BBE 2019 Positional Rankings: Top 15 Relief Pitchers

Over the Major League Baseball offseason, the team of contributors here at Baseball Essential voted upon the top 15 players at every position in the game. Up until baseball’s annual Opening Day, we will be revealing the results of our voting process and unveiling the top 15 players at each position for the upcoming 2019 MLB season.

As for the positions, we will unveil the top 15 starting pitchers, relievers, catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, shortstops, left fielders, center fielders, and right fielders, as well as the foremost designated hitters, utilitymen, and managers, over the next few weeks. Then we’ll cap everything off with a rundown of the best overall players, regardless of position, in the sport.

Our voting format is simple. The team of writers and analysts at BBE were given ballots a few weeks back for their top 10 individuals at each spot. A first-place vote is worth 10 points, second-place is good for nine, and so on. To keep track of the Top 15 lists you might have missed, stay posted to the Top 15 tag on the site.

In the rundown, we list the player, their position among the list, and at which spot they found themselves in from last year’s power rankings. Now, you’re ready. Here are MLB’s Top 15 relief pitchers for the 2019 season.

Honorable Mention:

San Diego Padres reliever Craig Stammen received one tenth-place vote.

15. Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds (Last year: 11th)

It’s weird that Iglesias would drop four spots from last year to now after setting a career-best in single-season ERA in 2018. It goes to show just how insanely talented the pool of relief pitchers listed are, and how great Iglesias is.

The lanky right-hander excelled in the closer role for the Reds last season, going 2-5 with a 2.38 ERA, 30-34 in save attempts, and totaling 80 strikeouts in 72 innings. He lowered his career ERA to 2.97 while posting the best WHIP (1.069), hits per nine innings (6.5), and fewest walks (25) of his young career.

With the Reds reloading and shooting for a postseason spot, the late-game stability provided by Iglesias will be huge for the fans and players in Cincy.

14. Corey Knebel, Milwaukee Brewers (Last year: not ranked)

After missing extended time due to a hamstring injury suffered early on in the season, Knebel came back with a vengeance from the frontend of a lethal Brewers bullpen. The former National League All-Star emphatically returned to the closer spot for the Brewers midway through their NL Central-winning campaign, striking out 88 batters in just 55.1 innings (14.3 K/9).

The @BB_Essential team voted on the top 15 players at each position in @MLB. Here are the game's best relief pitchers, from @bytomdorsa.Click To Tweet

He converted 16 of his 19 save opportunities down the stretch of the regular season and was dominant in the postseason, helping the Brewers nearly reach the World Series. He pitched 10 playoff innings, allowing just two hits, one run, and striking out 14 batters. With the Brewers, like the aforementioned Reds, looking to fight for NL Central supremacy once again in 2019, the right-hander will be critical as a late-inning powerhouse.

13. Zack Britton, New York Yankees (Last year: 9th)

Britton was in the news twice this offseason: once for altering his first name (goodbye, Zach, hello, Zack) and once for signing a three-year deal with the Yankees, who acquired the left-hander from the Baltimore Orioles at the 2018 trade deadline. It should be a good extension for New York, whose bullpen — somehow — gets even better with Britton.

The two-time American League All-Star returned to a decent form last season, working 40.2 innings to the tune of a 3.10 ERA, 140 ERA+, and seven saves in the limited chances he got for the O’s and Yanks. Fans in the Bronx are hoping Britton can be solid, but his high-end ceiling (ya know, when he converted 47 of 47 save chances with a 0.54 ERA in 2016) makes him extremely intriguing.

12. Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates (Last year: 8th)

To another lefty reliever who underwent a name change last season, Felipe  ̶R̶i̶v̶e̶r̶o̶  Vazquez lands at 12th on the countdown after somewhat of a down year in 2018. However, after starting the year off slow, Vazquez finished 4-2 with a 2.70 ERA, 144 ERA+, and a 2.34 fielding independent pitching while striking out 89 batters in 70 innings as an NL All-Star.

This guy is a lefty whose fastball reaches 99 mph and who mixes in hard-thrown changeups, sliders, and curveballs. That combination makes the Pirates closer, who converted 37 of 42 save opportunities, one of the most unique and unpredictable relievers in all of baseball.

