RELIEVERS: Using basic skill indicators to find future value

This skills column is aimed at helping you find high-skills relievers for 2022. Yes, you can wait until the off-season for this. But you can play with filters and customize the work now and see what you learn.

Here are the top earning relievers in MLB through mid-August, broken into three groups (you will see why in a moment). Group one:

Group 1            $
================= ==
R.Iglesias (LAA)  20
L.Hendriks (CHW)  19
C.Kimbrel (CHW)   18
J.Hader (MIL) (L) 17
R.Pressly (HOU)   16
M.Barnes (BOS)    15

Group two:

Group 2            $
================= ==
J.McGee (SF) (L)  15
Melancon (SD)     15
L.Trivino (OAK)   14
A.Reyes (STL)     14
K.Graveman (HOU)  13
R.Rodriguez (ATL) 11
E.Diaz (NYM)      10
E.Clase (CLE)     10

Group three:

Group 3            $
================= ==
A.Kittredge (TAM) 14
R.Suarez (PHI)(L) 12
C.Green (NYY)     10
B.Suter (MIL) (L) 10

These three groups are the relievers with a $10 or more value through mid-August. It does not take much to differentiate Group 3 from the other groups as Group 3 lacks saves, where the first two groups are populated with relievers who have at least ten saves. Tampa Bay's Andrew Kittredge (RHP, TAM) instead has eight wins, two saves and the very helpful 1.33 ERA/0.92 WHIP to get him to $14. Phillies lefty Ranger Suárez (LHP, PHI) has five wins, four saves and a 1.07 ERA/0.87 WHIP. Chad Green (RHP, NYY) has seven wins, four saves and a 3.08 ERA/0.86 WHIP for the Yankees. And Brent Suter (LHP, MIL) has a whopping twelve wins and one save for Milwaukee.

There are going to be relievers every year going forward with seven, eight, 12 wins, given current usage in the league. This is quite role-specific, and you are looking for multiple-inning relievers on good teams with good backend bullpen options--and--you want to see role consistency, rather than injuries, trades, problems. Kittredge, Green and Suter all enjoyed these conditions in 2021. Suárez did not, but he did hop into the closer role when he wasn't operating in these conditions, so he was able to keep his value up.

The other point about these four relievers is that they managed to beat their expected ERA by a considerable margin: Kittredge had a 1.33 ERA and a 3.07 xERA. Suárez had a 1.07 ERA and 3.10 xERA. Green had a 3.08 ERA and 3.75 xERA. Suter had a 2.81 ERA and 3.70 xERA. This is typically not repeatable unless the pitcher is an extreme groundball-type able to depress home runs even while otherwise pitching well (as Suter (57% GB rate) and Kittredge (52% GB rate) almost are and Suárez (66% GB rate) clearly is). This large gap between actual ERA and xERA is not typical, however, so you have to expect regression with ERA in addition to regression in wins.

Let's turn our attention to Groups 1 and 2. These are the groups with saves driving their value. But there is another major difference. Group 1 relievers are almost entirely in the top 10-15 relievers an in K%, K-BB%, xERA, projected xERA and BPV, demonstrating a sustainable, elite set of skills. Group 2 relievers miss those markers, or at least cannot claim to be in the top 10-15 among relievers.

To get a handle on the folks who are among these relievers who are tops in the various skills indicators, let's go through them one-by-one.

Here are the 2021 leaders (mid-August) in K%:

K%                 K%
================= ===
J.Hader (MIL) (L)  46
C.Kimbrel (CHW)    44
L.Hendriks (CHW)   42
P.Sewald (SEA)     42
M.Barnes (BOS)     40
A.Chapman (NYY)(L) 40
R.Iglesias (LAA)   39
H.Hembree (CIN)    38 [DFA]
J.Nelson (LA)      38 [DL]
C.McHugh (TAM)     37
D.Williams (MIL)   37
D.Hudson (SD)      37

The first thing that sticks out on this list is that there are no Cleveland relievers. James Karinchak (RHP, CLE) and Emmanuel Clase (RHP, CLE) are both close, but surprisingly, neither made this list, whereas the likes of Collin McHugh (RHP, TAM) and Daniel Hudson (RHP, SD) did. Not what anyone would have expected preseason, which does tell you that these indicators can be quite volatile across the small numbers of innings (40-50 at this point in the season) and where a reliever can peak if handed the right usage.

For your purposes, set your filter to make a bit longer list so that you can capture the Karinchaks and Clases who are also having a good year and of course will continue to be projected to be good relievers for K% purposes. But also note what you see here from McHugh, from Hudson, from Paul Sewald (RHP, SEA), from Devin Williams (RHP, MIL), from Aroldis Chapman (LHP, NYY).

