Who will be this year's bullpen X-factor? Here are 12 contenders

August 30th, 2022

Every year it seems like there’s a pitcher who takes over the postseason from the bullpen. In 2016, Cleveland bulldozed its way into the World Series behind Andrew Miller’s dominant left arm. Two years later, Nathan Eovaldi etched his name into Red Sox lore by throwing six innings of relief in Boston’s 18-inning thriller against the Dodgers in the World Series. And who can forget Julio Urías’ dominant run for the Dodgers in 2020 that ended with him igniting Los Angeles’ championship celebration.

The postseason bullpen hype reached a fever pitch last season, when starters threw only 46% of postseason innings -- an all-time low. And while it’s anyone’s guess if that trend continues this fall, we identified a bullpen X-factor for every team that’s in position to make the postseason.

Note: All stats are through Sunday’s games.

Yankees: Scott Effross
Stats: 1-4, 2.75 ERA, 1.07 WHIP in 52 1/3 innings

The Yankees’ stellar bullpen ERA (3.00, second in MLB) is even more impressive considering the uncertainty that’s come with it. When Aroldis Chapman struggled at the start of the season, unheralded relievers Michael King and Clay Holmes morphed into one of the best back-end duos in baseball. But with King suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in late July, the Yankees’ front office wasted no time snatching Effross from the Cubs. Even though the right-hander is currently on the injured list with a shoulder strain, all signs point to him being healthy for the postseason.

A soft-throwing sidearmer, Effross limits hard contact (93rd percentile or above in chase rate, expected slugging, barrel rate and expected ERA) and has been lights-out against left-handed batters (.121 batting average). Those two things could make him the perfect matchup arm this postseason.

Rays: Pete Fairbanks
Stats: 0-0, 1.98 ERA, 0.80 WHIP in 13 2/3 innings

Trying to pick just one X-factor for the Rays’ dynamic bullpen is no easy task. For this exercise, we’ll focus on Fairbanks, who has been nearly unhittable since returning from the injured list on July 17.

Fairbanks recorded a save or hold in nine of his first 14 appearances this season, a testament to the faith manager Kevin Cash has in the right-hander. And that faith is well-deserved, as Fairbanks’ electric fastball (which averages 98.9 mph and has limited hitters to a .188 batting average) and dominant slider (.200 batting average) have baffled batters this season. Cash enters the postseason with an embarrassment of riches at his disposal in his bullpen, which also boasts three other pitches with closer-type stuff in Jason Adam (1.22 ERA, seven saves), Brooks Raley (2.27 ERA, six saves) and Colin Poche (3.00 ERA, seven saves).

Blue Jays: Nate Pearson
Stats in 2021: 1-1, 4.20 ERA, 1.73 WHIP in 15 innings

Despite having pitched only 15 innings in the Majors last year and sitting out the start of this season due to mononucleosis and a lat strain, Pearson could still be a piece of Toronto’s bullpen puzzle. On Aug. 24, Pearson threw his second bullpen session at the Blue Jays’ development complex in Florida and could soon face hitters.

While it’s no guarantee that he'll make it back in time for the playoffs -- or that the Blue Jays would carry him on the postseason roster -- Pearson pitching out of the bullpen is a tantalizing thought. That’s especially true when you consider it might allow him to put a little extra on his fastball, which already averages 97.8 mph. With Yusei Kikuchi struggling in his move to the bullpen, Toronto could have an open spot in its ‘pen come October.

Guardians: James Karinchak
Stats: 1-0, 1.23 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 22 IP

Since returning from the injured list in early July, Karinchak has not allowed a home run, has the second-most strikeouts (40) among relievers and is third in strikeout rate. Not bad for a guy who was demoted to Triple-A at this time last year.

After starting 2021 on a tear, Karinchak lost his feel as the season went on, recording a 7.88 ERA in the second half that was complete with a demotion. That all looks like a distant memory now, as Karinchak boasts a fastball that has saved seven runs compared to an average fastball and a looping curveball that looks like it came out of a cartoon.

Karinchak’s return to form has lined up with a period of dominance from his fellow Cleveland relievers, as he, Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan and Nick Sandlin have a combined 1.38 ERA across 73 innings since July 4. With an offense that doesn’t have an abundance of power, chances are the Guardians’ potential postseason run would feature plenty of close games. Karinchak is part of a back-inning tetrad that looks ready for the challenge.

Astros: Rafael Montero
Stats: 4-2, 2.68 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in 53 2/3 innings

Montero has looked like a new pitcher since being acquired by Houston at the Trade Deadline in 2021, after posting a 7.27 ERA in 40 appearances with the Mariners in the first half. The right-hander has become one of manager Dusty Baker’s go-to relievers in 2022, in a bullpen stocked with plus arms.

The biggest difference for Montero this year has been his fastball. Not only are hitters batting nearly 70 points worse off the pitch compared to last year, but he’s also throwing it more than ever (46.2% usage, up from 35.4%), which has led to the pitch becoming more effective. Combine that with a more effective sinker (.246 opponents’ average) and Montero looks like a completely different pitcher from the one in Seattle. With regular closer Ryan Pressly on the injured list with neck spasms, Montero should get a bulk of the Astros’ save opportunities, which could set him up for postseason success.

Mariners: Andrés Muñoz
Stats: 2-5, 2.94 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in 52 IP

The Mariners’ 3-1 win over the Guardians last Thursday was an encapsulation of the success Muñoz has had this season. With Seattle clinging to a two-run lead in the eighth inning and AL MVP candidate José Ramírez at the plate, Seattle manager Scott Servais went to the 23-year-old right-hander.

