Whether it’s a hot stove or a fraught stove* this offseason, the number of available free agent relief pitchers is certainly enough to cook with, comprising 122 names. To indulge in a very brief bit of autobiography, when I volunteered to write a piece about it, I quickly became overwhelmed. I decided to make sense of it by doing a preliminary ranking of the top 30 or so names, thinking I would write up a short paragraph about each.
*Source of this term: Ben Lindbergh. Ben is the best.
Well. It is shocking how little I know myself, even after many years of acquaintance. Some of my explorations of these relief pitchers quickly made the article unwieldy. So I decided, instead, to do a “Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers,” although I hope that people of all or no religions will feel welcomed, as long as they worship a fastball that averages 98 MPH (guess who?!). (If you’re upset that this is not actually starting twelve days before Christmas, I now get to write in an article what I say, obnoxiously, every year: December 25 is actually the first day of Christmas. But I’m starting the series now, in a compromise between that fact and the commonly-held belief that the “twelve days” are part of advent.)
I come to praise pitchers, not to marry them
Yes, I have gone full-on Julius Caesar with my section heading. I am ranking these pitchers, but I am not soothsaying about landing spots, because marriages between particular relief pitchers and teams are more difficult to project than with position players and starting pitchers. Everyone needs relief pitching; even teams that have it wouldn’t mind having more of it, if they could come by the right deal. And teams that need it may not address that deficiency with the most obvious fit.
For example, conjecture that Liam Hendriks will go to the Phillies, simply because he’s the best and the Phillies’ bullpen is a gaping wound of horror-movie proportions, I have to dismiss as unlikely. Yes, the Phillies are less hapless than they were before the Dave Dombrowski joined them. (Read my piece, “Don’t Warn Me About Dave Dombrowski,” for my feelings and thoughts, but mostly feelings.) Still, I doubt they will be in on any high-priced item other than JT Realmuto. If that.
And yet, I will take a moment to consider…
Who Needs Relief Pitching Most
The NL East Conflict
Because yes, Phillies bullpen is the sight of the Pennsylvania Chainsaw Massacre, and will need some help, even if it’s not from amongst our holiday dozen.
The Nationals had the 8th-worst bullpen ERA in 2020, partially due to some sad struggles from foremost baseball human Sean Doolittle and 2019 comeback kid Daniel Hudson. Tanner Rainey had a solid performance in 2020 and could close for them, or they could look elsewhere. Their ascendant division rivals, the Marlins, could also look to back up their success in 2020 with a flashier relief option than last year’s Brandon Kintzler acquisition. The Braves, meanwhile, will need to replace Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day.
And they are all, all honorable clubs
Yes, I am back with Mark Antony’s speech for these postseason-contenders. The White Sox are losing Alex Colome, and will need another high-leverage reliever even if they put Aaron Bummer in the closer’s role. The reigning World-Champion Dodgers could potentially look to bolster their pen, which looked vulnerable en route to their title, and they’re losing Blake Treinen and Jake McGee.
The Athletics, of course, are also losing not only their closer Liam Hendriks, but Joakim Soria, but they seem less likely to be big spenders than these other two teams. I observe this because a) they’re the Athletics, which I say with fondness, and b) Jake Diekman seems as though he could quite competently serve as a closer. (0.42 ERA, 36.9% K%, I mean SRSLY.)
The Astros may also need someone, even with Ryan Pressly capably taking over the closer’s role from Roberto Osuna. Osuna was diagnosed as needing a second Tommy John surgery in August, but after a second opinion took only a few weeks off before resuming baseball activity. When the Astros assigned him to AAA, he elected free agency, which means that if he does pitch in 2021, it will likely not be with the Astros. His injury concern means I’m not ranking him in my 12 Days of RPs, somewhat of a relief for me, personally. No pun intended. Seriously, if I wanted to make a pun, you would know.
The Blue Jays find themselves in a similar position, though it gives me no joy not to include Ken Giles in my ranking. Giles underwent Tommy John surgery and will likely miss all of 2021. With the 7th-worst bullpen ERA in 2020, the Blue Jays, who have been aggressive in acquiring talent in the last year, including signing Robbie Ray, will likely look to improve this area of their team.
The Giants, Tigers and Mariners, though in unclear positions for their competitive cycles, could benefit from bullpen additions. Though the Mariners’ future looks bright, 2021 might not yet be their year to contend. But with the third-worst bullpen ERA in 2020, locking in a cheap, longer-term deal on a younger free agent could be smart. The Tigers, with the sixth-worst ERA, are in a similar position. The Giants have already acquired Matt Wisler to replace Tony Watson—seems like an upgrade—but did suffer from bullpen chaos all year. But of course, Kapler gonna Kap.