But wait, how is Heath Hembree (RHP, CIN/FA) on here and yet he just got DFA'd by the Reds and their terrible pen? Well, you always want to use the context clues from the other skills indicators and not just take the K% list to the bank. The relievers who show up multiple times toward the top of all or most of the skills indicators are the ones who are the most bettable for providing great skills in the future. That is where your focus should be when deciding who to acquire and for how much. Group 1 is the list of those folks who also have roles that give them saves.

Note that Group 1 closers provided higher value than Group 2 closers, too. That is the benefit of the superior skill set. Importantly, also pay close attention to the relievers who keep showing up across the indicators but did not have $10 or more in value in 2021, as those names could be in saves roles in 2022 and give you nice value.

Moving on, here are the 2021 leaders (mid-August) in K-BB%:

K-BB%             K-BB%
================= =====
L.Hendriks (CHW)    39
J.Hader (MIL) (L)   37
C.Kimbrel (CHW)     35
R.Iglesias (LAA)    35
P.Sewald (SEA)      34
M.Barnes (BOS)      32
C.McHugh (TAM)      32
D.Hudson (SD)       30
R.Pressly (HOU)     28

This is the single most important skills indicator among the group listed in this column. And once again, you see Sewald, McHugh, and Hudson in addition to closers who are listed in Group 1.

Here are the 2021 leaders (mid-August) in expected ERA:

xERA              xERA
================= ====
J.Hader (MIL) (L) 2.48
K.Graveman (HOU)  2.48
R.Iglesias (LAA)  2.51
C.Kimbrel (CHW)   2.61
A.Loup (NYM) (L)  2.67
R.Pressly (HOU)   2.69
A.Bummer (CHW)(L) 2.70
C.McHugh (TAM)    2.73
M.Barnes (BOS)    2.74
A.Bender (MIA)    2.74

xERA is a great tool for determining how a reliever's numbers should change over the course of a season. Actual ERA trends toward xERA and vice versa, all other things being equal. Obviously, it is more complicated than that where there is a role change, an injury, BABIP volatility, and even what ballparks and opponents were faced. For folks outside of Group 1 here, you get McHugh yet again, but you also get Kendall Graveman (RHP, HOU), lefties Aaron Loup (LHP, NYM) and Aaron Bummer (LHP, CHW), and Marlins up-and-coming skill set Anthony Bender (RHP, MIA).

Again, expanding the filter to include more relievers among the various skill sets (top 20? top 25?) will give you more skills targets, depending on who keeps showing up on multiple lists.

Here are the 2021 leaders (mid-August) in projected xERA:

pxERA             pxERA
================= =====
J.Hader (MIL) (L)  2.49
R.Pressly (HOU)    2.72
A.Bummer (CHW)(L)  2.76
L.Hendriks (CHW)   2.76
E.Diaz (NYM)       2.84
J.Karinchak (CLE)  2.84
A.Chapman (NYY)(L) 2.86
C.Kimbrel (CHW)    2.92
R.Iglesias (LAA)   2.95
J.Romano (TOR)     2.97

The projected xERA is what a reliever's past work indicates that we might expect given a mean average BABIP, home park, and ignores role. A past elite reliever may show up here who is otherwise on the decline, or doesn't have the innings (or the saves). Group 1 closers are here, but also Chapman again, Bummer again, and some pre-season darlings like Edwin Díaz (RHP, NYM), Jordan Romano (RHP, TOR), and James Karinchak (RHP, CLE) mentioned earlier. These relievers often rebound the following season and so it is worth figuring out what went wrong to tamp down their values in 2021 and decide whether a rebound is likely.

Here are the 2021 leaders (mid-August) in BPV:

BPV               BPV
================= ===
L.Hendriks (CHW)  242
R.Iglesias (LAA)  226
J.Hader (MIL)(L)  209
C.McHugh (TAM)    204
P.Sewald (SEA)    202
C.Kimbrel (CHW)   200
M.Barnes (BOS)    197
R.Pressly (HOU)   191

BPV is an all-encompassing skills stat exclusive to BaseballHQ. And you can see the same suspects--Group 1 closers and also McHugh again and Sewald again. The bar here is set very high--at least a 191 BPV. Top shelf reliever BPVs have been going up consistently for several years now. Anything over 200 was called "Vintage Eck" around BHQ in the past--in 2021 we have six relievers giving you 200+ BPV. You have to adapt your standards to what works relative to the current environment, not 2011 or 2001.

