We are rolling along through the Covid-19 pandemic and it is almost March. Spring Training is in full swing, and as Thomas Boswell once said, hope springs eternal for fans of all 30 MLB teams. Unless you’re a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, that is.

Last year you may recall that I covered bullpens for the great team of folks at RotoFanatic, and I will be doing the same task in 2021. Yeoman’s work to some, I love mining the news, looking at box scores, scouring Baseball Savant, and trying to retain my sanity looking each team’s bullpen.

Some are set seemingly in stone, but the vast majority could be an exercise in futility, a cast of characters playing musical chairs as managers ride hot hands, use full-blown committees, or shift on a whim to another pitcher.  We will do our best on a weekly basis to keep you up to speed with the news you need to beat your opponents to the next Jordan Romano.

What do we know?  Bullpen work is up. There is an increased workload for relievers, a decrease in starter innings, a decrease in pitches thrown per start (in 2020, about 80.2 PPS). 38% of starts showed fewer than 90 pitches per start in 2020; again, compared to 2019, 55% of all starts had fewer than 90 pitches.  The game has been changing for longer than many will care to see. Relievers have taken on increased roles in the real game; our fake game may not be far behind.

High-leverage situations continue to use high-leverage relievers. Some of the usage in 2020 can be tied to the expanded rosters. Through the year of my miraculous birth, 1973, starters averaged seven innings per game, and finished about 25% of those starts. Less than 2% of all games are finished by the starter over the last 5-6 years. In 2020, starters pitched 56% of the innings.  That’s it.  Some will say throw out 2020, but in 2019, the percentage was 58%.  In fact, it has decreased every year since 2015. This makes relievers even more important to our fake game, and there are relievers that have more value than a sixth or seventh mediocre starter.

Enough proselytizing by me. We are going to make recommendations for each bullpen, supported by data from RotoFanatic’s new Data Monster as well as our old friendly Statcast data. Let’s go division by division on this cold, gray winter day and check in on each bullpen:

AL EAST

Baltimore: The Orioles seem to be waiting for Hunter Harvey to take on this role. We haven’t seen much from him yet, but he’s 26 and the Orioles should give him a long look as they struggle for relevancy again in a very tough division. The former first round pick features a four-seamer that rests in the high 90s (97MPH last year) but needs work on his secondary offerings, which are a curveball and a changeup. Backing him up is the versatile Cesar Valdez, who truly fits better into a setup role.  There has been talk that manager Brandon Hyde could use Valdez in a multiple inning role, which should further solidify Harvey in the role. Dillon Tate is another name to dogear for later. Tanner Scott could also get some opportunities and is a name to know for holds, at the very least.

Boston: On most good teams, Matt Barnes would be a set-up guy.  For the Red Sox at this time, he is their clear option at closer. But the recent acquisition of Adam Ottavino adds intrigue.  And Ryan Brasier and Darwinzon Hernandez will get holds.  Brasier had 10 holds in the abbreviated 2020 season. The question to is, how good is this team though?  Could be a tough year in Boston.

Check out Barnes’ splits, which may suggest he is better suited to a setup or specialist role:

New York: Aroldis Chapman will have to serve a brief suspension for throwing at heads again, but after that two-game suspension, he will be the king of the New York Yankees’ bullpen. If you are looking for holds, Zack Britton and Chad Green should be in line for double-digit opportunities.

