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The Nasty Nine: Relief Pitchers With Elite Closer Upside

Let’s set the scene. You’re sitting in what is likely a somewhat uncomfortable seat that you spent your hard-earned money on to sit in for a three-hour(ish) chunk of time. The 9th inning is about to start and your team’s closer is running in from the bullpen to close out the ballgame. It’s an exciting time for any baseball fan, assuming your team is the one with the lead. As a Red Sox fan, I would get amped up when I heard Shipping Up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphys (Jonathan Papelbon) or Sandstorm by Derube (Koji Uehara) blare throughout the park. And while we might not get quite this amped up about relief pitchers or closers in fantasy baseball, they still play a pivotal role in this fantasy game we enthrall ourselves in.

That’s especially true in today’s landscape. And if you’re like me, you probably don’t want to invest a hefty price tag on a reliever in your fantasy league. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. After I dissect what I believe the qualities of an elite closer are, I’ll give nine names to target now that have elite closer upside. These players don’t only have long-term dynasty appeal, but also can help you out in 2020 re-draft leagues as well.

Fantasy Baseball is year-round here at Fantrax with 2020 leagues already forming. So what are you waiting for? Join a league today!

What Makes An Elite Closer?

This is a question I’ve mulled over for a while now. And after much thought and deliberation, I have it narrowed down to a few key components, at least, in my eyes.

Effective Fastball

Notice how I said “effective” and didn’t use any verbiage about velocity. Because it’s not solely about the numbers that pop up on the radar gun. Sure, it’s all fine and dandy to hit triple-digits, but these are the best hitters in the world we’re talking about. Placement and movement are just as important. In fact, if the three were in a draft, placement would be my first overall pick.

A couple of recent great examples of this are from my very own Boston Red Sox. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2013, their closer was the charismatic Koji Uehara. What was his average fastball velocity that season? Glad you asked. In 2013, Uehara averaged 89.2 mph on his fastball. Yes, that’s below 90 mph. But what made Uehara not only successful, but flat out dominant, was the movement on his fastball, command of his fastball, and his splitter that made his fastball appear faster than it actually was. Uehara finished that season with a majestic 1.09 ERA, 1.1 BB/9, and 12.3 K/9, all while not averaging 90 mph with his heater.

For someone more recent, look at the 2019 Boston Red Sox and Brandon Workman. Yes, he threw a little harder in the low-90’s, but once again, didn’t light up the radar gun. His fastball command and dynamic curveball kept hitters off his fastball and turned him into one of the more effective relievers in the American League. Which leads me into my next part of this.

Plus Secondary Offering, Or…

The “or…” is in there for a reason. The vast majority of top tier closers over the years have had at least one dynamic secondary offering that allowed them to put hitters away. Trevor Hoffman had his changeup, Aroldis Chapmand a slider, Jonathan Papelbon a splitter, etc. But it would be foolish to not mention the “one-pitch” elite. They’re kind of like pitching’s version of the sleepless elite. The rare few like Mariano Rivera and Kenley Jansen have made millions upon millions of dollars by essentially throwing one pitch for the most part.

Now, for this to work, you NEED to command that pitch exceptionally well. If hitter’s know what’s coming, you damn well better hit your spot with it and keep them guessing on where that spot is going to be. Everyone knew Mo was gonna throw his infamous cutter, but squaring it up was damn near impossible as Rivera rarely missed his spot and got strong cutting action that kept the pitch off of the barrel of the bat. Sure, he never had a high strikeout rate, but weak contact and splintered bats were his specialties. You don’t need an elite strikeout rate to be an effective or elite closer.

However, in the fantasy world, more often than not, the elite relief pitchers at the end of each season have an elite strikeout rate. Last season, the five top relief pitchers according to Fantrax all had a K/9 of 13.1 or higher. Included there is the aforementioned Brandon Workman. Now, how did they get there?

