This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
There’s no set definition as to what constitutes a “middle reliever”. Many might say it’s a pitcher who comes out of the bullpen but isn’t a setup man or closer – I challenge this notion. I think that “setup” men fall perfectly in the realm of “middle relievers”. They throw in the middle of the game, sandwiched between the starters and the closers. Unfortunately for them, the position is often overlooked or ignored, because they don’t have catchy walkout music or a cool statistic to inflate their value in the public eye (sorry closers, but the save is just as useless as the win). Thankfully, a rise in the number of talented pitchers across the MLB has lead to more pitchers embracing the “middle relief” role and more teams giving those pitchers their fair dues, with guys like Darren O’Day, Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo, and Mark Lowe all signing multi-season deals for average annual values over $5 million dollars this offseason. The blog I created when I first started writing was called the “Middle Relief Report”, so I figured for this occasion I’d take some time to highlight the past season’s best middle relievers.
The difficult part for this project was compiling the data for every “middle reliever” of relative significance in 2015. Using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I searched for 6th inning splits from every pitcher with five or more innings pitched (in the 6th inning) and fewer than five games started. I repeated this process for the 7th and 8th innings, and I exported each of the resulting tables into Excel, which is when the real fun started. I put all three of the lists into a single workbook, and got to work consolidating the lists of names, the longest of which was up over 250 players. Through a system of cross-checking and inserting rows as I went, I progressively expanded the lists to include every player from every single list on each list (a painstakingly slow process). Eventually, I ended up with an alphabetical (by first name) list of 295 players, from A.J. Ramos all the way down to Zack Godley (neither of whom made this list, sorry Marlins and Diamondbacks fans). Then, it was on to the compiling of the statistics, which included me creating a fourth list, with all the names, and combining the three separate worksheet into one collective 6th-8th inning stat sheet. The tedious work wasn’t done, however, until I had converted all of the innings pitched from the “.1, .2” format into “.33, .66” format so I could re-calculate each pitcher’s overall rate stats. After paring down the list to pitchers with either 25.0 or more total innings (in the 6th-8th window) or 35 or more total appearances (again, from the 6th-8th), I had 156 pitchers left, and I calculated totals and averages for the group based on this “final cut” of pitchers.
I wanted to make the ranking of these guys as objective as possible, so I put together a formula that ranked each pitcher based on the following criteria:
- ERA relative to the average of the group
- RAA relative to the average of the group
- K:BB rate
- HR allowed
- Innings Pitched
I chose the stats I did based on what I believe are some of the most important parts of relief pitching. Obviously, limiting any runs allowed in these situations are crucial. Strikeouts are highly valuable in these situations, as it limits the opponent’s ability to advance runners even when making outs. Walks and hits are always a negative, but in situations where a pitcher may be inheriting runners, keeping the batters you face off base is even more crucial (with regards to inherited runners, I wanted to factor inherited runners scored percentage into the rating, but the Play Index doesn’t allow that stat to be searched for when looking at splits). Keeping teams off the board with home runs is another large factor. Lastly, I gave some weight to the amount of innings pitched by each player, to give those who were good for more innings a higher ranking. After calculating this “quality rating” for each guy on the list, I had them ranked from highest to lowest. I did not necessarily choose my top 10 as the top ten from this made-up rating, but I did use it as a guideline (for what it’s worth, the lowest guy who made my top-10 was ranked 15th by the quality rating).
Without any further ado, I give you my top 10 “middle relievers” of 2015:
#10 – Hunter Strickland, San Francisco Giants
2015, 6th-8th innings: 40.1 IP, 1.56 ERA, 42:10 K:BB, 0.818 WHIP, 0.536 OPS, 11.95 Quality Rating
Strickland was lights-out as part of a strong San Francisco bullpen this season, appearing in 55 games overall and pitching to the tune of a 2.45 ERA in 51.1 innings. His best work came in the 7th and 8th innings, where opponents hit .168/.230/.307 against the 6-foot-4, 220 pound right-hander from Georgia. At age 26, Strickland was old for a rookie, but he featured an impressive fastball that averaged nearly 97 MPH out of the bullpen for the Giants this season. Strickland is under team control through 2022, and projects to be a solid contributor in the Giants bullpen for years to come.
