Top 10 Relief Pitchers Right Now

Tonight MLB Network will continue the 2013 iteration of their “Top 10 Right Now” series at each position capped off with a “Top 100 Overall”. They will air both the relief and starting pitcher shows on Friday evening. I always enjoy this series and generally look forward to it after the New Year since I eat up just about any fresh baseball content I can as we wait for pitchers & catchers to report. Instead of putting up my lists after they air their selections, I’ll post mine ahead of time and then compare notes after the shows air.

This is not a fantasy list!!

My guess is that MLBN will rely a bit too heavily on saves here and lean toward closers, but I’m going for the best relievers regardless of role. This was pretty tough because I could’ve made a legitimate case for quite a few guys who didn’t wind up on my 10. In fact, my honorable mention list could’ve run 10-15 deep. Instead, here are just a few.

Sean Marshall (CIN) – Since these lists stress the “Right Now” aspect, considering Marshall’s track record too heavily would go against the conceit of the lists. And since he is coming off of his worst year against righties (750 OPS), he lost out on a spot. He obliterates lefties (410 OPS) and has plenty of previous success against righties to avoid the LOOGY status, but his rough start likely cost him a spot here. He had a 4.15 ERA in 17.3 innings through May, but then just a 1.85 ERA the rest of the way in 43.7 innings.

Jonathan Papelbon (PHI) – He was hardly bad in 2012, but some chinks in the armor did pop up (namely the home runs and the margins are so thin here that any small ding could cost you a spot on the list. I will state clearly that this has nothing to do with my disdain for Papelbon. I want to make the best list possible and I ended choosing my #10 over Papelbon after a couple flips back-and-forth between the two.

Jake McGee (TB) – A lefty who throws 96? How the hell is that fair? To say he dominated right-handers last year is a gross understatement. They managed a .098/.157/.134 line–that’s a 291 OPS for those keeping score–all while striking out 36 percent of the time. With these honorable mentions, there really aren’t reasons why they didn’t make the list. The top 10 was just so rich that the runoff seems entirely snubbed given how deserving they are on their own merits.

Tyler Clippard (WAS) – Remember when he stranded 96 percent of runners in 2011? So sick. He’s still awesome, just not quite top 10 awesome. Hell, neither are his bullpen mates, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano.

Darren O’Day (BAL) – If we were doing A-Rod’s list, he might be number one. O’Day was 5th in win probability added for relievers last year while teammate Jim Johnson was tops by a good margin. O’Day just missed and Johnson wasn’t given much consideration ranking around 20 or so. It’s probably my whorishness for strikeouts. Sorry, Jimmy-J.

Sorry as well to: Jason Grilli (homers), Rafael Betancourt (drop in Ks), Al Alburquerque (innings), Kelvin Herrera (Ks didn’t stack up), Ernesto Frieri (walks), and Joel Peralta (homers).

MLBNtopRP

THE LIST

10. David Hernandez (ARI) – The D’Backs better not even consider giving the 8th inning to Heath Bell setting up J.J. Putz as Hernandez handled it masterfully last year and continues to get better each year. He is a flyball pitcher, but maintains a 0.5 HR/9 because 15 percent of his flyball stays in the infield. In the mortal division (non-Kimbrel & Aroldis), his 35 percent strikeout rate was good 5th while his 7.9 percent walk rate was best among those five.

9. Koji Uehara (BOS) – How does he only get $4.25 million from Boston this offseason? That is a steal, especially juxtaposed against the 2/$28 mil that Washington is paying Soriano (and I like Sori). Even missing two months, he deserved more than a $250,000 dollar raise for his work. He had a 14.3 K/BB! He hates walks. In fact, he hates walking. He moves briskly everywhere he goes often breaking into a trot or jog. He walked three batters in 36 innings last year. Carlos Marmol walked three batters in a game three times last year.

8. Joe Nathan (TEX) – Homers ate him up a bit at home (1.7 HR/9) or his sparkling numbers (2.80 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) would’ve been even better. And he was 37 years old.

7. Fernando Rodney (TB) – Who would have bet that Rodney would appear on a list like this… ever? Chalk one up for the “change of scenery” factor working and how. The Rays remade Rodney and he became one of baseball’s best relievers recapturing his strikeout-per-inning stuff while walking next to nobody (far and away a career-best 5 percent BB rate and 1.8 BB/9; previous best was 9 & 3.5). His velo even spiked a bit up to a career high 98.2 MPH on his four-seamer making his 83 MPH changeup that much more devastating.

6. David Robertson (NYY) – He experienced the worst timed injury ever going down in early May shortly after getting the closer’s role once Mariano Rivera went down. Robertson had been missing bats like crazy for four years, but it was always paired with a walk rate of 12 percent or worse. That changed last year when he cut it to just 7.7 percent with little cost to his strikeouts (dipped from an obscene 37 percent to a still-excellent 33 percent). He’s added a groundball element to his game the last two years only adding to his effectiveness.

5. Kenley Jansen (LAD) – An irregular heartbeat could barely tame Jansen, though it did cost him about half of September. He’s usually the one doling out irregular heartbeats, terrifying batters into submission with his filthy cutter which he throws almost exclusively (93 percent of the time). When a pitch is that good, why throw anything else? Sounds like another reliever we all know pretty well.

4. Jason Motte (StL) – Completely embraced the closer’s role en route his best across-the-board season yet in a career-high 72 innings. His 2.75 ERA was up from 2011’s 2.25, but the WHIP dropped from 0.96 to 0.92 while his strikeout rate spiked majorly to 31 percent without impacting his 6 percent walk rate. I think he is one of the more underrated relievers in the game, but that could just be my perception of him. I guess we’ll see tonight on the lists of those involved in the show.

3. Sergio Romo (SF) – While I’m constantly annoyed at how much the Giants baby Romo, I understand it. It’s probably not a surprise that he posted his best year in 2011 when they limited him to just 48 innings (1.50 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 40% K rate, 14.0 K/BB). I’m just being selfish because I want to see flat-out embarrass grown men with his NSFW slider, rated second best in the majors last year per pitch values. His arm may one day accompany the ball to the plate, but until then, enjoy this diminutive badass.

2. Mariano Rivera (NYY) – This was obviously the toughest ranking. He had to be included despite throwing just eight innings last year before tearing his ACL, but how high? It wasn’t a leg injury and he hasn’t seen his dominance diminish at all yet, so I felt comfortable slotting the 43-year old right here. He doesn’t have the same gaudy numbers as a lot of these guys, but he is still fanning a quarter of the batters he faces and his walk rate was actually on the decline from 4.8 in 2010 to 3.4 in 2011, though it ticked up a bit to 6.3 (still great) last year in his tiny sample.

1. Craig Kimbrel (ATL) – He’s on a different plane. If you put up his numbers in a video game, your friends would tell you to get real and up the difficulty. He’s doing it on All-Madden (mixed sport metaphors FTW!). His 40+ percent strikeout rate dropped our jaws, but he wasn’t satisfied so he dropped a 50 burger on our faces fanning precisely 50.2 percent of the batters he faced last year. Major league batters. And for good measure, he nearly sliced his walk rate in half dropping from 10.5 to 6.1 percent.

No one stood a prayer against him evidenced obviously by everything I’ve already shared, but also his .126 batting average against. His 19.2 swinging strike rate was tops in baseball to the surprise of absolutely nobody. He got 40 percent of his strikeouts on three pitches. If he got two strikes on a batter, they hit .068/.112/.105 and struck out 68 percent of the time. I could keep going, but I think you get the point. This was an easy choice.

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