According to MLB.com, the “save” was a term initially tossed around by 1950s general managers. There were no rules regarding what a save was, only that a pitcher entered the game with a lead and did not give it up. A decade later, sportswriter Jerome Holtzman came up with the criteria, and thus, the most frustrating stat to acquire in fantasy baseball was born.
Teams have wizened up a bit on how to deploy their best relievers in the modern game. However, the majority of teams still have a designated “closer.” Or if not, have one reliever that receives the majority of saves chances. On many other teams, though, chasing saves is a full-time job. Luckily for this list, these ten relief pitchers should all receive the lion’s share of saves chances while delivering daily doses of pitching goodness to your lineup.
I’ve tried to tier these, but tiering relievers is especially challenging in 2021. The top four relievers here are all in the “Elite Tier,” but they could easily all be in a tier of their own.
1. Liam Hendriks
ADP: FantasyPros (6.18) – NFBC (66.23)
Baseball is an incredible game. Just a year ago, it was easy to second guess Liam Hendriks after his seemingly out-of-nowhere 2019 spectacle.
For the better part of the last decade, Liam Hendriks was a failed starting pitcher with an unimpressive strikeout rate. The one stat Hendriks could hang his hat on, though, was his ability to limit walks. Luckily, that skill only grew better with time. And fortunately for fantasy owners, a change in pitch mix led to a drastic increase in strikeouts.
A handy graphic available at BaseballSavant is a pitch usage by year chart:
Hendriks was a starter his entire career until a second stint with the Toronto Blue Jays. After spending the first seven years of his career with the Minnesota Twins, Hendriks was claimed off waivers and was DFA’d repeatedly until finally establishing himself as a high-leverage reliever in 2015.
His stat line that season looked like this: 64.2 IP, 71 K, 14 BB, 2.92 ERA, 1.08 WHIP.
Suddenly, Liam Hendriks was reborn. But not so fast. In the chart, you can see that his pitch mix was nearly the same in 2015 as it was the previous four seasons.
The first change Hendriks made was to throw fewer sinkers. Eventually, he eliminated the sinker entirely after it was his most used pitch from 2011 to 2015.
However, despite reshaping his career as a reliever, Hendriks would still be designated for assignment again in 2016, before finally establishing himself as a high-leverage machine.
To begin the 2016 season, Hendriks accumulated an ERA of 7.36 through the end of June, and a familiar DFA was a result. Instead of sulking, Hendriks channeled his inner Australian-rules footballer and went beast mode. He finished the season with a 3.76 ERA, repeated his 9.88 K/9 from 2015, and had a second straight season with a K/BB over 5.0.
After his success in Toronto, the Jays upper management decided to cash in early on their winning ticket, trading Hendriks to Oakland for Jesse Chavez. Hendriks went on to put up impressive ratios with the A’s in 2017 and 2018, but his results did not quite match the peripherals. He would return to AAA one final time, and utterly dominated with 43 strikeouts in 25 innings.
In 2019, Hendriks would become the A’s closer following an injury to Blake Treinen. He went on to make an All-Star appearance and posted an immaculate line of 85 IP, 124 K, 1.80 ERA, 1.87 FIP, 1.90 SIERA.
In his current form, Hendriks’ sinker has been entirely replaced by a four-seamed fastball, which he now throws around 70% of the time. He’ll mix in his slider about 25% of the time to keep hitters off-balance, but his proper put-away pitch is the fastball.
By percentage, Hendriks’ best put-away pitch is actually his curveball. However, he rarely throws it. Clocking in at 7% of his repertoire, the 26 curves Hendriks threw in 2020 resulted in 40% of his put away pitches. Comparatively, Hendriks has a PutAway% of 30.4 with the four-seamer and 19 with the slider, making a compelling case for the entire arsenal.
Bottom Line on Liam Hendriks: By the numbers, Liam Hendriks is the best closer in baseball. His ERA in 2019 and 2020 combined is 1.79. He limits walks and homers at an elite rate, and his 13.13 K/9 from 2019 was answered by a 13.14 in 2020.
The question is, do you believe those numbers are repeatable?
For me, the answer is an easy yes, which places Liam Hendriks at #1 in the relief pitcher power rankings.
2. James Karinchak
ADP: FantasyPros (113.3) – NFBC (108.04)
Words do not do James Karinchak justice, so let’s start with a picture:
Karinchak relies on two pitches, a power four-seamed fastball that averages 97 MPH and a hammer curve at 84.5 MPH. He throws each pitch equally, tossing 235 fastballs and 233 curveballs in 2020. The curveball gets a few more whiffs (56.3% to 39%), but he can put batters away with both pitches.
