Positional Power Rankings: Relief Pitchers (#1-#15)

For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. The data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been going position by position around the sport. We finish up the series with bullpens today, but it’s worth noting that these projections follow a slightly different structure than the rest.

For one, projecting specific innings totals for relievers is a taller task than projecting playing time for position players or even innings totals for starters. There are numerous outside factors impacting bullpen usage, including things that we can’t really predict like the distribution of runs scored and allowed by each team. One team might play in a bunch of blowouts and rarely need their closer, while another could end up in a continuous stream of one run games and ask their best few arms to carry a lion’s share of the workload. Beyond that, the health of a team’s rotation is going to be a factor, as some relievers are also reserve starters who might be pressed into duty mid-season. And the depth charts are continually evolving, as injuries and acquisitions move guys into differing roles that come with different usage patterns.

So, for the relievers, we’ve simply assigned IP totals to each slot on a depth chart. Closers and primary setup men get 65 innings each, with the 3rd/4th relievers getting 55 innings each, and then the rest have their innings allocated in descending order according to their placement on the depth chart. And, in order to make each team’s total number of innings pitched (both starters and relievers) equal out to 1,458, we’ve added in a set for each team that makes up the missing innings in the projections. The performance projection is the same for each team, and is set to be around -0.1 WAR per 100 innings, on the assumption that the 10th or 11th reliever a team uses throughout the season is probably a little bit below replacement level. The statline in the table is just there as a placeholder – those numbers aren’t actually affecting the calculation beyond just setting innings equal and being included in the WAR sum.

Also, since we don’t have separate ZIPS/Steamer projections for guys as starters and relievers, guys who were projected as starters but are going to pitch in relief will likely be under-forecast. Aroldis Chapman, for instance, is getting his starter projections prorated to reliever innings totals, and he’ll almost certainly pitch better in relief than he was projected to do as a starter. There aren’t a lot of those types, but for guys like that, adjust their numbers upwards accordingly.

One final note: we’ve mentioned this on the other lists, but it is worth emphasizing here – the gap between many teams is so slim that you shouldn’t read too much into a team’s placement in the ordinal rank. The gap between #12 and #22 is +0.7 WAR. That’s no difference at all, really. There are good bullpens, okay bullpens, and a couple of bad bullpens, but don’t get too caught up in whether one team is a few spots ahead of another team. With margins this small, the specific placement on the list is mostly irrelevant.

On to the list.

#1 Braves


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Craig Kimbrel 65.0 14.9 3.6 0.6 .306 86.8 % 1.72 1.86 2.7
Jonny Venters 65.0 10.0 4.2 0.5 .310 76.1 % 2.97 3.09 1.2
Jordan Walden 55.0 10.4 4.0 0.7 .310 77.0 % 3.16 3.10 0.9
Eric O’Flaherty 55.0 7.9 3.1 0.6 .300 75.3 % 3.11 3.26 0.6
Cory Gearrin 45.0 8.5 4.1 0.6 .308 73.4 % 3.61 3.60 0.2
Luis Avilan 40.0 7.4 4.2 1.1 .302 71.5 % 4.51 4.53 -0.1
Cristhian Martinez 35.0 7.4 2.3 0.9 .305 73.8 % 3.51 3.49 0.1
The Others 165.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 525.0 8.7 4.0 0.8 .305 74.8 % 3.54 3.70 5.5

Should the reader find himself, at some point, considering the WAR leaderboard for pitchers over the least two seasons, he will notice that only one reliever appears among the league’s top-30 by that criteria — namely, Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel. In 139.2 innings over that two-year stretch, Kimbrel has posted a 6.8 WAR — a metric (i.e. WAR), by the way, which is generally at odds with how high-leverage relievers are compensated on the open market. No other pitcher among that same leaderboard’s top 30 has thrown fewer than 316.1 innings — which is to say, more than twice as many as Kimbrel. Nor do the projections sense that any of this is a fluke: both Steamer and ZiPS forecast Kimbrel to post a strikeout rate above 14 K/9. If the reader has any extra superlatives lying around, he might consider dedicating them to the hard-throwing Braves closer.

Beyond Kimbrel, the Braves have in Johnny Venters — well, maybe, considering he just left today’s Grapefruit League game with an elbow strain — and Jordan Walden two pitchers who would not be out of place in the closer’s role. Apart from Venters’ ground-ball rate, which is surely multiple standard deviations above league average, the pair are almost identical — both likely to strike out about 10.0 batters per nine innings, walk 4.0, and allow about 3.00 earned runs. Eric O’Flaherty is likely to reach the same end by slightly different means, striking out fewer batters, but also walking fewer, as well.