  • Josh Hader: Fastball, Slider
  • Liam Hendriks: Fastball, Slider, Curveball
  • Kirby Yates: Fastball, Splitter
  • Will Smith: Fastball, Slider, Curveball
  • Brandon Workman: Fastball, Curveball, Cutter

Will Smith’s fastball actually wasn’t even that effective according to Fangraphs, but his slider was so deadly, it made up for it. But the common theme above is that each pitcher had a secondary offering they could go to for the strikeout or to induce weak contact. Those pitches are in bold font. When you have two (or three) effective pitches you can go to, pinpoint command isn’t quite as important as it was for Rivera. Yes, command is still very important, as it is in general, but having pitches like these can somewhat mask a missed location.

The X-Factor

The last aspect is one that is much more difficult to measure: Dementality. Wait, what the heck did he just say? It’s a word I made up that combines demeanor and mentality. While three outs get scored the same in the 9th as they do in the 7th and 8th innings, closing out the game is a whole different animal. We’ve seen really good set-up men that have closer stuff flail out in the closer role. The first name that comes to mind there is Dellin Betances. And no, that’s not just me picking on my rival New York Yankees.

Unless you’re around the players themselves, it’s impossible to know if they have the mindset to close out games at the Major League level. As I sit here at my dining room table in Maine, I can say that I’ve never met any of the players below and have no freaking idea if they have the cojones to become an elite closer. However, they do have the pure stuff I mentioned about to put themselves in the position to receive a chance. And if they do prove to have the dementality to close, we could be looking at arms that end up as top-10 caliber fantasy closers before too long.

Enough rambling, let’s discuss the players. There were plenty more I could discuss, but I wanted to limit this to the most impactful.

Potential Elite Closers in Waiting

Andres Munoz, San Diego Padres

Arsenal: 4S Fastball (99.9 mph), Slider (86.3 mph)

Andres Munoz is a pitcher I’ve been very high on for quite some time now. A Mexican native, Munoz signed with the Padres during the 2015 international period and made his professional debut the following season in the Arizona League. The results weren’t anything to write home about, but his 11.9 K/9 was something to hang his cap on. It only got better from there including a minuscule 0.73 ERA across 25 appearances in 2018.

Munoz has excelled out of the bullpen due to his electric fastball and improving slider that now is a weapon for him. Thrown in the upper 80’s, the pitch has late break as it approaches home plate and regularly induces whiffs or weak contact. After his promotion to San Diego last July, only two of the 16 hits he allowed came on the slider. The numbers were even more impressive as Munoz’s slider registered a .065 AVG, .076 xBA, .097 SLG, .099 xSLG, .139 wOBA, 51.4 K%, and 46.3 whiff%. It’s a small sample size, but shows how lethal his slider can be.

What has often held Munoz back a bit is his below-average command and control. That control resulted in a 5.5 BB/9 in the minors and 4.3 BB/9 with the Padres in 2019. Although his fastball averaged 99.9 mph last season, Munoz lost effectiveness with the pitch by not hitting his spots consistently. While it has improved some, Munoz will need to continue improving his fastball command to ascend to the ranks of the elite closers, especially if his fastball spin rate remains around average.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: Current closer Kirby Yates is a free agent after the 2020 season. It’s unlikely that San Diego resigns him and they might even trade him mid-season if they fall out of the playoff hunt. So look for Munoz to get a chance soon after he returns from surgery.

UPDATE: Munoz underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss all of 2020 and part of the 2021 season as well.

Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians

Arsenal: Cutter (99.3 mph), Slider (90.5 mph)

While the overall return package for Corey Kluber might have underwhelmed Indians fans, don’t discredit the upside of flame-throwing right-hander, Emmanuel Clase. Like Munoz, Clase features an upper-90’s fastball and hard slider which was even faster than Munoz’s, checking in at 90.5 mph on average. Clase also featured an elite fastball spin rate to go along with his premium velocity, something Munoz did not have.