11. Dellin Betances, New York Yankees (Last year: not ranked)

Though he is one of the most inconsistent pitchers in baseball, when he is on his game, Betances is borderline unhittable. And in 2018, he showed at times just what he can be. Betances went 4-6 in mostly a middle-reliever role, posting a 2.70 ERA, 162 ERA+, and 1.050 WHIP in 66.2 innings of work.

Betances induces strikes with ease, combining a moving 98 mph four-seamer with a sweeping power curve and fanning 115 batters for a jaw-dropping rate of 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings. The four-time All-Star and former American League Rookie of the Year Award finalist is a menacing presence in an equally menacing Yankees ‘pen.

10. Andrew Miller, St. Louis Cardinals (Last year: 3rd)

CLEVELAND, OH – OCTOBER 08: Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians is pulled by manager Terry Francona in the seventh inning against the Houston Astros during Game Three of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field on October 8, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Andrew Miller at his best and Andrew Miller at his worst are two entirely different pitchers. Though the volatility of the modern relief pitcher extends further than Miller, the 2016 ALCS MVP, he has experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows possible for pitchers in his “fireman” role.

The Cardinals are content with giving Good Miller a chance, while risking acquiring Bad Miller. The tall and stringy left-hander went 2-4 with a 4.24 ERA with the Cleveland Indians last season, posting a 1.382 WHIP in just 34 innings of work, but is given the benefit of the doubt because he dealt with injuries for most of 2018.

The Cardinals are hoping the 2016 version of Miller, the guy who went 10-1 with a 1.45 ERA before just absolutely cleaning people out in the postseason, shows up in 2019, helping their young and evolving bullpen improve.

9. Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians (Last year: 13th)

When you give up one of the top prospects in the game for a reliever, that guy better be good. The Indians, for young catcher Francisco Mejia, acquired a rock solid and stable lefty out of the ‘pen last season in Hand.

Hand was dynamite for the Tribe in the last half of the 2018 campaign, recording a 2.28 ERA, eight saves, a 1.157 WHIP, and a K/9 rate of 13.3. With Miller and former closer Cody Allen departing in the offseason, Hand is now the preeminent reliever on Cleveland’s roster, and perhaps, an upgrade.

8. Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals (Last year: not ranked)

Aside from being a must-follow presence on Twitter, Doolittle has blossomed into one of the game’s elite relief pitchers since joining the Nationals. Doolittle’s 2018 season was a display of his all-around dominance, posting a 3-3 record, a 1.60 ERA, 25 saves in 26 tries, and 60 strikeouts in 45 innings. The NL All-Star had an astonishing 0.600 WHIP.

The 32-year-old’s stability in an otherwise shaky Nats bullpen is the most valuable part of his presence in the nation’s capitol, but he goes much further than just being solid: he has emerged as a premier force in MLB.

7. Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies (Last year: 4th)

Davis has experienced better years than his troublesome 2018, where he posted a 3-6 record and 4.13 ERA. However, the right-hander led the NL with a career-best 43 saves to help Colorado qualify for the postseason for the second consecutive season. In addition, he recorded a 1.056 WHIP and 78 strikeouts in 65.1 innings on the rubber.

Davis is just 33, and the three-time All-Star still has a lot left in the tank to bring it with his four-seam fastball and elusive knuckle curveball. With the Rockies losing Adam Ottavino to the Yankees in free agency, the efforts of their star closer will be even more important.

6. Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees (Last year: 7th)

The third Yankee to appear on this list, it should be clear that the Bronx is home to the game’s best bullpen, and that relief core is spearheaded by closer Aroldis Chapman. An All-Star for the fifth time in 2018, Chapman posted a 3-0 record, 2.45 ERA, 32 saves in 34 chances, and 93 strikeouts in just 51.1 innings on the mound (16.3 K/9 rate) in 2018.