#2 Rockies


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Rafael Betancourt 65.0 9.3 2.1 1.1 .313 76.7 % 3.38 3.32 1.5
Wilton Lopez 65.0 6.9 2.0 0.9 .317 72.2 % 3.71 3.50 1.2
Matt Belisle 55.0 7.5 2.2 0.8 .324 72.0 % 3.78 3.39 1.0
Rex Brothers 55.0 11.1 5.0 0.8 .322 75.2 % 3.68 3.48 0.8
Adam Ottavino 45.0 8.6 3.9 1.0 .320 72.4 % 4.17 3.93 0.3
Josh Outman 40.0 7.6 4.5 1.1 .315 70.4 % 4.71 4.57 0.1
Manuel Corpas 35.0 5.7 3.3 1.2 .310 69.1 % 4.88 4.73 0.0
Edgmer Escalona 30.0 8.0 3.9 1.4 .310 72.6 % 4.62 4.66 0.0
The Others 283.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.2
Total 673.0 7.3 3.7 1.0 .311 72.4 % 4.21 4.26 4.8

First, consider the projected innings total here for the Colorado bullpen. Next, consider the projected innings totals for basically every other bullpen. Higher, is what the Rockies’ is. Some of that might be the residual effects of last season’s four-man rotation experiment. It seems, at this point, as though that project has been abandoned. As a result, the Rockies relief corps is unlikely to outpace the rest of the league’s bullpens by 100 innings again, as they did in 2012. That said, Coors Field is still very much the most hitter-friendly park in the majors. Higher run environments generally lead to higher pitch counts. Higher pitcher counts lead to more pitching changes. More pitching changes obviously lead to greater innings totals for the bullpen. Et cetera and et cetera.

In terms of personnel, specifically, Rafael Betancourt returns to the closer role he assumed after the departure of Huston Street to San Diego. Betancourt’s strikeout rate has decreased each of the past two seasons — from 35.9% in 2010 to 30.8% in 2011 to 24.2% in 2012 — which merits some concern. Still, to date, the decline has only seen him move from elite to merely above-average. Notably, Betancourt’s park-adjusted xFIP was only the fifth-best among the club’s relievers last season. Of the four ahead of him — Matt Belisle (85 xFIP-), Adam Ottavino (87 xFIP-), Rex Brothers (88 xFIP-), and Matt Reynolds (93 xFIP-) — all pitched significant innings and all but Reynolds return for the 2013 season.

Of some note is Colorado’s acquisition of Wilton Lopez this offseason from Houston. After failing a physical that would have completed a trade to the Phillies, Lopez was then traded to the Rockies, who were comfortable with his health, apparently. Lopez has pitched well enough in spring training, and would be of some benefit to the club were he healthy.

#3 Yankees


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Mariano Rivera 65.0 8.6 2.2 0.9 .308 74.7 % 3.15 3.27 1.4
David Robertson 65.0 11.3 3.7 0.8 .316 78.2 % 3.00 2.97 1.6
Boone Logan 55.0 9.9 3.8 1.0 .309 74.6 % 3.74 3.73 0.6
Clay Rapada 55.0 8.0 3.9 0.9 .307 73.2 % 4.01 3.95 0.4
Shawn Kelley 45.0 8.6 3.4 1.2 .305 76.1 % 3.94 4.08 0.2
Joba Chamberlain 40.0 9.0 3.0 1.1 .307 74.4 % 3.74 3.77 0.2
David Aardsma 35.0 8.2 4.1 1.1 .306 68.7 % 4.55 4.16 0.0
The Others 176.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 536.0 8.1 3.8 1.0 .307 73.5 % 3.92 4.04 4.3

Mariano Rivera pitched 8.1 totally Rivera-esque innings last year before tearing his ACL at the beginning of May and missing the remainder of the season. He’s had nearly a year to recover at this point, and has pitched, once again, a lot like Mariano Rivera in spring training. While individual projection systems like Steamer and ZiPS will be pessimistic about his workload in 2013, that has everything to do with the fact that there’s little precedent for dominant 43-year-old pitchers who’ve missed an entire season and yet are returning to play. Of course, there’s very little precedent for Mariano Rivera, in general.

Last year, even without Rivera, the Yankees bullpen placed among the top third of the league’s relief units by every relevant measure. Rafael Soriano, who departed during the offseason to Washington, was certainly an important part of the 2012 club. The return of Rivera, though — combined with more than just two months of Joba Chamberlain — is probably worth more than Soriano.

Nor is any of this to ignore the bullpen’s star from 2012: David Robertson. While Soriano was nominally the closer, Robertson was the more effective pitcher, posting higher strikeout and ground-ball rates than Soriano, plus a lower walk rate.

#4 Diamondbacks


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
J.J. Putz 65.0 10.0 2.4 0.8 .309 76.5 % 2.91 2.86 1.8
Heath Bell 65.0 8.1 3.5 0.8 .311 73.1 % 3.88 3.70 0.8
David Hernandez 55.0 11.1 3.6 0.9 .307 78.5 % 3.01 3.17 1.0
Brad Ziegler 55.0 6.4 3.2 0.5 .306 73.0 % 3.52 3.54 0.6
Tony Sipp 45.0 9.0 4.1 1.2 .295 75.1 % 3.96 4.18 0.1
Josh Collmenter 40.0 7.1 2.4 1.2 .301 72.9 % 4.01 4.05 0.1
Matt Reynolds 35.0 8.6 3.1 1.1 .307 74.8 % 3.73 3.73 0.1
Joe Paterson 30.0 6.9 4.0 1.0 .310 70.9 % 4.55 4.52 0.0
The Others 134.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 524.0 7.9 3.6 0.9 .305 73.7 % 3.83 3.94 4.3

To begin, a brief timeline of events.

