Relievers Who Could Become Closers Part Two
In part one, the focus for the relievers mentioned was strikeout rate and velocity. Those two skills are very important for predicting relievers who eventually step into closer roles over the course of a season, but having an opportunity to close might be just as important. Throwing 100 MPH with a 30% strikeout rate is great, but that pitcher won't get saves if they're stuck behind a Josh Hader or Aroldis Chapman level pitcher. Here are some pitchers with more questionable track records or health but with a clear path to saves if they are effective.
Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims
Lucas Sims’ elbow tightness and the signing of Sean Doolittle add some wrinkles to what should be an intriguing competition for saves in Cincinnati. In terms of on-field skills, Garrett and Sims both exemplify great swing and miss ability. Garrett’s 18.1% swinging strike rate was 9th best among relievers in 2020 and aided him on the way to a 37.7% strikeout rate. Garrett’s 18 and a third innings in 2020 were generally fantastic. He put up a 2.45 ERA, 2.72 xFIP, and 2.82 SIERA. His FIP was well over four but that was anchored by a comically high 33.3% HR/FB rate. Garrett’s slider is and has always been a major weapon, and it carried him through his successful 2020 season. He used it 55% of the time and produced a 28.9% swinging strike rate on the pitch. Garrett’s fastball produced great results (.268 wOBA) but drastically outproduced the expected stats and doesn’t have any standout movement to it. While this was also the case in 2019, it’s hard to imagine Garrett’s fastball will keep outperforming the expected outcomes.
The other question about Garrett’s profile is a potential split between his effectiveness against right-handed batters and left-handed batters. For his career, right-handed batters are hitting .248/.341/.490 with a .349 wOBA against him. This sample includes a lot of innings from when he was attempting to be a starting pitcher and shouldn’t be held against him as a reliever. Even as such, right-handed batters knocked him to the tune of a .318 wOBA in 2019 and .335 in 2020, seasons where he was a reliever full-time. The sample size is 173 batters faced and shouldn’t be used to draw final conclusions, but Garrett’s lack of an impact fastball and heavy reliance on his slider may make him vulnerable to right-handed hitters. In a competition for saves, having a weakness against the majority of the hitting population could be enough of a margin to concede saves to the competition.
Sims rode his elite spin rates to a 32.7% strikeout rate and an identical 2.45 ERA to Garrett. While Sims didn’t have the gaudy whiff rates that Garrett managed, Sims was able to get swing and misses with three different pitches and performed well on contact. His .234 xwOBAcon and 1.8%-barrel rate were among the best in MLB. While pitchers’ results on contact usually aren’t sustained year-to-year, particularly in the minuscule sample size Sims had in 2020, Sims' high spin approach does represent some logic behind his ability to give up a lot of fly balls but avoid barreled balls.
It is worth being wary of his 1.67 HR/9 rate in 2019 and his fairly mediocre 4.06 xFIP in 2020. A flyball approach in Great American Ballpark may not be sustainable and Sims’ track record is relatively spotty. Combined with the new elbow tightness, he likely isn’t worth drafting in March. If he does come into the season healthy and getting whiffs while avoiding home runs as he did in 2020 he has the upside so be a key closer pickup during the season. The most likely outcome is Garrett and Sims share saves responsibilities. Given each of their strikeout abilities and potential for plus ratios, a shared save role should make each pitcher viable in fantasy.
Clase debuted in 2019 and was topping out at 102 MPH, capturing the imagination of the entire baseball world. PITCHf/x tracked his primary pitch as a four-seam fastball while Statcast tracked it as a cutter. Regardless of what it’s called, he averaged 99 MPH with glove-side movement, making the pitch extremely hard to square up. He backed it up with a low-90’s slider. That pitch wasn’t particularly effective as a whiff weapon but he did manage a 60% ground ball rate with it. Given he was pushed to the major leagues at the age of 21 without even pitching at AAA, it would make sense for Clase to be an unfinished product. Even as such, he posted a 2.31 ERA with solid peripherals and looked like a future closer.
His path hit multiple bumps in 2020. He was dealt as the centerpiece for Corey Kluber in the offseason, injured his back in February, and ultimately was suspended for the entirety of the 2020 shortened season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. With all this turmoil, he didn’t pitch at all in 2020 and enters 2021 with multiple question marks. If he is healthy and his stuff still intact from the layoff, Clase still has what it takes to be an impact reliever. In addition to Clase’s own skills, the Indians bullpen has fairly fluid roles at the moment.