Muñoz responded by striking out Ramírez with a 91 mph slider at the knees -- another example of how he has become one of the best high-leverage relievers in the game. The stats back up Muñoz’s dominance, as he ranks in the 98th percentile or above in expected batting average, strikeout rate, chase rate and whiff rate. There’s a good chance the Mariners end their postseason drought this year, and a Wild Card Series at Cleveland is one potential matchup. As we saw last week, it’s a challenge for which Muñoz appears ready.

Mets: Drew Smith
Stats: 2-3, 3.51 ERA, 1.15 WHIP in 41 innings

Outside of Edwin Díaz, Adam Ottavino and Seth Lugo, the Mets’ bullpen is still a work in progress. Luckily for manager Buck Showalter, reinforcements could soon be on the way, with Smith being the biggest. After a nearly unhittable start to the season (four hits in his first 13 1/3 innings), he posted a 4.68 ERA from May 19-July 25 before landing on the IL with a lat strain.

While Smith allows one of the game’s highest hard-hit rates, he has the ability to miss bats, which is something the Mets’ bullpen is sorely missing. Prior to the injury, Smith averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings, which would be the third-highest mark among members of the current Mets bullpen, trailing only Díaz (17.4) and Ottavino (10.6).

Braves: Kirby Yates
Stats: 0-0, 9.00 ERA, 2.25 WHIP in four innings

What a journey back it’s been for Yates. After not pitching for 724 days (a span that included three teams and a second Tommy John surgery), Yates made his return to a big league mound on Aug. 10. It’s a sight that Braves fans could end up seeing a lot this postseason, as Yates now has a month to ramp up ahead of October. Yates, who led MLB with 41 saves in 2019, missed almost all of 2020 after having bone spurs removed from his right elbow. After signing a one-year pact with the Blue Jays in January 2021, he had Tommy John surgery that March, which cost him the entire season.

Although Yates might not be the same pitcher he was in 2019, he has an established track record, and manager Brian Snitker should feel comfortable relying on him to get a big out. And as Snitker and the Braves learned last postseason, a good, flexible bullpen can be the deciding factor in winning a World Series.

Phillies: Brad Hand
Stats: 3-1, 1.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in 38 2/3 innings

The Phillies’ bullpen is currently in the middle of a battle of attrition, after losing initial closer Corey Knebel to a season-ending shoulder injury and then new closer Seranthony Domínguez to triceps soreness.

With Knebel and Domínguez out, Hand has picked up the slack. A former closer with San Diego, Cleveland and Washington, he’s thrown four innings without giving up an earned run since Domínguez was sidelined. Though Hand probably won’t be the closer come October, the three-time All-Star could end up being vital in a Swiss Army knife role. Between Hand and David Roberston, manager Rob Thomson will enter October with two closer-type pitchers available for the middle innings.

Cardinals: Steven Matz
Stats: 4-3, 5.70 ERA, 1.31 WHIP in 42 2/3 innings

While this year hasn’t gone as planned for Matz, there’s still a chance for him to impact the Cardinals down the stretch run -- just not in the way most expected. After suffering a left knee strain in late July, Matz is close to returning to the Cardinals, who are planning to bring him back as a reliever.

With Jack Flaherty returning to the rotation soon and Trade Deadline acquisitions José Quintana and Jordan Montgomery pitching well, Matz is the odd man out, which could end up helping St. Louis in the short term. With a strikeout rate that ranks in the 80th percentile in MLB, a walk rate that’s even better (91st percentile) and an average of 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, Matz has the stuff to make a difference in the postseason.

Dodgers: Tommy Kahnle
Stats: 0-0, 6.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in four innings

Kahnle’s return to the Dodgers’ bullpen could be around the corner, after the 33-year-old right-hander made the move from the club’s Arizona complex to Triple-A Oklahoma City on Aug. 24. His rehab assignment at Triple-A should last for at least two weeks before a return to Los Angeles.

The addition of a healthy Kahnle (combined with the impending return of fellow injured reliever Blake Treinen) would be a huge boon for the Dodgers’ bullpen. That's not to say that Kahnle is a sure thing. He only pitched four innings before landing on the IL in May due to right forearm inflammation, and that’s after he missed all of last season while rehabbing from his 2020 Tommy John surgery. When Kahnle was on the mound this year, his fastball clocked in at 95.3 mph, a couple ticks under his pre-surgery velocity of 97.4. Though it might not be wise for manager Dave Roberts to bet on Kahnle for a ton of innings in the postseason, his presence would give the Dodgers another battle-tested arm to deploy in a big spot.

Padres: Adrian Morejon
Stats: 3-0, 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in 21 innings

When the Padres dealt for Josh Hader at the Trade Deadline, it looked as if general manager A.J. Preller added the final, dominant piece to his bullpen puzzle. That hasn’t been the case, as Hader -- 12 runs allowed in 4 2/3 innings with San Diego -- has been “given a break” from closer duties. That said, the Padres’ bullpen hasn’t missed a beat, due in part to the its depth.

Once a top prospect, Morejon is a key part of that depth in what has become a breakout season for the 23-year-old lefty. Along with a top-tier 97 mph fastball (96th percentile in fastball spin), Morejon also boasts a plus slider that plays against batters on both sides of the plate.