2010: The Diamondbacks bullpen posts a league-worst park-adjusted ERA and FIP.

Late 2010: The Diamondbacks hire Kevin Towers — famous for creating top bullpens out of spare parts in San Diego — as their new GM.

2011-12: The Diamondbacks finish with one of the league’s best park-adjusted ERAs and FIPs.

The reader is invited to reach his own conclusions concerning the facts above, but there are at least two (i.e. conclusions) that make sense. One is this: the narrative being implied here — namely, that Kevin Towers singlehandedly resurrected the Arizona bullpen — is too neat. Another one is also this: that, regardless of concerns about the narrative, Towers has still certainly helped the Diamondbacks bullpen.

Between 2011 and -12, J.J. Putz and David Hernandez have accounted for ca. 7.0 WAR — or, about 1.75 WAR per player season. In 2010, no Diamondbacks reliever posted better than a 0.2 WAR (an honor for which D.J. Carrasco and Sam Demel were tied). Putz and Hernandez were acquired on consecutive days at the beginning of December in 2010, less than three months into Towers’ tenure with club. Between them, they’re owed only about $8 million in 2013 — rather good for the nearly four wins they’re projected to produce and exceptionally good in light of the fact that relievers typically receive about three times the average market value per win.

Somewhat out of character with Towers’ history of identifying cheap relief help is his offseason acquisition of Heath Bell from the Marlins, who’s owed $18 million between 2013 and -14. Bell hasn’t been a distinctly above-average pitcher since 2010, although his failings were likely overstated last year in the wake of his large contract. Even in the case of Bell, however, Towers has something resembling a deal, as Miami is paying for $8 million of the remaning contract. If Bell is worth a couple of wins over the next two season, he’ll have been a far better value than a typical high-leverage reliever on the open market.

#5 Royals


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Greg Holland 65.0 11.0 4.0 0.7 .315 77.1 % 3.10 3.05 1.6
Kelvin Herrera 65.0 8.7 2.8 0.8 .310 74.6 % 3.36 3.28 1.2
Aaron Crow 55.0 9.0 3.6 0.8 .310 74.5 % 3.57 3.54 0.7
Tim Collins 55.0 11.1 4.9 0.9 .312 76.7 % 3.53 3.57 0.6
Luke Hochevar 45.0 6.6 2.9 1.0 .308 68.0 % 4.59 4.20 0.1
Louis Coleman 40.0 9.5 4.0 1.2 .294 77.1 % 3.78 4.13 0.1
Francisley Bueno 35.0 5.8 3.2 1.0 .300 70.3 % 4.39 4.33 0.0
Luis Mendoza 30.0 5.0 3.3 0.9 .306 68.2 % 4.73 4.54 0.0
Everett Teaford 25.0 6.3 3.2 1.2 .302 71.1 % 4.49 4.50 0.0
Juan Gutierrez 20.0 7.2 3.6 1.4 .308 71.2 % 4.80 4.73 0.0
The Others 82.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 517.0 8.1 3.7 1.0 .307 73.2 % 3.95 3.97 4.1

There are reasons to be skeptical about Kansas City’s chances in 2013, especially as pertains to the offense part of the team and the rotation part of the team. Above all suspicion, however, is the quality of the bullpen. After posting top-10 marks by park-adjusted ERA, FIP, and xFIP last year as a unit, the Royals ‘pen begins 2013 with much of the same personnel as in 2012.

Filling the closer role he assumed following the midseason departure of Jonathan Broxton to Cincinnati is right-hander Greg Holland. In 145.2 innings now over three seasons (all in relief), Holland has posted a 72 ERA-, 60 FIP-, and 4.3 WAR. While he throws his fastball at about 96 mph on average, it’s Holland’s slider that […]. The offering has been worth about 2.5 runs for every 100 times he’s thrown it and has been exceeded in total value over the past two seasons only by Sergio Romo’s.

