These Non-Closing Relievers Are Dominating — June 11, 2024

Yesterday’s dominating non-closing reliever post was pretty popular, with many of you offering additional names. So, I figured I would double up on the theme by posting another group of relievers. This time, I sorted by CSW% to include those who might not be as adept at inducing swinging strikes, but have made up for it by generating a high rate of called strikes. I filtered out anyone that made yesterday’s list or is currently serving as closer.

Dominating Middle Relievers
Name Team CSW% K% BB% xERA
David Robertson TEX 34.4% 33.6% 9.2% 3.24
Cade Smith CLE 34.2% 34.2% 6.1% 2.69
Taylor Rogers SFG 33.9% 27.9% 7.7% 3.69
Ryan Walker SFG 33.5% 33.9% 4.7% 2.86
Kevin Kelly TBR 33.3% 23.9% 2.8% 3.10
Scott Barlow CLE 33.3% 31.9% 12.4% 3.66
Adam Ottavino NYM 33.2% 30.8% 8.7% 3.10
Lucas Erceg OAK 32.6% 31.0% 9.2% 3.06
Pierce Johnson ATL 32.4% 31.8% 11.4% 2.77
Orion Kerkering PHI 32.3% 27.6% 4.6% 2.37

David Robertson is still pitching?! There was a chance the 39-year-old would take over as the Rangers closer, but Kirby Yates has run with the job, so Robertson is now just a dominating non-closer. His CSW% sits third highest of his career, while his strikeout rate is his highest since 2017. His cutter velocity is the highest of his career! Yates himself is 37 years old and has struggled with his control, walking double digits and also benefiting from a triple delight of a low BABIP, zero homers allowed, and sky-high LOB%. Long story short, there’s a reasonable chance Robertson finds himself as the closer at some point this season.

Cade Smith’s performance is precisely why I don’t bother rostering non-closing relievers, that have no chance of winning the job, during the AL Tout Wars auction. That’s because there are always a bunch of Cade Smiths that pop up during the season, and if you’re paying attention, it’s easy to win them during FAAB. The rookie has generated a big CStr% and just a mediocre SwStk%, which always makes me question how sustainable their strikeout rate is. But he must have been doing this throughout the minors, since he has posted a strikeout rate of at least 31.5% his entire career, while his SwStk% marks were merely good, but not great. What’s odd is that all three of his pitches sport SwStk% marks right around 11% to 12%. That’s some consistency! It means he has no knockout whiff pitch, though the four-seamer is above average. That gives me a bit of pause that this level of domination will continue, but perhaps he really does have the skills to continue earning those called strikes.

Taylor Rogers’ CSW% is as strong as always, but his strikeout rate has dipped to its lowest mark since 2020. His sinker velocity is also at its lowest since 2017, and at age 33, it might not rebound. With incumbent Camilo Doval struggling severely with his control, having walked 15.4% of opposing batters, it’s possible his performance forces the team to seek out a new ninth inning option. Given Rogers’ season so far and his past closing experience, it’s also possible he ends up being the guy the team turns to. If not, he’s a decent option in NL-Only leagues.

Ryan Walker has gone from good reliever last year to elite reliever this season. All his metrics have moved in the right direction, giving the Giants another potential Doval replacement option. His pitch mix hasn’t changed much, as he still features a sinker/slider combo. Both pitches have averaged similar velocity as last year, while he has actually thrown his sinker a bit more and his slider less often. Usually that results in a lower strikeout rate, but his sinker’s SwStk% has more than doubled from last year, offsetting a drop in his slider SwStk%. You don’t often find a sinker with an 11.4% SwStk%! It’s also interesting to find a pitcher who throws a sinker more than half the time actually post a GB% right around the league average, and not significantly above it. I’m not confident his sinker is going to continue its whifftastic ways, but he should remain pretty good for NL-Only leaguers.

