First Half Recap

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The All-Star Break is a wonderful time for reflecting on the past. As I often point out in the course of this column, our reliever tiers are based upon who I believe will be the best closers going forward. It’s a projection-heavy approach supplemented by predictions about role and usage. This can lead to some seemingly-baffling rankings like those for Mark Melancon and Alex Reyes – both of whom have had excellent seasons despite glaring red flags.

Today, let’s look at who has performed the best to date in traditional 5x5 fantasy leagues. I’ll include non-closers as well. Before we begin, a couple caveats. One potentially misleading category is wins. As we’ll see in a moment, a few top-performing closers like Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Melancon have been hurt by a low win total. Others like Raisel Iglesias, James Karinchak, and most notably Jonathan Loaisiga have seen their value greatly aided by winning games. The valuation model I use includes starting pitchers which further complicates matters. A typical starter might have six wins in 90 innings. The relievers often have less than half the workload. Still, the category does count and needs to be addressed in our retrospective rankings.

Another category to note is strikeouts. In the course of our normal tier evaluations, the focus is on K/9. Efforts to predict innings pitched by relievers tend to be… highly inaccurate. Thus, the rate at which they strike out batters is more informative for forward-looking analysis. In this retrospective view, I’ve generated values based on raw strikeout totals. Therefore, relievers with a higher volume of innings may look better than those with few innings.

Closer Tiers

Tier 1: The Elite (2)

Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

Only Melancon has more saves than Hendriks and Hader isn’t far behind. Hendriks had some issues with home runs earlier in the season, but he’s made up for it by preventing hits and walks. Among closers, only Kimbrel has produced more value via the WHIP category. Similarly, Kimbrel is the only closer to substantially best Hader in the ERA department. A few others like Jansen, Ryan Pressly, and Tyler Rogers have a narrow edge on Hader in ERA.

If Kimbrel had a more typical three to five wins, he would rate as the top closer.

Tier 2: Nearly Elite (6)

Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox
Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians

Pressly has delivered a solid across-the-board season. He bears some similarities to Hendriks. They’re both top closers who dominate via execution rather than deadly stuff. To be sure, their repertoires are potent. However, on the nasty-scale, they don’t hold a candle to the likes of Hader, Karinchak, or Aroldis Chapman.

I receive three queries on a weekly basis: why so low on Melancon, why so low on Reyes, and why so high on Iglesias? Hopefully this exercise helps to answer that last question. As noted, Iglesias is aided by his six wins which offsets a painful (and fluky-looking) ERA. In fact, the elevated win and ERA categories go hand-in-hand. He’s also a strong positive contributor in saves, WHIP, and strikeouts. Regarding punch outs, he’s on par with Hendriks, Hader, and Barnes.

As already noted, Kimbrel has big totals in every category but wins. Heading into this exercise, I fully expected to declare him the king of closers. Closer wins are fickle things. We obviously don’t draft closers for their win potential. Any victories they secure are incidental – the icing on the cake. Ignoring wins, Kimbrel is worth about $19 compared to about $18.50 for second-best Hader. Hendriks would check in around $17.50.

After a scalding start to the season, Barnes is slowing succumbing to regression. In 19 innings since mid-May, he’s posted a 3.32 ERA with 14.21 K/9, 3.79 BB/9, and a 1.32 WHIP. He’s also 3-2 with 10 saves over that span. Even this represents a sizable improvement over past seasons. It’s also roughly what I expect going forward – a big strikeout rate, modest ERA, and damaging WHIP.

Reyes could be regressing too – in a good way. Since mid-June, he’s tossed 10.1 innings of 3.48 ERA ball with 8.71 K/9, 3.48 BB/9, 1.06 WHIP, and a nearly 60 percent ground ball rate. It’s a stark departure from his performance to that point (0.87 ERA, 12.77 K/9, 8.13 BB/9, 1.39 WHIP in 31 innings). If he suddenly has a handle on his walks, he could become a formidable closer rather than a merely fortunate one.

Karinchak has the misfortune to share saves with Emmanuel Clase. He leads all relievers in strikeouts – his main source of value – while also offering modestly positive value in saves, ERA, and WHIP. Were he a full-time closer, he’d rank even higher.

Tier 3: Core Performers (8)

Andrew Kittredge, Tampa Bay Rays
Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Jonathan Loaisiga, New York Yankees
Richard Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals

This is where the top-performing non-closers start to arrive. Kittredge doesn’t project to be especially valuable going forward. His six wins coupled with a 1.47 ERA and 0.86 WHIP make up for a lack of saves and tepid strikeout totals. Barring a sudden switch to high-leverage work – which is certainly possible – there’s nothing we can do to profit from his fantastic first half.

Hand, Melancon, and Rodriguez are classic veteran saves compilers. They’ve performed well in the category that matters the most to us – saves! Melancon’s 27 saves leads the league by a healthy margin. A couple bad outings have contributed to a below average WHIP. As I’ve been saying all along, his low strikeout total also limits his fantasy value. The Padres could be candidates to acquire Craig Kimbrel at the trade deadline. Hand offers a similar profile to Melancon with better across-the-board stats. The one exception, for now, is saves. Rodriguez would be in the same neighborhood as Melancon if only the Pirates could produce opportunities.

Jansen is in a similar position to Kimbrel. He’s a positive asset in every category but wins. If, like Iglesias, he had six wins instead of just one, he would rank third overall. Early on, he had issues with walks which have reduced the value of his WHIP. He also doesn’t produce as much volume as other closers so his raw strikeout total isn’t especially impressive.

McGee is another guy who raced out of the gate only to slow after April. The Giants have produced the most saves (33) – McGee (19) and Rogers (10) alone have combined for 29. McGee also has moderately positive output in ERA and WHIP with fairly typical wins and strikeout values. Rogers, who ranks closer to 30th-best, is hindered by a low strikeout total. His elite ERA makes up for it – for now.

