The Spring Training games have begun and we're already knee deep in the fantasy baseball draft season! This is my sixth season covering relievers for Fantistics and writing A Closer Look. The game of baseball has transformed during that time with many teams placing a heavy emphasis on using their most talented relievers in the game's highest pressure situations, even if those don't come in the ninth inning. It's all come to a head this pre-season with about half the teams entering camp without a single identified closer. As a result, the pre-season edition of this column will take on a slightly larger scope, covering all relievers that may have value to you as a mixed league fantasy player and ranking them in tiers, as opposed to focusing on just the ninth inning guys.
Edwin Diaz (NYM) - Edwin Diaz leapt back among the elite closers last season after posting a career best 18.9% swinging strike rate, which translated to the highest strikeout rate among all regular closers at 44.3% and arguably one of the best seasons of all time from a reliever. Diaz saw improvement in most of his metrics from 2017 to 2018, putting many of them closer to the elite numbers he posted as a rookie in 2016. Now with the Mets, Diaz will supplant Jeurys Familia as the team's primary ninth inning man and there's no reason to expect much change in his production, especially when considering that as a team, the Mets saw just one fewer save opportunity than the Mariners in 2018.
Felipe Vazquez (PIT) - Felipe Vazquez has the raw talent to be the best closer in baseball with a 14.7% swinging strike rate and 72% contact rate, but he needs to improve his consistency before being considered the best. Vazquez showed signs of fatigue in the second half, posting strikeout rates of just 21.4% and 28.1% in Aug/Sep after managing rates of 42.2% and 45.8% in Jun/Jul. His hard hit rate against also spiked to 42.3% versus 22.1% in the first half, but he was saved by an unsustainable 90.9% strand rate, which masked some of the degradation. Among active closers, only Blake Treinen and Brad Hand have thrown more innings than Vazquez since 2016 (222.1 innings pitched).
Blake Treinen (OAK) - Blake Treinen was statistically the best closer in baseball last season after adding a cutter to his repertoire and upping his fastball velocity to 98 MPH. Treinen only improved as the season went on and finished the second half with an impressive 3.07 GB/FB rate and 7.80 K/BB rate. There's a case to be made to take Treinen as the first closer off the board, but a combination of his high usage over the last 3 seasons and his lack of track record as a closer opens the door for other, more established options.
Aroldis Chapman (NYY) - Chapman saw his walk rate spike to 14.2% in 2018 and his in zone % dropped the lowest levels since his first full season with the Reds in 2011. Likewise, Chapman's fastball pitch value also dropped to the lowest level since 2011, leading to the highest slider usage of his career at 25.5%. At age 30, it's possible we're seeing age related decline and last season was the first since 2013 that Chapman didn't average over 100 MPH with his fastball. With that all said, Chapman's indicator stats remain elite and the Yankees should have plenty of save opportunities. The strength of the Yankees bullpen will also serve as a positive, allowing Chapman to work only when absolutely necessary and in controlled situations.
Craig Kimbrel (FA) - The pitchers and catchers deadline has passed and as it stands, Craig Kimbrel is still looking for a job. For now, we're projecting Kimbrel to be a closer on his new team and projects to be one of the best in the player pool. Thanks to the uncertainty around his uniform, Kimbrel is going for a relative discount from his skillset. Sharp players drafting early can take advantage of the value that will cease to exist once he signs. Kimbrel continues to post elite production with a 63% contact rate, 17% swinging strike rate and 34% chase rate, but the best news was 12% improvement in his hard hit rate allowed, which sat at 27% in 2018, the same as his career average. Beware, the further we go into February / March without Kimbrel having a team, the higher the risk that Kimbrel will not be ready to being the season.
Josh Hader (MIL) - While not technically a closer, Josh Hader has redefined how fantasy players approach high usage relievers and is living proof that they can be more valuable than mid-rotation starting pitchers. Hader tends to only pitch on two or three days rest, but frequently goes multiple innings. Indications out of Milwaukee point towards a similar usage pattern for Hader this season, making him neither the primary closer nor primary set-up man, but a fire fighter who will contribute moderately in both the saves and holds categories while providing a substantial contribution to the ratio and strikeout categories.
Brad Hand (CLE) - Brad Hand struck out 100 or more batters for the third straight season and continues to rely more heavily on his slider each year, throwing it more than half the time in 2018. It's a positive change for Hand since his slider has a 15% whiff rate compared with 13% for the fastball while simultaneously inducing 20% more groundballs than his fastball.
Roberto Osuna (HOU) - Roberto Osuna took advantage of his second chance and successfully saved 12 games for the Astros in August and September. Osuna experienced a big decrease to his strikeout rate in 2018, but with a 74% contact rate and 14.7% swinging strike rate, there's plenty of reason to expect a bounce back in his strikeout numbers in 2019.
Raisel Iglesias (CIN) - Entering his fourth season as the Reds closer, Raisel Iglesias has already been pegged by his new managed to pitch in each game's most important situation, whether that's in the ninth inning or not. Iglesias continues to post steady strikeout and walk rate numbers that rate relatively close to league-wide averages for relievers. The injury bug that plagued Iglesias as a starting pitcher seem to be a thing of the past after he's thrown 72+ innings for each of the last three seasons.
