RELIEVERS: Preliminary look at 2020

This week, the column moves into 2020. Bullpens are not a lot of innings, so there is a lot of volatility in the results, even if there is not as much volatility in the skill set. You can see that this year just with the difference between Edwin Diaz (RHP, NYM) in 2018 and in 2019. A lot of times, that volatility comes from home runs allowed or home runs prevented. This week, there are three groupings of relievers for your attention. The first, is a set of closers who nailed it in 2019 and what you might expect for 2020. The second is a set of closers who showed terrific skill sets, but had some home run issues that could conceivably portend a better 2020. The third is a set of non-closers that you should be interested in.

Note that this is not a comprehensive list of elite relievers. You can filter relievers for whatever filters you want to use yourself using BaseballHQ.com's database. This is more of a discussion about examining 2019 results. Without further ado, here are seven closers who really nailed it in 2019:

closers (YTD)       Sv  IP   ERA xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9  $
=================== == ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==
K.Yates (SD)        39 55.7 1.29 2.30 0.92 14.9  7.7  0.3 23
F.Vazquez (PIT) (L) 24 54.7 1.65 2.79 0.93 13.3  6.8  0.7 18
K.Giles (TOR)       18 44.0 2.05 2.86 1.09 14.9  4.9  0.8  9
T.Rogers (MIN) (L)  22 59.3 2.43 2.97 1.03 11.7  7.7  0.9 13
A.Chapman (NYY) (L) 36 52.7 2.22 3.12 1.14 13.5  3.2  0.3 18
B.Hand (CLE) (L)    33 55.0 3.11 3.46 1.18 12.9  4.9  0.8 16
L.Hendriks (OAK)    17 71.3 1.77 3.47 1.02 12.7  5.3  0.5 17

Here are their basic projections:

closers (proj)      xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9 BPV
=================== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
K.Yates (SD)        2.52 1.00 14.6  6.5  1.1 223
F.Vazquez (PIT) (L) 3.15 1.00 11.4  4.7  0.8 161
K.Giles (TOR)       3.13 1.12 12.4  5.5  1.1 182
T.Rogers (MIN) (L)  3.17 1.12 11.2  5.0  1.1 167
A.Chapman (NYY) (L) 2.78 1.12 14.6  3.2  1.1 164
B.Hand (CLE) (L)    3.28 1.00 11.7  4.3  0.9 153
L.Hendriks (OAK)    3.57 1.00 10.8  6.0  0.9 159

What a great season for San Diego closer Kirby Yates (RHP, SD), Pittsburgh closer Felipe Vazquez (LHP, PIT) and Oakland closer Liam Hendriks (RHP, OAK). all three finished with an actual ERA under 2.00 and WHIP at or under 1.00. Strikeouts were high, command ratios were above 5.0, home runs were suppressed and they each earned $17 or more. The caution here is that a repeat is very unlikely. This lofty territory is hard to repeat, even for the best relievers. Hendriks, for example had a 3.47 xERA. It would be asking a lot to expect another 1.77 ERA from him. Recency bias will lift his price tag for 2020, but you have to see it realistically.

In the case of Yates, it will be very hard to repeat that 0.3 HR/9--even with half the games in San Diego. Yates has generally had a HR/9 over 1.0 and you should expect that to happen in 2020. The massive 39 saves through August seem unlikely as well. It doesn't mean you can't have Yates. Just know what you are getting and where the downside lies. As for Vazquez, he is not as good as Yates and he is on a team that did not provide many save chances in 2019. He might have more saves in 2020, even though he is also unlikely to post a sub-2.00 ERA again. It is very likely that the asking price for Yates and Vazquez will be higher than the yield in 2020. If you already own them, keep them for now, and explore a trade in February when the value will be highest, to see if you can consolidate that profit.

