Future Closers?

If you’re in a keeper league who could potentially keep players picked up through the end of the season, or just enjoy discovering the newest crop of relievers with eye-popping strikeout rates, let’s discuss some possible future closers. I’m basically filtering for non-closer relievers with elite strikeout rates and not-terrible walk rates, suggesting they could become dominant closers in the future, or at the very least, earn some positive value in deeper mixed or mono leagues from their strikeouts and strong ratios alone.

Before unveiling the list, let me remind you that there are a lot of high strikeout relievers and I couldn’t possibly include or write about all of them. So this is just the group I wanted to highlight.

Dominant Relievers
Drew Pomeranz 21.2 44.6% 9.6% 16.7% 2.08 2.29
Daniel Ponce de Leon 11 43.9% 9.8% 15.8% 3.27 2.34
Austin Adams 28 42.0% 12.5% 16.4% 3.54 2.86
Nick Anderson 60 41.6% 6.6% 18.8% 3.30 2.21
Kenta Maeda 10 36.1% 2.8% 23.9% 2.70 2.30
Colin Poche 45.1 35.7% 9.3% 18.1% 4.96 3.26
Giovanny Gallegos 66.2 34.8% 5.6% 17.1% 2.16 2.74
Kevin Gausman 15.2 33.9% 4.6% 21.2% 4.02 2.53
Note: All stats are as a reliever, so any starting stats have been excluded

We know that there’s a starter-to-reliever boost, which is typically driven by a jump in velocity, fueling a pop in strikeout rate. We have some great recent examples of this with Drew Pomeranz, Kenta Maeda, and Kevin Gausman. All three have been have spent the majority of their careers as starters, but whether it’s been injury, ineffectiveness, or no room in the rotation, each of their teams have banished them to the bullpen. And they have flourished.

To be honest, I don’t follow Pomeranz and had no idea he transitioned to the bullpen. Heck, I didn’t even know what team he was on at the moment! Color me shocked when I saw his relief stats for the year. Almost all of that has come with the Brewers. Obviously, he’s highly unlikely to close, so his appearance here is more about earning some nice deep league value from the ratios and strikeouts. Maeda has been in this situation before, and because he’s been so effective with an insane SwStk% above 20%, it’s hard to fault the Dodgers for continuing to move him into relief, even if money most certainly has something to do with the decision.

Ahhhh Gausman, you tease you. Though the underlying skills did not improve upon his move to Atlanta last year, I was optimistic that a full season in the National League, in a more friendly home park, and on a good team, would result in his best season yet. Oops. Instead, he was absolutely brutal for the Braves and was ultimately released, at which point the Reds picked him up and promptly moved him to relief. In that role, he has been utterly dominant. Though, it’s a bit surprising that his fastball velocity has only risen by a mile per hour, especially because he used to be at that level as a starter to begin with. He has ramped up his splitter usage even higher and being a two-pitch pitcher isn’t as scary in relief. I don’t know if he’ll get another chance to start or the Reds will continue to use him for multiple innings in the future, but he clearly could be a strong closer if given the chance.

Daniel Ponce de Leon could kind of fit into the starter-to-reliever category, except he hasn’t yet established himself in the Majors in any role to include him in the group. As a starter in the minors, he posted solid enough strikeout rates and decent SwStk% marks, but nothing too exciting. The Cardinals have been flip-flopping him between starting and relieving, but he’s been super dominant as a reliever. However, those relief stats have come in just 11 innings. It’s still hard to get too excited here as his individual pitch SwStk% marks are unimpressive. Though I can’t split them out by starter and reliever, so I would imagine they have been significantly more whifftastic in relief.

Austin Adams is one of several who were candidates for the saves in the Mariners bullpen, but he got hurt at a time when he was seemingly very close to taking over the role. Control has been problematic throughout his professional career and this season has been no exception. But when you’re striking out more than 40% of opposing batters, a low teen walk rate isn’t a killer. He’s a two-pitch guy, throwing a mid-90s fastball, complemented by a slider he has thrown an insane 61.7% of the time. How does an arm hold up with so many sliders?! The slider has been excellent, sporting a 21.4% SwStk%, but when you combine that with so many sliders, you see how he has managed such an inflated strikeout rate.

How come it seems like the Rays just collect dominant relievers? They acquired Nick Anderson from the Marlins, while Colin Poche had been with the Diamondbacks previously. Anderson was already elite with the Marlins (though a .368 BABIP inflated his ERA), but that dominance has risen to a possibly unprecedented level with the Rays. 32 strikeouts and 0 walks over 16.1 innings and 57 batters faces is just incredible. Interestingly, he’s done that despite ratcheting up his fastball usage and throwing his slider/curve less frequently. Poche is a Sean Doolittle clone with more strikeouts and walks. His 3.26 SIERA does a better job of describing his dominance than his near-5.00 ERA.

Giovanny Gallegos has slidered his way to dominance and a 17% SwStk%, thanks to an inflated slider usage and a 25.6% SwStk% with the pitch. The former Yankees reliever is already 27 and has had several cups of coffee previously, so he hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. But this has been his first full season and he has shown the skills of a future closer. Like some of the others on this list, his current level of dominance likely requires him to continue throwing his primary non-fastball as often as he has been, or he risks a strikeout rate decline.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Mike D
Mike D

Karinchak: hold my beer