Ken Giles (TOR) - Like Roberto Osuna, Ken Giles benefited from a change of scenary in the final two months of the regular season after being acquired by Toronto, saving 14-of-14 save opportunities. The knock on Giles early in his career was his control issues, which he solved in 2018 by posting a 3.3% walk rate. The question, however, is whether or not he's able to conquer the mental aspect of the game, but a lower pressure situation in Toronto should go a long way in aiding in that process. Talent-wise, he belongs among the top-5 closers.
Sean Doolittle (WAS) - Doolittle managed to avoid shoulder issues in 2018 for the first time in three seasons and the results were impressive, posting the best contact rate against (69.7%) and swinging strike rate (16.8%) of his career. Unfortunately, he still missed nearly two months with pinched nerve in his toe. Availability has always been the question for Doolittle, not ability, but the good news is that as long as he's healthy, he should be the primary option for the Nationals in the ninth inning.
Kirby Yates (SD) - Kirby Yates finally got his opportunity to close games and his performance did not disappoint, saving 8 games and recording 7 holds after Brad Hand was dealt to the Indians. Now entering camp as the Padres' undisputed closer, Yates finds himself on a team that's much improved offensively, but still has issues with the pitching staff. How many save Yates records in 2019 will largely depend on the development of the Padres young prospects. Yates has the talent to make a big impact as a top reliever, checking the boxes in swinging strike rate (13.5%) and contact rate (67.7%), but leaves a little to be desired in terms of chase rate (28.9%) and back-to-back seasons of 15%+ HR/FB rates. The good news is the indicator stats support a regression of the latter closer to his career average of 11%.
Kenley Jansen (LAD) - Kenley Jansen dealt with injuries/health problems for most of his 2018 season, beginning with a hamstring injuries in Spring Training and ended with a flare-up of his recurring heart problems that resulted in off-season heart surgery. He's reportedly healthy heading into spring training, but his draft position will remain depressed until he proves himself in game action. If he shows he has his velocity back between 93-94 MPH, it's reasonable to write off his 2018 stats at an aberration caused by injury. Taking him at a discount remains a priority since there's no guarantee he will stay healthy.
Jose Leclerc (TEX) - LeClerc made huge improvements to his control last season, posting an 11% walk rate after walking nearly 20% of the batters he faced in his first two seasons. He's not out of the woods yet, but if he can maintain the progress, his 62.9% contact rate allowed is elite, as his is 17.1% swinging strike rate. His fastball is no slouch, but his change-up is his out-pitch and the key to his success with a 21% whiff rate.
Corey Knebel (MIL) - Corey Knebel's value will largely be tied to the number of save opportunities you project for him. Craig Counsell proved he had no problem mixing in Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader last season, so it's difficult to project Knebel for all the Brewer's save chances. Knebel improved his walk rate in the second half and increased his groundball in 2018, both positive signs for his outlook in 2019. His HR/FB rate ballooned to 20.6% last season, which was ultimately the biggest reason why Counsell sometimes looks elsewhere in the ninth. Unfortunately, he's going to need to improve upon his 48.6% hard hit rate allowed before that HR/FB rate can come back down to earth.
Andrew Miller (STL) - Andrew Miller signed with the Cardinals, but his role with the team isn't immediately clear. With Jordan Hicks and possibly even Alex Reyes or Carlos Martinez in the bullpen, it's liekly the Cardinals will go with a committee until one player emerges. Miller has a lot of innings in his arm and some of that wear-and-tear caught up with him in 2018, dealing with both knee and shoulder injuries, and seeing significant declines in his strikeout and walk rates. He's no safe bet to see consistent saves (not unlike his role in Cleveland), but he's at an even higher risk of reaggravating an injury. Tread carefully if you're drafting him with the expectation that he will close.
Wade Davis (COL) - As expected, the Cubs' heavy usage of Wade Davis in 2017 combined with a home into Coors Field led to a reduction in effectiveness for Davis in 2018. Davis saw a 3% drop in both his swinging strike rates and chase rates, while his in-zone contact rate soared to 89.3%, indicating he was no longer fooling batters. At age 33, it's difficult to project much of a step forward, especially given the concerns around his home park and 40% flyball rate.
Cody Allen (LAA) - The Angels hope Cody Allen can be their answer to their ninth inning woes. At age 30, Allen still possesses a strong 12.9% swinging strike rate (albeit downa few percentage points) and 71.8% contact rate, but his strikeout rate fell for the third straight season while his walk rate jump up 4% to 11%. Allen has posted 6 straight seasons with 67 or more innings pitched, the most among all active closers. How much gas he has left in the tank is a legitimate question.
Brad Boxberger (KC) - Brad Boxberger was signed to become the Royals closer, a role that's tantilizing for fantasy owners to chase since dedicated closers are becoming more rare, yet at the same time, realizing the Royals produced by 57 totals opportunities in 2018, well below the teams in the top-5 that ranged from 74-81. Boxberger has seen declines in his fastball velocity the last few seasons, but he has adapted well and developed the effectiveness of his changeup in 2018 to pick up some slack.
Matt Barnes (BOS) - As it stands, Matt Barnes will most likely be the closer for the Boston Red Sox. Barnes stormed onto the scene last season and managed a 36% strikeout rate on a 14.5% SwStr%. His 64% contact rate and overall performance boost can be largely attributed to improvement and increased usage of his curveball, which induces an excellent 60% groundball rate. His 27% chase rate leaves plenty to be desired, but his mix of pitches keeps hitters off balance and limits their quality of contact.