Behind Holland are three pitchers — Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, and Kelvin Herrera — who have all made a case for usage in high-leverage innings. Herrera, in particular, is impressive. At 97-98 mph, his fastball is explosive, and he throws a curve, too. Yet it’s his changeup that sets him apart, as this GIF exhibits rather gratuitously:

#6 Blue Jays


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Sergio Santos 65.0 10.6 3.9 0.8 .319 74.8 % 3.35 3.21 1.4
Casey Janssen 65.0 8.9 2.5 0.9 .309 75.1 % 3.32 3.26 1.2
Darren Oliver 55.0 8.1 2.6 0.8 .306 74.6 % 3.35 3.41 0.8
Steve Delabar 55.0 11.1 4.1 1.3 .308 76.5 % 3.88 4.00 0.3
Esmil Rogers 45.0 8.7 3.4 0.9 .317 72.4 % 3.96 3.67 0.3
Brad Lincoln 40.0 7.3 2.4 1.3 .311 70.4 % 4.46 4.28 0.1
Brett Cecil 35.0 6.8 2.7 1.2 .305 70.9 % 4.41 4.28 0.0
Jeremy Jeffress 30.0 7.6 5.6 0.9 .309 71.1 % 4.65 4.70 0.0
J.A. Happ 25.0 7.7 3.9 1.2 .307 70.5 % 4.76 4.51 0.0
Aaron Loup 20.0 6.7 2.9 0.9 .312 69.4 % 4.25 3.89 0.0
Chad Jenkins 15.0 4.4 2.9 1.4 .316 65.4 % 5.70 5.18 0.0
The Others 52.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 0.0
Total 502.0 8.3 3.4 1.0 .310 72.8 % 3.99 3.94 4.0

Toronto’s trade of right-handed prospect Nestor Molina to the White Sox last offseason for Sergio Santos inspired conflicting sentiments. On the one hand, Molina had posted absrud minor-league strikeout-to-walk ratios. On the other, the scouting reports suggested his (i.e. Molina’s) stuff would be less effective against more talented opposition. On the third hand (for those who have three hands), it’s something like sabermetric orthodoxy never to trade a starter for a reliever, all (or most) other things being equal.

As it happened, the returns on the first year of the trade were equal — which is to say, close to zero for both clubs. As the reports suggested, Molina had less success with more advaned hitters. Meanwhile, after beginning the season as the Jays closer, Sergio Santos pitched all of 5.0 innings before missing the rest of the season to shoulder surgery.

Santos returns to the fold this year — although, it’s not as though Toronto entirely foundered in his absence. Casey Janssen (65.0 IP, 72 xFIP-, 1.7 WAR) and Darren Oliver (56.2 IP, 86 xFIP-, 1.1 WAR) both pitched well in high-leverage roles, and deadline acquisition Steve Delabar (29.1 IP, 70 xFIP-, 0.6 WAR) was rather effective, as well. The July departure of Francisco Cordero, as well — who began 2012 as the Jays closer — is a real, live instance of addition by subtraction.

#7 White Sox


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Addison Reed 65.0 9.4 3.0 1.1 .306 76.1 % 3.66 3.72 1.0
Matt Thornton 65.0 8.8 3.1 0.8 .312 73.1 % 3.50 3.33 1.3
Jesse Crain 55.0 10.0 4.1 1.2 .296 77.2 % 3.65 3.89 0.5
Matt Lindstrom 55.0 7.5 3.0 0.8 .311 72.6 % 3.77 3.68 0.6
Nate Jones 45.0 8.3 4.1 0.9 .305 74.4 % 3.84 3.96 0.3
Donnie Veal 40.0 8.5 5.4 0.8 .304 73.8 % 4.01 4.22 0.1
Dylan Axelrod 35.0 6.4 3.4 1.1 .309 70.5 % 4.65 4.48 0.0
The Others 177.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 537.0 7.7 3.9 1.0 .305 73.3 % 4.03 4.17 3.7

The White Sox bullpen has conspired in recent seasons to produce no shortage of amusement. For years, it seemed obvious that uber-effective left-hander Matt Thornton ought to be given the closer role, but a combination of Bobby Jenks, Ozzie Guillen, and Thornton’s own ineffectiveness when given the opportunity have made that contingency less and less likely. This past season, with Robin Ventura in his first year as manager, it was a different scenario: despite the presence of the young and hard-throwing Addison Reed, Ventura named screwballer Hector Santiago as the team’s closer. By May, however, that had changed, and Reed went on to perform quite ably (55.0 IP, 99 xFIP-, 0.9 WAR).

Despite the handwringing sometimes associated with the club’s bullpen, the South Siders have produced some of the league’s highest-quality relief innings over the last five seasons, producing the seventh-lowest park-adjusted ERA over that time and second-highest overall WAR — while having success with projects like J.J. Putz (who had been injured irrecovably, it seemed) and Sergio Santos (who was converted from the infield).

With pitching coach Don Cooper around, and the club’s highly praised training staff, there’s little reason to think that 2013 will be much different. Most of last year’s personnel returns, with Addison Reed, Matt Thornton, and Jesse Crain (provided he gets over some recent issues with his hip) assuming the bulk of the high-leverage innings. The success of Nate Jones (71.2 IP, 96 xFIP-, 1.1 WAR) was another pleasant development for the 2012 White Sox, and the right-hander is also likely to see his share of appearances.