Earlier, this column mentioned the value of GB rates in suppression of home runs and how that helps a reliever's ERA beat the xERA. None of the relievers in Groups 1, 2 or 3 are on the list of leaders in HR/9. But let's add that as an indicator anyway:

HR/9              HR/9
================= ====
A.Adams (SD)       0.0
P.Fry (BAL) (L)    0.0
A.Loup (NYM) (L)   0.0
A.Ottavino (BOS)   0.0
A.Chafin (OAK) (L) 0.2
C.McHugh (TAM)     0.2
D.Floro (MIA)      0.2
A.Cimber (TOR)     0.2
S.Cishek (LAA)     0.2

We have seen Loup and McHugh on some of the other lists. And you really can expand this list to 1.0 HR/9, 1.2 HR/9 in today's environment and pick from that larger filter list the relievers who hit the markers for K%, K-BB%, xERA, pxERA. Once you get past a certain point, though, you start finding relievers susceptible to home run binges and slumps that can derail access to save chances and value for your team. So you have to account for this indicator.

Look at groundball rate in tandem with HR/9. Often, this will point you to whether the HR/9 for a given year is an anomaly (it happens) or if you should have expected home runs all along. Also, a reliever like Milwaukee's Josh Hader (LHP, MIL) may have a rather high HR/9, but the K% and K-BB% are so good that it doesn't matter anyway. Context matters.

You can quickly see that we find Group 1 closers across four or five of these six skills categories, whereas Group 2 closers are one or none of these skills categories. The take away is that the Group 1 relievers are more likely to repeat elite skills and remain in closer roles in 2022 than the Group 2 relievers. And the relievers who are among the leaders and are not quite yet closers, may find themselves in situations where they are likely to save games and add additional value beyond just the skill sets in 2022.

Because you can pull out some relievers who are not on any of the lists, but who nevertheless hit more than one of the skills categories, let's take a quick look at them:

elite skills (futures) Sv  IP  xERA WHIP  K% K-BB% HR/9 BPV pxERA  $
====================== == ==== ==== ==== === ===== ==== === ===== ===
C.McHugh (TAM)          0 44.7 2.73 0.92  37   32   0.2 204  3.57   7 K%, K-BB%, xERA, HR/9, BPV
P.Sewald (SEA)          4 38.0 2.87 0.92  42   34   0.9 202  4.23   7 K%, K-BB%, BPV
A.Loup (NYM) (L)        0 38.0 2.67 0.97  29   24   0.0 162  3.63   4 xERA, HR/9
D.Hudson (SD)           0 34.7 3.31 1.01  37   30   1.0 184  4.17   2 K%, K-BB%
A.Bummer (CHW) (L)      2 41.3 2.70 1.35  33   19   0.4 135  2.76  -5 xERA, pxERA

These relievers were pointed out when they made the very top of skills indicators lists. You can see that each of them has had an outstanding skills year in 2021 and have contributed greatly to their respective teams. Where do they go from here?

Sewald probably has the best chance at 2022 saves with Seattle. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and then, but he has shown the growth in skills to put himself in a good position and he has out-pitched Diego Castillo (RHP, SEA) who has a pretty good skill set himself. Castillo is now on the IL. Sewald's whopping great 42% K% goes a long way, feeding the 34% K-BB% and 202 BPV. It is a major step up from his Mets days, as the pxERA attests. But there is every reason to expect it to continue in 2022. Sewald has earned $7 so far in 2021, and seems like a pretty good speculation value for the future.

Saves do not seem as likely for the other four on the list. McHugh pitched so well that he earned $7 anyway. He can certainly do it again, and the 3.57 pxERA adds some confidence. The Rays, however, have role design that do not match up with McHugh as main closer. McHugh is treated by the Rays as a second Kittredge-type and that seems to suit him just fine. He won't cost very much in redraft leagues.

Buyers have been on Bummer for a couple of years. He is definitely not going to pass Hendriks or Kimbrel for saves with the White Sox. But he has the same terrific skill set that buyers have rostered for the past couple seasons and that does not seem likely to change as an end-gamer. Just understand that is what you are getting--left-handed elite skills and whatever he might vulture during the season, which is two saves in 2021.

Hudson has had a quantum leap forward in skills just as he joins a team that has its set closer and a stable full of closer-capable relievers. Hudson had the best skill set of any of them in 2021, but it doesn't mean he will suddenly close for the Padres in 2022. Stranger things have happened, though, and it would not be a big stretch to see a scenario where it all works out for Hudson. You will want to see what he is doing next spring and decide accordingly.

Next week, we go back to examining the most fluid closer situations for the stretch run this year. Follow me on Twitter @dougdennis41


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