SSG Baseball – Top 10 Relief Pitchers for the 2020 Season

Welcome back to my series in which I am ranking the top 10 players in the SSG OOTP baseball league, position-by-position. So far we’ve ranked the top catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops. Today we’re shifting from the field to the mound, and we’ll be looking at the best relief pitchers.

Relievers are very volatile and hard to predict, so they are hard to rank and project for 2020. In the write-up for each player you’ll see some of the rationale I used. Age is certainly a factor as it is with any position, but a lot of great relievers are either failed starters or late bloomers. They also have a much smaller workload. Therefore a reliever over 30 is much less of a concern than a position player over 30. However, as you’ll see, there were a couple of pitchers who ranked higher due to their success at a young age so far.

10) AJ Ramos (33), SSG Dodgers 2019 – 63 games, 57.1 IP, 2.83 ERA (161 ERA+), 1.17 WHIP, 14.9 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 2.97 FIP, 2.2 RA9-WAR

There were a lot of players considered for the bottom few spots on this list. Ramos had a major edge because of his FIP. Appropriately, with the low FIP, his strikeout numbers were high and his home runs allowed were low (0.8 HR/9 in 2019, 0.9 HR/9 in career). He also had a career low in total walks allowed with 28. He didn’t have a high volume last year and the 57.1 IP was among the lowest in the top 10 players. However, with relievers volume isn’t so much of a concern; there are so many factors that go into how many times a manager will call a guy in from the pen. They include; the manager’s aggressiveness and loyalty to the “save” statistic (of his 63 appearances, 36 of them were save opportunities for Ramos in 2019), the team’s other good bullpen options (and the Dodgers have a lot of them), and the team’s performance. Health plays into a guy’s availability as well, of course, but Ramos had no time on the IL in the past two seasons and he still averaged only 66.2 IP in that time period. These reasons are why RA9-WAR was one of my main statistics of reference while ranking the best relievers, and Ramos’s was better than a lot of the guys that just missed the list.

9) John Cornely (31), SSG Phillies 2019 – 73 games, 69.1 IP, 2.86 ERA (162 ERA+), 0.91 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 3.58 FIP, 1.8 RA9-WAR

Cornely has definitely been a late-bloomer, as a lot of the top relievers are; 2018 was his first full season in the big leagues at age 29. Since he debuted in 2017 he’s got a 2.74 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. His strikeout numbers are relatively pedestrian compared to the top bullpen arms in the league (career 9.3 K/9) and he may walk a few more than his fair share (career 4.1 BB.9), but he doesn’t give up many hits or home runs (4.4 H/9 and 0.6 HR/9 in 2019). 

8) Kyle Crockett (28), SSG Braves 2019 – 66 games, 63.0 IP, 2.43 ERA (191 ERA+), 1.00 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.20 FIP, 1.8 RA9-WAR

As mentioned, late-bloomers and veterans will be a common occurrence on this list. Therefore, Crockett’s relative youth certainly gave him the edge over a lot of other guys in order to get him onto the list. He’s played in parts of 6 seasons since his debut at 22 in 2014, and he’s got a career 2.76 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, and 2.9 BB/9. Like Ramos, he has a lot of good company in his team’s bullpen which led to his lower volume in 2019, but Crockett has never spent a day on the IL. 2020 is his last year before he hits free agency (barring an extension from the Braves) and his durability and reliability should make him a valuable commodity on the open market. 

7) Stephen Kohlscheen (30), SSG Nationals 2019 – 98 games, 98.1 IP, 2.56 ERA (183 ERA+), 0.99 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 3.79 FIP, 2.9 RA9-WAR

After being cut by the Padres in 2018 and picked up by the Nationals on a minor league deal, Kohlscheen has found a home in D.C.. Last year, he broke out with a sub-1 WHIP, a good strikeout-walk ratio, and a lot of volume. He’ll be 31 on opening day, so his performance in 2020 will signal whether last season was blip on the radar.

6) Al Alburquerque (33), SSG Dodgers 2019 – 61 games, 50.1 IP, 2.32 ERA (196 ERA+), 0.83 WHIP, 12.9 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 2.55 FIP, 1.8 RA9-WAR

Alburquerque made the all-star team for the first time at age 31 in 2018, and he repeated the feat last season at age 32. He has posted ERAs below 2.40 in each of the past 3 seasons. In 2019 he had a career low WHIP and walk-rate (2.3 BB/9) as well. Because of an injury in July, he had a low total workload. However it was his first year with fewer than 67 IP since 2015, which was the last year before he broke out with a 2.1 WAR season in 2016. Between Alburquerque, Ramos, and Paco Rodriguez (who just missed the top 10) in the bullpen, the Dodgers will be hard to beat if they have a lead going into the late innings. 

5) Justin De Fratus (32), SSG Phillies, 2019 – 73 games, 69.0 IP, 1.96 ERA (236 ERA+), 0.97 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 3.08 FIP, 2.7 RA9-WAR

De Fratus is the start of the top tier of the rankings. The Phillies signed him to a 3 year contract prior to the 2018 season, and since then he has gone from decent yet reliable to superb. He set career bests in ERA, BB/9, ERA+, WHIP, and RA9-WAR. The Phillies have very few weaknesses and they will have a lot of strong arms in the bullpen as they go for a three-peat in 2020.

