You may have heard that the starting pitcher is dead – and although that may be a bit drastic – the days of two aces facing off and pitching complete games are long gone. In 1998, Scott Erikson led the AL with 11 complete games, and Curt Schilling led the NL with 15 – this was the last time each league’s complete game leaders hit double digits.
The last pitcher with at least ten complete games was James Shields (11) in 2011, and over the past decade, the numbers have continued to fall. In 2022, Framber Valdez led the AL with just three complete games, and Sandy Alcantara led the NL with six.
It’s even getting difficult to find pitchers who pitch the necessary six innings for a quality start. From 1982 to 2002, around 50% of pitchers’ starts ended with a quality start. In the last 20 years, that number has dropped significantly, along with the average number of innings pitched in a start:
- 2022: 5.2 innings per game started / 85 pitches / 37% quality start percentage
- 2002: 5.9 innings per game started / 95 pitches / 49% quality start percentage
- 1982: 6.2 innings per game started / no pitch data / 50% quality start percentage
A baseball team follows the trajectory of its bullpen. A great bullpen typically leads to success, and any fan knows the pain when their favorite team has a weak bullpen that loses game after game in the final innings.
As we prepare for the 2023 season, the role of a bullpen has never been as important. So which teams are set for reliever success in 2023?
(All depth chart information taken from Fangraphs RosterResource. Asterisk (*) indicates offseason addition).
1) Houston Astros
The defending champion Astros predictably had one of the best bullpens in baseball last season. They were first in relief ERA with 2.80 and tied for second in WAR with 7.6. Houston relievers also converted 77% of save opportunities, which was second-best in baseball.
When you think of the top closers in baseball, Ryan Pressly doesn’t immediately come to mind, but he put himself in the discussion with a career-high 33 saves last season. Pressly finished the year with a 2.98 ERA and a career-low 0.89 WHIP. Expect another solid season from him in 2023.
Supporting Pressly was primary setup man Rafael Montero who finished the 2022 season with 23 holds and, like Pressly, finished with a career-high in saves (14) last season.
The other setup reliever is right-hander Bryan Abreu, who compiled a perfect 4-0 record with a 1.94 ERA over 60.1 IP. Abreu is the hardest thrower of the trio and uses a slider and a fastball, which averaged 97 MPH, to shut down hitters. He was among the best in the league in a number of categories (shown below), including K% (35.5) and Whiff% (39.1).
2) New York Mets
(This article was written before the news of the Edwin Diaz injury during the WBC).
The Mets bullpen was home to the top closer in baseball last season, Edwin Diaz. Diaz had one of the best seasons by a relief pitcher in recent memory; collecting 118 strikeouts and only 18 walks over 62 IP, equaling a bewildering 17.1 K/9, the best mark in baseball. Diaz relies on only two pitches, a slider, and a fastball, but when your four-seamer hits 100 MPH, hitters don’t stand much of a chance.
He had 32 saves and led a Mets bullpen that was fourth in save percentage with 73%, second in K/9 (10.37), and had the third-fewest losses in relief (19). Díaz will again anchor the bullpen this season, but expect some slight regression after a historically great 2022.
Joining him in the bullpen will be some new faces as the Mets brought in David Robertson and Brooks Raley to help offset the loss of Seth Lugo, Trevor May, and Trevor Williams to free agency. Robertson saved 20 games last season for the Cubs and Phillies, but will move into the main setup role in New York.
Raley comes to New York from Tampa Bay after having the best season of his career. Raley made changes to his pitch arsenal, increasing the use of his changeup and slider, and this led to six saves and a 2.68 ERA and 0.97 WHIP across 53.2 IP. It will be interesting to see if he can duplicate this success in 2023 away from the Rays system.
3) Cleveland Guardians
Enyel De Los Santos
After sharing duties with James Karinchak in 2021, Emmanuel Clase emerged as the number-one arm in Cleveland and had the best season of any closer in baseball other than Edwin Diaz. Clase led all relievers with 77 appearances and 42 saves, and finished the year with a superb 1.36 ERA and 0.73 WHIP. Armed with an elite cutter and slider, Clase finished near the top in a number of other major categories including:
- BB% of 3.7% – 99th percentile of MLB relievers
- SwStr% of 18.5 – 96th percentile of MLB relievers
- 5.48 PLV – 99th percentile of MLB relievers
After struggling as a closer in 2021, Karinchak settled nicely into the primary setup role last season, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 39 IP.
With those two leading the way in 2022, Cleveland finished third in the league in save percentage with 74%, second in relief wins with 43, and fifth with a 3.05 ERA.
