Relievers Who Could Become Closers Part One

Often MLB teams do not end the season with the same pitcher closing games as they did to begin the season. The volatility of the relief position makes it difficult for relievers to get consistent year-to-year results, and teams who need to maximize the margins of their roster will be motivated to swap roles if the original plan goes sideways during the season.

There are a ton of factors that go into a team’s decision on who will collect saves. From 2015 to 2020 there were thirty-one pitchers who recorded at least 60 saves, and each pitcher had at least one season with 25 or more saves. There were two interesting trends from within this group:

- The average velocity was 94.7 MPH and the median was 95.1 MPH. If you replace Brad Ziegler’s four-seam fastball (listed as 76 MPH) with his sinker (84.6 MPH), the average increases to a flat 95 MPH. Relievers as a whole sat around 93 MPH.

- The group together struck out 29% of the batters they faced and walked 8.8%. The league averages in this timeframe were 23.1% for strikeouts and 9.2% for walks

Relievers who throw hard and have strong strikeout rates tend to be better relievers in general, so it’s intuitive these types will find their way into closing roles. The interesting part is teams appear way less concerned about relievers who walk a lot of batters if they’re striking out batters at an elevated clip. A walk issue certainly could be disqualifying and lead to season-to-season volatility, but we’ve seen pitchers like Edwin Diaz and Craig Kimbrel work themselves into saves despite poor walk rates. Here are some current non-closers with high-end velocity and high strikeout rates.

Josh Staumont

As a prospect Staumont struggled to get command of his extremely hard fastball. He never quite harnessed his stuff enough to remain a starter, but the mix of triple-digit velocity and a hard curveball was enough to get him to the majors as a reliever. After struggling in his first major league taste in 2019, Staumont flashed his upside in 2020. His 2.45 ERA and 33% K% paired with a fastball he could run into triple digits caught the attention of the baseball world.

Despite these strengths, Staumont will have to improve on his walk rate to become a consistent closer. His 14.3% walk rate will not work as a ninth-inning option and improving on his fastball command and getting more chases on his curveball is imperative to getting this walk rate down. His fastball registered a walk rate over 20% and his curveball only garnered a 24% O-Swing% and each of these results will need to improve for Staumont to reach his ceiling of an elite closer.

As for his team context, the Royals have a plethora of quality relief options who they can turn to for saves. At the end of 2020, Greg Holland was getting the call to close out games and he has re-signed this offseason, making him the clear favorite for saves at the outset of 2021. Staumont has the type of devastating stuff to overtake Holland during the season.

Pete Fairbanks

The Rays usage of relievers is suboptimal for fantasy players, and this likely isn’t going to change in 2021. Nick Anderson, the clear top reliever on the 2020 Rays finished the season with the same amount of holds as he did saves. The Rays also gave save opportunities to relievers as far down the depth chart as Edgar Garcia (now a member of the Cincinnati Reds). Regardless, Fairbanks fits the criteria as a non-closer who throws very hard and is a standout in the strikeout department.

Fairbanks debuted in 2019 and struggled with home runs and walks. In 2020, Fairbanks had more consistent fastball command and put up a 33.3 strikeout rate with a 2.70 ERA. The walks were still an issue (12% walk rate) but Fairbanks’ fastball and slider performed much better when they were put in play, making the walks much more manageable. His barrel rate fell from 8.2% to 4.8% and the average exit velocity he gave up dropped from 91.4 MPH to 89.8 MPH. These improvements also came with a huge reduction in home run rate. The 2.14 HR/9 Fairbanks allowed in 2019 dropped down to 0.68 HR/9 in 2021, making the walks he did give up much easier to work around. As currently constructed, Fairbanks would likely be a competent closer, but the Rays abundance of options makes it difficult to see him breaking into this role anytime soon.

Gregory Soto

The Tigers converted Soto to relief full-time in 2020 after struggling with command as a starter for years. The early returns looked like they had a breakout on their hands. At the end of August Soto had compiled a 3.12 ERA with a 30.9% strikeout rate and picked up two saves. Soto’s command problems halted his success, and he ceded saves to former University of Miami closer Bryan Garcia.