4) Mike Dunn (35), SSG Orioles, 2019 – 87 games, 62.0 IP, 1.60 ERA (292 ERA+), 1.05 WHIP, 12.5 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 3.11 FIP, 2.3 RA9-WAR

“I am not employing a defined closer this year, nor set up man and instead my best low stamina relievers are going to be late innings stoppers. Dunn will be the “7th and close game” specialist ([Aroldis] Chapman is “8th or later and lead” while Greg Holland will be “8th and close game”). This set up will, I believe, give us more wins – best relievers when the game is tight to help us grab a win we might otherwise not get is – for me – a better use of our best relief pitching resource than it is to bring in a set up and closer to help hold onto a lead. We have enough in the bullpen (Kline, Edwards, Brothers) to achieve that latter feat and I want to turn around our success in close games and Dunn will be a vital cog in that effort. This year we are planning a four man rotation with future starter Hunter Harvey as the bullpen ace to come in as the first reliever (we’ll pull starters earlier than most teams due to the four man rotation) and then in close contests Dunn and his fellow specialists will be vital.”
– Craig Jackson, SSG Orioles GM

Dunn’s age is the only thing working against him entering 2020. Despite his minuscule ERA, 2019 wasn’t even his best year so far; that happened in 2017 when he had a slightly higher ERA of 2.00, but he also had a 0.91 WHIP and 1.82 FIP. He’s not as flashy as his bullpen-mate Aroldis Chapman and he doesn’t have the name recognition, but Dunn has been far more consistent and reliable for Baltimore over his first two seasons with the club.

3) Keone Kela (27), SSG Rangers, 2019 – 57 games, 59.1 IP, 2.12 ERA (222 ERA+), 1.08 WHIP, 11.8 K.9, 2.1 BB/9, 3.30 FIP, 2.3 RA9-WAR

Kela was so inefficient in 2018 Texas kept him in the minor leagues most of the season. This was especially disappointing after his breakout All-Star campaign the year previous. He returned to form in 2019. 14 BB in 59.1 IP is absurdly low. 3.30 is also an excellent FIP considering his home ballpark. He’s the youngest player on this list, which helped him climb so high. He could take another big step forward and get all the way to the top of the rankings by season’s end.

2) Craig Kimbrel (32), SSG Nationals, 2019 – 56 games, 48.1 IP, 1.30 ERA (359 ERA+), 0.91 WHIP, 12.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.18 FIP, 2.5 RA9-WAR

Kimbrel pitched like one of the best relief pitchers ever between his 2010-2014 seasons for Atlanta. But while his numbers were good, they weren’t as stunning between 2015-2018. Last year he returned to form and put up some really amazing numbers for Washington. His ERA, WHIP, and FIP were his best since he was with the Braves. He has also improved his home run numbers and he gave up just 1 in all of 2019. He had a pretty low volume but that was mostly due to the Nationals having several other very good options. Those 2015-2018 seasons really hurt his stock, so 2020 will be an opportunity to show that he is still one of the best ever and that 2019 was not just a fluke.

1) Wade Davis (34), SSG Blue Jays, 2019 – 79 games, 74.2 IP, 2.77 ERA (170 ERA+), 0.83 WHIP, 12.5 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 2.18 FIP, 2.4 RA9-WAR

“Davis has been an absolute rock for us in the bullpen. He’s still throwing mid-to-upper 90’s, with 3 plus pitches, and fantastic command of all of his pitches. Going into a contract year he will certainly be looking to sustain his dominance. Our bullpen a little thinner than in past years, but the late inning quality relievers remain. With Davis, Jesus Mejia, and RJ Alvarez, we have 3 hard throwing relievers who can pitch in any situation. The rest of the pen falls in line from there and we will need CJ Edwards to continue to pitch well in a multi-inning role.”
– Jason Arnett, SSG Blue Jays GM

Davis has been an AL All-Star in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Relievers are usually very volatile so Davis’s consistency makes him a rare breed; he’s had 6 straight seasons with a WHIP of 1.01 or below. His 2.77 ERA last year was far-and-away his highest since he became a full-time reliever 2014 and his previous high was 2.11. And that 2.77 was probably due to a lot of bad luck, as his peripheral numbers show. He gave up only 0.4 HR per 9 innings as well and he plays half of his games at Toronto’s hitter-friendly park.

As you’ll see, the Nationals and Dodgers having two players each helped them move up considerably in the following team rankings. The Phillies held on to their top spot thanks to their two excellent bullpen arms as well. The SSG Rangers finally got onto the rankings for the first time, but their obviously still way behind the top 10.

  1.  SSG Phillies (#1 SS, #1 3B, #3 2B, #5 and #9 RP, #9 C)
  2.  SSG Nationals (#2 and #7 RP, #3 3B, 4 1B, #8 2B, #9 SS)
  3.  SSG Rockies (#2 2B, #2 SS, #6 1B, #8 3B)
  4.  SSG Tigers (#1 1B, #5 and #6 3B)
  5.  SSG Dodgers (#3 C, #4 SS, #6 and #10 RP)
  6.  SSG Blue Jays (#1 RP, #2 1B)
  7.  SSG Diamondbacks (#1 C, #4 2B)
  8.  SSG Mariners (#2 3B, #5 C, #10 2B)
  9.  SSG Red Sox (#4 3B, #6 SS, #7 C)
  10.  SSG Twins (#3 SS, #5 1B)

And once again, the  SSG Royals, Angels, Marlins, Brewers, Yankees, Athletics, and Rays are still without anyone in the rankings with just two weeks to go. Next week will be the top 20 starting pitchers, and the week after will be the top 30 outfielders. Thanks again for reading.

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