In terms of expected batting average (.130) and expected slugging percentage (.196), no pitcher was better than Karinchak in 2020. By expected ISO, K-Chak ranked in the 99th percentile. By xwOBA, he was in the 98th percentile.
There is no metric by which James Karinchak is not excellent—except for walk rate (15%). With the walk rate comes an elevated WHIP—most projections have him around 1.10—and that won’t kill you, but it’s enough to consider a safer option at the top of the board. And it’s the reason Liam Hendriks ranks ahead of James Karinchak.
But ultimately ranking him #2, I am swinging for the fences with K-Chak. At nearly 50%, his strikeout rate is otherworldly, and it’s pure gold on your fantasy team.
Bottom Line on James Karinchak: Personally, I’m willing to pay whatever ends up being market value for Karinchak. And then I’m going to hope that his walk rate can inch down from 5 BB/9 closer to the 3.5 BB/9 we expect from Aroldis Chapman. If that happens, we’ll have a new #1 closer for fantasy baseball.
3. Josh Hader
ADP: FantasyPros (60.8) – NFBC (59.43)
The decline we saw across the board in 2020 is alarming, but was it just small sample size noise? Hader did not deliver as a truly elite reliever in 2020, and further research reveals potentially troubling trends.
The first stat that jumps off the page is Hader’s walk rate, which rose to 4.74 BB/9 in 2020. The small sample could entirely explain the jump up from 2.38 BB/9 in 2019. But this is also the third straight season where we’ve seen wild fluctuations in Hader’s walk rates.
What’s more concerning than the walks, though, is his HR/9, which has been alarmingly high the past two seasons. After a solid 1.00 HR/9 during Hader’s first full season in 2018, the rate skyrocketed to 1.78 in 2019 and settled at 1.42 in 2020. Projections are now firmly in the 1.25 range moving forward. If that is the case, Hader’s ERA will be closer to the 3.79 from 2020 than the 2.62 from 2019.
The strikeouts will be there, and his WHIP will remain elite due to how difficult he is to hit. So, Hader has an incredibly high floor. But I won’t be drafting him expecting a truly elite relief pitcher performance.
EDIT: OK, so I wrote that as my initial impression of Hader. However, I then checked my handy 2021 Baseball Forecaster and was treated to this opening line: “Take out two bad games (5 BB on 8/29, 4 ER on 9/12), and this looks far less like a step back (1.02 ERA, 0.51 WHIP).”
It’s an interesting note. But it’s also a game that you can play with anyone, and it’s easy to make numbers look nice and pretty when cherry-picking stats during a COVID-shortened season. However, it makes the point that those 5 BB blemishes have more time to clear up throughout a full season.
Bottom Line on Josh Hader: The Forecaster finishes by saying a $35 season is still within reach, which is almost hard to believe. And yet, I would have to agree. Despite his walks, Hader maintains an elite WHIP and the missing piece to the unicorn season is lowering his home run rate, and thus, his ERA. The upside is still there, and it is still immense.
4. Edwin Diaz
ADP: FantasyPros (86) – NFBC (82.2)
When you take a look at any Edwin Diaz player page across the web, it’s amazing that he remains somewhat undervalued for fantasy baseball. He followed up his #1 closer 2018 season with a season filled with ill-fortunes in 2019. After the disaster of 2019, he then proceeded to get hit hard out of the gate in 2020. When Diaz lost his job as the Mets closer, it became easy to doubt his future moving forward.
However, any time you begin to doubt Edwin Diaz, take a look at either his FanGraphs player page and look at his K/9 by season (or better yet, head to his BaseballSavant page and enjoy endless red highlighted numbers). You will discover that the lowest K/9 of his career was 12.14 in 2017 as a Seattle Mariner, a clear outlier amidst seasons of 15+ and 17+ K/9.
What makes Diaz elite is his ability to pair those strikeouts while limiting walks. I say “limiting walks” in the context of high leverage relievers, as he’s never eclipsed 5.0 BB/9 and has multiple seasons under 3.41.
The determining factor to which Diaz you’re going to get are the batted ball components. In 2019, Diaz gave up 26.8% HR/FB, an incredibly unlucky number, and 12% higher than his previous high mark in his rookie season. In his other four seasons combined, Diaz has averaged a 13.2% HR/FB and was at 13.3% in 2020.