#9 – Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates
2015, 6th-8th innings: 67.1 IP, 2.14 ERA, 55:14 K:BB, 0.980 WHIP, 0.545 OPS, 9.45 Quality Rating
Watson was the definition of an exclusive setup man in 2015, leading the MLB in with 67.1 IP in the 8th inning. In his 5th season of work for the Pirates, Watson posted an ERA below 2.00 for the second season in a row setting up All-Star closer Mark Melancon for a team that won an impressive 98 games. Watson’s fastball rarely tops 90 MPH, but his nasty change-up and ability to locate pitches make him an elite MLB reliever.
#8 – George Kontos, San Francisco Giants
2015, 6th-8th innings: 55.1 IP, 1.79 ERA, 36:6 K:BB, 0.831 WHIP, 0.540 OPS, 12.22 Quality Rating
The most versatile of the Giants’ bullpen assets, Kontos pitched more than 14.0 innings in each of the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings in 2015, racking up a total ERA of 2.33 in 73.1 innings across 73 games in relief. Similar to Watson, Kontos features a below-average bullpen fastball in terms of velocity, but makes up for the underwhelming heat with a plus secondary pitch (his slider) and excellent command.
#7 – Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
2015, 6th-8th innings: 40.0 IP, 1.58 ERA, 51:6 K:BB, 0.825 WHIP, 0.477 OPS, 12.70 Quality Rating
Primarily filling the role of 8th-inning setup man for the Giants in 2015, former closer Romo dazzled hitters en route to a 2.98 overall ERA. Romo’s featured offering is his “no-dot” slider, which not only has nasty movement, but is especially hard for hitters to pick up out of his hand. Romo’s FIP in 2015 was a miniscule 1.91, indicating he actually pitched better than the results indicate. With Romo due for free agency after this season, he looks to put together another impressive campaign setting up closer Santiago Casilla in 2016.
#6 – Tony Sipp, Houston Astros
2015, 6th-8th innings: 43.2 IP, 1.44 ERA, 54:10 K:BB, 0.893 WHIP, 0.535 OPS, 13.59 Quality Rating
After flying under the radar in 2014 for another poor Houston Astros team, Sipp finally made a name for himself in 2015, racking up a 1.99 overall ERA in 54.1 innings for the AL Wild Card winners. Sipp posted a K/BB rate over 4.00 for the first time in his 7-year career, earning himself the chance to sign a nice 3-year, $18 million dollar contract with the Astros following season’s end.
#5 – Ken Giles, Philadelphia Phillies
2015, 6th-8th innings: 41.0 IP, 1.32 ERA, 54:17 K:BB, 1.244 WHIP, 0.568 OPS, 13.00 Quality Rating
Before the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals, 24-year-old Ken Giles worked magic in the 8th inning for the Phillies, en route to a 1.80 season ERA in 70.0 innings flat. Giles, owner of an impressive fastball that sits consistently around 97 MPH and can touch 100 MPH, now boasts a 1.56 career ERA in 115.2 innings across two full seasons. After being traded to Houston in the offseason, Giles looks to move into the closer role for 2016.
#4 – Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals
2015, 6th-8th innings: 44.2 IP, 1.21 ERA, 46:16 K:BB, 0.873 WHIP, 0.476 OPS, 20.22 Quality Rating
Wade Davis was once again electric out of the bullpen for the 2015 World Series Champs, posting a dominant full-season ERA of 0.94 in his third full season of relief (second with the Royals). Had Davis not been moved to the closer role mid-season with the injury to Greg Holland, I have no doubt he would’ve been #1 or #2 on this list. Davis looks to be the Royals closer through 2016 while Holland rehabs, and it will be interesting to see if he maintains the job once Holland returns.