Atlanta’s combination of Kenley Jansen and A.J. Minter led to elite results in 2022. Atlanta led the majors with 55 saves and tied for second in WAR (7.6). They also struck out hitters at a high rate with a 10.17 K/9, third in the league. Jensen finished with 41 saves last season, but he and his 391 career saves (eighth all-time) left for Boston in free agency.
Atlanta fans hope that Raisel Iglesias and Minter will provide the same results in 2023. Iglesias will step into the closer role after being traded to Atlanta during the 2022 season. He had 16 saves for the Angels before the trade and had a 0.34 ERA in 26.1 IP with the Braves in 2022. Iglesias does have three 30+ save seasons to his name and keeps batters guessing as he continually re-tools his pitch mix.
Minter was arguably the top setup reliever in 2022, leading baseball with 35 holds and compiling 94 strikeouts and only 15 walks in 70 IP. He finished the year with a 2.06 ERA and 0.91 WHIP and will lead Atlanta’s setup arms in 2023. The Braves also acquired Joe Jiménez in an offseason trade with the Tigers to bolster the setup efforts.
5) Seattle Mariners
Paul Sewald is listed as the current closer, but he and Andrés Muñoz are essentially viewed as co-closers going into the 2023 season. Regardless of how the roles shake out, both should have strong years again for the Mariners.
The Mariners tied for fourth in save percentage with 73% behind the efforts of Sewald, who saved 20 games with a 2.67 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, and Muñoz, who had four saves with a 2.49 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 96 strikeouts in 65 IP.
Sewald relies on a four-seam fastball and a sweeper, a modified slider that had a 40.3% Whiff% in 2022. He attacks the top half of the zone with his fastball and goes lower in the zone with his sweeper, inducing swings on pitches low and outside.
While Munoz is not serving as a closer, he’ll be in setup duty along with Diego Castillo.
In middle relief is Matt Brash, who had an inconsistent rookie season in 2022 finishing 4-4 with a 4.44 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, and a poor 14.5% BB rate. After beginning the season as a starting pitcher, Brash found success settling in as a reliever. He has some of the most electrifying stuff in baseball, including a devasting slider.
Remember the name: Matt Brash. pic.twitter.com/tO8z0xsffk
— MLB (@MLB) April 12, 2022
If Brash can continue to find consistency while developing into his role as a reliever and decreasing his walk rate, he will add another outstanding option to the Seattle bullpen.
6) Toronto Blue Jays
Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano was a first-time All-Star in 2022, saving 36 games with a 2.11 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and finishing with a 5-4 record. He was the highlight of a bullpen that was a slight step down from the others that appear on this list.
Toronto was a middle of the pack bullpen in 2022, finishing with 3.0 WAR (16th in MLB) and converting 63% of their save opportunities (one percent below league average). The lead setup man in front of Romano was Yimi García who captured a career-high 23 holds with a 3.10 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 2022.
However, the bullpen should be in store for better numbers in 2023 after acquiring Erik Swanson in the offseason. Swanson had the best year of his major league career in setup duty for Seattle, going 3-2 with three saves and a 1.68 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 53.2 IP. He relied slightly less on his fastball and more often mixed in his changeup:
Fastball – 54%
Changeup – 25%
Slider – 20%
Fastball – 60%
Changeup – 21%
Slider – 19%
These changes led to a K% that jumped almost ten percentage points from 24.5% to 34.1% and a BB% that decreased from 6.3% to 4.4%, putting him near the league leaders in both categories.
If Swanson pitches as well in Toronto as he did in Seattle, the Blue Jays bullpen could take a leap.
Others to Watch:
San Diego Padres
St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Yankees
If Josh Hader can return to the form that made him one of the best closers in baseball over the past five seasons, then the Padres bullpen will be elite in 2023. The Cardinals feature the one-two punch of Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos. Helsley was quietly one of the top closers in 2022, finishing with a 9-1 record and a microscopic 1.25 ERA and 0.74 WHIP.
The Dodgers and Yankees are the other quality bullpens to watch in 2023, although ranked lower due to both teams’ relievers being currently in flux due to roster changes and/or injuries. Craig Kimbrel left the Dodgers after one season as the closer, and Los Angeles has a number of candidates to replace him including Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol, and Caleb Ferguson. The Dodgers also have Daniel Hudson, J.P Feyereisen, Alex Reyes, and Blake Treinen recovering from injury.
Longtime Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman is gone after struggling as the closer in 2022, leaving Clay Holmes, Michael King, and Jonathan Loáisiga as the veteran bullpen arms in New York. King is expected to be ready for the beginning of the season after recovering from surgery to a broken elbow. If both the Dodgers and Yankees are healthy, they should be included with the teams highlighted on this list.