Drafting an elite relief pitcher can make or break your team. While I say to wait on saves, 40-save closers are hard to come by. Here are my top 10.
Other positions: Catcher (10-1); First Base (20-11), (10-1); Second Base (15-11), (10-1); Shortstops (15-11), (10-1); Third Base (20-11), (10-1); Outfield (50-21), (20-11), (10-1); Starting Pitcher (50-21), (20-11), (10-1); Relief Pitcher (30-21), (20-11)
The relief pitcher role has expanded greatly in fantasy leagues. However, that doesn’t change the need to draft an elite closer. These pitchers will provide 35 to 45 saves during the season. That isn’t something you can easily find in the middle of the season. Depending on your league, it may be important to lock this position down early and fill out the rest later. These 10 pitchers are on this list because they are reliable and have the skills to be drafted earlier than the others.
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I use a couple of different of criteria when developing my rankings. I look at their 2015 performance, where they finished on the Player Rater, their career performance and if this past season was an outlier, their surroundings (lineup support) and where I think they project this season. Some of it may be subjective, especially the projections, but I try to keep it in line with other fantasy sites.
The stats I use for relief pitchers are ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, walks and saves (or holds if applicable). I know there are leagues, including mine, that use strikeouts per nine innings, and every league should. Strikeouts per nine favor relief pitchers in a sense because two strikeouts in an inning equates to an 18K/9 ratio. A starting pitcher will need to strike out 12 batters in six innings to get the same ratio. I will try to keep total strikeouts for the majority that use ESPN standard five categories.
Here are my top-10 relief pitchers for the 2016 season.
Jeurys Familia struggled in the 2015 World Series, but his regular season was spectacular. It took a suspension to Jenrry Mejia and a Bobby Parnell injury for it to happen, but it happened. He recorded 43 saves with a 1.85 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 86 strikeouts. Familia went undrafted in most leagues last season and finished as the second-best relief pitcher in the league.
He posted a 9.92 K/9 and 2.19 BB/9, a full strikeout and walk better than his career averages. He had a 58.3 ground ball rate and his fly ball rate dropped over six percent. Unfortunately, he allowed six home runs, double his 2014 total.
His 97 MPH fastball and dangerous split-finger fastball caused opposing batters to swing and miss 15.9 percent of the time. His O-Swing percentage went up 4.4 percent and his contact rate went down 4.1 percent.
My colleague, Brad Kelly questioned that Familia may be the best closer in the league. I wouldn’t go that far, but there is potential. He strikeouts a ton of batters and limits the base runners. He has job security, now that Mejia is indefinitely suspended. The New York Mets have an amazing rotation that can carry the lead into the ninth inning.
Familia is a sure-fire top-10 closer with top-five potential. He will have another 40-plus saves with a 2.40 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 80 strikeouts.
Ken Giles began the season as the Philadelphia Phillies closer. A trade with the Washington Nationals made Giles the closer for the second-half of the 2015 season. For the season, he had a 1.80 ERA, 1.200 WHIP and 87 strikeouts with 15 saves. He was then traded to the Houston Astros.
Giles had a 29.2 strikeouts percentage, but his 8.4 walk rate put him at 31st among qualified relievers with a 21 percent K-BB rate. He as able to keep his ERA low by not allowing many home runs, 0.29 HR/9 and two for the season. His ground ball rate stayed the same at 44 percent.
The negatives? His fastball velocity was not consistent throughout the season. Fangraphs say that it averaged 95.8 to start the season. It increased to 98.4 mph mid-season, but fell to 96.9 by season’s end. This lowered his swinging strike rate by 1.1 percent.
Giles does not have the same job security as some of the other closers. Luke Gregerson was solid last season, 31 saves with a 3.10 ERA. He recently made his spring debut and struck out three batters on nine pitches. So, there could be some competition.
If news breaks that Giles is not the closer to open up the season, he falls to about No. 25 in my rankings. His ERA will likely be above 3.00, but if he stays as the closer all season, he’ll have 33 to 36 saves.
The New York Yankees were very busy this offseason. The biggest move came when the team traded for Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees already had a good bullpen with Betances and Miller. But now, they have the seventh, eighth and ninth innings locked up. Chapman had 33 saves with a 1.63 ERA, 1.146 WHIP and 116 strikeouts.
When Kelly wrote about the move, there was no announcement about a possible suspension from a domestic abuse case. MLB made the announcement on March 1 that Chapman would be suspended 30 games. This is not 30 days. He will be out for the first 30 games of the Yankees 2016 season. If all goes well, he will be eligible to return on May 9.