Their closer from mid-2018 to 2020, Brad Hand, was let go this offseason. Most are projecting strikeout artist James Karinchak to take over the role, but he has a couple of factors stacking up against him. Given how often he gets strikeouts (48.6% strikeout rate in 2020) there is an argument Karinchak would be best deployed as a high leverage reliever rather than a strict closer. Karinchak is also an unreliable strike thrower. At every level in the minors, he walked batters at a double-digit rate, and his 14.7% walk rate stifled his effectiveness in 2020, particularly in September. Clase’s command isn’t precise, but he has produced much lower walk rates since being converted to a reliever, and his heavy ground ball approach also raises his floor even if he will only settle into a 22%-24% strikeout rate. Nick Wittgren is also a threat for saves but his career 39.7% flyball rate makes him a big risk to give up too many home runs to stick in a closer role. A healthy and effective Clase has the potential to be a saves asset before the end of 2021.
Connor Brogdon and Jose Alvarado
The Phillies bullpen was a historic mess in the shortened 2020 season. With that in mind, they took decisive action in attempting to rectify some of the damage left behind by relievers like Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. One of the names on the list of additions was Jose Alvarado, a favorite of the gif community and former stalwart in the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen. Brogdon represents one of the few bright spots from the 2020 bullpen. The two pitchers get to their success very differently but could both be very effective if healthy.
Alvarado caught eyes in the minor leagues with his combination of power stuff, great strikeout numbers, and superlative ground ball rates. He never fully harnessed his strike-throwing but was effective at getting batters to chase and missing barrels. In his first two seasons, he produced a 2.79 ERA and 2.36 FIP and looked like one of the premier young relievers in MLB. Multiple injuries derailed his 2019 season, and he battled more arm issues in 2020. His command bottomed out and the Rays left him off the world series roster. The Phillies added Alvarado in the offseason through trade, giving Alvarado an opportunity for a fresh start. After two injury-plagued seasons, a healthy 2021 would go a long way towards re-establishing Alvarado as one of the best power relievers in MLB.
Brogdon was not a big-time prospect as a minor leaguer, but his minor league stats and the stuff he showed to begin his major league career make him an intriguing arm. Across three levels and 76 innings in 2019, Brogdon had a 2.61 ERA and struck out 106 batters against just 24 walks. He works primarily with a fastball and changeup. He can run the fastball into the mid-to-high 90’s and the changeup has good arm-side fade and drop to it, leading to a 24.6% swinging strike rate on the pitch.
He also worked with a cutter that was effective in its extremely limited use. His overall 3.97 ERA and 4.96 FIP are not particularly impressive, but much of the damage came on three home runs he allowed in his first three games. He was sent back to the alternate site in August and upon his return, in September he threw eight and two-thirds innings without allowing a run and striking out 14 batters. Accompanied by his minor league track record and his 3.22 xFIP and 2.90 SIERA, Brogdon certainly has a profile worth being excited about. Holding onto the improvements he made in September will be key to competing for saves.
Alvarado and Brogdon will each have to show they are effective relievers, but if they do there should be opportunities to get saves in the Philadelphia bullpen. The incumbent closer, Hector Neris, has struggled with consistency over the course of his career and has been taken out of the closer role multiple times before. Their biggest offseason acquisition, Archie Bradley, has been effective in recent seasons but he hasn’t put up a double-digit swinging strike rate since 2017 and struggled with velocity over the course of 2020. Brandon Kintzler also represents competition for saves but his 5.00 FIP, 4.98 xFIP, and 5.10 SIERA during the 2020 season were all career worsts. At his age, he could certainly be on the precipice of disaster. Brogdon and Alvarado should see save chances if their skills show up in 2021.
Wick began his professional baseball career as a hitter, but after stalling out in the low minors with the Cardinals he switched to pitching at the end of 2015. He broke out in 2019, posting a 2.43 ERA and 2.82 FIP with a 25% strikeout rate. He did have a SIERA and an xFIP over 4, and the fact that he did not give up a home run in just over 33 innings was certainly fortuitous. Regardless, he combined a 54.1% ground ball rate with a 96 MPH fastball and a league-average swinging strike rate of 11.5%. he was poised to play a big role in the 2021 bullpen for the Cubs, and he did find his way into a few saves. It wasn’t all positive, however.
