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Josh Hader
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Saves and Steals

Closing Out 2019

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: September 25, 2019, 4:46 pm ET

The end has arrived. Just five days of regular season baseball remain. This column is usually forward-looking. Our weekly tiers seek to illuminate who will perform well in the future rather than simply ranking the best closers to date. Now it’s time for a retrospective approach. Today, we’ll look at the top performing relievers of 2019 using standard roto scoring – namely wins, saves, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.

But first, let’s focus on some unexpected pitchers who could pick up a crucial last minute save.

Last Minute Closers

Erik Swanson

Daniel Hudson

Carlos Carrasco

Swanson doesn’t have much of a reputation as a major league caliber pitcher. In 56 innings this season, he has a 5.95 ERA with modest strikeout and walk rates. His fly ball approach has yielded a painful 2.73 HR/9. However, he’s remarkably better when working out of the bullpen. In 22.2 innings as a reliever, he’s posted 10.72 K/9, 2.78 BB/9 and a 3.57 ERA. Home runs are still a thorn in side (1.99 HR/9). He earned two saves in three appearances over the last week. Matt Magill and Anthony Bass are also in the picture for Seattle. Magill nabbed a save last Wednesday.

The Nationals seem committed to playing matchups with Sean Doolittle and Hudson. That means Hudson is getting the call more often than not. He’s likely glued to the bench tonight due to earning two saves yesterday. If we were doing our normal tiers this week, he would rank near the bottom. His 2.54 ERA is substantially better than what ERA-estimators predict for him. And with just 8.37 K/9 and 3.30 BB/9, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why we shouldn’t expect regression.

The Indians are battling for their lives which could lead to Carrasco claiming a key late-inning role. For those with long memories, Carrasco was a high-quality reliever before he made the transition to starting pitcher. Meanwhile, the Indians bullpen is limping to the finish line. Brad Hand barely pitched in September. Carrasco has exciting upside as a reliever with over 10.00 K/9 and a low walk rate.

FINAL RELIEVER RANKINGS

The following rankings were compiled using full season data. Relievers like Jordan Hicks who worked partial seasons might have been extremely useful to fantasy owners. Since he missed so much time, he doesn’t appear among the Top 100 relievers via this methodology.

Tier 1: The Elite (5)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres

Liam Hendriks, Oakland Athletics

Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates

Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros

Hader struggled with home runs at times this season. However, barring some sort of unimaginable catastrophe, he will finish the year as the most valuable reliever in baseball. His 134 strikeouts in 73.1 innings drive much of his value, although 36 saves, a 2.58 ERA, and 0.79 WHIP were all hugely valuable. Yates made the most for his owners in the saves category. However, Hader chipped in three wins while Yates failed to win a single game. Three wins might not sound like a big deal, but it’s actually roughly three percent of typical fantasy owner’s total. If we were to ignore wins, Hader and Yates were roughly tied.

Hendriks took a volume approach. He leads all closers in innings pitched which when combined with his excellent rate stats makes up for his modest 23 saves. Osuna overcame a relatively low strikeout total with a strong WHIP and plenty of saves.

Tier 2: The Good (7)

Brandon Workman, Boston Red Sox

Will Smith, San Francisco Giants

Emilio Pagan, Tampa Bay Rays

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

Hansel Robles, Los Angeles Angels

Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins

Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians

Reliever wins aren’t predictable. Nor do we pick bullpen arms for their potential to earn victories (Ryan Yarbrough notwithstanding). Workman notched nine wins which is equivalent to a fantasy average performance in a 12-team league. Only 84 pitchers delivered nine or more wins this year. Quite a few of them were not fantasy relevant. Workman also posted healthy strikeout totals to make up for his mere 16 saves.

Actually, six of the seven pitchers in this tier were similar to or better than the typical late-inning reliever when it came to earning wins. The exception was Rogers. He got here via strong rate stats and 29 saves. Pagan and Robles were frequently ranked much lower than this in the tiers. For Pagan, the Rays tendency to devolve their late-innings into a closer-by-committee mitigated some of his value. Robles simply looks like the type of reliever who pitches well for a time before flopping. His 2.26 ERA is quite a sight better than his 3.94 xFIP. I would have ranked him higher throughout the season if he could manage more than around a strikeout per inning.

Tier 3: Core Performers (9)

Seth Lugo, New York Mets

Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox

Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays

Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals

Yusmeiro Petit, Oakland Athletics

Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds

Shane Greene, Detroit Tigers

This is an interesting portion of the reliever pool. Lugo was just outside the Top 10 closers despite recording only five saves. He was that good in the other categories. Colome proves the value of holding a job. His boring numbers were greatly bolstered by his 29 saves. Neris, Jansen, and Giles all had their moments of brilliance and despair. Giles was en route to an elite campaign before injuries forced the Blue Jays to cut back his workload.

A couple non-closers show up in this tier too. Gallegos furnished an elite 0.78 WHIP along with a 2.25 ERA and 93 strikeouts. Petit’s five wins and 0.81 WHIP explain his appearance here. While Gallegos was often rostered as a potential backup closer, Petit was mostly ignored for fantasy purposes.

If you owned Greene right up to the moment he was traded, you got more out of him than this ranking implies. He collected 23 saves despite losing his job at the trade deadline. A 2.25 ERA and 1.00 WHIP were useful too.

Brad Johnson

You can read more from Brad Johnson on NBC Sports Edge, FanGraphs, and RotoFanatic. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.