The Angels also needed an influx of relievers, as they’re losing a spate of their own: Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton and Hansel Robles. Only Robles played a small part in 2020’s uneven closer committee, but things may be much clearer now that new GM Perry Minasian has cornered the market on Iglesiases. Whom the Reds plan on sending out, having traded Rasiel Iglesias and non-tendered Archie Bradley, is unclear.
And there’s the Red Sox. Yeah. It’s still odd to write in dispirited tones about a team that so recently won a World Series, but there’s no way around the fact that the Sox had the 4th-worst bullpen ERA. I was surprised to discover that it was marginally worse, at 5.79, than their starters’ ERA, at 5.34. I suppose any bullpen didn’t look as bad to me, given the PTSD I acquired watching the Phillies. But the Red Sox just need pitching, period.
I could go on, but I’ve already named half of the league.
I apologize if I’ve failed to name your team, but to reiterate: everyone needs relief pitchers. And so it’s time to move along to our Hendriks in a pear tree. If, by chance, you’re not familiar with any of the advanced metrics, you can find a glossary at the bottom or you can find it here.
That Liam Hendriks represents the top of the relief pitcher market is so unquestionably true that it would almost be boring, if it weren’t for Hendriks’s Cinderella story. When he was designated for assignment by the Athletics in 2018, it wasn’t even the first time that had happened—both the Twins and Royals had DFA’d the Australian righty earlier in his career.
But in 2018, no team claimed Hendriks, so he went to the A’s Triple-A team, where he began a long-toss program and revamped his pitching mix. When he returned, he had added 2 to 2 1/2 MPH of velocity to all of his pitches (per Baseball Savant). Now that his fastball averages 96 MPH, he throws the pitch majority of the time (70%), paired with a wipeout slider and curve. This year, his four-seamer, which has always had good vertical drop, developed even more movement. In 2020, it was the fourth best in vertical movement in all of baseball, after only Trevor Bauer, James Karinchak and Walker Beuhler. That’s…okay.
Hendriks’s spin rate has also improved dramatically, both over his career, and gradually over the same two seasons. In 2020, his fastball averaged 2,445 revolutions per minute, with a 97.1% active spin rate, the 26th best in baseball. That helps gives his fastball the illusion of resisting gravity and “rising.”
Cinderella’s Glass Spin Rate
And now, Hendriks won the AL Reliever of the Year Award, and was recently voted to the All-MLB Team. The result of the change to his arsenal has been two superb seasons as the closer with the Athletics. His 1.79 ERA is perfectly supported by a 1.70 FIP over those 110.1 innings, with a 13.13 K/9. In 2020, his wOBA-against was in the top 1% of the league, while his expected wOBA-against (xwOBA) was in the top 2% of the league. Both elite, and legit.
FanGraphs’ crowd-sourcing expects a three-year, $36 million deal for Hendricks. The 32-year-old should certainly get a three-year deal, if anyone will, but the total might be less in this environment. Jeff Passan reported that the White Sox are Hendriks’s “primary suitor,” with the Dodgers, Astros, Mets and Blue Jays in the mix.
Like a partridge in a pear tree, you can’t go wrong. It’s a bird. It’s a plant. It’s a fruit. It’s a curveball with a 60% whiff rate. Happy holidays, y’all.
Advanced Metrics: I’m Dreaming of a SwStr% Christmas
I assume most people reading this know all of these terms, but if there’s one you don’t know, I don’t want to leave you out! Not all of these are in this piece, but this will be the landing spot for our twelve days of RPs, so I wanted them in one place.
This stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, and it looks at the things that are in a pitcher’s control, strikeouts, walks and home runs, scaled to ERA. This evaluation of a pitcher’s underlying skills can help judge whether or not the ERA reflects the pitcher’s performance. That’s why I say Hendrik’s FIP “supports” his ERA.
More a descriptor of what “should have” happened instead of what did. This takes FIP, but normalizes home runs with the average home-run-to-fly-ball ratio.
Expected ERA. A Baseball Savant/Statcast metric that recalculates ERA based on quality of contact. I prefer using this for my “should have” stat. This doesn’t forecast what we expect moving forward; it’s just a different way of looking at the past.
xBA, xwOBA, xSLG, xwOBAcon
Expected batting average, expected weighted on-base average, and expected slugging percentage, also Baseball Savant metrics, that weigh the quality of batted ball contact. xwOBAcon particularly considers the xwOBA only on contact, factoring out walks, and hit-by-pitches. For pitchers, I’ll be talking about these as the contact against their pitches.
Swinging Strike Rate. For pitchers, the percentage of swings-and-misses out of all pitches thrown.
Whiff rate. For pitchers, the percentage of swings-and-misses out of all swings.
Hard-hit per nine. The number of balls hit above 95 MPH, scaled to nine innings, as with K/9 and BB/9. Alexander Chase introduced this to me, and to the world, with this excellent article. This becomes key in a couple of the pitchers I examine.
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