#8 Red Sox


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Joel Hanrahan 65.0 9.7 4.0 1.0 .305 76.3 % 3.54 3.75 1.0
Andrew Bailey 65.0 8.3 3.1 1.1 .303 75.2 % 3.70 3.77 0.9
Koji Uehara 55.0 10.3 1.8 1.1 .297 81.6 % 2.72 2.98 1.2
Andrew Miller 55.0 10.3 6.1 0.9 .305 74.5 % 4.07 4.19 0.3
Junichi Tazawa 45.0 8.6 3.2 0.9 .310 73.9 % 3.66 3.60 0.4
Daniel Bard 40.0 7.9 5.2 0.9 .302 73.1 % 4.34 4.48 0.1
Alfredo Aceves 35.0 7.1 3.5 1.0 .301 71.4 % 4.21 4.32 0.0
The Others 251.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.2
Total 611.0 7.8 4.1 1.0 .303 73.7 % 4.03 4.26 3.7

Before the 2012 season, Boston made two trades for top-end relievers, sending Josh Reddick to Oakland for Andrew Bailey and Jed Lowrie to Houston for Mark Melancon. While Reddick and Lowrie combined for more than 7.0 WAR between them, Bailey and Melancon were less successful, throwing 60.1 innings combined and allowing 43 runs (or, 6.4 R/9).

Even so, the Sox bullpen wasn’t miserable; it was just a less likely cast of characters having success. Junichi Tazawa (44.0 IP, 62 xFIP-, 1.3 WAR), for example, and Scott Atchison (51.1 IP, 82 xFIP-, 1.0 WAR) were both quite effective, while Alfredo Aceves finished fourth in the majors with 84.0 relief innings — most of them decent.

Despite the tolerable performance of the 2012 crew, Boston took steps to improve the bullpen over the offseason, trading Melancon and three others to Pittsburgh for Joel Hanrahan and also signing free agent Koji Uehara for $4.25 million. That pair, along with Bailey, will form Boston’s high-leverage contingent, with Tazawa, Andrew Miller, and (a possibly resurgent) Daniel Bard in support.

The most appropriate thing to monitor for 2013 is probably the performance of the prospects sent from Boston to Pittsburgh. If 2012 is any indication (with Lowrie and Reddick), one ought to expect a breakout campaign from Jerry Sands.

#9 Reds


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Aroldis Chapman 65.0 11.2 4.4 0.9 .289 74.7 % 3.44 3.37 1.0
Jonathan Broxton 65.0 8.6 3.4 0.9 .306 75.2 % 3.52 3.63 0.7
Sean Marshall 55.0 9.8 2.6 0.7 .310 77.9 % 2.77 2.80 1.1
Jose Arredondo 55.0 8.7 4.6 1.0 .300 74.2 % 4.06 4.13 0.1
Alfredo Simon 45.0 7.8 3.2 0.9 .308 73.4 % 3.80 3.79 0.2
Nick Masset 40.0 8.9 3.7 1.0 .308 75.7 % 3.70 3.78 0.2
Sam LeCure 35.0 8.9 3.2 1.0 .300 75.1 % 3.53 3.66 0.1
Logan Ondrusek 30.0 6.9 4.3 1.1 .297 72.4 % 4.38 4.64 -0.1
J.J. Hoover 25.0 9.9 3.8 1.1 .295 77.4 % 3.46 3.77 0.0
Manny Parra 20.0 8.5 4.6 0.8 .308 72.4 % 3.99 3.94 0.0
Pedro Villarreal 15.0 6.1 2.8 1.4 .302 69.7 % 4.77 4.74 0.0
The Others 45.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 0.0
Total 495.0 8.7 3.8 0.9 .302 74.4 % 3.72 3.82 3.4

Here’s a study that someone smarter than the present author might conduct someday: the effect of a player’s comfort level with regard to his role — the effect that said comfort level does or does not have on his performance in that role. Whatever the findings of that currently unwritten study — or studies, plural, more probably — it would certainly have to consider a case like Aroldis Chapman’s. The giant and powerful and giant Chapman certainly seems as though he’d have some success as a starter. It’s also the case, generally, that if a pitcher can succeed as a starter that it’s best to use him as a starter.

A starter is something that Chapman won’t be in 2013, however — nor, it’s beginning to look like, will he ever be one. Whether that’s ultimately coming at the expense of Cincinnati victories is a question to which we don’t know the answer, though. For if Chapman isn’t comfortable in a starting role, there’s absolutely no guarantee that he’d be effective in that role — despite rather clear indications that he has the stuff to succeed as a starter.

The rotation’s loss is decidedly the bullpen’s gain, though. Between Chapman (71.2 IP, 50 xFIP-, 3.3 WAR), Sean Marshall (61.0 IP, 65 xFIP-, 1.8 WAR), and the second-half version of Jonathan Broxton (22.1 IP, 78 xFIP-, 0.7 WAR with the Reds), Cincinnati features three elite relievers, and as mentioned in the intro, Chapman should do better than this projection as a full-time reliever. Beyond that triumvirate, both Tony Cingrani and young J.J. Hoover — acquired last season from Atlanta in exchange for Juan Francisco — have established themselves as promising high-leverage relievers of the near future.