Assuming no crazy HR/FB fluctuations, the final factor for Diaz is his BABIP allowed, which has varied widely season to season. In 2020, his BABIP was .381. In 2019, it was .377. But in his last two seasons with the Mariners, Diaz had BABIPs of .281 and .236. His BABIP in 2016, though? A familiar .377.
Diaz has always been a four-seamer/slider pitcher, favoring the fastball. So, his BABIP allowed is unrelated to a change in pitch mix. According to Statcast, Diaz has been in the top 10% or top 1% in expected batting average every season of his career, so there is no rational reason for batters to have such a high BABIP against him. Even reducing the expected BABIP for Diaz down to .330 in 2021 could make a significant difference.
Bottom Line on Edwin Diaz: He ultimately silenced any doubters in 2020 with his incredible 50 strikeouts in 25.2 innings, to go along with a tidy 1.75 ERA and 0.70 HR/FB. With the BABIP not cooperating, Diaz ended the season with a 1.25 WHIP. But I think we can expect that to be closer to 1.10 in 2021.
Near Elite Tier
5. Raisel Iglesias
ADP: FantasyPros (97) – NFBC (95.66)
When I think of Raisel Iglesias, he does not immediately jump out to me as one of the upper-echelon relievers in baseball. After a 2019 season with a 4.16 ERA and 3.92 FIP followed a 4.23 FIP in 2018, it seemed that Iglesias would perpetually under-perform his talent level.
Other than the 2019 season, though, the results on the field have always been at an All-Star level. In 2016, his second season in MLB, up through 2018, Iglesias had an ERA ranging from 2.53 to 2.38. His FIP, though, varied wildly during those years, from 3.38 to 2.70 to 4.23.
Luckily we have more tools at our disposal than the basic FIP formula. By SIERA, Iglesias’ career looks much cleaner:
- 2015 – 3.26
- 2016 – 3.55
- 2017 – 3.17
- 2018 – 3.31
- 2019 – 3.22
- 2020 – 2.65
Throughout his career, Iglesias has vastly evolved his arsenal. As a rookie, he relied on his sinker at a 40% clip. But by 2020, the sinker had all but been eliminated.
Bottom Line on Raisel Igelsias: Iglesias should be a closer you can rely on for a 2.50 to 3.00 ERA with a quality whip and could challenge for 100 strikeouts. He should also maintain the closer’s role with old school Joe Madden running the show. He has the potential to move into the elite tier moving forward.
6. Aroldis Chapman
ADP: FantasyPros (81.5) – NFBC (78.94)
Chapman falls to the sixth spot here, but there is an argument to put him in the elite tier. Despite age slowly catching up to him (he’ll be 33 in March), Chapman is guaranteed a closing job for the Yankees, and his elite strikeout rate remains remarkably intact.
I may rank him slightly below some. But he’ll likely be worth paying up for, as he’s arguably the most bankable closer you will find in the modern game.
But ultimately, his slowly trending decline and history of injuries are enough for me to take Chapman out of the elite tier. Looking at his career arc, Aroldis began to decline following 2016, the season the Cubs acquired him as the final piece to a World Series championship. Up until that point, Chapman’s SIERA had a “1” in front of it for five of seven seasons.
The 2017, 2018, and 2019 versions of Chapman were all nearly worth the price of admission, but he was no longer the sub-2.00 ERA threat that he used to be. With that said, the current version of Chapman is still excellent across the board.
Bottom Line on Aroldis Chapman: I’ll happily take a 2.85 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 85 strikeouts from the Yankees closer. He’s just no longer in the same class as the four guys ahead of him.
Formerly Elite Tier RP – Still Could Be?
7. Kirby Yates
ADP: FantasyPros (174) – NFBC (192.63)
Yates was a disaster in 2020, but he threw just 4.1 innings before being shut down with an elbow injury. Ranking him this high might be a bit aggressive. But assuming health—he’s currently throwing bullpen sessions—he has elite tier RP skills.
From 2017 through 2019, Yates’ K/9 ranged from nearly 13 to nearly 15 strikeouts per nine innings. But what made Yates genuinely elite was his K-BB rates, which ranged from 29.2% to 32% across those three seasons. At his peak, Yates profiles similarly to Liam Hendriks.
Bottom Line on Kirby Yates: Kirby will turn 34 just before the season starts. So, it is entirely possible that we never again see the monster that terrorized batters from 2017 to 2019. But there’s also a chance that he goes right back to his old form and picks up 40 saves for the Jays while delivering elite-tier fantasy numbers.