Continuing on a theme from yesterday where some pitchers’ strikeout rates didn’t match their SwStk% marks, get a load of Kevin Kelly! He’s at a 33.3% CSW%, but just a 23.9% strikeout rate! He has also posted a below average 8.5% SwStk%, so it’s all about the called strikes here, which he clearly has a penchant for. He did something similar last year, but with a slightly better SwStk% and worse CStr%. Like Walker, he’s mostly sinker/slider too, but mixes in some cutters as well. The slider and cutter both generate double digit SwStk% marks, but he throws his sinker so often, which had generated a lowly 4.4% mark. The sinker, though, has been a ground ball machine, generating a 60% mark, offsetting all the flies his slider has allowed. Since the Rays no longer go with a closer by committee, his future save chances appear low, and his lack of swinging strikes would scare me away from bothering with him, even in AL-Only leagues.

With an elite closer ahead of him, don’t go picking up Scott Barlow because of any potential for future saves! His CSW% has remained remarkably consistent since 2020, though his strikeout rate has jumped around from just over 26% to his current career best of nearly 32%. What’s surprising is that his velocity is sitting down at a career worst, which you would never guess given the strikeouts and whiffs. The one red flag here, besides the velocity loss, is his walk rate, which has remained in double digits after jumping there last season. With his newfound penchant for grounders and the high strikeout rate, it’s not alarming, but definitely gives him less margin for error.

What is up with Mets relievers massively underperforming their xERA marks?! Adam Ottavino is another name in that bullpen with strong skills and an inflated ERA. How has he allowed a .333 BABIP with just a 10.3% LD% against and an 18.2% IFFB%?! That’s just crazy talk. The team’s bullpen remains unsettled, though Edwin Díaz figures to come off the IL soon. It’s likely Ottavino’s results improve to match his skills and he could end up vulturing some saves, especially if Díaz’s performance doesn’t improve to match his own skills.

Lucas Erceg is here, but sitting on the IL with a forearm strain, and might come back in a couple of days. Mason Miller has been dominant as the closer, so unless he gets hurt, there are no chances at saves here. That said, he has dramatically improved his walk rate so far, which was mighty necessary after he posted a bloated 14.3% mark last year. His strikeout rate and CSW% have also jumped, as he’s thrown his slider and changeup more at the expense of his sinker. The changeup has been lethal, carrying a 19.3% SwStk%, giving him a pretty solid four-pitch mix. You never know if that control improvement is maintained and you won’t know if he’s lost it until after the fact anyway. So only thing one can do is hold and hope for the best!

Boy has Pierce Johnson’s skills been consistent over the years! His strikeout rate has remained in a narrow range between 31.6% and 33.8% since 2020, while his walk rate has fit within the 10.8% and 12.5% range during that same time period. HIs CSW% has also remained over 30%, but his ERA has really bounced around, which tends to happen over small innings sample sizes. Johnson’s pitch mix this year are kind of hilarious, as he has reduced his four-seam usage enough so that he has thrown his curveball an absurd 80.9% of the time! The rest have been four-seamers, and a couple of cutters according to Statcast. The curve has generated a 14.3% SwStk%, a bit below his career average, and nothing particularly special compared to the league average for that pitch type. But clearly it has worked for him!

Orion Kerkering, owner of a truly top tier name, still displays 2026 as his ETA on his player page. He beat that by two seasons! Actually, he debuted last year, so he beat it by three! Kerkering hasn’t been great in the whiff department, but has generated a high rate of called strikes to nudge his CSW% over 30%. He has combined all those called strikes with a ton of grounders when batters do put the ball in play. He has featured a heavy use of his slider, throwing it 56.2% of the time, which makes me wonder how he hasn’t generated a higher rate of swings and misses. Shockingly, the pitch has only recorded a 9.1% SwStk%, which you might expect from a pitcher’s third or fourth pitch. That he has thrown it so often at that SwStk% is really surprising. All of his pitches have generated a GB% of at least 50%, so the total package definitely works.

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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1 month ago

Not fantasy related, but this article reminded me what a remarkable career Robertson has had: 800+ innings with a 70 ERA- and 70 FIP-, and still going strong. By comparison, Trevor Hoffman pitched just under 1100 innings with a 71 ERA- and 73 FIP-. Robertson might have had a decent shot at the Hall of Fame if he had just been used as a closer more often.

1 month ago
Reply to  Craftcj

Your comment made me go look at the career WAR list for relievers and it is a statement on how dominant Rivera was that Robertson, who has had a fantastic career, is not likely to get halfway to Mo Rivera’s career WAR total. Just stupid how good that guy was.

As to Robertson, I don’t know about HOF but he has been good for quite a long time now.