Tampa Bay: As I learned last year, trying to lock into the mind of Kevin Cash is impossible. Nick Anderson led the World Series participants with six saves, but a dozen other relievers also recorded saves. But I am going out on a limb here, and it is just gut, not based on analytics or statement: one year, Anderson is going to take this job and run with it, and this could be the year.  Diego Castillo lurks and Pete Fairbanks intrigues, but in full, regular season, it would seem that prescribing more certain roles might be in order in Tampa Bay.  Fairbanks had 10 holds in 2020, Castillo had seven.  No matter for our fake teams, Anderson is extremely valuable to us for his high volume of Ks even if he lags behind in saves.  Draft him as a top 15 reliever. Anderson struck out 26 batters in 58 plate appearances. Look at this:

Toronto: This offseason, it looked as if Jordan Romano might land this gig.  But then the Jays went out and signed Kirby Yates.  The last time we saw Yates he was getting shelled, the Padres told us he had “body soreness,” and a week later he was having surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow.  It’s important to note that the recovery time for that procedure is far less than TJS, and Yates is expected to be healthy for the start of the season.  Draft him with the idea that he is the closer for Toronto, but a great handcuff would be Romano.  Romano is clearly the closer of the future, and is a great source of holds for a budding Toronto team. Small sample sizes of course, but Romano added more than four MPH to his slider, and two MPH to his fastball in 2020.  He is definitely one to watch.  Rafael Dolis also lurks and has proven he can get big outs too.

AL CENTRAL

Chicago: The White Sox signed the best available bullpen arm in Liam Hendriks.  He clearly will be the closer; he is also one of the best in the business. Note the increased usage of his electric four-seamer to 70% in 2020:

But do not sleep on the bevy of other arms in this bullpen.  Lefty Aaron Bummer will get lots of holds, as will Evan Marshall.  The guy to watch here as a deep sleeper in young lefty Garrett Crochet. In a small sample size in 2020, Crochet averaged 100.7 MPH on his fastball and also showed a wipeout slider. His future will be in the rotation, but if you are looking for a late pick dart throw, who will certainly get you lots of strikeouts, do not be afraid to bet on Crochet.

Cleveland: People think this is James Karinchak’s job.  In our monthly mock drafts at RotoFanatic, he’s been one of the top six closers picked in the first few rounds. He’s legit:  But they have another option lurking in  Emmanuel Clase, who throws both his sinker and his four-seamer at 99 MPH+.  Clase was the player they received in the Corey Kluber trade, and missed last year due to a PED suspension.  This could be more interesting than people think. But look below.  Karinchak has given up ONE barrel in two years and had 53 strikeouts in 27 innings last year. Could Karinchak be used as a stopper in the middle of jams midgame?  It’s entirely possible; many folks are drafting him in the top ten and that is a lot of risk baked into an admittedly tasty profile. Buyer beware!

Nick Wittgren looks like a great candidate for holds, securing 10 holds in2020.

Detroit: This is a mind-numbing experience.  Gregory Soto?  Buck Farmer?  Garcia? We do care. This sounds like a good time for the Data Monster.

All of Farmer’s success is driven by contact suppression. He had had a 87th percentile or better xLwOBA in the last three seasons.  This should allow him to remain relatively successful even with the random fluctuations in contact suppression.  Soto  shows an incredibly poor xLwOBA and incredibly strong In_wOBA. In_wOBA is extremely unstable for pitchers and any success Soto had can be chalked up to luck in a sense. He is a good bet to struggle in 2021.  Garcia generated a ton of swings out of the zone with a 93rd%-tile OOZ (out of zone swings over expected)  and a 73rd percentile xLwOBA and 96th%-tile In_wOBA. The location ability should allow him to continue to somewhat suppress contact but the In_wOBA, while unstable could be driven by the large number of Out of Zone swings he was able to generate.  Garcia might not be a world beater but he is likely the most interesting arm in this bullpen, and .he is our choice to close in 2021, thanks to the Data Monster.

Kansas City: This team has one of the deepest bullpens in the game.  Think I’m crazy from months of snow shoveling?  Clearly Greg Holland will close, but there are other names you need to familiarize yourself with, if you have not already. Josh Staumont.  Scott Barlow.  Kyle Zimmer.  If KC falls out of the race, look for them to trade Holland to a contender and use Staumont as their closer.

