The Chacon Zone: Using the Splits Leaderboard to Identify Closers-in-Waiting

Projecting future closers is always difficult. We can use a number of different frameworks that factor in environment, talent, pitch quality, and arsenals, and still scratch our heads marveling at how relievers are used. It’s a tricky proposition given the number of variables involved. Add to that the changing nature of bullpen roles, it’s not inconceivable, as we saw with Andrew Miller’s usage, that a progressive manager might not use his best reliever in a way that’s conducive to racking up saves.

In fantasy, saves are expensive and the inherent volatility of bullpens can make chasing them on draft day a dubious endeavor. The Chacon Zone’s goal is to identify non-closing relief aces. Those pitchers whose contributions in strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP, despite low innings totals, are significant enough to offset the lack of saves that you’d receive by rostering a closer in his place. By banking on talent, rather than simply opportunity, we can identify cheap relievers not only possessing high floors but also high ceilings should they be thrust into a ninth inning role. Think Edwin Diaz from last year. Luckily for us, the new Splits Leaderboard, provides yet another tool by which we can (attempt to) identify these pitchers. By isolating performance in high leverage situations, we can not only identify talented relievers but those whose managers entrust them in the most pivotal moments.

Below you’ll find a leaderboard of the top 34 non-closing relievers ranked according to performance in high leverage situations. In order to qualify for the list, a pitcher had to be a reliever last year and tally fewer than 8 saves, the average among qualified bullpen pitchers in 2016. By default, the list is sorted according to a composite Z-Score aggregated from HR/9, K-BB%, xFIP, GB%, Hard%. You can also sort the leaderboard by any of those individual measures as well.

High Leverage Leaderboard
Name Team HR/9 K-BB% x FIP GB% Hard% Z-Score
Brad Hand SDP 0.00 30.43% 2.39 46.00% 24.00% 8.30
Blake Treinen WSN 0.00 8.70% 3.31 82.14% 7.14% 6.42
Joseph Biagini TOR 0.00 15.15% 3.85 61.90% 13.64% 4.55
Taylor Rogers MIN 0.00 30.00% 2.11 68.42% 21.05% 4.07
Bryan Shaw CLE 1.04 17.19% 3.43 54.05% 12.82% 3.34
Hector Neris PHI 0.46 17.95% 3.37 53.66% 26.83% 2.95
David Phelps MIA 0.00 14.86% 3.59 46.34% 21.43% 2.83
Mychal Givens BAL 0.00 18.87% 3.49 32.14% 13.79% 2.80
Justin Wilson DET 1.26 19.40% 2.82 64.10% 25.58% 2.59
Juan Nicasio PIT 1.08 37.04% 2.07 53.33% 26.67% 2.58
Scott Feldman 2 Tms 0.00 25.00% 2.06 55.56% 26.32% 2.55
Dan Otero CLE 0.00 20.83% 3.62 46.67% 6.67% 2.45
Jake Diekman TEX 0.68 20.83% 3.10 57.69% 30.77% 2.09
Christopher Devenski HOU 0.00 39.13% 0.73 33.33% 33.33% 2.07
Ian Krol ATL 0.00 11.11% 3.26 63.16% 15.79% 1.75
Tony Barnette TEX 0.00 10.87% 4.17 51.72% 20.00% 1.71
Justin Grimm CHC 0.00 22.22% 3.45 38.46% 15.38% 1.54
Nate Jones CHW 0.77 24.73% 3.06 39.22% 32.69% 1.52
Raisel Iglesias* CIN 0.00 13.64% 4.69 46.34% 20.93% 1.42
Kyle Barraclough MIA 0.49 14.29% 3.73 52.63% 29.27% 1.32
Hunter Strickland SFG 0.52 21.21% 3.63 42.50% 31.71% 0.91
Nick Vincent SEA 1.32 28.00% 3.32 32.26% 21.88% 0.88
Mark Lowe DET 2.70 26.92% 2.30 57.14% 21.43% 0.80
Vance Worley BAL 0.00 13.33% 3.15 70.00% 30.00% 0.72
Kyle Ryan DET 0.00 5.88% 3.95 55.56% 10.00% 0.71
Chien-Ming Wang KCR 0.00 10.53% 3.55 64.29% 33.33% 0.68
Jhan Marinez MIL 0.00 23.08% 3.51 42.86% 28.57% 0.56
Drew Storen 2 Tms 0.00 22.50% 4.18 40.00% 34.62% 0.42
Neftali Feliz PIT 0.56 15.25% 3.44 43.24% 31.58% 0.38
J.P. Howell LAD 0.00 15.79% 4.08 50.00% 35.71% 0.24
Ryan Dull OAK 0.87 17.50% 4.02 37.04% 22.22% 0.11
Josh Smith CIN 0.00 8.33% 4.85 44.44% 22.22% 0.09
Antonio Bastardo 2 Tms 1.29 23.08% 3.43 33.33% 25.00% 0.04
Matt Bush TEX 0.68 9.80% 4.35 51.35% 25.64% 0.02
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, he’s going to close next year.

