“OF COURSE the best reliever is the closer! He’s the guy who gets the saves! WHAT ELSE MATTERS!?! If you’re not saving games, you’re not the best reliever. Period. Next caller is Steve from Yonkers. What’s your question, Steve?”
Ok, that’s out of my system. There was once a time in which saves were the preferred measure of a reliever. In fact they still are, as they learn in arbitration hearings. That’s a mess worth revisiting in the off season, but we now know saves are dumb. There are much better ways to value a pitcher’s contribution to his team.
MLB teams know this as well, but a lot of them still use traditional bullpen roles. Whether they should use their relief ace as a closer or in a different role probably depends on their cast of characters. Let’s take a look at how they’re using them through the first half of 2018.
Best Reliever is the Closer
These teams make old school baseball guys proud. Not as proud as complete games, but it’s the next best thing.
Boston Red Sox: Matt Barnes has been great this year, but closer Craig Kimbrel is one of the best one-inning relievers in baseball history.
Chicago White Sox: Joakim Soria is the best reliever on the South Side... for now. We’ll see how long he stays in Chicago.
Cleveland Indians: The Indians bullpen leader in fWAR is Oliver Perez, who has just 12 IP and is also apparently still a baseball player. This bullpen is a dumpster fire, but the least terrible pitcher all year has been closer Cody Allen.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Who dares defy the mighty Kenley Jansen?
New York Mets: Somehow, the Mets have won enough games for Jeurys Familia to collect 16 SV. He’s allowed only one home run all year.
New York Yankees: The Yankees bullpen is stacked, but Aroldis Chapman is the absolute best. He’s sitting on a 1.41 FIP with a 44.7% K-rate.
Oakland Athletics: Blake Treinan is insanely good. 4.31 K/BB and just one longball surrendered will certainly get the job done.
Philadelphia Phillies: Erstwhile closer Hector Neris still leads the team is saves, but is currently in the minors. Seranthony Dominguez took over the job from him and has been nearly unhittable.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Felipe Rivero collects the saves. He lights up the radar gun as well as DRA (2.20) and FIP (1.98).
Seattle Mariners: Edwin Diaz leads all MLB relievers in G, GF, SV, and fWAR. Enough said.
St. Louis Cardinals: Bud Norris became a relief superstar this year, as everyone clearly predicted.
Washington Nationals: Sean Doolittle is the undisputed king of the Washington bullpen.
Best Reliever is NOT the Closer
This is what Steve from Yonkers was talking about.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Andrew Chafin and Archie Bradley are the best bullpen options for the Diamondbacks, but the saves go to Brad Boxberger.
Atlanta Braves: The Braves resurgence has been fueled by several out-of-nowhere bullpen studs. Closer Arodys Vizcaino leads in traditional stats, such as ERA and... well pretty much just ERA. Advanced metrics (DRA, FIP, K%, BB%) like Dan Winkler a lot better.
Baltimore Orioles: Depending on how you measure relievers, the Orioles’ best bullpen arm belongs to either Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro, or Zach Britton. It’s almost certainly not Brad Brach, who leads the team with 10 SV.
Colorado Rockies: Adam Ottavino is leaps and bounds better than the rest of his teammates in the bullpen, including closer Wade Davis.
Detroit Tigers: Joe Jimenez, the Tigers lone All-Star, is the best reliever on the team. The closer is Shane Greene.
Los Angeles Angels: Lefty Jose Alvarez outshines closer Blake Parker in ERA, FIP, and DRA, though not by a lot.
Milwaukee Brewers: Strikeout machine Josh Hader is arguably the best reliever in MLB this season, yet Corey Knebel gets the bulk of the saves.
San Diego Padres: Adam Cimber, Craig Stammen, and Kirby Yates have all outpitched closer Brad Hand. However, whichever of them remains after the trade deadline might ascend to the ninth inning.
Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays should probably have their own category because of their unorthodox pitching staff management. Jesus Alvarado has been their best reliever this year. Sergio Romo and Alex Colome are tied for the lead with 11 SV. The former is sometimes a starting pitcher (sort of) and the latter is now a Mariner.
Texas Rangers: If Jose Leclerc someday learns to how to limit walks, he’ll be absolutely dominant. He’s walked 18 while giving up just 14 H and 0 HR in 32.1 IP. Closer Keone Kela is pretty good, but he can’t compete with numbers like that.
It’s Complicated (Part One)
Some teams don’t have a single, clear relief ace. If more than one reliever stands out as the best (or perhaps none at all), this is the category for them.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs have a lot of really good relievers. Closer Brandon Morrow is one of them, but Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Jr., and Pedro Strop can also claim to be the best.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds may have found a new pitching efficiency, sort of. They have a bunch of relievers with great ERA, decent FIP, and terrible DRA, such as Jared Hughes, Michael Lorenzen, and David Hernandez. DRA actually does like closer Raisel Iglesias. I don’t really know what to make of this, so I guess they fit pretty well under “It’s Complicated.”
Miami Marlins: It’s difficult to discern who’s better: Kyle Barraclough or Drew Steckenrider. Barraclough has closed games since the beginning of June, while Steckenrider sets him up. However, this is the Marlins, so everyone will be sold to the highest bidder by the end of the month, and this whole thing will be moot.
Minnesota Twins: The ageless Fernando Rodney is the closer. He’s one of five relievers who could be considered the best on the team, even though they’re all kind of mediocre. It’s kind of a metaphor for the team as a whole.
It’s Complicated (Part Two)
To identify whether the best reliever is the closer, we must first figure out who is actually the closer. For these teams, that’s not easily done.
Houston Astros: The Astros just demoted Ken Giles to AAA, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Kansas City Royals: Kelvin Herrera was traded nearly a month ago. The remaining bullpen has just 3 SV since then. It’s getting pretty bad in Kansas City.
San Francisco Giants: Closer Hunter Strickland is on the DL with a fractured pitching hand. It’s unclear who will close in his absence or what will happen when he returns.
Toronto Blue Jays: Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, and Tyler Clippard all have at least 6 SV. Suenghwan Oh is in the mix as well.
That makes ten teams whose best reliever is the closer, 12 teams who use their best reliever in other situations, and eight teams that are too difficult to figure out. That makes for a pretty even split.
Perhaps this is due to the volatility of relievers, big money closers who keep their role no matter what, pervasive traditionalism, or other unknown factors. Everything will get muddled up by the trade deadline anyway. Many of the best relief arms will change uniforms, so who knows what will happen in the second half?
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983