Wick lost almost a full MPH on his fastball and his pitches became much easier for batters to lift. He actually improved his K%-BB% from 13.6% to 18.9% but his results on contact were much worse. His ground ball rate dropped to 37.5%, his barrel rate went from 7% to over 10%, his xwOBAcon went from well below league average at .310 to well above league average at .410 and his xERA rose from 3.30 to 4.42. He ended the season on the injured list, and it may explain some of the regression in the quality of contact he allowed and his subtle drop in fastball velocity. Even though he dealt with challenges throughout the season, he ended the season with an acceptable 3.12 ERA and his 3.64 SIERA was far from a disaster. He also raised the usage of his cutter and saw solid results in the small sample. Given his curveball is not a whiff pitch, making the cutter an even bigger part of his arsenal could help him unlock another level. Improved health and better execution would go a long way towards Wick truly breaking out.
The Cubs bullpen lacks certainty and stability at the moment. Jeremy Jeffress is currently a free agent. Craig Kimbrel flashed his vintage form but still had bouts of wildness and is entering his age-33 season. The rest of the current makeup of their relief corps doesn’t appear to have a serious threat for saves. Wick figures to open the season as the second reliever in the pecking order and if Kimbrel falters again he should be a solid mid-season source of saves.
Andres Munoz and Sam Delaplane
Munoz and Delaplane go about their business very differently, but they each have built a reputation for missing bats throughout their minor league careers. For Munoz, a short debut near the tail end of 2019 provided a glimpse into his strikeout upside. Delaplane has yet to debut.
Andres Munoz possesses a fastball that averaged 100.2 MPH in 2019 and pairs it with an extremely effective slider. Munoz’s command is poor and even with the elite velocity, his fastball was hit when he missed over the plate. Given its mediocre movement and inconsistent location, it’s not a shock the pitch was knocked around to the tune of a .390 xwOBA. His extreme velocity helps make the slider all the more effective, however, even if the fastball will get hit hard. It was only 131 pitches, but his 28.2% swinging strike rate on the slider was tremendous and his minor league track record supports the quality of his two-pitch mix. On his path to the majors, he recorded strikeout rates at or above 30% in 2018 and 2019. Given this context and his age (he was 20 years old in his debut season) the ceiling appears to be very high. His 2020 was wiped out by Tommy John surgery in March, and he won’t return until sometime in the summer. Fastball command tends to suffer the most for Tommy John returnees, and for a pitcher who already struggles to locate consistently, he may have an especially difficult adjustment when he does return. The stuff and strikeouts are good enough to keep an eye on if he does pitch well upon return.
Delaplane does not throw nearly as hard but also does not have nearly the walk problems. Between Advanced-A and Double-A in 2019 Delaplane carved up the competition to the tune of a 45.8% strikeout rate compared to just an 8.8% walk rate and continued to dominate in the Arizona Fall League. His fastball is more mid-90’s rather than touching triple digits like Munoz, but his fastball's ride allows him to get whiffs at the top of the strike zone, a nice contrast to the sliders he buries below the zone. The Mariners declined to bring him up to the majors in 2020 but he was added to the 40-man roster in the winter and figures to compete for an opening day bullpen spot. He may have the best stuff among any reliever on the Mariners’ 40-man roster and should have the opportunity to surpass assumed closer Rafael Montero. Between Munoz and Delaplane, the Mariners will have a couple of dynamic young options to take over the closing job at some point in 2021.
Adams was just starting to garner attention for his ferocious slider when he tore his ACL in September of 2019. He was expected to return at some point in August but his return was delayed and he never threw a pitch for the Mariners during the season. He was sent to San Diego in a package headlined by Austin Nola and would continue to work his way back from surgery. He returned at the tail end of 2020 and got three appearances at the end of the regular season along with four appearances in the postseason.
The four innings and 72 pitches Adams through in the 2020 regular season are hardly worth overanalyzing. Most significantly, he ended the season healthy. While the velocity on his fastball and slider were each down about two miles per hour, that could be because of the lingering effects of working his way back from major knee surgery. The tools Adams possessed that made him such an intriguing mid-career reliever breakout are likely still there. His slider has hard late-breaking movement and he has already shown a penchant for locating it to his glove side.
These characteristics made it a pitch he could get chases with (35.5% o-swing rate), throw in the strike zone (45.5% zone rate), and get swing and misses with (22% swinging-strike rate). This combination helped the slider return a .203 wOBA and identical .203 xwOBA while throwing it over 63% of the time. His fastball isn’t great (.454 xwOBA in 2019), and whenever he did get in trouble in 2019 it was with the fastball. Regaining the mid-90’s velocity will be important for his 2021 season, but he only threw the fastball 33% of the time in 2019 which helped mitigate the damage it caused.