Three different lefties are on this list in addition to Vazquez. Minnesota closer Taylor Rogers (LHP, MIN) had a better season than New York closer Aroldis Chapman (LHP, NYY) according to the BPIs. But Chapman's 36 saves carried his value over Rogers's 22 saves. Cleveland closer Brad Hand (LHP, CLE) was not as good skills-wise as either Rogers or Chapman, but his save total helped him as well. Hand is more likely to repeat his 3.11 ERA with his skill set than Chapman to repeat his 2.22 ERA. Chapman is still the elite strikeout artist, but that 13.5 K/9 and 3.2 K/BB combo means a lot of walks in-between. Rogers has fewer K/9 with 11.7, but he walks far fewer batters with a 7.7 K/BB. It gives Rogers a lower WHIP and a better xERA than either Chapman or Hand.

Toronto closer Ken Giles (RHP, TOR) had a strong skills season. But the fragile arm limited him to just 44 innings and 18 saves, giving him a value under $10. Owners aiming for a closer in this first group might aim for Rogers. He has the benefit of the sub-3.00 xERA, the most stable K/BB, a solid HR/9 (0.9) and not much regression indicated in these BPIs. His 22 saves means he will come cheaper, too.

This next set of closers also performed at an elite from a skills standpoint, but home runs got in their way to varying degrees (in this record home run year) and will have to be accounted for in your projections for 2020. Here are these seven closers:

closers (YTD)       Sv  IP   ERA xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9  $
=================== == ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==
J.Hader (MIL) (L)   27 62.3 2.74 2.63 0.82 16.3  6.6  1.9 19
L.Jackson (ATL)     18 65.3 3.58 2.91 1.41 12.4  3.6  1.2  8
W.Smith (SF) (L)    30 57.7 2.97 2.92 1.02 12.8  5.1  1.4 17
E.Pagan (TAM)       16 58.7 2.30 3.14 0.84 12.6  6.8  1.5 14
E.Diaz (NYM)        25 51.0 5.29 3.18 1.39 15.2  4.3  2.1  2
H.Neris (PHI)       23 57.3 3.14 3.31 1.01 11.8  3.8  1.4 12
M.Givens (BAL)      11 52.7 4.10 3.49 1.12 12.3  3.6  1.7  3

Here are their basic projections:

closers (proj)      xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9 BPV
=================== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
J.Hader (MIL) (L)   3.20 0.92 13.5  4.5  1.5 167
L.Jackson (ATL)     3.47 1.50 12.4  2.8  1.1 132
W.Smith (SF) (L)    3.08 1.12 12.4  5.5  1.1 182
E.Pagan (TAM)       3.91 1.12 11.2  5.0  1.1 149
E.Diaz (NYM)        2.66 1.00 14.4  5.3  0.9 204
H.Neris (PHI)       3.53 1.09 11.4  3.5  0.8 137
M.Givens (BAL)      3.81 1.25 11.2  3.3  1.1 128

The first thing you should notice is that every one of these otherwise elite skills closers has a 1.2 HR/9 or higher in 2019. Milwaukee closer Josh Hader (LHP, MIL) is fantastic, has a crazy 16.3 K/9 and his 2.74 actual ERA is fully supported by his 2.63 xERA. His WHIP is 0.82. His K/BB is 6.6 and he has saves and value--$19 is higher than everyone not named Kirby Yates. But he also has a 1.9 HR/9 that prevents him from even better numbers.

The projection for Hader suggests a lower K/9 and K/BB and a higher xERA. That seems possible, but it is not a regression one must expect, in this unique case, because of the 2018 and 2019 BPIs back-to-back. But if Hader can reduce that 1.9 HR/9 to a 1.1 HR/9? That's where you might see a sub-2.50 xERA and a sub-2.00 ERA. There is upside, believe it or not. Finally, consider with Hader that you add flexibility that you don't get anywhere else. You can pair him with a lower K/9 starter who otherwise gets you numbers and the combined strikeouts work just fine.

San Francisco closer Will Smith (LHP, SF) and Tampa Bay closer Emilio Pagan (RHP, TAM) both have 5.0+ K/BB and a HR/9 that should be lower in 2020 than in 2019. Both of them have actual ERAs below 3.00 that are fully supported by their xERA. These are two more relievers who could conceivably be better in 2020 than they were in 2019. This is a good place to hunt for saves because the skill sets are otherwise so stable.

