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2017's Top 10 Right Now: Relief pitchers

February 5, 2017

MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" series, looking at the best players at each position headed into 2017, will air two positions each Sunday night between January 15 and February 12. As each position is revealed,'s Mike Petriello, a participant in the show, will unveil his list along with

MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" series, looking at the best players at each position headed into 2017, will air two positions each Sunday night between January 15 and February 12. As each position is revealed,'s Mike Petriello, a participant in the show, will unveil his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and pitcher wins and saves never matter. We'll also include the rankings of "the Shredder," the MLB Network research department algorithm based on player performance that accounts for both offense and defense.
Position overview: Annually one of the most difficult positions to rank due to the ever-growing collection of dominant relievers, this group took on an added dimension in 2016 thanks to the emergence of late-inning relievers willing to break out of their usual "ninth inning" role to work in various situations. From this perspective, there's basically a four-way tie at the top, though we'll note that in a world where the best relievers aren't always at the end of the game, we did not account for saves at all -- they're a stat which does not matter. As always, your opinion of this list is largely going to be based on what team you're a fan of.
Previous lists: Shortstop | Second base | Third base | Left field | Starting pitcher
The list...
1. Andrew Miller, Indians (Shredder rank: 1)
Miller had only 12 saves, which ought to tell you why we're not accounting for that outdated statistic at all -- are we really going to demerit him for the willingness to pitch in whatever big spot his manager requests? Of course not. Instead, Miller's here because of pure dominance. Of 129 relievers with 50 innings in 2016, Miller's 44.7 strikeout rate was first. His 3.3 percent walk rate was second-lowest. His .159 average against was fifth-lowest. All three numbers were better than the Baltimore reliever you're looking for here. Throw in his ability to be effective over multiple innings in any situation, and this was an easier call than expected.
Gif: Andrew Miller yell
2. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers (Shredder rank: 4)
Jansen has been one of the most elite relievers in baseball from the moment he arrived in 2010, yet 2016 was somehow his best season yet. His 41.1 percent strikeout rate was the third-highest and his best since 2011, but he also managed to cut his walk rate by a full two-thirds since then. If you like average against, well, Jansen's .147 against was the lowest among relievers. Of the 129 pitchers we mentioned above, literally no one throws more pitches in the zone than Jansen does. That's him saying "I have one pitch, here it is, try and hit it, you can't," and he did his best Miller impression by getting 7 outs in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS.

3. Albertin Chapman, Yankees (Shredder rank: 2)
It probably says a lot about Chapman that his 40.5 percent strikeout rate was both "the fifth-highest" and "his lowest since 2011." It came, however, with a career-low 8.1 percent walk rate. He remains baseball's preeminent flamethrower, accounting for 37.9 percent of all 100-mph-plus pitches last year by himself, and remember that he missed the first month of the season serving a suspension, and he's still only turning 29 in February. At his best, he might be the most unhittable pitcher in the game, and no one allowed less contact on pitches in the strike zone

4. Zach Britton, Orioles (Shredder rank: 3)
We get it. Britton had a 0.54 ERA. He didn't blow a save all season long, for what little that matters. His heavy sinking fastball might be the most difficult pitch to square up in the game. He's a truly elite pitcher, and it wasn't his fault that he didn't get the same postseason chance Miller, Jansen, and Chapman did. So why is he fourth? It's partially because, as we said, the top four are somewhat interchangeable. It's partially because ERA always is tilted towards ground-ball pitchers (for example, Britton allowed three runs to the Padres in June, but none were earned because the 102 mph smash that Ryan Flaherty couldn't handle was ruled an error, not a hit).

