The Game Day Report’s Top 10 Relief Pitchers Entering 2018

Welcome to another edition of The Game Day Report’s 2018 MLB player rankings!

In this edition, we will be taking a look at baseball’s top ten relief pitchers. Having one of these ten guys on your team will usually mean you are in a good place, especially when you factor in how most MLB managers are starting to rely on their bullpen more than ever. Heavy bullpen usage becoming more prevalent is also why the Colorado Rockies shelled out $100-plus million this off-season to upgrade their pen.

Here’s a quick look at when the rest of our rankings will be released to the public:

Catchers and first base: March 23rd

Second base and third base: March 24

Shortstops: March 25

Left fielders: March 26

Center fielders: March 27

Right fielders: March 28

Without further delay, here are our rankings of the top ten relief pitchers in baseball entering the 2018 season:

1: Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers 

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Age: 30

2017 stats: 3.1 WAR, 1.32 earned run average, 41 saves, 109 strikeouts, 68.1 innings, (65 games)

Perhaps the hardest thing to do right now as a Major League Baseball positonal player is face Kenley Jansen with the game on the line in the 9th inning.

Jansen has been virtually untouchable by opposing hitters the last eight seasons of his career, especially since the 2013 season. He never walks the opposing hitter, nor ends up letting a hitter redirect one of his pitches 350+ feet over a fence. Last season, it took until June 25 for Jansen to walk a batter, and he only allowed five home runs total in his 65 outings, with Justin Bour, Daniel Descalso, Matt Adams, Justin Upton, and Pablo Sandoval to say they hit a homer off of Jansen in the 2017 regular season.

The 30-year-old Jansen was also stellar in the playoffs, posting a 1.62 earned run average in 13 appearances, while only walking three opposing batters and surrendering two homers. His most effective pitch is his cutter, which has drawn comparisons to being on the same level as Mariano Rivera‘s cutter.

Los Angeles figures to be among the favorites to make the World Series this season once again, and with Clayton Kershaw also being ranked our top starting pitcher in baseball for 2018, the Dodgers have the two best pitchers in baseball. Sure, they both serve in different roles, but both would end up being critical in a winner takes all game, as they have been the last couple of years already.

2: Andrew Miller, Cleveland Indians 

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Age: 32

2017 stats: 3.1 WAR, 1.44 earned run average, 2 saves, 95 strikeouts, 62.2 innings, (57 games)

Andrew Miller remains the best left-handed relief pitcher in baseball, and he will sure be paid like it this upcoming off-season.

When Miller was a free agent in 2014, he inked a four-year, $36 million contract with the New York Yankees, and has earned $9 million each season over the lifetime of that deal. It’s likely that this off-season Miller’s average annual salary will exceed to somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million a year, and with Cody Allen as the team’s closer, it’s fair to wonder if Miller would leave Cleveland for the shot to be a closer elsewhere.

Miller battled a knee injury in 2017, but that didn’t prevent him from striking out 38% of the batters he faced. It is also virtually impossible to homer off of Miller, who allowed just three in the 2017 regular season. Cody Bellinger, Enrique Hernandez, and Justin Smoak will have a major thing to brag about the next time they encounter Miller.

3: Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox 

Matt Stone/Boston Herald

Age: 29

2017 stats: 3.6 WAR, 1.43 earned run average, 35 saves, 126 strikeouts, 69.0 innings, (67 games)

Craig Kimbrel struggled to grasp his health in 2016, but rebounded with a vengeance in 2017. Kimbrel’s 2017 season will go down as one of the most historic seasons by a reliever in MLB history, as he tied for MLB lead in strikeouts by a reliever with 126. When you factor in the fact that he faced 254 batters in 2017, that means he nearly struck out half of the batters he faced.

That gave Kimbrel a 49.6% strikeout rate, which is the highest rate for a reliever ever in any era across MLB history. The previous rate was Eric Gagne‘s 44.8% strikeout rate in 2003. Gagne struck out 137 of the 306 hitters he faced in 2003, and also saved a league-high 55 games that season.