#10 Rangers


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Joe Nathan 65.0 9.5 2.6 1.1 .303 77.8 % 3.29 3.52 1.3
Jason Frasor 65.0 9.2 3.9 0.9 .308 74.3 % 3.75 3.78 1.0
Josh Lindblom 55.0 8.1 4.0 1.4 .295 75.4 % 4.30 4.67 0.1
Tanner Scheppers 55.0 7.7 3.3 1.0 .312 72.4 % 4.18 4.07 0.4
Michael Kirkman 45.0 8.0 5.2 1.0 .309 71.0 % 4.71 4.58 0.1
Derek Lowe 40.0 5.2 3.1 0.7 .317 67.8 % 4.55 4.03 0.2
Robbie Ross 35.0 6.7 3.2 0.7 .297 72.9 % 3.64 3.79 0.1
Joakim Soria 30.0 8.4 2.8 1.0 .306 74.1 % 3.73 3.66 0.2
Neftali Feliz 25.0 8.5 3.9 1.1 .292 75.5 % 3.78 4.07 0.1
The Others 136.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 551.0 7.6 3.8 1.0 .305 73.0 % 4.11 4.23 3.3

Like the character Psmith from some of P.G. Wodehouse’s best novels, the Texas Rangers are both smart and rich. That’s usually a pretty good combination so far as roster construction is concerned, and is certainly responsible for the club’s success in recent years. It also explains both how and why the Rangers were able to make a ca. $15 million bet on closer Joe Nathan during the 2011-12 offseason.

Following a 2010 season lost entirely to Tommy John surgery, Nathan returned to the Twins in 2011, but only faintly resembled the pitcher who posted a 42 ERA- in 418.2 innings between 2004 and -09 and finished second only to Mariano Rivera during the stretch in terms of WAR based only runs allowed (as opposed to FIP). The Rangers signed him to a two-year deal before 2012, and Nathan pitched like he had before his elbow trouble.

After featuring a bullpen with proven high-end relievers Mike Adams, Alexi Ogando, and Koji Uehara last season, the Rangers enter 2013 with more in the way of question marks. Adams signed this offseason with Philadelphia; Uehara, with Boston. Ogando, meanwhile, will fill rotation spots left vacant by the injured Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis. As a result, Jason Frasor and Josh Lindblom will take care of the high-leverage innings not accounted for by Nathan.

Of some note is the Rangers’ signing of Soria. Not unlike Nathan, he has been one of the top relievers in baseball at points. Also not unlike Nathan, he underwent Tommy John surgery and then signed with Texas (in this case, for two years and $8 million) before returning to his previous form. Soria is scheduled to return in May or June, as of now.

#11 Phillies


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jonathan Papelbon 65.0 11.1 2.5 0.8 .311 79.8 % 2.77 2.76 1.7
Mike Adams 65.0 8.5 2.7 0.9 .302 76.2 % 3.24 3.37 0.9
Antonio Bastardo 55.0 11.8 4.1 1.0 .308 79.3 % 3.15 3.26 0.7
Chad Durbin 55.0 7.6 3.7 1.1 .304 72.9 % 4.19 4.23 0.0
Michael Stutes 45.0 8.5 4.6 1.1 .298 74.6 % 4.14 4.35 -0.1
B.J. Rosenberg 40.0 8.2 3.8 1.1 .317 71.1 % 4.46 4.22 0.0
Phillippe Aumont 35.0 9.5 5.8 0.8 .314 72.1 % 4.36 4.21 0.0
Jeremy Horst 30.0 7.8 3.8 0.9 .313 71.8 % 4.16 3.94 0.0
Justin De Fratus 25.0 8.5 3.3 0.9 .304 73.1 % 3.76 3.72 0.0
Jake Diekman 20.0 9.5 6.4 0.7 .313 72.0 % 4.40 4.30 0.0
Raul Valdes 15.0 8.7 2.3 1.2 .309 74.9 % 3.69 3.70 0.0
The Others 93.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 543.0 8.7 3.9 1.0 .307 74.2 % 3.85 3.92 3.3

During the 2011-12 offseason, Philadelphia signed free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year deal worth $50 million, with a $13 million vesting option for 2016 based on games finished. While there are certainly arguments for the contract representing a gross misappropriation of funds, it’s also the case that marginal wins — like the sort, that is, provided by a top relief ace — are worth more for teams in contention than those not in contention. That same kind of relief ace is also of some benefit to winning playoff series.

How one evaluates the Papelbon signing after its first year depends on a number of factors. Certainly one of those is how it wasn’t one or two wins that separated the 2012 Phillies from the playoffs, but rather seven wins. Still, Papelbon more or less repeated last year his lines from the previous six seasons with the Sox, striking out a third of opposing batters, limiting walks, and posting a park-adjusted xFIP about 30% better than league average.