But ultimately, it's mostly about what sort of reliever you prefer. In this list-maker's opinion, the ability to miss bats is the most important, since batted balls can find holes or turn into misplays that can score crucial runs in big spots. Miller, Jansen, and Chapman were all top five in strikeout percentage. Britton was 24th, tied with Luke Gregerson, and third on his own team. In a position this talented, it comes down to personal preference. Britton is fantastic, but he doesn't pile up whiffs the way the others above him do. Your opinion, obviously, may vary.
5. Dellin Betances, Yankees (Shredder rank: 8)
No reliever had fewer swings at pitches in the zone than Betances did, so in addition to a deadly curve thrown more than any other reliever and 97-98 mph heat on the fastball, he picks up easy called strikes because hitters don't know what's coming. Betances had a rough September which limits his overall stat line, but his 42.1 percent strikeout rate was second only to Miller's, and it was his third straight year of 70+ games of utter filth. Yes, this means the Yankees had three of baseball's five best relievers from May through July in 2016.
Gif: Dellin Betances curveball
6. Cody Allen, Indians
Perhaps the most underrated reliever around, Allen's presence in the ninth allowed Miller to roam as needed earlier in games. Over the last four years, his strikeout rate is equal to Wade Davis, as his fastball has elite spin rate and his curveball is thrown with more velocity than most. Every year, he strikes out about one-third of the hitters he faces, well above the Major League average, and he added 24 more whiffs in 13 2/3 scoreless postseason innings for Cleveland in 2016. He never gets the credit he should, but he's No. 6 on this list.
7. Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox
For years, Kimbrel was all but guaranteed a Top-3 spot, but while his first year in Boston still generated a ton of strikeouts, piling up a 37.7 percent whiff rate, it also came with a career-high 13.6 walk rate. That's 5.1 per nine if you prefer that, and he had some high-profile moments where John Farrell actually had to pull him due to control issues. The strikeout total shows the talent is still there, and it's fair to note that Kimbrel's year was interrupted by knee surgery, so it'll be interesting to see if he can throw more strikes in 2017.
8. Kelvin Herrera, Royals
Perhaps lost in the shuffle in Kansas City with Greg Holland and Davis ahead of him, Herrera is likely the 2017 Royals closer, and maybe now he'll get the recognition he deserves. Herrera ditched his sinker in favor of more curves in 2016, and the results were spectacular, as his strikeout rate jumped from 20.7 percent (2014) to 22.4 (2015) to 30.7 (2016) -- and he cut his walk rate in half as well. That's 86 strikeouts, and 12 walks. That's not fair.
Gif: Kelvin Herrera strikeout
9. Seunghwan Oh, Cardinals (Shredder rank: 7)
Oh's first season in America was a smashing success, as he took over the closing job from Trevor Rosenthal and ended up with a 103/18 strikeout/walk ratio in 79 2/3 innings. When we noted above that Chapman had baseball's lowest percentage of contact on pitches in the zone, Oh was a close second, and his slider (.167 against) quickly became an elite pitch. Oh will be 35 in July, so his time on this list may be limited, but he was so, so good.

10. Edwin Diaz, Mariners
Diaz has 51 2/3 career Major League innings under his belt and hasn't yet turned 23, so it's indeed risky to jump him above of some of the more established names that didn't make it on, but it was also hard to ignore how big of a splash he made in 2016. With 88 strikeouts in those 51 2/3 innings, his 40.6 percent whiff rate was the equal of Chapman's, and he had a slightly lower walk rate, too. He's not a big name yet, but he was that good, thanks in part to a slider that allowed only a .131 average against.
Gif: Edwin Diaz says "Wow"
Just missed (in no order):Davis, Cubs (Shredder rank: 5) ; Alex Colome, Rays; Mark Melancon, Giants (Shredder rank: 6); Ken Giles; Astros; Jeurys Familia, Mets (Shredder rank: 9); Shawn Kelley, Nationals; Chris Devenski, Astros; Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays; Hector Rondon, Cubs 
You could probably make a top 10 list out of just these guys and have it be pretty impressive, which tells you a lot about how many good relievers there are. Davis was once a mainstay of these lists and may be again, but there's enough uncertainty over his diminished strikeout rate and arm health to keep him just off the list. For Familia, it's a different kind of uncertainty, that over his availability pending a likely suspension. 
Devenski is the best reliever you don't know, but his teammate Giles bounced back from a rough April to whiff 88 in 57 1/3 innings after May 1. Melancon, meanwhile, got a lot of attention for being a free agent and getting a big contract from the Giants, though his more contact-heavy approach is less dominant. If Colome (1.91 ERA, 71 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings) played for a bigger-name team or didn't miss time with arm concerns of his own, he'd be a star.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.