Just like Miller, Kimbrel will also be a free agent following the conclusion of this season, and will he cash in on a massive payday. The Boston Red Sox are already over the luxury tax threshold thanks to the signing of J.D. Martinez earlier this winter, but it’s certainly possible that Boston will shed salary next off-season in-order to keep one of baseball’s premier relief pitchers.

4: Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

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Age: 30

2017 stats: 1.0 WAR, 3.22 earned run average, 22 saves, 69 strikeouts, 50.1 innings, (52 games)

In a way, Aroldis Chapman‘s 2017 season was his version of Kimbrel’s 2016 season, and Kimbrel’s 2017 season was his own version of Chapman’s 2016 season.

Chapman found himself battling health issues in his first full-season with the Yankees after spending part of the 2016 season with the team before New York elected to trade him to the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs.

Overall in 2016, Chapman had a 1.55 earned run average in 2016, that included an eye-popping 1.01 earned run average across 28 games in Chicago. Chapman’s 2016 season is why I am still very high on Chapman going into 2018, and when you look at his 2017 season as a whole, Chapman was really good in every month except for two:

So essentially, Chapman needs to erase months like May and August from his 2018, which his previous seasons suggest that he will. Seems simple enough.

5: Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies 

John Leyba/The Denver Post

Age: 32

2017 stats: 1.9 WAR, 2.30 earned run average, 32 saves, 79 strikeouts, 58.2 innings, (59 games)

Wade Davis is at the center of a revamped Colorado Rockies bullpen that also added in Bryan Shaw and re-signed lefty Jake McGee. Davis is the perfect pitcher to be the center of a bullpen makeover as well. He didn’t blow a save until late-September, meaning he converted 32/33 of his save opportunities for a 96.9% success rate.

Davis has also only surrendered nine homers over the last four years, making him arguably the best closer in baseball over that stretch of time. It’s possible that pitching a majority of his games at Coors Field now will cause for more homers to be surrendered, but on paper, Davis is the perfect fit for Colorado.

He became the highest paid relief pitcher in MLB history this off-season with a $17.3 average annual salary, and his fellow relief specialists will figure to exceed that mark this off-season.

6: Corey Knebel, Milwaukee Brewers 

Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports

Age: 26

2017 stats: 3.7 WAR, 1.78 earned run average, 39 saves, 126 strikeouts, 76.0 innings, (76 games)

Had Corey Knebel been the Milwaukee Brewers’ closer for the entire 2017 season, the team might have made the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and Knebel likely would’ve had more strikeouts than Kimbrel had he pitched in more save situations, but it’s not a bad consolation prize to tie with Kimbrel in any positive stat category in your first year as a closer.

Neftali Feliz opened the 2017 season as the Brewers closer, and was eventually replaced by Knebel as closer in May due to his lackluster performance. Milwaukee also had to move on from Feliz by designating him for assignment on June 14, as he wasn’t getting it done in any bullpen role.

While Knebel gives up his fair share of walks, his elite fastball and curveball combination can make up for it. His curveball graded out as one of baseball’s best, and him surrendering only six homers in 2017 further proves how lethal his curve is. Only Chris Iannetta, Yasmani Grandal, Clint Frazier, Jose Peraza, Adam Frazier, and Jose Martinez were only able to take Knebel yard, who led the National League with 76 appearances. He’ll likely be Milwaukee’s workhorse again in 2018, with his setup men Josh Hader expected to reach 90+ innings potentially.

7: Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks 

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Age: 25

2017 stats: 3.7 WAR, 1.73 earned run average, 1 save, 79 strikeouts, 73.0 innings (63 games)

Archie Bradley is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, but he would rather not have it that way.

The 25-year-old Bradley has his eyes on being a starting pitcher, which is how he came up from the Diamondbacks system and started his Major League career as. However, as a starter at the Major League level, Bradley has an earned run average over five in 34 starts, which is why he was moved to the bullpen. Bradley for an important niche in the Diamondbacks bullpen last year as a setup man, and he could potentially be the team’s closer in 2018.

