Who will rule the 9th inning this season?

March 31st, 2022

Mark Melancon led the Majors in saves last season with 39, but history isn't exactly on his side as he looks to repeat the feat.

MLB officially adopted the save as a statistic in 1969. Since that season, only two pitchers have led the Majors (or tied for the MLB lead) in saves in consecutive years: Rollie Fingers in 1977-78 and Jim Johnson in 2012-13.

Given the unpredictable nature of big league bullpens, picking the saves king is a bit more difficult than, say, determining the home run champion, but we asked five MLB.com writers to give it a shot. Here’s who they picked.

Liam Hendriks, White Sox
2021 save total: 38

The first year of Hendriks’ $54 million deal with the White Sox couldn’t have gone much better -- he won the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award for the second straight season. Across 2020-21, the hard-throwing Australian posted an absurd 15.0 K/BB ratio -- 150 strikeouts, 10 walks -- with a 2.34 ERA and a 0.72 WHIP in 96 1/3 innings. Nobody recorded more saves than Hendriks’ 52 in that span. With the White Sox set up to contend for another AL Central title, he should have ample opportunities to close out Chicago victories again in 2022.
-- Thomas Harrigan

Ryan Pressly, Astros
2021 save total: 26

I expect the Astros to rule the AL West once again -- perhaps more comfortably than before -- which should mean plenty of opportunities for Pressly. The 33-year-old spin artist didn't show any signs of slowing down last year (2.25 ERA, 2.06 FIP, 0.97 WHIP); he still misses bats (94th percentile among MLB pitchers in K%), is still stingy with free passes (92nd percentile in BB%) and still minimizes the biggest damage (71st percentile in opponents' barrel rate). Hendriks and Josh Hader are the only full-time relievers to post a lower ERA than Pressly's 2.48 since the start of 2018, and Pressly is the clear-cut closer for a club with unfinished business.
-- Matt Kelly

Edwin Díaz, Mets
2021 save total: 32

A lot of this simply comes down to: which teams do you expect to be good? I’m not sure yet if I’m picking the Braves or Mets to win the division, but I certainly expect the Queens squad to be competitive. Díaz is definitively the guy in the ninth for the Mets, so this felt like a likely enough choice. Since joining the Mets in 2019, Díaz has a 38.3% strikeout rate, fourth-best among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched in that span. The pitchers he trails? Hader (45.9%), Hendriks (39.9%) and Aroldis Chapman (39.0%) -- this is the echelon he is in, in terms of setting batters down.
-- Sarah Langs

Josh Hader, Brewers
2021 save total: 34

The title of MLB’s Best Reliever belongs to either Hendriks or Hader, and since the former was picked first, taking the latter here is an easy call. The 27-year-old is coming off arguably his best season yet, one in which he introduced an effective changeup to his ferocious heater/slider combo while posting a career-best 1.23 ERA to go with his usual hilariously low 0.84 WHIP and preposterously high 15.6 K/9. The flamethrowing lefty also showed he could solve his issues with the long ball: After allowing 15 homers in 75 2/3 innings in 2019, he cut it down to just three in 58 2/3 frames last year. Add in that the Brewers have made it a point to use Hader almost exclusively in the ninth inning (i.e., save opportunities) and that Milwaukee should compete for the NL Central crown again, this is as a no-brainer.
-- Jason Catania

Camilo Doval, Giants
2021 save total: 3

Doval looked great when he took over as the Giants' ace reliever down the stretch -- he allowed zero runs over the final month and had 20 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings on their way to 107 wins. And he did that as a 23-year-old rookie. This kid has all the stuff -- a fastball that averaged 98.6 mph with a 2,574 rpm spin rate and a wipeout high-80s slider that got swings and misses more than 40% of the time and generated 31 of his 37 total K's. San Francisco also has submariner Tyler Rogers and lefty flamethrower Jake McGee, but it's Doval who deserves to be the closer for the defending NL West champs.
-- David Adler