He suffocates hitters with his 100+ mph fastball to all corners of the zone, then buckles them with an ankle-breaking slider. He is remorseless in his approach and has shown no inclination of slowing down, as he enters his age-31 season

5. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (Last year: 1st)

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 22: Catcher Yasmani Grandal #9 and pitcher Kenley Jansen #74 of the Los Angeles Dodgers shake hands after Jansen earns his 37th save of the season to defeat the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Jansen’s 2018 season was about more than saving things on the diamond. He chose to save his withering heart, recently undergoing a corrective heart surgery that reportedly lasted five and a half hours, after missing time with the scary irregular heartbeat last season and has pitched fine thus far in spring training.

Making his already insane story all the more insane, Jansen had a masterful season for a man with health issues of that caliber, registering a 3.01 ERA, 0.991 WHIP, and 38 saves in 42 attempts in 69 appearances. He struck out 82 batters and walked just 17 in 71.2 innings.

We have seen what the towering right-hander with the sick delayed delivery can do, and the three-time All-Star is looking to get back to full health and return to his past dominance with the two-time reigning NL pennant winners.

4. Craig Kimbrel, FREE AGENT (Last year: 2nd)

There are reports out there that Kimbrel, a free agent, and the Brewers are talking about a contract with opening day looming. That would be great for Kimbrel, an all-time great closer with a lot left in his right arm, but it borders on unfair for the Brewers to have that much relief talent on one team.

Kimbrel, who helped the Boston Red Sox capture the World Series title this past fall, was great in 2018 (if you put aside the occasional Cardiac Kimbrel appearances). He went 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA, 41 saves, a 0.995 WHIP, and 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings (96 in 62.1 innings). Any team would be lucky to have the active saves leader (333) on their roster.

3. Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics (Last year: not ranked)

A 30-year-old righty all-of-a-sudden becoming a top-tier reliever in MLB is such a neat story, but Treinen took it to another level in 2018; he was arguably the game’s most feared reliever.

A 9-2 record, a microscopic 0.78 ERA, and 100 strikeouts in a whopping 80.1 innings of work is the start, and the unbelievable 532 ERA+ (for the record, anything over 100 is above-average) is a cherry on top of a season of downright brilliance from someone who was barely known at this time last year.

His primary pitch is a wipeout 98 mph sinker, complemented by a four-seamer, a slider that reaches 92 mph at times, and a cutter that averages a 90 mph reading on the radar gun. The All-Star closer throws nothing without throwing as hard and deceiving as possible, and he is so incredibly entertaining to watch because of it.

2. Edwin Diaz, New York Mets (Last year: not ranked)

SEATTLE, WA – MAY 5: Relief pitcher Edwin Diaz #39, right, of the Seattle Mariners talks with second baseman Robinson Cano #22 of the Seattle Mariners before taking the mound during a game against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field on May 5, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. The Rangers won the game 3-1 in 13 innings. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

The best part about watching Diaz pitch is that he is downright disgusting on the rubber. He throws 98 mph smoke with the rising movement on his four-seam fastball, a 90 mph slider, and an astonishing 94 mph changeup, which surely has to be in the discussion for the nastiest pitch in MLB.

In his 2018 season with the Seattle Mariners, Diaz, now with the New York Mets as part of the Robinson Cano trade, lit the AL up to the tune of a 1.96 ERA, 124 strikeouts in 73.1 innings (15.3 K/9), a 208 ERA+, and a major-league best 57 saves in 61 opportunities. It has been a long time since a closer put together that kind of season, and now the revamped Mets get this production in their bullpen.

The second-best part is that he is only 25 years old, which means we’ll see this kind of pure electricity out of him for a while.

1. Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers (Last year: not ranked)

Hader is basically just Chris Sale as a super-reliever, and that should make the legs of every hitter in MLB shake profusely. With a menacing left-to-right 95 mph four-seam fastball and a buckling slider, Hader had a breakout 2018 season and posted insane numbers in just his second full year in the majors.

The 24-year-old went 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA, 143 strikeouts (15.8 K/9), a 168 ERA+, a 2.23 FIP, and an 0.811 WHIP. Unlike most relievers who are usually one-inning specialists, Hader went at least two full innings 23 times in 2018. His freakish pitching arsenal is only amplified by his durability.

In games Hader took the mound last season, the Brewers were 48-7. He’s pretty valuable.

Leave a Reply