As a result, I had to drop him a bit in my rankings. But the fact that he will miss just a month of the season doesn’t affect it too much. When he returns, Chapman will rightly take his place back as the Yankees closer and one of the best in the game. ESPN has Chapman ranked as No. 96 overall, a 10th-round pick. I think he should be drafted a round earlier, but that’s just me.
Chapman will miss around 10 games (about 11 innings) at the beginning of the season. He should still be a top-10 closer and finish with 30 saves, a 2.25 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 85 strikeouts.
Zach Britton was the fifth-best relief pitcher at the end of last season. He had a 1.92 ERA, 0.990 WHIP, 79 strikeouts and 36 saves. Even with a solid reliever in Darren O’Day pitching in the eighth, Britton is locked in as the Baltimore Orioles closer.
His strikeout rate rose just under 10 percent while his walk rate dropped 2.6 percent. Britton’s 96 MPH fastball cause a 79.1 ground ball, 9.5 fly ball and 16.4 swinging strike rates. He gave up just three home runs as opposing batters had a 19.5 hard hit rate.
However, Britton does not induce a lot of strikeout when compared to the other relief pitchers. He is able to dominate opposing batters with a nasty sinker. Kelly wrote more in-depth about Britton and how he compared to the “elite” closers of the game.
Britton is one of those closers than you can sneak by other owners. He doesn’t stand out in the rankings, but could easily finish in the top five. He will easily reach 35 saves and maintain a 2.50 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, even in the dangerous American League East.
Mark Melancon became the Pittsburgh Pirates full-time closer and definitely delivered. He recorded 51 saves with a 2.23 ERA, 0.926 WHIP and 62 strikeouts. He was the best relief pitchers on the Player Rater, mostly because of the saves. Barring any injury, he has a good chance to record another 40 more saves.
Melancon is a good source for saves, but lacks the strikeouts. His K/9 dropped from 9.0 in 2014 to 7.29 last season. His walk rate went up a bit. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball percentages all stayed around the same from year to year. His soft hit rate went up 4.6 percent.
He threw his cut fastball most than 50 percent of the time, but it wasn’t effective. According to FanGraphs, it registered its worst swinging strike and contact rates since 2011. This resulted in his 39.5 O-Swing and 11.9 swinging strike percentages.
As I said earlier, barring injury, Melancon is a top closer. The Pirates set-up man, Tony Watson, is an elite relief pitcher, so I would draft him as a handcuff. Melancon is locked in with a 2.55 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 62 strikeouts with 40 saves.
Cody Allen struggled early in the 2015 season, which hurt his overall ranking. He finished 18th on the Player Rater. He had a 2.99 ERA, 1.168 WHIP and 99 strikeouts with a 34 saves. However, he’s been pretty consistent across the board and finish as a top-five guy in 2016.
He had a 34.6 strikeout rate and 8.7 walk rate, a 25.9 K-BB rate, 11th among qualified relievers. Compared to some of the other relievers, Allen does not induce a lot of ground balls, just a 32.9 ground ball rate. He had a 41.1 fly ball rate, 27th among all relievers. Yet, he had just a 3.1 HR/FB rate.
I wrote about Allen being a top-15 closer, but I have made a big change to my rankings. Many fantasy sites have Allen around the same position. If you could draft him as such, he’ll give you tremendous value. Allen does not have any competition at the position, so he has a lot of leeway. He will finish with 40 saves, 2.60 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 90 strikeouts.
Craig Kimbrel was one of a few National League closers that made the move to the American League, and one of a couple to join the AL East. Last season with the San Diego Padres was the worst of his career. He posted a 2.58 ERA, 1.045 WHIP and 87 strikeouts with 39 saves. Granted, the Padres did not score many runs, so the save chances weren’t there. He still finished as the No. 9 relief pitcher on the waiver wire.
Kimbrel’s strikeout rate went down over two percent and while his walk rate went down, it was still over nine percent. He had a 46.1 ground ball rate, but an inflated 13.6 HR/FB rate. That number should go down in Boston.
Another thing he has to work on is his strikeouts. He posted a career-low 87 strikeouts. That is mostly due to opposing batters not being fooled by his stuff. He had a 28.4 O-Swing and 46.8 swing percentages. Batters are holding back and not chasing the outside stuff.
Now he joins a team with a better offense, fourth in runs and fifth in on-base percentage. So, his ERA and saves should go back to his career averages. Kelly also echoes by analysis of Kimbrel having a bounce-back season. He should have 35-plus saves with a 2.30 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 90 strikeouts.