8. Brad Hand
ADP: FantasyPros (120) – NFBC (135.34)
Brad Hand doesn’t feel like the 7th best reliever in baseball. And he’s not. But I do believe that he should be prioritized among the top 10 relievers for leagues with saves. Brad Hand is similar to Kirby Yates, as both combine elite strikeout ability with elite walk rates.
In 2020, Hand improved what had been an above-average rate of 2.83 BB/9 and dialed it up a notch, limiting the opposition to just 1.64 BB/9. While that number could be seen as a clear outlier when looking at Hand’s career, the trend is moving in the right direction. And it’s coinciding with a change in pitch mix.
Hand had a 3.50 BB/9 in 2018, but dropped that to 2.83 in 2019, and lowered it again to 1.64 in 2020. Do I think his walk rate lands at 0.64 in 2021? Of course not, but I am reasonably confident it will be below three walks per nine.
EDIT: With that said, Baseball Forecaster’s xBB% stat has Hand at 8% in three of the past four seasons, with 2019 being the outlier at 6%. In actual BB%, Hand has gone: 6%, 9%, 7%, and 5% the past four seasons starting with 2017.
Hand’s fastball has lost some effectiveness, but his slider is as nasty as it’s ever been. He began throwing more sliders in 2016, which happened to be his breakout season as a relief pitcher. Hand threw 30 percent sliders in 2016, and seeing how effective it was, he increased to 45% the following season, and has settled between 51% and 54% the past three seasons.
Bottom Line on Brad Hand: You can pencil in Hand for 30+ saves, an ERA at or below 3.00, and 11+ K/9 with a quality WHIP. When you’re drafting, that’s top-5 closer in fantasy baseball territory—especially in this environment where it’s harder than ever to predict where saves will come from.
9. Craig Kimbrel
ADP: FantasyPros (191.3) – NFBC (199.79)
Let’s play the Baseball Forecaster cherry-pickin’ stats game with Craig Kimbrel, shall we? And in this case, the cherry picking makes logical sense. If you’re doing a heavy load of reliever prep, you’ll likely come across this stat multiple times. But it bears repeating.
Kimbrel opened the 2020 season walking four, hitting one, and allowing two ER in 0.1 IP. He followed that up with a one inning performance allowed two home runs four days later. To open August, he was tagged for two more runs on two hits in 0.1 IP. So, we’re 1.2 IP into the season and Craig Kimbrel has already allowed 6 ER and 4 BB.
After allowing another run on a walk and two hits in an inning, Kimbrel finally put together a vintage stretch, allowing 2 ER over his next 12.2 IP. He was not scored upon again until 8/29, allowing 2 ER in 2 IP. He would finish with 7.1 scoreless, 13 strikeouts to zero walks and three hits in September.
Bottom Line on Craig Kimbrel: Kimbrel owns the skills of an elite closer, and he put them on display down the stretch in 2020. Kimbrel will never return to his peak, but a later vintage version would still be an elite closer in 2021. What Kimbrel also has going for him is job security. The Cubs will want him to succeed as a closer, as he could be a potential trade chip near the trade deadline.
Elite RP Non-CloserThat Will Get Saves (Elite RPNC)
10. Nick Anderson
ADP: FantasyPros (151.5) – NFBC (162.42)
The elite RPNC (relief pitcher non-closer) that shows up first on this list is the remarkable Mr. Anderson. A player with the numbers on the back of Nick Anderson’s baseball card should not be so perplexing. But after following an unhittable regular season with ghastly playoff production, it’s unclear exactly what Anderson’s role will be, and how effective he’ll perform.
OK, that might be going a bit too far.
Nick Anderson will likely be one of the most effective high-leverage relievers in baseball. And for that reason, combined with the way the Rays organization strategizes, Anderson will float around from inning to inning with the rest of the Rays staff. Putting out fires and pitching when the team needs him most.
Many times, that will be in the ninth inning. Anderson was 6 for 6 in save opportunities in 2020, as he compiled an insane 0.55 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 16.1 innings pitched.
In total as a Ray, here are Nick Anderson’s numbers through 2020:
- IP: 37.2
- ERA: 1.43
- FIP: 1.50
- WHIP: 0.58
- K: 67
- BB: 5
Bottom Line on Nick Anderson: Ranked purely on talent alone, Anderson would be much higher up this list. The Rays as an organization though, don’t typically label any relief pitcher the closer. But as Tampa’s best RP, and one that can put up strikeouts and ratios that rival any pitcher on this list, Anderson does crack the top 10. But in another organization, he might have an argument for #1.