Minnesota: I am one of the few analysts who like Taylor Rogers. I had moved him up in my rankings simply because he had a very clear pathway to the job. And then the front office signed Alex Colome. And now there is intrigue in the Twin Cities. Colome may get first crack at the job, and Rogers may return to being the excellent set-up man he showed us in 2019. However, Rogers has the better stuff; Colome has the better resume. My best guess is that this a a time share based on matchups.  Let’s not forget that skipper Rocco Baldelli was born and raised in the Tampa Bay system…

Colome below:

Rogers below:

AL WEST

Houston: The Astros were comfortable handing the job to Ryan Pressly, and he rewarded their faith after a shaky beginning due to injury and poor performance. Pressly threw his slider far more in 2020, going from 29% in 2019 to 41%,  leading to 17 strikeouts in 49 total batters faced. He has a lock on the job and should be one of the first ten closers off the board.

The thing to recall is that Pressly has had injury issues in his career.  Should he be injured or falter, do not be afraid to snag Enoli Paredes or Blake Taylor.

Los Angeles: I do not understand the shade often thrown at Raisel Iglesias.  He now is firmly entrenched in Los Angeles, and does not need to look over his shoulder to see anyone behind him.  You should rank Iglesias in your top five, not only because he is very good, but because of this opportunity. Holdovers Ty Buttrey and Mike Mayers should get chances for holds.

Oakland: GM David Forst rebuilt his bullpen on the fly in seven days.  He added Sergio Romo, Adam Kolarek and Trevor Rosenthal this week. Last Sunday, Jake Diekman was their likely closer.  Now it is Rosenthal. Some great options to get holds here are Diekman, who led the major leagues last year in holds with 14, and Romo.

Seattle: The Mariners traded for Rafael Montero, who closed for Texas last year.  He should be backed up by Kendall Graveman, who intrigued in their bullpen last year in September. In a small sample size, his velocity increased with the move to the bullpen.  Keep an eye on it, but Montero should be the closer.  One name to tuck away: Andres Munoz, who was acquired in the Austin Nola trade with San Diego.  Easy heat, but recovering from TJS last year.  He should be ready this summer, and you will like what you see.  He is the closer of the future.

Texas: Fantasy players may be forgetting that Jose LeClerc was actually excellent in 2019.  Lurking, waiting in the wings is Jonathan Hernandez. LeClerc is only 27 and was signed to a contract in 2019, presumably, to close. He had 12 saves in 2018, 14 in 2019, striking out 100 in 68 IP then.  But 2020 was a loss due to injury.  He is flying under the radar a bit and could be a steal later in drafts.

NL EAST

Atlanta:  A question plaguing fantasy analysts is who will get this plum job in Atlanta. The Braves signed lefty Will Smith to a three year, $39 million contract in 2020. While Mark Melancon closed last year (and will now close for San Diego, more on that later), the front office didn’t pay Smith that money to be a setup man long-term.  Yet they also have Chris Martin.  A great pick for holds would be AJ Minter. If Shane Greene signs here again, he would be an excellent candidate as well for holds.

The Data Monster tells us that Martin excelled at contact suppression in the 98th percentile In_wOBA despite a well below average xLwOBA. I’m skeptical of his ability to repeat it since he’s never really shown that skill in the past. Smith excels at generating whiffs. He locates above average for whiffs but is able to create much more than expected due to him impressive stuff. The Data Monster favors Smith, but it only matters what manager Brian Snitker thinks.  We think he will go with Martin to start the season.

Miami: This should be a competition between Yimi Garcia and Anthony Bass.  Bass flies under the radar often but has been very impressive the last couple of seasons; he has been quietly effective in the role. Word out of Miami is that the brass prefers that Garcia not close.  This will be one to watch in Spring Training, but I’m leaning Bass right now.  Look at what Bass did with his pitch mix last year, a staggering difference.