Elite velocity plus an elite spin rate lead to this…

On top of that, Clase features a hard slider that averaged more than 90 mph during his Major League time in 2019. It wasn’t quite as effective as Munoz’s slider, but Clase showed in the minors that it’s a highly effective offering that borders on plus with hard downward break. It can still be a bit inconsistent, but if Clase can continue to refine it, watch out. There’s huge upside here, especially if Clase starts raising his strikeout rate.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: I’m not sure exactly what Cleveland’s plan is this season but it’s looking like they won’t be contenders. If that’s the case, expect Brad Hand to be dealt before the trade deadline, creating an opportunity for Clase or James Karinchak to step in and get some reps in the closer role.

UPDATE: Clase suffered a moderate strain of the teres major muscle and will be out until June or July.

James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians

Arsenal: 4S Fastball (97.1 mph), Curveball (84.6 mph)

Well, this got a little more cloudy for James Karinchak. Before the Indians acquired Emmanuel Clase in the Corey Kluber trade, Karinchak was the arm I had penciled in as the closer of the future for this franchise. If crazy elite strikeout rates give you all the tingles, you’re going to absolutely love Karinchak.

A 2017 9th rounder out of Bryant University in Rhode Island, Karinchak began his professional career with a 12.0 K/9 across six starts and four relief appearances. Then after moving to the bullpen full-time in 2018, that K/9 jumped to an even more impressive 15.0. That was just the beginning too as Karinchak posted a ridiculous 22.0 K/9 in 30.1 innings before his promotion to Cleveland. And between the minors and Cleveland last season, Karinchak struck out 55.8% of the batters he faced.

Karinchak has been able to do this damage with a lethal fastball/curveball combination. While his fastball sits in the upper-90’s with run, Karinchak’s curveball is his most impressive offering in my opinion. Thrown in the mid-80’s with big downward break, it has been a dominating pitch for Karinchak throughout his minor league career.

Per the norm, Karinchak has experienced control issues since his time at Bryant, but even if his walk rate remains high, I believe he has the arsenal to nail down the save and annually finish as one of the top strikeout artists in the Major Leagues when it comes to strikeout rate. It’s going to be interesting seeing who emerges as the closer in Cleveland longterm between him and Clase. Whichever way it ends up, this is shaping up to be a lethal back end of the bullpen.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: Same as above with Clase.

Nick Anderson, Tampa Bay Rays

Arsenal: 4S Fastball (96.1 mph), Slider (83.1 mph)

Nick Anderson is a bit different than the three names we’ve already discussed. He’s not some bright-eyed, bushy-tailed early-20’s pitcher. Rather, a 29-year-old coming off an impressive rookie season split between the two Florida teams. In 68 appearances, Anderson recorded a 3.32 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9, and 15.2 K/9. This after a tumultuous several years that included being drafted in the 32nd round in 2012, not signing due to past legal issues, and a stint in Indy ball. But once Anderson did get into the minors with Minnesota in 2015, he’s been highly effective at every level and has seen his stuff really tick up in the last couple of seasons, resulting in a big rise to his strikeout rate.

Armed with a mid to upper-90’s fastball and disgusting slider, Anderson has combined for a 14.3 K/9 over the last two seasons, including a 17.3 K/9 in 21.1 innings for Tampa Bay after the trade. And not only does Anderson mow down the competition, but he does so without issuing a ton of free passes. Walks have never been a big issue for Anderson at any point in his professional career, which gives him maybe the highest floor of any arm on this list.

For a pitch that has a .167 wOBA, 53.6 K%, and 54.2 whiff%, Anderson’s slider doesn’t have a great spin rate, averaging 2094 rpm. But he’s still able to generate a strong downward break on the pitch and has shown a great feel for it, landing it for strikes or burying it below the zone. It was even one of the best sliders in the game last season as you can probably tell from the video above. Don’t be surprised if Anderson takes another step forward in 2020 and is one of the best relievers in the American League.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: It’s Tampa Bay, so who knows. But seriously, Tampa Bay acquired him for a reason. Expect him to get a shot at some point in 2020. And if not, he should be one of the top set-up men in the American League.

Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals

Arsenal: 4S Fastball (93.7 mph), Slider (85.4 mph)

Coming into the 2019 season, Giovanny Gallegos wasn’t garnering a ton of attention. Names like Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks, and Carlos Martinez were the more buzzy names in St. Louis and were the favorites for fantasy value. Fast forward six months and Gallegos ended the season as the best reliever on the team, posting the lowest ERA, lowest walk rate, and 2nd highest strikeout rate for full-time relievers.

He was able to do so with a plus fastball/slider mix, both of which graded as well-above-average offerings in 2019. The slider accounted for more than half of Gallegos’ strikeouts in 2019 and finished with a .123 BAA, .192 wOBA, 40.2 K%, and 49.6 Whiff%. That .192 wOBA was good for the 17th best mark in the Majors last season with a minimum of 50 BBE.

Gallegos falls in line more with Nick Anderson in that they’re both in their late-20’s and have better command and control than the younger arms on this list. Gallegos posted a 1.9 BB/9 last season and has a 2.0 mark for his three-year career. If given the chance, he has the chance to really thrive in the closer role.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: Even with Carlos Martinez potentially moving back to the rotation and Hicks recovering from Tommy John surgery, there are still a lot of good arms in this St. Louis bullpen. Although Miller has closed in his career, he’s been showing his mileage lately with an ERA north of four in each of the last two seasons and a three-year trend of his walk and strikeout rate going in the wrong direction. If Martinez does indeed move to the rotation, there’s a chance Gallegos could get some save ops early this season.

Kevin Ginkel, Arizona Diamondbacks

Arsenal: 4S Fastball (93.5 mph), Slider (83.6 mph)

Speaking of really good sliders, Kevin Ginkel has an impressive one as well.

Try these numbers on for size, in addition to the ones Alex mentions in his tweet.

  • .075 BAA
  • .075 SLG
  • 44.4 K%
  • 44.9 Whiff%

Any way you slice it, Ginkel had one of the best sliders in the game last season. It was a major reason for his dominating Major League debut in 2019 with a 1.48 ERA in 24.1 IP. That was with an average fastball according to Fangraphs as well. If the slider remains lethal and Ginkel improves the overall effectiveness of his fastball, he has the chance to become one of the best relievers in the National League in 2020. Watch out.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: While Archie Bradley hasn’t been terrible in the closer role, or as a reliever in general, he proved to be very hittable at times last season and ended with a 1.44 WHIP in 71.2 innings. He’ll enter the season as the closer, but if he falters, Ginkel should be one of the first ones in line to take over.

Aaron Bummer, Chicago White Sox

Arsenal: Sinker (95.6 mph), Cutter (87.9), 4S Fastball (95.1 mph), Slider (84.9)

Unlike most of the names on the list above, Aaron Bummer relies on more than just two pitches. According to baseball savant, Bummer threw five different pitches in 2019, the four above plus a changeup. I excluded the changeup as he only threw six of them all season. As you can see, while there are four pitches in his arsenal, three of them are fastballs. A tick over 96% of his pitches last season were one of his three fastball variations, headlined by the sinker that he threw 67.7% of the time.

Two of the three were valuable pitches for him too with the sinker and cutter posting wOBAs of .246 and .145 respectively. The sinker acts as more of a weak contact/groundball inducing pitch as opposed to an out pitch like the cutter which had a 47.2% whiff rate and 25.0% putaway rate last season. And when I say a groundball inducing pitch, I freaking mean it. Bummer had the 2nd highest groundball rate in the Majors last season at 72.1%, trailing only the sinker-maestro Zack Britton.