Braves deposed closer Luke Jackson (RHP, ATL) has a WHIP problem and he has suffered since the All-Star break. He may get to that nice 2.91 xERA, but chances are that the xERA will migrate towards the 3.58 actual ERA as much as the actual ERA will migrate down. His lack of a track record makes it harder to count on anything, and the 1.50 projected WHIP (built on a 2.8 K/BB with a 12.4 K/9) is a huge concern. He has to get his command to be viable and it seems a large risk going into 2020.

Let's take a closer look at Edwin Diaz (RHP, NYM)--the 3.18 xERA skill set with the 2.1 HR/9. Diaz was great in 2016, was seen as a flop in 2017 (built somewhat on a 1.4 HR/9), went absolutely nuts in 2018 and was the best reliever in baseball, got shipped to the Mets and has had the worst WHIP and HR/9 combination of his career--something of a terrible combination, although truthfully, that 3.18 xERA is better than the 2017 3.83 xERA and the 4.3 K/BB is better than the 2017 2.8 K/BB.

Diaz has a superb 2.66 xERA projection with a 5.3 K/BB and 0.9 HR/9--with a 1.00 WHIP. Career numbers are in line too: 2.95 xERA, 1.10 WHIP, 14.4 K/9, 4.6 K/BB, but the 1.2 HR/9. A 1.2 HR/9 is not perfect, but it is manageable with a 1.10 WHIP. Diaz can be that guy again in 2020 and you should be able to cash in on the recency bias, amplified by Mets fan angst. Just don't expect 2018--and certainly don't pay for that kind of production.

What Diaz illustrates is how much volatility there is between the elite 2018 save totals, xERA, K/BB and HR/9 (when it all comes together) and then the problems of a 2019 pedestrian WHIP and disaster 2.1 HR/9 at the same time. The K/9 is exactly the same across both years. Expect a bounce in 2020 and try to pay like it is 2019. By the way, this is exactly what could happen to Kirby Yates in 2020. Not something to bank on, but it could. Yates has had HR/9 problems before, and he likely will have fewer saves, regardless.

Make what you will of Philadelphia closer Hector Neris (RHP, PHI). He was consistent in 2019 after an inconsistent 2018, but in a 3.15-3.30 ERA range. Neris should be a value in 2020, but he is by no means the perfect buy. The team may try to bolster the pen (again) which could lead to a role change and don't forget that 2018 can happen--even to Neris.

That leaves Baltimore closer Mychal Givens (RHP, BAL) who has the bad HR/9 and the bad team, so low save totals. You will feel like you are getting a discount, but he only earned $3 through August 2019, so don't expect more than that. You should get a discount, to be honest. If Givens were traded to another team--the Mariners let's say, that would be a whole new calculation.

The last batch of relievers are not closers, but they all had elite skill sets in 2019. Here are these relievers:

RPs (YTD)           Sv  IP   ERA xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9  $
=================== == ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==
R.Pressly (HOU)      3 50.3 2.50 2.64 0.93 11.6  5.9  1.1  4
M.Barnes (BOS)       4 54.0 4.33 2.89 1.33 15.7  3.4  1.3 -1
N.Anderson (TAM)     1 55.3 3.25 3.01 1.10 14.8  5.7  1.0  3
C.Martin (ATL)       4 50.3 3.76 3.07 1.09 10.2 11.4  1.6 -1
W.Harris (HOU)       1 52.7 1.71 3.28 1.01  8.9  4.0  1.0  6
G.Gallegos (STL)     0 61.7 2.19 3.29 0.78 11.8  6.8  0.9  9
S.Lugo (NYM)         4 66.0 3.00 3.30 0.95 11.7  5.4  1.0  8

Here are their basic projections:

RPs (proj)          xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9 BPV
=================== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
R.Pressly (HOU)     3.02 1.00  9.0  --   0.0 190
M.Barnes (BOS)      3.00 1.38 14.6  3.2  1.1 168
N.Anderson (TAM)    3.72 1.38 12.4  3.7  1.1 146
C.Martin (ATL)      3.33 1.00  9.0 10.0  0.9 161
W.Harris (HOU)      3.46 1.12  9.0  4.0  1.1 131
G.Gallegos (STL)    3.56 0.90  9.9  5.5  0.9 146
S.Lugo (NYM)        3.36 0.91  9.8  6.0  0.8 153

