Outside the top 5 or 10 relievers there is much uncertainty regarding who will close and who won’t. Whether it’s because of a by-committee approach, teams going with the “hot hand,” or simply because bad teams have no use for a “proven” closer. All that to say is that there’s a lot to be gained by simply paying attention to the more volatile situations in your pursuit of a quality bullpen.
Two things stand out to me as I seek to identify relief targets:
Skills such as fastball velocity, swing-and-miss ability, and contact quality are vital. Also a given team’s reliance on certain pitchers late in the game is also meaningful. Variables like handedness, experience, and durability are important as well. This time of year you’ll get lots of advice about closers of the future and such and I’m here to tell you that is generally nonsense. Only four of 2020’s top-20 saves leaders haven’t been used as a starter at any point in their career, whether it was in the minor leagues or the major leagues. Career trajectory matters. Failed starters make excellent low-cost relief targets once they convert full-time to the bullpen. But you have to spot them early and I want to help you with that.
To get you started here is a collection of arms you will want to keep an eye on as you speculate on saves this draft season. And the best part is that they’ll be there for your last pick!
Jesse Hahn, Kansas City Royals - 681 NFBC ADP
With his fourth organization and working exclusively as a reliever, Jesse Hahn may have broken out in 2020. Working as a starter with San Diego and Oakland Hahn enjoyed varying degrees of success while battling inconsistency and health issues. Ultimately an injury to his elbow before he even threw a pitch for Kansas City possibly ended his career as a starter and began his transition to relief ace.
In 2020, albeit in just a 17.1 inning sample, Hahn posted career bests in ERA, K%, K-BB%, WHIP, and FIP. He also threw a career-low percentage of fastballs (56.5%) while enjoying an uptick in velocity (95 MPH).
He threw his slider 12% and his curveball 30%, resulting in 42% breaking balls - also a career-high. This was a good development because his breaking balls are both quite good.
Each boasts an average spin rate greater than 3,000 and a sub-.200 xwOBA. By spin rate he’s 2nd in baseball. His K% on curves is top-20 in baseball, according to Alex Chamberlain’s pitch leaderboard. These are good pitches he decided to throw more often and it worked.
As far as his usage goes, Hahn saved three games for the Royals in his short season. It just so happened to be that two of those were the final two saves of Kansas City’s season. Does that mean he’s their closer? Not necessarily. Not while Greg Holland and Josh Staumont also lurk. This past season, when it was assumed that the ninth inning belonged to Ian Kennedy, Trevor Rosenthal emerged and ran away with the closer’s job until he was traded. Who’s to say Hahn can’t be that guy this year? As the 4th Kansas City reliever off the board and one that’s nearly undrafted, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain.
Jose Cisnero, Detroit Tigers - 703 NFBC ADP
Here’s a classic case of “interesting pitcher, bad team.” Jose Cisnero is not a name that jumps out at you, if you’ve even heard it before. You’ll be pleased to learn he was a top-10 in reliever in fWAR in 2020. I cite fWAR, not because it’s valuable for fantasy in and of itself, but because it points to a high quality body of work. Career-bests in, well, everything led to Cisnero’s breakout and eventual usage in Detroit’s late innings.
In 2020 he scrapped whatever remained of his changeup in favor of a few more fastballs, but otherwise his pitch arsenal remained the same from 2019.
Cisnero packs elite, upper-90s 4-seam velocity with 73rd percentile spin, however it’s his slider that did the heavy lifting. Per Chamberlains’ pitch leaderboard, Cisnero’s slider was top-15 among relievers in K% at 44.7%. By swinging-strike rate it’s 20th at 22.8%. Lastly, according to Chamberlain, it was the most chased slider in baseball (min. 100 pitches) last year.
In Detroit’s final three wins of 2020 Cisnero pitched the 8th inning, earning holds in both appearances. Bryan Garcia earned the saves, but by nearly every measurement he is a worse pitcher. RosterResource lists Gregory Soto as a co-closer along with Garcia, but due to Soto’s left handedness and Garcia’s underwhelming track record, I don’t believe much stands in the way between Cisnero and saves chances. Not a single Tigers pitcher is going inside the top-300 and Cisnero is outside the top 700 so there isn’t much competition for any of these arms. If you’re in a league that allows in-season pick-ups Cisnero is the guy I’m watching come March.