Nor was the rest of the relief corps a liver of the chopped, or any other kind of, variety, finishing second among league’s 30 relief units in strikeout rate, with a 26.1% mark. Left-hander Antonio Bastardo, the only other reliever besides Papelbon to cross the 50-inning threshold, was instrumental to the club’s strikeout efforts, recording a 36.2% figure. Another likely contributor to that end in 2013 will be offseason signing Mike Adams, who enters the season having recovered, it seems, from offseason surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

#12 Athletics


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Grant Balfour 65.0 8.8 3.4 0.9 .296 76.9 % 3.32 3.52 0.9
Ryan Cook 65.0 8.8 4.0 0.8 .298 74.9 % 3.47 3.64 0.7
Sean Doolittle 55.0 10.6 3.4 0.8 .303 77.1 % 2.97 3.06 1.0
Jerry Blevins 55.0 7.9 3.5 1.0 .296 74.3 % 3.79 4.00 0.2
Jordan Norberto 45.0 8.5 4.7 0.9 .297 73.2 % 3.91 4.08 0.1
Travis Blackley 40.0 6.4 3.3 0.9 .299 69.7 % 4.27 4.11 0.1
Pat Neshek 35.0 7.3 3.1 0.9 .307 73.4 % 3.85 3.95 0.0
Chris Resop 30.0 7.1 3.6 1.0 .306 72.5 % 4.09 4.13 0.0
Evan Scribner 25.0 7.4 3.3 1.0 .302 71.9 % 4.09 4.01 0.0
Pedro Figueroa 20.0 6.8 5.2 0.9 .299 72.0 % 4.51 4.64 0.0
Jesse Chavez 15.0 6.8 3.1 1.1 .307 69.2 % 4.56 4.32 0.0
The Others 79.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 529.0 7.9 3.8 0.9 .301 73.5 % 3.84 3.98 2.9

In Balfour, Cook and Doolittle, the A’s have a front three that measures up with any of the teams ahead of them on this list. The other names on the list, however, drop them down a few notches. Blevins isn’t awful, but even this modest projection of him may be generous — he has only compiled 0.7 WAR in the past four seasons, total. And as his K% and BB% testify, he is strictly a platoon pitcher — 26.4% K% and 5.9% BB% for his career against lefties, 17.6% and 11.2% against righties. Blackley had his uses last season, but if the rotation is steady, then his services as a long man may be relatively moot. And while it may be fun to wax nostalgic about 2007, when Neshek pitched 70.1 innings of 2.94 ERA, 3.64 FIP baseball, he’s not that guy any longer. In the past five seasons — only during four of which he’s been healthy enough to pitch — he hasn’t even reached that same 70.1 innings. He has amassed just 66.2 IP, and was generally been terrible while pitching them.

With a little luck though, the A’s won’t need to worry about the mop-up men too much. If things go to plan, the stable of young horses in the rotation will turn over games to Balfour, Cook and Doolittle in the eighth inning each night, sparing one of the three of having to pitch each night. Probably not realistic, but if Oakland is to surprise again, they will have to get close to achieving said plan.

#13 Giants


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Sergio Romo 65.0 10.2 2.1 0.7 .299 79.2 % 2.47 2.63 1.7
Jeremy Affeldt 65.0 7.8 3.6 0.6 .305 74.3 % 3.38 3.44 0.6
Santiago Casilla 55.0 8.0 3.7 0.7 .297 75.2 % 3.43 3.61 0.3
George Kontos 55.0 7.5 3.2 0.9 .299 73.5 % 3.74 3.82 0.1
Javier Lopez 45.0 6.8 3.7 0.5 .305 72.1 % 3.54 3.49 0.2
Chad Gaudin 40.0 6.9 3.4 0.9 .306 70.5 % 4.21 4.09 0.0
Jose Mijares 35.0 8.5 3.7 0.8 .301 75.6 % 3.49 3.67 0.0
The Others 149.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 -0.1
Total 509.0 7.5 3.6 0.8 .302 73.5 % 3.72 3.89 2.9

This ranking is no indictment of Sergio Romo. The diminuitive right-hander has sufficiently proved his low-velocity but incredibly sharp repertoire can flourish in the ninth inning. Romo has been one of the game’s best relievers over the past two season, and there’s no reason to believe that will change. His absurd 16 percent swinging strike over the past two years is propped up by a slider that should be in the conversation for best pitch in the game. Romo will stick around.

There just isn’t much in terms of top-tier talent behind him. We saw Santiago Casilla struggle with control last season. Jeremy Affeldt was excellent last year (2.70 ERA, 2.73 FIP), but prior to 2012 he posted four consecutive seasons with a FIP above 3.50. The pitchers behind them are generally acceptable — none of the Kontos/Lopez/Gaudin/Mijares group has major flaws, but none are particularly strong either. Luckily for San Francisco, their starting rotation should be enough to keep most of the important innings to their top trio.