Two more housekeeping items before we move onto some of the names. In case you’re wondering why I used a cutoff of the top 34, only 34 of the 99 qualified pitchers boasted positive Z-Scores. Secondly, I included innings pitched as a multiplier in the calculations so relievers who pitched well in more high leverage situations were rewarded with higher Z-Scores. Those who bombed in those same situations were commensurately penalized by their poor performance.

Right off the bat, we find relievers from two teams wading through murky closer situations. We like to see that. Brandon Maurer finished the year as the Padres’ closer and while he might be the favorite to start the season where he left off, he’s far from a lock. He certainly pitched better towards the end of the year but he also blew 6 of his 19 opportunities on his way to a 4.52 ERA. Meanwhile, Brad Hand struck out over 30% of the batters he faced while posting a ground ball rate approaching 50%.

Hand’s biggest impediment to his promotion might be his southern paw. Still, his numbers against righties are at worst comparable to Maurer’s in terms of both ERA indicators and batted ball data. Ryan Buchter, also a lefty, appeared to be first in line to take over closing duties last season, however he too was leapfrogged for the role. And don’t forget Chacon Zone darling, Carter Capps, who figures to be ready by Opening Day. There’s certainly stiff competition adding uncomfortable levels of ambiguity to this situation but I’m not certain that the status quo is the best option to close. Brad Hand certainly deserves a closer look by the Padres and fantasy owners alike.

With Mark Melancon leaving Washington to sign a monster deal with the Giants, the Nationals find themselves in need of a closer. Prior to acquiring Melancon mid-season, the Nats transitioned from eternal man-child, Jonathan Papelbon, to Shawn Kelley, neither of whom pitched nearly well enough to hold down the gig. In fact, you’ll notice by his absence from the list above that Kelley failed to provide positive value in high leverage situations and, among closers, Papelbon was arguably worse, posting a 5.14 xFIP in those same situations.

Blake Treinen on the other hand, was masterful at managing contact. His 82% ground ball rate, led all relievers but one, who happens to be pretty good himself. He also led all relievers in soft%. So, by limiting fly balls and hard contact, Treinen may have pitched far better at critical moments than even his 3.31 xFIP would suggest.

Overall Treinen struck out 24% of the batters he faced, the same as Melancon, but that’s not reflected in the table above. Given how frequently he pitched in high leverage moments, often with runners on base, it’s likely Treinen leaned on his soft contact and ground balls skills to induce inning-ending double plays, rather than going for the strikeout.

Still, Treinen struggles with the free pass particularly in low leverage situations. While slightly better than average in attacking the zone, his first-pitch strike percentage is too low. Given his strong swinging strike rates and low zone-swing percentage, Treinen could afford to be more aggressive with his first pitch. If he does, he could make for a sneaky source of saves in 2017 though we’ll have to wait out the rest of the off-season to see what the Nationals do to address their pen.

I really like Taylor Rogers for his ground ball rate and control but he profiles more as a LOOGY and doesn’t miss nearly enough bats. At least right now, Brandon Kintzler is clearly the play in Minnesota.

Hector Neris just keeps popping up on Chacon Zone lists. I first fell for his whiff and K-BB% rates back in April, awaiting the imminent demise of Jeanmar Gomez. He rewarded me in early May with a save but it took until the last game of the season to tally a second. Neris could go into the year as Philly’s closer but even if he doesn’t, snag him anyway. It’s just a matter of time as he was utterly dominant in 2016, particularly when it mattered most.

In one of my Ottoneu leagues, I’m starting the year with a pretty strong starting staff but I’m dangerously thin at relief. So unlike most fantasy players, I’m holding out hope that Don Mattingly leaves David Phelps in the pen. While great as a starter, Phelps was downright filthy in relief striking out 32% of the batters he faced. Now, he also benefited from an alarmingly high strand rate but then again so did a number of other elite relievers who maintain said rates through elevated strikeout totals. The Marlins look to have a deep bullpen headlined by A.J. Ramos, though he limped to the finish line last season, and everyone’s favorite sleeper relief ace, Kyle Barraclough. But if used in relief, David Phelps’ performance in high leverage situations could bode well for future save opportunities.

Other names I like on this list include Nate Jones, Ian Krol, the aforementioned Kyle Barraclough, and assuming he doesn’t make the Astros’ rotation, Chris Devenski. Regardless of save opportunities, all of these relievers are roster-worthy in deep leagues and even in some standard ones where over-zealous hoarders price you out of the closer market.

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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Hi Rylan, Very interesting article. But as someone reasonably new to FanGraphs, could point me to where I can learn about Z-Scores? Been through the site and the glossary, but if it is there, I’ve missed it. Many thanks, Dave,

White Jar
White Jar

It’s just a sum of the standard deviations above or below the the mean. For example Brad Hand probably scored at least a 3 z-score in the HR/9 column because that’s how many standard deviations 0 HR/9 is from the mean. Add all columns to get a final z-score. This is how most fantasy values are calculated once projections are determined.