The Chacon Zone: Early Season Relief

Tumult and turnover has plagued bullpens far earlier than they did last season. Already, just shy of the four-week mark, we’ve seen closers relieved of duties in Washington and Philadelphia due to poor performance, lost to injury in Los Angeles (AL) and Baltimore, and in Texas, we’ve seen volatility due to some combination of the two. Oakland continues to confound us with a bullpen-by-committee and up and down the closer grid, last year’s elite and upper tier closers struggle.

Here in the Chacon Zone, we search for those widely available middle relievers toiling away in waiver wire obscurity, who may prove more productive than less talented pitchers benefiting from ninth inning opportunity. Luckily for save punters and deep leaguers, there are plenty to discuss.

The graph below plots cumulative Z-scores of the standard pitching categories – less wins – against saves. Those close to the X-axis and far away from the Y represent relievers who, through sheer performance, have managed to perform at levels comparable to their ninth inning counterparts despite lacking any significant save opportunities. And there are a few names worth considering.

Depending on the system, Chris Devenski has unquestionably been one of the most valuable relievers this season. While I have him first according to my home brewed valuations, ESPN’s Player Rater ranks him 6th among relievers. In Ottoneu FanGraphs points leagues, he’s second. No matter how you cut it, the guy has been other worldly, pitching multiple innings in 5 of his 7 appearances, and pacing for 110 innings on the season.

Prior to Thursday’s appearance, Devenski’s 21% swinging strike rate represents an 8-point jump over last year’s and ranks 6th among relievers. It’s led to a laughable 16.95 strikeouts per nine which, when coupled with his elite command makes for video game numbers. Marvel at his K-BB%! It’s 51.0%! Now, will he maintain that kind of dominance? Yes, of course he will.

Jacob Barnes has yet to allow an earned run. Through 12.1 innings, he’s rocking a 0.00 ERA to go with a 30.4% strikeout rate. Always one to post above average ground ball rates, he seems to be relying more on his dominating slider, throwing it nearly as often as his mid-90s heater. Last year that slider induced whiffs more than 50% of the time it was offered at. This season, it’s fallen to 48% requiring a generous rounding just to crack the 80th percentile. Pathetic. But when batters make contact, they’re pounding the ball into the ground 80% of the time, ranking in the 97th percentile among those who’ve thrown at least 40 sliders.

Now, his 89% strand rate, .148 BABIP, and 0% HR/FB ratio will all worsen. However, Barnes mitigates this with his extreme strikeout and ground ball tendencies, so his regression might not prove as draconian to his pitching line as some of the other names on this list.

Names like Brad Peacock! Look at his 100% strand rate, .067 BABIP, and below average ground ball rates. But ooohhh man, that 18% whiff rate is tasty, particularly because his Zone-Contact% is just 66%. That’s fifth lowest in the league and we can’t attribute that to any single pitch; his whiff rates on his fastball, changeup, and slider have all jumped. I don’t see much in his profile that suggests any major changes to pitch mix, movement, or velocity so I’m not buying into Peacock just yet. But as with his bullpen mate, Devenski, the Astros seem intent on using the former starter for multiple innings so I’m keeping an eye on Peacock in deep and AL-only formats.

Justin Wilson provides dual upside both killing it on the mound while, despite pitching with the wrong hand, being the undisputed backup to a struggling closer. Like Barnes and Peacock, Wilson has yet to allow a run. That’s not particularly remarkable because it’s April. After all, Brad Peacock…. It does however stand in stark contrast to Francisco Rodriguez, who’s blown two saves on his way to a FIP approaching 7.00. That said, I’m not writing Rodriguez off quite yet. Despite the drop in velocity, he’s still racking up the Ks and his .375 BABIP comes despite a 37% soft% and 55.6% fly ball rate.

Still, managers don’t like seeing their closers give up runs and not only has Wilson not given up a run, he’s yet to allow a hit. And both his whiff and Zone-contact percentages represent career bests by significant margins. Wilson is worth a speculative add in deep and AL-only leagues and despite my general aversion towards handcuffs, should be paired with K-Rod, at least for now. For those chasing saves in standard leagues, he’s as good a bet to close as any other setup man.

Jose LeClerc has tossed 9 innings of one run ball, while striking out 15 and walking one. He’s never shown anywhere near this potential for strikeouts or control in the minors nor does he generate the requisite ground balls to offset the proclivities of the park he pitches in. I’m staying away for now but keeping an eye on him nevertheless.

So who are the closers currently residing in the dreaded Chacon Zone?

Like a number of RotoGraph writers, I was a fan of Blake Treinen entering the year but hey, what do we know?

You’re obviously not cutting Edwin Diaz, however it is worth nothing that his velocity and strikeouts are down while he’s seemingly walking everyone. Diaz’ whiff rates are also down across the board and among pitchers with at least 20 balls-in-play, his average exit velocity on balls in the air is 10th highest in the league at 97.6 mph. His struggles don’t appear to be injury related as manager Scott Servais is now talking about pitching him in multiple innings to get him more high leverage work. That said, there is cause for moderate levels of concern here.

Like Diaz, Roberto Osuna’s velocity is down. Even in light of his three blown saves, that’s really the only takeaway here given that he’s only pitched five innings this season.


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

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

Archie Bradley has been great for me in h2h points. I’m hoping he doesn’t get moved to the rotation!

5 years ago
Reply to  Moltar

what i have seen in the news, they will not move him this year, but they are looking at doing it in future seasons