Trevor Rosenthal has been the St. Louis Cardinals closer for two seasons and has been lights out in both seasons. In 139 innings, he has a 2.65 ERA, 1.338 WHIP and 170 strikeouts. Oh yeah, he has 93 saves, too. He was the No. 6 relief pitcher on the Player Rater and should finish around the same this season.
Rosenthal’s strikeout rate has dropped over the past three seasons, from 12.90 K/9 in 2013 to 10.88 in 2015. On the plus side, he was able to lower his walk rate to 3.28 BB/9 last year as well. He was able to drop his WHIP by decreasing his line drive rate and increase the amount of ground balls.
In my previous article about Rosenthal, I had him as my No. 5 closer. I obviously moved him up, but I still think he has No. 1 potential. I am just worried about fatigue, he only pitched in 68.2 innings last season, down from 70.1 in 2014. He also needs to get his strikeouts back up over the 85 mark. If he can do that, then the sky is the limit.
Heading into this season, you should expect a small increase in his ERA as the National League Central is a great hitting division. It’ll be around the 2.40-2.50 mark with a 1.15 WHIP and 85 strikeouts. He’ll record another 40 saves, too.
The Kansas City Royals had a Cinderella season from all aspects. After losing the World Series in 2014, they were able to make it back last season. The offense was just as good, and even with the loss of their closer Greg Holland, Wade Davis was able to step in and continue leading the bullpen.
Davis spent most of the season as the set-up man, but recorded some saves throughout the year. He had a 0.94 ERA, 0.787 WHIP and 78 strikeouts with 17 saves. His strikeout rate was still over 30 percent, but not by much. He had an 8.0 walk rate, which put his K-BB rate at 23.1 percent. Davis’ ground ball and fly ball rates went in opposite directions.
He threw his offspeed stuff a lot more, but that didn’t fool batters. He had a 30.1 O-Swing percentage in both 2014 and 2015. The difference is that he had a 14.3 swinging strike percentage in ’14 and a 11.6 percentage last season. Batters also made six percent more contact with pitches out of the zone.
Holland underwent Tommy John surgery on October 2 and will likely miss all of the 2016 season. This puts the closer role solely in Davis’ hands. There are some things to be pessimistic about, but the future is bright for Davis in 2016.
What could have been a tricky situation if Chapman came to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kenley Jansen is now a top closer in the league. His innings and saves were down from 2014, but he lowered his ERA and WHIP by a great margin. He had a 2.41 ERA, 0.783 WHIP and 80 strikeouts with 36 saves. He finished 10th on the Rater, but comes in as my No. 1 closer for 2016.
He’s had at least a 13.00 K/9 throughout his career. His BB/9 has fluctuated between seasons, but came in at an amazing 1.38 last year. He also posted a 40 percent strikeout rate and his 36 K-BB percentage was the best in the league by over three percent. His fly ball rate skyrocketed last season, from 37.2 to 53.7 percent. He allowed six home runs, tying a career high.
Jansen relies heavily on his cut fastball, at least 90% of his pitches have been cutters every season. The slight movement on the pitch causes batters to miss. He had a 16.6 swinging strike and 69.5 first pitch strike percentages.
Jansen did miss the first month of the season with a foot injury, but was able to come back without any issues. With a clean bill of health this season, he should dominate the National League. He strikes out batters at an elite rate, keeps them off base and consistency makes him my No. 1 relief pitcher.
Well, there you have it. The final rankings for my fielding positions.
This is an elite group of closers. They are consistent year in and year out. If you wait on drafting a closer, chances are most, if not all, of these pitchers will be selected. If you play in a head-to-head league, you are going to want to draft one pitcher from this group. The chances of a 40-save season are very high.
One of the pitchers I’m looking at is Chapman. I want to see how he comes back after missing 30 days and pitching in the AL East. The same goes for Kimbrel, minus the suspension. It is a new environment for both pitchers and will have to face some dangerous lineups.
Another pitcher is Giles. While there hasn’t been an official announcement, he is listed as the Astros closer. He looked good in the short time as the Phillies closer, but I want to see how he does throughout a full season.
There’s a reason these pitchers are on this list; because there isn’t much to worry about. However, everything could change in a blink of an eye.
Did I overrate any one of my top-10 relief pitchers? Is there someone I’m too low on? Let me know in the comments.
The final position in my 2016 rankings will be my top-five designated hitters.