It is likely that Bradley could potentially get his chance to start once again one day, but not while the Diamondbacks are in contention to win a World Series. He looked like a whole new, more confident guy out of the Arizona bullpen in 2018, and it’ll be best to keep it that way for the time being.

Bradley has also only allowed four homers as a relief pitcher, and 19 as a starting pitcher. The only four batters to homer off of Bradley last season were Chris Taylor, Hunter Renfroe, Andrew McCutchen, and Jorge Bonifacio, so not bad company at all.

8: Felipe Rivero, Pittsburgh Pirates 

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Age: 27

2017 stats: 2.7 WAR, 1.67 earned run average, 21 saves, 88 strikeouts, 75.1 innings, (73 games)

The way Felipe Rivero‘s 2017 season started was borderline insane.

Rivero had a 0.76 earned run average and the first half of the season, and was still able to finish with a 1.67 earned run average despite his earned run average skyrocketing to 3.21 in the second half. Many attribute Rivero’s shaky second half to fatigue, which makes total sense when you consider that Rivero had already pitched in 42 games before the second half of the season started.

Even with his fatigued-filled second half performance, Rivero still struck out several hitters with his lethal change-up, and still refused to surrender the home run ball. Only four players homered off Rivero in 2017, with those players being Chris Carter, Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Duvall, and Jose Martinez.

Over the off-season, the Pirates also made several significant changes to their roster by trading away McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, but the best move of Pittsburgh’s off-season was inking Rivero to a team-friendly extension that will keep off the free agent market until 2024. Rivero’s four-year, $22.5 million extension with the club includes two team options, and if the Pirates decided they wanted to part ways with Rivero for some reason to help rebuild/retool their roster further, they would get a king’s ransom back for the 26-year-old flamethrower.

9: Chad Green, New York Yankees 

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Age: 26

2017 stats: 2.7 WAR, 1.83 earned run average, 0 saves, 103 strikeouts, 69.0 innings, (40 games)

Remember when Chad Green came into the 2017 American League Wild Card against the Minnesota Twins and saved the New York Yankees and starting pitcher Luis Severino? That was well-deserved recognition for baseball’s perhaps most unrecognizable elite reliever.

Green is an all-around versatile relief pitcher that can start a game if you need it, and save a game a couple of days later if he has too. In that one-game playoff against the Twins, Green covered two full innings for the Yankees, and only surrendered one earned run while striking out four batters. He set the stage for David Robertson to come in and pitch 3.1 effective innings, and earn the win.

The deception on Green’s pitches is what makes him so effective. He throws his fastball pretty hard at an average fastball velocity of about 96 miles per hour, but plenty of relief pitchers across the game are able to hit 96, and his starting pitcher teammate Severino can also exceed 96 multiple times in a start. Green’s spin rate on his pitches make him so lethal, which is why he struck out 40% of the batters he faced in 2017.

10: Dellin Betances, New York Yankees

Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

Age: 29

2017 stats: 1.5 WAR, 2.87 earned run average, 10 saves, 100 strikeouts, 59.2 innings, (66 games)

In case you didn’t already know, the New York Yankees bullpen is absolutely stacked.

While he often has trouble commanding his pitches, when Betances is on, he’s just as untouchable as Chapman and Green. Ex-Yankees manager Joe Girardi stopped using Betances in meaningful situations towards the end of last year’s playoffs, but Girardi and everyone else across baseball knows just what they are getting from Betances at the end of the day.

Even though he walked 44 batters in 2017, he struck out 100 batters for the fourth-straight season as well. Meaning that even though his walk rate is 16.9%, his strikeout rate is still elite-level status at 38.3%. New York has also said to have been working on mechanical adjustments with Betances this spring training, and they could be working, as Betances has only walked one batter in his five spring outings to date.

The nice thing about Betances is he can also fill-in and be a dominant closer on any given night, a luxury most teams don’t have when their closer is unavailable due to fatigue. Betances is a big reason why the Yankees have the best bullpen in baseball, and one of the most affordable ones too.

Honorable Mention:

Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals

Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays 

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians 

Tommy Kahnle, New York Yankees

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Published by Tony Montalto

Twitter: @montalto_tony

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