Soto features a power sinker that sits in the 97 MPH range and produced a 56.8 % groundball rate in 2020. It’s not an effective whiff or strikeout pitch but the velocity and movement make it difficult to get in the air and helps limit the damage hitters can do on it. Soto’s slider was magnificent in 2020, picking up a 30% swinging-strike rate and a minuscule .078 xwOBA. Despite the excellent results, he only threw the pitch a little over 20% of the time. While his sinker is an effective pitch, he does not command it well at all and he found himself walking a lot of batters with it. Raising his slider usage might help combat his command issues on the sinker.

The Tigers bullpen doesn’t appear to have very many quality arms. Former closer Joe Jimenez has a long way to regain his peak form, Buck Farmer and Daniel Norris are fine setup men and Bryan Garcia’s poor K%-BB% will eventually catch up to him. With this in mind, if Soto does use his slider more or command his sinker better, he has the best stuff in among their relievers and could get a shot to close.

Julian Merryweather and Jordan Romano

Merryweather and Romano have both become hard throwers later in their careers. They each averaged 96.9 MPH on their fastballs in 2020, harder than they were throwing in 2019. In the case of Jordan Romano, he also upped his slider velocity from 85 MPH to over 89 MPH. With this new velocity came more strikeouts. In Merryweather’s 13 innings, he struck out 27.3% of the batters he faced, and Romano struck out 36.8% in 14 and two-thirds innings. Each battled injuries over the course of the season which limited their innings totals.

Merryweather came up through the Indians organization as a four-pitch starter with solid command and backend of the rotation upside. After coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2020, Merryweather began throwing much harder and showed it in his debut season. The Blue Jays reportedly view Merryweather as a starter heading into spring training. Given the amount of lost development time, his advanced age (he is already 29), and the Blue Jays' wealth of options for the back end of their rotation, it seems unlikely Merryweather will break camp as a starter. With three solid secondary pitches and a potentially plus changeup, Merryweather may profile better as a multi-inning reliever. He still fits the criteria as a hard thrower with a good strikeout rate so he deserves the mention, but a closing role likely isn’t the most efficient use of his skill set, and the Blue Jays seem disinclined to utilize him in that way either.

Romano burst onto the scene in 2020 throwing much harder than 2019 and appeared to be solidifying himself as the replacement closer to Ken Giles before he suffered a finger injury which knocked him out for the rest of the season. When he was healthy, he was throwing his slider 60% of the time and got a 17.6% swinging strike rate on it. His fastball performed even better, returning a 22.5% swinging-strike rate and .171 xwOBA. Romano fits the closer profile to a tee with his newfound velocity and swing-and-miss tendencies. The Blue Jays also trusted him in high leverage situations prior to his injury, so Romano seems primed to break camp as a high leverage reliever.

Regardless of the quality of either of these pitchers, the Blue Jays signed Kirby Yates with the intention of giving him a chance to prove he’s healthy. If Yates is healthy and effective, he will likely occupy a role in which he’s getting most of the saves. Given Yates’ age and recent elbow injury, there is a path to Merryweather or Romano or other relievers usurping saves from Yates.

Alex Reyes/Genesis Cabrera

Reyes burst onto the scene with an electric twelve game escapade into the majors. A laundry list of injuries has kept him from making good on the promise he showed as a top prospect and a rookie, but he finally had a healthy season in 2020 and showed why he was such an exciting pitcher earlier in his career. He averaged around 98 MPH on his fastball and threw both a slider and curveball over 15% of the time. The slider had an effective .208 xwOBA and the curveball was even better with a .111 xwOBA. As long as Reyes is healthy and throwing hard, he will be interesting. He’ll need to improve the 16.3% walk rate in order to be a consistent closer, but he has shown better command in the past and was healthy for the first time in years in 2020.

Genesis Cabrera put up a sterling 2.42 ERA and 33.3% strikeout rate in 2020 but they were not supported by his underlying metrics. The loose armed lefty benefited from a .171 BABIP and 81.4% LOB%. With this, he had a 4.76 FIP and 4.57 xFIP. Cabrera is also a lefty and thus unlikely to be considered for a full-time closing position even if he improves upon his command (16.7% walk rate in 2020) or cuts into his home run rate (1.21 HR/9 in 2020). He averages over 96 MPH on his fastball from the left side and does get a good number of strikeouts and whiffs, but there are too many factors working against him to be a serious closer candidate down the road.