2019 didn't really work out for Boston's Matt Barnes (RHP, BOS). But the 2.89 xERA and 15.7 K/BB point to a better 2020. Houston's Ryan Pressly (RHP, HOU) was exactly who he should have been with a 2.50 actual ERA and a 2.64 xERA with a 0.93 WHIP, 5.9 K/BB and 1.1 HR/9. Conversely, Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos (RHP, STL) had a 2.19 actual ERA and 0.78 WHIP, built on a 6.8 K/BB and 0.9 HR/9, but that 3.29 xERA points to a lower value in 2020. A 3.30-3.50 xERA is not terrible these days, and the projection tells us that what we should expect from Gallegos.

Seth Lugo's (RHP, NYM) 2019 was what we can expect in 2020--at least skills-wise. Lugo had a 3.00 actual ERA, a 3.30 xERA and a projected 3.36 xERA, which is a pretty tight shot group. Lugo should hold his gains in 2020, but it is a matter of how he is deployed that will ultimately determine his value. Lugo earned $4 in 2019--that shoots upwards if he vultures wins and saves beyond the four saves in 2019.

Nick Anderson (RHP, TAM) may end up being the one that got away from Miami after getting sent to Tampa Bay. Anderson has all the skills you want in a closer and his projection is probably off, given the 1.10 WHIP, 5.7 K/BB and 14.8 K/9 in 2019. There isn't quite enough data to expect a repeat, but it is more likely that he repeats a 3.25 ERA than falls back to the projected 3.72 xERA while in Tampa Bay. Anderson gives the Rays another save option beyond Pagan, Diego Castillo (RHP, TAM), Colin Poche (LHP, TAM) and forgotten man Jose Alvarado (LHP, TAM).

One last exercise, let's filter these skill sets. K/9 over 9.0 for YTD and projections, K/BB over 5.0 for YTD and projections, HR/9 under 1.2 for YTD and projections. Here are the seven who remain:

filtered (YTD)      Sv  IP   ERA xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9  $
=================== == ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==
K.Yates (SD)        39 55.7 1.29 2.30 0.92 14.9  7.7  0.3 23
F.Vazquez (PIT) (L) 24 54.7 1.65 2.79 0.93 13.3  6.8  0.7 18
T.Rogers (MIN) (L)  22 59.3 2.43 2.97 1.03 11.7  7.7  0.9 13
L.Hendriks (OAK)    17 71.3 1.77 3.47 1.02 12.7  5.3  0.5 17
R.Pressly (HOU)      3 50.3 2.50 2.64 0.93 11.6  5.9  1.1  4
G.Gallegos (STL)     0 61.7 2.19 3.29 0.78 11.8  6.8  0.9  9
S.Lugo (NYM)         4 66.0 3.00 3.30 0.95 11.7  5.4  1.0  8
filtered (proj)     xERA WHIP  DOM  CMD HR/9 BPV
=================== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
K.Yates (SD)        2.52 1.00 14.6  6.5  1.1 223
F.Vazquez (PIT) (L) 3.15 1.00 11.4  4.7  0.8 161
T.Rogers (MIN) (L)  3.17 1.12 11.2  5.0  1.1 167
L.Hendriks (OAK)    3.57 1.00 10.8  6.0  0.9 159
R.Pressly (HOU)     3.02 1.00  9.0  --   0.0 190
G.Gallegos (STL)    3.56 0.90  9.9  5.5  0.9 146
S.Lugo (NYM)        3.36 0.91  9.8  6.0  0.8 153

These seven relievers are the ones with the most stable BPIs across the board. You should remember that you cannot take it to the bank, necessarily, but the consistency is something you want to try to roster, particularly if you can get one with a clear-cut closer role at value. Of every reliever on these lists, that looks mostly like Taylor Rogers (LHP MIN) and he should be on your short list for 2020 as a buying opportunity.

That's a wrap on this column for 2019. I look forward to seeing you at First Pitch Arizona and talking more about pitching there. Follow me @dougdennis41


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.