New York:  Has there been a closer that has been more maligned than Edwin Diaz?  I am drafting him as the third closer off the board behind Hendriks and Hader. His Statcast is dead red (see below) and other than two rough outings to start 2020, was solid all year with 50 strikeouts in 25 innings.  Don’t be afraid to spend a high pick on him; we have seen him go in the first 5-6 rounds in our mocks.  Ok, that may just be me taking him that high. But he is still dominant, and I am not afraid to take him this high:

This is a bullpen rife with holds too: Trevor May and Dellin Betances (if healthy) leap out at you.  Seth Lugo will have a multi-inning role and have value to our fake teams.  Be mindful of Jeurys Familia; I would pass on him now, but someone to lodge in the back of your mind should he pitch well this spring.

Philadelphia: The bullpen last year was bad.  Historically bad.  An ERA of 7.11 for the season; at one point the bullpen had the worst ERA since MLB began keeping the statistic.  Let thank sink in a minute.  Worst. Ever.

However, don’t let that blind you to 2021’s edition.  It is going to be better because it has to be better.  Hector Neris returns to a bullpen welcoming the additions of Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado.  However one arm I really do think you should tag for later is Connor Brogdon. If you are a gambler, bet on Neris to close and the others for holds. Manager Joe Girardi likes consistent roles historically (which may have more to do with having Mariano Rivera), and he has experience with Neris, who also has 72 saves in his time with the Phillies. Bradley threw his four-seamer less after his trade to Cincinnati last year, and really focused on his changeup more, with results: a 1.17 ERA, 60% Zone%.  This one could be a toss-up.  Bradley’s ADP is 271 and Neris’s is 305. I am guessing more analysts will pick Bradley ahead of Neris. Alvarado is a worthy stash as well with his exploding sinker, while Brogdon looks to be the closer of the future and may get more high leverage work in 2021.

Washington: There was lots of talk that the Nationals would add an arm since they still feel they are in contention, having won the World Series in 2019. To that end, they sign Brad Hand.  De facto closer Daniel Hudson stated his preference to not close, and likely, he was miscast from the start in that role. While I would wager Hand gets the save opportunities, get some Tanner Rainey in your life too. Should Hand falter, Rainey would be the guy, over Hudson.  At the very least Rainey will provide you with holds (he had 9 in 2020) and ratio help.

NL CENTRAL

Chicago: Manager David Ross has publicly stated that Craig Kimbrel will start the year as the Cub’s closer.  Kimbrel should be a target for you:  Rowan Wick will get holds and could also get first crack If Kimbrel’s command issues persist into 2021. Look at what Kimbrel did in September as highlighted in the chart.  He looked like his previously dominant self, and should start climbing up draft boards once people realize how he finished the year. Do not be surprised if his value pushes him into the top ten closers on draft boards in March.

Cincinnati: Amir Garrett is one of the best whiff generators in the game. He has an 83rd percentile expected whiff rate and has one of the highest In_Whiff values in the league. His In_Whiff is 97th percentile at 0.038 which means that not only does he have one of the highest xWhiff rates, he actually generates whiffs at about 4 percentage points than expected of one of the best of the league .  Even if he doesn’t close, he has tremendous value.

Lucas Sims’s repertoire is driven by impressive contact management (80th percentile) which is the least stable of all of our metrics.  He was also elite at getting takes within the zone with a 98th percentile IZ. This is a fairly stable skill and allows Sims to generate more Ks than his Whiffs would suggest.

This is what the Data Monster suggests to us.  But who gets the nod?  Again, here is the gut:  Garrett is lights out but could be used more in the fireman role while pitching multiple innings.  My lean here is Sims, although he did report some soreness upon reporting to camp.  Sean Doolittle lies in the weeds too.  The rotation battles will be interesting as well; where doe Michael Lorenzen and Tejay Antone land in all of this?  Keep the Tums nearby if you draft any of these guys.

