If you've read my work before, you know I love relievers, especially those with excellent strikeout and swing-and-miss stuff, regardless of their current bullpen role. I like to identify these guys early, before others in my league, and stash them so I can reap the rewards when they finally earn the closer job. Sometimes, this process takes months and it requires lots of patience. Other times, it happens faster than you thought it could.
Today, I'm going to discuss a few guys I think could be closing later this season. They have great "stuff" and just need some struggles from the guys in front of them (very possible) to take the job and run with it. I like to focus on bullpens that are already shaky or have big injury risk guys in the closer role.
First up, the very uncertain Phillies bullpen. In Eno Sarris' Fangraphs chat on Thursday, he brought this guy to my attention. He's so new and unfamiliar to me that I just had to look up his name again to write this. His name is Hector Neris. Apparently, he's been with the Phillies organization since 2010, when he was in rookie ball and had 41 innings of MLB relief experience going into this year. Nothing looked exciting about him last year, when he had a 3.79 ERA, 4.72 FIP, and 4.08 xFIP. He did strikeout just over a batter an inning (9.15 K/9) and didn't walk many, but there wasn't anything special here. Just an average reliever.
This year, he looks like a completely different pitcher in the 9.1 innings he's thrown so far. The velocity (about 93 mph) is the same, but the results are very different. His ERA is spotless (0.0), his FIP is 0.8, and his xFIP is 1.76. His swinging strike rate has surged from 14% to 22%!!!. That is elite territory. His K/9 sits at 14.5, while his BB/9 still rests at 1.93.
What could cause such a dramatic change? It looks like one simple change in his pitch mix did the trick. In 2016, he has upped his split finger usage from 28% to 51% and lowered his fastball and slider usage by 10+% each. His splitter is a nasty pitch, currently sitting on a 37.9%!!!! swinging strike rate. Just to show that isn't all that fluky, the pitch had a 29.6% whiff rate in 2015, so the pitch has always been great, he's just using it more now.
Nobody else in that bullpen can match his raw stuff right now or his results. For that reason, I think he will end up the Phillies' closer. The team might try to put a veteran like Andrew Bailey in that role to sell him off at the trade deadline, but that might be only thing stopping our man Hector. He's only 26 and already has two holds this year, so he is getting some high leverage work.
I don't really like any of the other Phillies closer options in fantasy. They all are too shaky. Neris is the guy I'm stashing in an NL-only league for the excellent rates and the future closer job.
Switching over to the AL, next up is the Rangers. Shawn Tolleson took over this job after Neftail Feliz bombed early last year. Tolleson pitched extremely well until late in the year, when he started to break down. In the playoffs, the Rangers used Sam Dyson in high leverage, closer-type situations, not Tolleson.
Despite that, Tolleson started 2016 as the closer and has been pretty bad so far. He has a 6 K/9, 9.0 ERA, 4.38 FIP, and 3.71 xFIP, so he has been somewhat unlucky, but that K/9 is not going to get it done. His velocity is the same as last year, so that's not the culprit. His swinging strike rate is way down to 6.7% from 10+% last year. That's awful. The only change I see is that he is throwing his cutter about 10% more than last year, when he basically never threw it. It has not been a good pitch so far, with 0 swinging strikes. His changeup is still very good, but his other pitches look bad so far.
This would be fine, especially with the 5 saves he has already collected for his owners, if it weren't for the guy behind him on the depth chart. Sam Dyson sits poised and ready to take over. He is looking like a slightly poor-man's Zach Britton, which is a very good thing. His K/9 sits at 9, with 3.38 BB/9. His ERA is 1.13, his FIP is 2.17, and his xFIP is 2.55. What really sets him apart and puts him in Britton territory is his insane 78% ground ball rate. That will get you lots of outs and weak contact.
He has been getting better and better and inducing grounders and is now in rarefied air. The last three seasons, he has gone from 63% to 68% to 78%. He does this with a 95 mph sinker.
He is sitting there poised to take over if Tolleson shows any further signs of struggle. He is on my radar in all leagues as a good saves speculation. He should post low ERAs and WHIPs in the mean time. Want further proof how much the Rangers trust him? He is 8th in baseball this season in leverage index, which measures how important the situation is when he enters the game. Sure, Tolleson is 6th on that same list, but he hasn't done as well with his opportunities.
I'm not going to go into as much detail about these guys, but here are some other intriguing names to keep in mind for deeper leagues, where you have to have next-in-line guys stashed before they get the job:
Nate Jones, CHW - He looks to have closer's stuff and David Robertson's strikeouts have dropped precipitously this year, down to 8.53 K/9. He is #16 on the leverage index list.
Blake Treinen, WAS - He is a lot like Dyson and Britton, relying on a high velocity sinker and tons of ground balls. Papelbon has the job for sure, but look at his peripherals this year: 6.75 K/9, 4.05 ERA, 3.5 FIP, 3.79 xFIP, velocity down to 91 mph, and swinging strike rate at a putrid 6.7%, like Tolleson. Treinen should get the first shot at the job. He's #20 on the leverage list.
Mark Lowe, DET - Francisco Rodriguez has been awful so far. You already knew that and didn't even need me to tell you. That's how bad he has been. Lowe's velocity is down and his K/9 is way down at 6.42, but his ground ball rate gives him a high floor and he clearly is the guy Ausmus trusts for the 8th inning (Justin Wilson gets some of that action, but he's a lefty). Lowe's #22 on the leverage list.
I hope you find this useful as you plan your bullpen strategy for the season. Chasing future saves can be a headache, but the reward for stashing the right guy and seeing him dominate in the role is worth it. Tschus!