But as with most sinkerballers, the strikeout rate hasn’t been majestic, sitting at 8.0 K/9 last season and 8.3 K/9 for his career. Regardless, we’ve seen plenty of elite closers without ridiculous strikeout rate like Kenley Jansen and Mariano Rivera. It does buck the trend of players I usually target when searching for the next top-end fantasy closer, but Bummer has the stuff to thrive in the role, even if he’s only around a strikeout per inning. And with how he limits hard contact and contact in the air, he’s not one that will have many of those disastrous innings that can really hurt your ratios for that week.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: Current closer, Alex Colome, is a free agent following the 2020 season, so there’s a decent chance Bummer could get a shot to close as soon as 2021. He also just signed a new 5-year contract in February which shows how highly the White Sox value him.

Brusdar Graterol, Los Angeles Dodgers

Arsenal: Sinker (99.0 mph), Slider (88.3 mph), 4S Fastball (98.8 mph)

There have been endless amounts of discussion regarding what Brusdar Graterol’s longterm role in the Major Leagues will be. Since I have him included in this article, I believe you can figure out how I project him. Due to his below-average command and high-effort delivery, Graterol doesn’t feel like a safe bet for the rotation in my eyes and is better suited in the pen for those reasons. However, he has the stuff needed to not only pitch near the back-end of the bullpen, but to also dominate and turn into an elite fantasy reliever in time.

Graterol’s bread and butter over the years has been his high-90’s sinking fastball and high-80’s slider. Both are plus to double-plus pitches and helped him carve up the minor leagues to the tune of a 2.48 ERA over 214.0 innings. While his elite fastball and plus slider have been a lethal combination, Graterol’s changeup has lagged behind in a major way. At best, it’s a 45-grade offering. The inconsistencies with his changeup and command, along with the effort in his delivery make Graterol more of a pen arm moving forward in my eyes. If the Dodgers agree, I can see the changeup getting scrapped and Graterol using the fastball/slider combo alone moving forward. There’s big-time closer upside here if the Dodgers decide to go that route.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: Kenley Jansen is a free agent after the 2021 season and Blake Treinen following 2020. The Dodgers will still have an option on Joe Kelly in 2022, but Graterol is better suited to be Jansen’s heir-apparent in my opinion. If the Dodgers don’t resign Jansen, Graterol could take over in 2022.

Josh James, Houston Astros

Arsenal: 4S Fastball (97.1 mph), Slider (84.5 mph), Changeup (89.0 mph)

Wait, what? Josh James is currently a starter! Yes, yes he is. For now. One thing that has never been in question with James is his electric stuff. James features an upper-90’s fastball, mid-90’s slider, and upper-80’s changeup with the fastball grading as double-plus and both secondaries grading as above-average to plus. All three pitches were highly-valuable for James last season out of Houston’s bullpen. The surface 4.70 ERA and 1.32 WHIP might not impress anyone, but let’s take a look at the metrics on his individual pitches. I’m excluding the curveball as he’s thrown only 24 combined in the last two seasons.

All three pitches above had an xBA under .200 and an xwOBA under .300. Both secondaries had a whiff% above 50% and PutAway% above 28%. While James’ command has sometimes gotten him in trouble, causing the higher ERA, when he’s on, his three-pitch mix can dominate and batter that steps into the batter’s box. As his secondaries advanced in the minors, James’ strikeout rates rose as well. And over the last few seasons, James has turned into one of the top strikeout artists at any level, Majors or minors.

While Houston is moving him back into the rotation to begin the 2020 season, there’s no guarantee that this sticks longterm due to James’ shaky command and control. If/when James ends up back in the bullpen, he has what it takes to thrive in a late-inning role and turn into an elite fantasy reliever.

Path/ETA to Closer Role: There are several arms in this Houston bullpen that can step into the 9th inning role if called upon. All three of Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski, and Ryan Pressly won’t be free agents until 2022, so Houston has time to figure out what they want to do with James long-term. For now, he has the upside to provide fantasy value in whatever role he’s used in.

Media Credit: San Diego Padres, Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire, MLB, Rob Friedman (Pitching Ninja), Alex Fast, Pitcher List.

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