fan of the 10% K-BB rate Enoli Paredes delivered in his first MLB season, it’s easy to see that the potential is there for him to get a lot better. That starts with him getting his command straightened out, but his fastball/slider combo easily makes him a possible future closer candidate. With Pedro Baez and Ryne Stanek in Houston now, Paredes may not see high leverage work right away but remains someone to keep a close eye on.
Kevin Ginkel certainly took two steps backward last year after his promising 2019 season, with his walk rate ballooning to an atrocious 16.5%. That’s likely more flukey and just a 2020 byproduct than a legitimate concern given Ginkel’s 2019 and minor league numbers. His slider is still a fantastic out pitch, and assuming he can corral his walk rate and bring it back down to around 10%, he should be a solid contributor in holds leagues. Even after the Joakim Soria signing, the Diamondbacks bullpen is still very thin, so Ginkel could easily snag a high leverage role early on in the season.
Photo by Quinn Harris & Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)