#3 – Carson Smith, Seattle Mariners
2015, 6th-8th innings: 37.2 IP, 0.72 ERA, 48:8 K:BB, 0.850 WHIP, 0.491 OPS, 31.75 Quality Rating
Smith was absolutely spectacular in his rookie season, pitching 70.0 innings for the Mariners to the tune of an impressive 11.8 K/9 and 2.31 season ERA. Most of the damage done against Smith came in the 9th inning, when he was briefly put into the closer role after the departure of the incumbent Fernando Rodney. After moving back to the 8th inning, Smith went back to dominating hitters as he was before. After a move to the Red Sox this offseason, Smith will look to continue his success setting up new Boston closer Craig Kimbrel.
#2 – Andrew Chafin, Arizona Diamondbacks
2015, 6th-8th innings: 51.0 IP, 1.06 ERA, 37:19 K:BB, 0.824 WHIP, 0.389 OPS, 25.37 Quality Rating
If we’re being honest, I couldn’t have told you what team Andrea Chafin was on before I began research for this piece. Regardless, Chafin fits the term “middle reliever” better than anyone on this list. Appearing in games as early as the second inning and as late as extra innings in 2015, Chafin posted an impressive 2.76 ERA, with his best work coming in innings six through eight. Chafin’s stuff doesn’t call much attention to itself, but his ability to induce ground balls and avoid giving up extra bases is extraordinary – he was the only reliever on this list to post an opponent’s slugging percentage below .200, posting a microscopic .167 mark.
#1 – Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
2015, 6th-8th innings: 64.0 IP, 0.84 ERA, 99:29 K:BB, 1.000 WHIP, 0.490 OPS, 36.19 Quality Rating
The 6-foot-8, 265 pound figure of Yankees hurler Dellin Betances has been looming over hitters from the American League East and beyond for two full seasons now, and the reign of terror doesn’t look to be ending any time soon, either. In his age 27 season, the right-hander from Brooklyn posted a total ERA of 1.50 in 84.0 innings, striking out a dizzying 131 batters, good for a K/9 of 14.04, third in baseball among relievers with 60 innings or more. The two men ahead of Betances in that ranking – Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman – will both be in the same bullpen as Betances in 2016, making what will undoubtedly be the best and most fearsome bullpen trio in baseball.
Honorable Mentions: Matt Albers, Chicago White Sox; Joe Blanton, Kansas City Royals/Pittsburgh Pirates; Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox/New York Mets; Ryan Madson, Kansas City Royals; Jeff Manship, Cleveland Indians; Darren O’Day, Baltimore Orioles
Dishonorable Mention: Justin De Fratus, Philadelphia Phillies
2015, 6th-8th innings: 59.1 IP, 5.92 ERA, 49:22 K:BB, 1.517 WHIP, 0.845 OPS, -9.79 Quality Rating
Mr. De Fratus deserved to be mentioned in this piece simply for his expertise in one area: trickery. Somehow, Justin managed to rack up an ERA of nearly 6.00 in the middle innings for the Phillies in 2015, yet was charismatic enough to convince managers Ryne Sandberg and Pete Mackanin to let him pitch a total of 80.0 – yes, eighty – innings in this past season. There were some pitchers on my final list with slightly worse numbers than De Fratus, but the sheer volume of mediocrity is what made him deserving of making the cut. Here, he is pictured after giving up a screaming (114 MPH) line drive home run to Giancarlo Stanton on April 23.
That’s all folks! The best (and one worst) middle relievers of the 2015 season. With teams seemingly overrun with bullpen talent these days, we’re sure to see even more players break out or have career years in this role in 2016. Hopefully this piece has opened your eyes to the skills of some of these players and you enjoy watching them next year as much as I do.
Statistics compiled using data from Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and the Baseball-Reference Play Index.
Matt Wojciak is a 20-year old college senior at St. Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish, ME., studying for a degree in accounting. Hailing from Merrimack, NH, he has been a Boston Red Sox fan for as long as he can remember. He began his writing career with the now-hibernating blog Middle Relief Report, and now writes for Baseball Essential on a regular basis. You can follow him on Twitter @mwojciak21 or look for his work at Baseball Essential at @BB_Essential. Thanks for reading!
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.