The Chacon Zone and a Closer Look at Relief Pitchers in 2016

This season I had an idea for a recurring column called The Chacon Zone that never materialized (tip of the hat to @sporer for the name). The column would have been aimed at avoiding a common pitfall that I’ve succumbed to many times myself, improperly valuing saves and subsequently chasing them at my own peril. At what point does a closer’s poor performance negate the value of an occasional save?

I hoped to identify relief pitchers whose contributions in non-save categories would outweigh the Tony Cingranis and Brad Zieglers of the world. For a variety of reasons, most notably a lack of time and unusually low bullpen volatility early in the season, I never followed through. I’m hoping to rectify that with this end-of-season yet inaugural (?) edition of The Chacon Zone.

First, a little housekeeping. I ranked all qualified relief pitchers according to Z-Score using standard 5×5 pitching categories (excluding wins for obvious reasons) and broke them into two categories: closers and non-closers. I defined a closer as anyone with more than the average number of saves, which among all relievers was about 8. The non-closer group consists of everyone else. Doing so eliminates some obvious names from the non-closer list, like Andrew Miller (12), Dellin Betances (12), Kelvin Herrera (12), and Edwin Diaz (18), players who spent most of the year in a setup or middle relief role but added significant value with extended stretches as closer.

Now, that isn’t to say these guys wouldn’t be valuable without the saves. They would be, immensely so. And the numbers, adjusting down to league average save totals, bear that out. But in this exercise I’m looking for those widely available unknown and undrafted pitchers toiling in bullpen anonymity.

Later on, we’ll also take a look at some of the most and least valuable relievers selected on draft day using Yahoo’s average auction costs.

So who were the worst closers in baseball in 2016?

The Chacon Zone
Name Innings Strikeouts Saves ERA WHIP Composite Z-Score
Carlos Estevez 55 59 11 5.24 1.42 -1.51
Tony Cingrani 63 49 17 4.14 1.44 -0.77
Brandon Maurer 69.2 72 13 4.52 1.26 -0.44
Brandon Kintzler 54.1 35 17 3.15 1.23 0.21
Jeanmar Gomez 68.2 47 37 4.85 1.46 0.37
Ken Giles 65.2 102 15 4.11 1.29 0.47
Fernando Rodney 65.1 74 25 3.44 1.39 0.95
Tony Watson 67.2 58 15 3.06 1.06 1.13
Hector Rondon 51 58 18 3.53 0.98 1.16
Brad Ziegler 68 58 22 2.25 1.37 1.21

There you have it. A more riveting amalgam of late inning detritus, I have not seen. As one might expect, there are more than a few unsexy names here that had no business being owned but that found their way onto rosters anyway. Still, it’s worth taking a closer look at a couple notable pitchers.

Obviously, Ken Giles reversed his fortunes after a rough April, earning 14 of his 15 saves after August and finishing the year as Houston’s closer. Even when Giles struggled, his indicators remained fairly consistent all season, well below his ERA. And his ugly line at year-end could make him a draft day bargain despite the gaudy strikeout numbers and seemingly strong hold on the role entering 2017.

Brandon Kintzler lacks Giles’ strikeout upside but manages his walks well and keeps the ball on the ground. Depending on the Twins’ bullpen situation entering the year, I could be convinced to take a flier on him but I wouldn’t use more than a late round pick or a couple bucks to do so. Other than these two, I’m steering clear of the others on this list.

So, who were the best among the non-closing relief aces?

The Relief Aces
Name Innings Strikeouts Saves ERA WHIP Composite Z-Score
Christopher Devenski* 83.2 83 1 1.61 0.81 2.72
Addison Reed 77.2 91 1 1.97 0.94 1.85
Nate Jones 70.2 80 3 2.29 0.89 1.60
Ryan Dull 74.1 73 3 2.42 0.87 1.57
Brad Brach 79 92 2 2.05 1.04 1.55
Dan Otero 70.2 57 1 1.53 0.91 1.44
Shawn Kelley 58 80 7 2.64 0.9 1.38
Hector Neris 80.1 102 2 2.58 1.11 1.07
Brad Hand 89.1 111 1 2.92 1.11 0.99
Joe Blanton 80 80 0 2.48 1.01 0.98
*Stats accumulated as starter removed

This list consists of relievers you’d have been better off owning over most of the aforementioned Chacon Zone residents. Actually, this list consists of just the 10 best non-closing relief aces. If we use Carlos Estevez as the cutoff, there are actually 62 relievers with fewer than 8 saves who outperformed at least one closer this year. You likely would have been better off with any of them over Estevez.

I fully realize the inherent volatility in trying to project relief pitchers but there are some interesting names on this list to consider next season. If the Astros decide to use him out of the pen, Chris Devenski could return as a compelling middle relief option. His 23.4% K-BB% ranked 18th among 135 qualified relievers and his 14.8% SwStr% 19th, suggesting there may be more strikeouts in-store.

Addison Reed seems to have figured something out, posting career bests in both K/9 and BB/9. He induced hitters to chase more often than at any point in his career and Reed’s first-pitch strike rate ranked third among qualified relievers. With improvements like those, I can overlook some of the good fortune he experienced with respect to strand rate and HR/FB%.

Hector Neris was magnificent at times, pedestrian at others. Owning exactly zero shares of Jeanmar Gomez, I didn’t realize just how spectacularly he face-planted in the second half until now. As a result, Neris should enter 2017 with a realistic opportunity to close but I’d be more than happy to roll with him absent a lavish closer. And what can we say about Brad Brach? If you owned Brach, you definitely weren’t in it for the saves but it didn’t matter anyway. Zach Britton’s excellent season certainly overshadowed Brach’s which should make the latter a steal next season.


Draft Day Deal: Alex Colome

Early in the season, it always seemed as if Colome was just one Brad Boxberger injury update away from Holds-only relevance. But he kept the role for the entire year, ceding just 5 of the Rays’ saves to their other relievers. Colome finished the year with a 1.91 ERA, 24.8% K-BB%, and 37 saves in 40 opportunities. For an average draft cost of $1.40 (source: Yahoo!), Colome provided, without a doubt, the best value among drafted relievers.

Notable Mention: Sam Dyson, Roberto Osuna, Andrew Miller


Draft Day Dud: Ken Giles

I know, I know, Giles turned it around just in time for your stretch run. But there’s a good chance that even if you spent the money to land him, you dropped him before reaping the reward. While I like him going into next season and realize he wasn’t nearly as bad as his surface stats suggest, you paid for a second tier closer ($9.80, source: Yahoo!) who didn’t show up until the final two months. On top of that he battled a case of gopheritis. After giving up just 2 long balls in 2015, Giles coughed up 8 this season. He also saw his ground ball rate drop below 40% while his line drive and fly balls rates inched up.

 ken-giles-fa-heatmap_2015  ken-giles-fa-heatmap_2016

That’s Giles’ 2015 fastball location on the left and 2016 on the right. Notice how much higher in the zone he lived this season compared to last. With this in mind, perhaps we shouldn’t find his homer problem and declining ground ball rate surprising. Regardless, I hope he addresses them in the off-season.

Notable Mention: Jeanmar Gomez, Craig Kimbrel

Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

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“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to major league managers. It is a dimension as vast as Coors and as timeless as 2004. It is the middle ground between balls and strikes, between dingers and Saves, and it lies between the pit of the 9th inning and the summit of the Proven Closer label. This is the dimension of a steroid-era Rockies bullpen. It is an area which we call the Chacon Zone.”