Loaisiga is second only to Brent Suter in reliever wins. He’s thrown 47 innings. Most pure closers are closer to 30 to 40 frames. That extra volume mitigates a modest strikeout rate. It also boosts the value of his above average ERA and WHIP. He picked up a couple saves recently while Chapman works through a slump. He’s currently on the COVID-list.

As for Gallegos, he has one lonely save even though he’s a superior reliever to Reyes. Were he to have his teammate’s save total, Gallegos would be worth about a dollar more than Hendriks. Part of that is a function of volume (46.1 innings) and a 0.69 WHIP.

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Tier 4: More Core (10)

Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia Phillies
Lou Trivino, Oakland Athletics
Kendall Graveman, Seattle Mariners
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Paul Sewald, Seattle Mariners
Will Smith, Atlanta Braves
Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Tyler Rogers, San Francisco Giants
Chad Green, New York Yankees

Suarez is another testament to the power of volume. He has two saves, a 0.77 ERA, and 0.74 WHIP in 35 innings (21 appearances). Like Kittredge, he projects as a middle reliever going forward. The Phillies need closer help which could lead to some multi-inning save opportunities.

Trivino caught me off guard – not because he got save opportunities in Trevor Rosenthal’s absence but rather because he’s held a 1.84 ERA and 1.16 WHIP despite weak peripherals. Expect regression to bite deep in the second half. You better believe the Athletics will be targeting a trade deadline closer.

Graveman has always looked like a candidate to join the bullpen and thrive. He got his first opportunity during the weird 2020 season and was just okay. This year his velocity has truly surged and he’s cut back on walks. Even if the breakout holds, he projects for similar stats to Melancon – i.e. solid but not exceptional. By comparison, his teammate Sewald has a nastygram slider and the strikeout rate to match. Beware: high fly ball and line drive rates promise future indigestion for his fantasy managers.

Diaz and Smith have run into just enough speed bumps to post negative-value ERAs and WHIPs. While I expect both pitchers to right the ship in the second half, there’s no question they’ve been disappointing. Diaz in particular is missing strikeouts this year.

Clase has an oddly-high 1.28 WHIP. Part of that is due to a modest 3.44 BB/9, but he’s also been more hit-prone (.308 BABIP) than one might expect from a guy who averages 100.1-mph with a bat-shattering cutter. He’s one of just eight qualified relievers with a negative launch angle (and a 72% GB%). Aside from sharing saves with Karinchak, he’s a rich man’s Melancon.

Romero failed to earn the closer gig out of Spring Training, and he’s only recently cemented the role due to injury. He’s a boon to ERA and strikeouts, but his high walk rate leads to a below average WHIP.

In 12-team mixed formats, Green serves as a replacement level non-closer. He’s a slight benefit to all categories.

Tier 5: The Rest (16)

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees (29)
Diego Castillo, Tampa Bay Rays (30)
Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds (33)
Yimi Garcia, Miami Marlins (35)
Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers (40)
Ian Kennedy, Texas Rangers (41)
Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins (45)
Anthony Bender, Miami Marlins (46)
Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers (47)
Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers (53)
Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies (55)
Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals (63)
Jake Diekman, Oakland Athletics (70)
Lucas Sims, Cincinnati Reds (72)
Hansel Robles, Minnesota Twins (86)
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies (99)

I’ve included a sampling of the most interesting names remaining in the Top 100 relievers with their ranking in parentheses. Chapman’s recently slump plunged him from the top tier all the way down to also-ran territory. This can happen to any reliever – even Hader, Hendriks, and Kimbrel.

The Rays have plenty of representation in the Top 100 relievers. Castillo has 13 of the Rays 24 saves. Alas, saves have been his only positive category. Antone would rank a lot higher if his elbow hadn’t picked an inopportune moment to not cooperate. His teammate Sims also missed a chance at full-time saves. Unlike Antone, Sims lacked a positive-value ERA and WHIP.

Williams was the most-popular non-closer during draft season. At times, he went ahead of Kimbrel. Williams stumbled out of the gate but has since improved to a 2.03 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 14.18 K/9 since the end of April. Still, this is the latest in a yearly lesson to only draft Williams-types (i.e. good non-closers) in the end-rounds. His NFBC ADP was ahead of Jesse Winker, Jared Walsh, and Bryan Reynolds not to mention quality closers like Barnes and Melancon.

Bard’s ranking here reflects everything I ever warned about him. He’s performed almost perfectly to expectations at Coors Field and yet he still rates outside the Top 50 relievers. If you need saves, he delivers enough to help.

Several teams have multiple representatives here, namely the Marlins, Twins, Reds, and Tigers. With the exception of the Reds, all of these pitchers could be deadline trade bait. Potential second-half risers include Barlow and Bender. I’m especially hopeful that Barlow clings to the job. The Royals have proven stubborn about not handing him the job despite earning it. I’m reminded of their Missouri-based rivals’ handling of Gallegos.

Last and least is Neris, a pitcher who I continuously warn will blow up for a couple weeks a season. It happened recently, plunging him from the Top 20 all the way down to 99th. Barring a big trade acquisition, Neris is a smart bet to regain the closer role by the end of July. Philadelphia will absolutely shop for relievers, but I suspect they’ll play in the bargain bin. Their playoff odds are under 10 percent, and they have a history of pulling their deadline punches for fear of running into the Dodgers in the postseason. Then again, this is Dave Dombrowski’s first deadline atop the Philly org chart. If Neris doesn’t recover and they fail to add, Connor Brogdon and Suarez become the names to stash.