Milwaukee: The double-headed monster of Josh Hader and Devin Williams will wreak havoc on the National League for years to come.  Invest in both with confidence. Regardless of roles, each will have significant value to fantasy teams.  I have both ranked in my top ten of relievers this year. Look closely below at the numbers for Williams’ changeup.  Sweet Jesus, give us some more of that:

Pittsburgh:  Richard Rodriguez.  And then move on.  Blake Cederlind is a name to keep in your notes if Rodriguez gets traded sooner or later.  Likely sooner.

St. Louis:  Here is a nightmare. Paul’s Data Monster take: Alex Reyes locates poorly for Whiff but well for wOBA. This makes me think his contact suppression skill could be for real.

Giovanny Gallegos is a more extreme version of Amir Garrett. He locates insanely well for whiffs (92nd percentile xWhiff) and also generates far more than expected (95th percentile In_Whiff).  The Data Monster tells us he is likely the most talented arm in this bullpen.  But we know that doesn’t mean he will close.

Gut take again: I think the Cardinals want Jordan Hicks to take this role.  Andrew Miller is also around to vulture saves and holds even as advancing age saps his once superior skill set. Hicks is getting drafted around pick 275, ahead of Gallego (288)  and Reyes (375). Hicks is a volatile mix of velocity (100 MPH) and poor command, walking over 10% of hitters in his short career.  Manager Mike Shildt repeatedly said last year that he would continue to mix and match based on the situation, making this a race too close to call…and one you may want to avoid based on the volatility.

NL WEST

Arizona: Thankfully the Dbacks got an experienced hand in Joakim Soria to help stabilize this mess.  Stefan Crichton wasn’t bad in 2021, but it took the team sending down Kevin Ginkel to get that opportunity. Soria will close, and Crichton and Ginkel will get holds. Until the Dbacks fall out of contention and trade Soria. Then it will go back to Crichton.

Colorado:  The return of Daniel Bard last year may have been one of the best stories of all of 2020. The Rockies should be a younger team this year in a very tough division, and Bard is fine if you are desperate for saves, but I worry that this Cinderella story meets regression, and maybe crashes back to earth. Scott Oberg is a name to know here, as is Mychal Givens, who is a flyball pitcher in a place in which you don’t want to give up flyballs. Avoid unless desperate for late saves.

Los Angeles:  Kenley Jansen.  The heat is on.  Brusdar Graterol awaits a chance.  Old hands Blake Treinen and Corey Knebel are here too.  Oh so is Victor Gonzalez.  This is an embarrassment of riches for this team. Treinen was second in the majors last year with 12 holds. I said last year that tales of Kenley’s demise were overblown. He remains difficult to square up despite his velocity drops and his continually a league leader in exit velocity.  Draft him with confidence, but more likely as your second closer if his value falls. See below.  There is still lots of blood red in this profile:

San Diego:  Mark Melancon was signed to close, friends.  I love Drew Pomeranz too.  But time and time again we are shown that teams with high playoff aspirations want a proven commodity in the closer’s seat.  They don’t come much more experienced than Melancon.  Look for Pomeranz and Emilio Pagan to pile up holds and excellent ratios.

San Francisco: Why?  Despair has set in.  Don’t do this to yourself. I don’t believe in much of what happens in this bullpen other than abject failure.  Reyes Moronta has the stuff to close, but is coming off injury and did not pitch in 2020. In reserve they have Tyler Rogers and Jarlin Garcia. Trevor Gott was mercifully designated for assignment last weekend.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Also, recall that manager Gabe Kapler uses bullpens in an odd fashion, and you may need an advanced degree to understand the method here.  Avoid. I uttered out loud the other day to my son, “Jack, who is going to close for the San Francisco Giants?”  And he responded, “Someone will, Dad.” I am guessing right now if it is not Moronta, it will be Jake McGee.

And he’s right about that for each team.  Thanks for giving us some context, Jack.  Someone will close for every team, and we will be here all season trying to help you stay abreast of what is happening, even in those late-night West Coast weekend games.