Matt Wisler, San Francisco Giants - 634 NFBC ADP
Perhaps the biggest hail mary on this list is San Francisco Giants reliever Matt Wisler. Before we get into the analysis I want to point out that after Wisler was non-tendered by the Minnesota Twins he was quickly scooped up by the Giants for $1.5 million. The aggressiveness and relatively big commitment to a journeyman reliever by a smart franchise tells me the Giants see something they like. Similar to how small sample sizes relaunched the careers of RIch Hill and Drew Pomeranz, Wisler’s career could have new life as a closer. Even Grant Brisbee agrees with me.
“Wisler is like that. When it comes to swings and misses, he was in the 92nd percentile among all pitchers. He allowed some of the quietest contact, too. He threw 453 pitches last year, and he did everything the Twins could have asked.
… But he embarrassed lefties and righties alike last season, and he misses bats. That’s good enough to be an early contender, if not the early favorite. We’ll know more after one week of spring training than we do right now, but from here, he looks like the likeliest solution.”
The most interesting, and perhaps endearing, quality of Wisler’s was his transition to throwing nearly all sliders in 2020. His 83% slider usage jumped more than 10 points year-over-year and was the highest in baseball by more than 20%. In fact, he’s become more and more reliant on his breaking pitch every season of his career. And why not? It is an awfully good pitch. According to Fangraphs it was the 5th best slider in baseball last year.
Wisler finished 2020 with a 1.07 ERA and 35 strikeouts in just 25.1 innings. His 13.9% swinging strike rate supports those gaudy strikeouts, but high walks totals and an unsustainable strand rate suggest he wasn’t as good as the ERA indicates. He also started many games the past two seasons as an “opener,” pitching to just a handful of batters before yielding to another arm. It’s possible that role is in store for him with San Francisco.
Still I think there’s a lot to like with Wisler. Since the start of 2019, as a full-time reliever/opener, Wisler owns a 4.11 ERA/3.94 FIP with 98 Ks in 76.2 IP, and a 14.6% swinging strike rate.
Other Notable Arms
JB Wendelken, Oakland Athletics - 513 NFBC ADP
After a couple of up-and-down seasons with Oakland JB Wendelken solidified himself among Bob Melvin’s more trusted relievers in the 2020 shortened season. Everything about Wendelken screams “solid middle reliever.” Strong strikeout rate backed up by an 11% swinging strike rate, good home run rate, and solid strand rate. The big knocks on Wendelken are his elevated walk rate and the fact that he wasn’t given leads to protect as much as he was used to bail the starter out of a jam, or get 4+ outs in a tie game. That’s not normally how closers are born. However, Oakland is without three of it’s four most trusted relievers from last season - Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria, and Yusmeiro Petit - leaving saves virtually up for grabs.
I still think there’s a chance the A’s walk away from the offseason with a “proven” veteran arm such as Tyler Clippard, but until they do I am not counting Wendelken out when it comes to saves. Jake Diekman might be the guy penciled in right now, but his left handedness and history of high walk rates suggest to me that he’s not simply going to be handed the job.
Chris Stratton, Pittsburgh Pirates - 734 NFBC ADP
Here’s another failed starter that has solidified himself as a trusted relief arm. In 2020 Chris Stratton began securing holds late in the year and put up interesting strikeout numbers. Elite spin rates on his three most frequently thrown pitches - 4-seam fastball, slider, and curveball - suggest there’s even more upside here.
He’s penciled in as a setup man for Pittsburgh but I believe there’s upward mobility in that pen, especially as they start selling off parts this summer.
Bonus Minor League Edition
Sam Delaplane, Seattle Mariners - 746 NFBC ADP
Sam Delaplane has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues and isn’t guaranteed a roster spot on the rebuilding Seattle Mariners. But if I had to break my “no such thing as closer of the future” rule, it might be for him.
Delapane’s minor league numbers are insanely good. Across 161 minor league innings Delaplane has a 2.29 ERA and 270 strikeouts to just 54 walks. A report written early last year noted Delaplane’s signature pitch, a breaking pitch thrown like a curveball with the velocity of a slider. Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen likens the pitch to that of Brad Lidge and considers he could be a “reliever of rare quality.” Delaplane’s name truly is one to tuck away in your mind.
Who did I miss? What do you think of these arms? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on twitter @JoeyThomasD
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