It is also worth mentioning the Cardinals plan on giving Reyes another opportunity to establish himself as a starting pitcher in 2021, and if he were to win a rotation spot it would take him out of the running for closing. The Cardinals' rotation depth and Reyes’ command and injury history make him a relative longshot to capture a role, so it’s likely he does wind up a reliever and one of the better arms in the Cardinals’ bullpen.

Tanner Rainey

Many had assumed Rainey was in line to start 2021 as the Nationals closer after Sean Doolittle’s departure and Daniel Hudson’s regression in 2020. Instead, they brought in all-star closer Brad Hand to take that role, and Rainey is ticketed for a setup role again in 2021. Regardless, Rainey is another reliever with a high-velocity fastball, command issues, and a secondary pitch that can reliably get whiffs. Hand represents a significant roadblock at the outset of 2021, but Hand has shown signs of physical deterioration over the past couple of seasons.

While Hand has been able to combat the velocity dip, he is reasonably vulnerable to a collapse. Rainey has the skillset to take over if that becomes the case.

After contributing to the Nationals’ title run as an effective but inconsistent reliever, Rainey’s command took a step forward in 2020. Rainey found the strike zone a career-high 63.6% of the time with his fastball and produced a healthy 14.1% swinging-strike rate. He averaged 97 MPH on the pitch, which was well below his 2019. If that allowed him to better command the pitch, losing a tick might have been beneficial. Being able to attack batters in the strike zone with his fastball also made his already stellar slider even more incredible. It produced a 32.3% swinging-strike rate and .142 xwOBA. These improvements made Rainey one of the best relievers in baseball.

It wasn’t all positive for Rainey in 2020, however. He gave up three home runs in his final four appearances and landed on the injured list with a forearm issue to close out the season. Between health questions and Hand’s signing, Rainey does not need to be on your draft day radar, but a healthy Rainey certainly could be the Nationals’ closer before the end of 2021.

Jorge Alcala

Alcala flashed the upside that made him an intriguing relief prospect in the past. He averaged 97 MPH on the fastball and produced a 17.2% swinging strike rate on his slider. While Alcala is primarily a fastball and slider reliever, he showed solid feel for a changeup.

He did not throw it very often, but it produced a .140 xwOBA in its limited sample size with a 16.7% swinging-strike rate. The three-pitch mix helped him put up a 2.63 ERA and 3.57 FIP in 24 innings of work.

As it currently stands, the Twins have a deep and versatile bullpen. The signing of Alex Colome adds another name to a list of relievers they could turn to for saves. Between Colome, Taylor Rogers, and Tyler Duffey, Alcala will have a lot of competition for potential save opportunities. It is difficult to see a clear path to begin the season, but if the changeup progresses and becomes a bigger part of his arsenal Alcala has the stuff and strikeout rate to be the Twins’ closer by the end of the season.

Trevor May

Since moving full time to the bullpen, Trevor May has been one of the most effective strikeout relievers in MLB. Among relievers with at least 100 innings between 2016 and 2020, May’s 33.1% strikeout rate is 17th. In 2020 he added nearly two MPH on his fastball and boosted his strikeout rate even more. His 18.5% swinging strike rate was 7th among all relievers in 2020. May was trending towards being a more dominant reliever over the course of his career with the Twins but never attained a consistent closer role. Between the bevy of quality arms to Rocco Baldelli’s disposal and a few bouts of injury or inconsistency from May himself, he remained an effective setup reliever in Minnesota.

Now with the Mets, May again projects as a setup man. Edwin Diaz is one of the premier relievers in the game, and the Mets also have Seth Lugo who they can deploy in high leverage roles. In the event that Diaz’s walk rate gets out of control and Seth Lugo’s services are needed in the rotation, May would likely become the clear leader for saves in the Mets bullpen. Given his skill level, velocity and experience, May appears to be equipped for the role if he were to step in it.