#14 Rays


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Fernando Rodney 65.0 8.7 3.6 0.7 .298 76.1 % 3.16 3.38 1.0
Joel Peralta 65.0 9.3 2.7 1.2 .290 79.5 % 3.20 3.62 0.6
Jake McGee 55.0 10.3 2.9 0.9 .296 80.0 % 2.88 3.10 0.9
Kyle Farnsworth 55.0 8.2 2.9 0.9 .296 75.0 % 3.43 3.58 0.4
Roberto Hernandez 45.0 5.4 2.6 1.0 .296 69.7 % 4.25 4.30 0.0
Jamey Wright 40.0 6.5 3.7 0.6 .303 71.1 % 3.76 3.83 0.1
Cesar Ramos 35.0 6.5 3.9 1.1 .299 72.0 % 4.51 4.66 -0.1
Brandon Gomes 30.0 8.2 3.8 1.1 .300 75.6 % 3.85 4.18 0.0
Josh Lueke 25.0 6.9 3.4 0.9 .303 71.7 % 4.11 4.07 0.0
Dane de la Rosa 20.0 7.9 5.5 0.9 .300 72.3 % 4.44 4.60 0.0
Frank De Los Santos 15.0 4.6 3.6 1.1 .298 69.4 % 4.84 4.90 0.0
Juan Oviedo 10.0 8.1 3.1 1.0 .299 73.5 % 3.75 3.71 0.0
Alex Torres 10.0 8.4 6.6 0.9 .305 72.3 % 4.59 4.83 0.0
The Others 26.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 0.0
Total 496.0 7.8 3.4 0.9 .298 74.3 % 3.71 3.91 2.8

Tampa Bay has made a habit of finding pitchers down on their luck and turning them into heartwarming tales. Last year, Rays fans across Florida were shooting arrows in honor of Rodney. This year, perhaps it is Hernandez’s turn. He may end up in the rotation, but should he find his way to the ‘pen, he will have good company. Speaking of, Rodney isn’t likely to duplicate his otherworldly 2012 numbers, but he is also unlikely to fall back off the cliff that he had before the Rays rescued him.

Elsewhere, old guys Peralta and Farnsworth are hanging around, keeping McGee from getting too excited about his prospects as back-up closer, though as the rare lefty without much of a platoon split, it’s certainly a role that he could handle. Speaking of old guys, the Rays also scooped up Wright, who is fresh off one of the best seasons of his somehow-very-long career. Tampa will be his 10th team. Tampa even created a new market inefficiency this offseason this offseason, when they picked up not only Hernandez, but also Juan Oviedo — bringing two of the most recent players to change their names under one roof. Oviedo is still recovering from Tommy John surgery though, and is unlikely to contribute before September, if at all.

#15 Tigers


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Bruce Rondon 65.0 9.4 6.1 1.0 .312 72.6 % 4.63 4.63 -0.1
Joaquin Benoit 65.0 9.9 2.8 1.1 .303 76.6 % 3.39 3.50 1.0
Octavio Dotel 55.0 9.1 2.7 1.0 .305 75.2 % 3.35 3.35 0.9
Phil Coke 55.0 7.6 3.3 0.9 .319 72.0 % 3.95 3.78 0.4
Al Alburquerque 45.0 10.6 4.7 0.8 .313 75.4 % 3.51 3.52 0.4
Brayan Villarreal 40.0 10.2 4.6 0.9 .300 77.0 % 3.47 3.71 0.2
Duane Below 35.0 5.4 3.2 1.3 .311 68.6 % 5.14 4.89 0.0
Luis Marte 30.0 7.5 4.3 1.1 .303 72.8 % 4.44 4.58 0.0
Kyle Lobstein 25.0 5.3 4.9 1.4 .309 66.8 % 5.95 5.66 -0.1
Darin Downs 20.0 7.2 3.5 0.8 .313 71.1 % 4.17 3.93 0.0
The Others 43.0 6.0 4.5 1.0 .304 71.8 % 4.50 4.88 0.0
Total 478.0 8.4 4.0 1.0 .308 73.0 % 4.10 4.11 2.7

We could sit here and debate the decision to make Rondon the Opening Day closer until the cows come home. But in reality, he’s probably going to have some help locking down games for Detroit this season. Whether it’s the dependable Benoit or Dotel, the lefty Coke or the enigmatic Alburquerque — who may be the best of the group but needs to prove he can stay healthy — Rondon isn’t going to be charging into battle by himself.

Even beyond those five guys, Detroit has depth, as Villarreal is also a flame-thrower who generated plenty of swings and misses last season. Rondon is dragging the team’s overall ranking down a bit here because he is listed in the catbird seat, but if he is as good as the Tigers think he is, and if Alburquerque and Villarreal can toss more than 85 innings between the two of them, Detroit will shift up a few notches. We’ll take the conservative approach for now though.

We hoped you liked reading Positional Power Rankings: Relief Pitchers (#1-#15) by Carson Cistulli!

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Kevin S.
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Kevin S.

The Yankees projections don’t even include David Phelps, who was basically used as the fireman many have been calling for. If he’s not needed in the rotation, he makes their bullpen even better.