MLB Power Rankings: 30 Best Relief Pitchers in Baseball Today

Eitan Katz@@EitanKatzAnalyst IIJune 21, 2011

MLB Power Rankings: 30 Best Relief Pitchers in Baseball Today

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    With many Major League teams only 10 games away from the halfway point of the season, I decided that ranking the best relievers in the game would be a fun exercise.

    I say relief pitchers, because I decided to not only include closers. We all know that closers, at least for half of the MLB, change every year. So I took a look at the best set up guys in the MLB as well, including some guys who are making a case to be the closer for their respective teams.

    A few last notes:

    1) This is not a compilation of the 30 relief pitchers I would most want on my team. It is a list of the 30 best relief pitchers so far this season. So if you are a terrific pitcher having a not-so-good year (Joakim Soria and Jonathan Papelbon, you may be excused), you will not be on this list.

    2) I limited this to pitchers who have thrown at least 26 innings pitched, so that we don't have to deal with guys who have 10 perfect innings etc.

    3) It is very hard to judge a closer against a set-up man. I made the executive decision to rank (out of two equal relievers) closers as more important. To keep it as fair as possible, I switched off.

    *All stats through June 19th

    Enjoy, and don't forget to tell me what you think! I'm sure you will all have a lot to say, especially you Boston fans!

30. Ramon Ramirez, San Francisco Giants

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    Similar to when he started off his rookie year with 27 IP and only three ER, Ramirez likes to come out of the gate firing.

    He's got very good stuff, and has been a pretty consistent reliever over his career. He has been absolutely phenomenal in San Fran the last year, combining for 57 IP and a mere seven ER.

    If I thought he could keep up this pace he would obviously be higher on this list, but he certainly deserves a mention.

    Important Stats 2011: 30 IP, 1 HR, 27 SO, 1.50 ERA, .202 BAA (2-0, 0 BS)


    BAA= Batting Average Against, BS= Blown Save

30. Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Salas would have been much higher on this list if he hadn't imploded in the last couple of weeks. So far in June, he has allowed six earned runs in only nine innings and, on top of that, he has two blown saves.

    Not good.

    Luckily for Salas, he was so good in the first two months of the season that he still sneaked onto the board. I'm going to venture a guess and say he won't be here if I ever write a part two to this thing.

    Important Stats 2011: 33 IP, 34:9 K:BB, .198 BAA (4-1, 12 saves)

28. Tony Sipp, Cleveland Indians

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    The lefty from Mississippi has been terrific this season. Sipp has been one of the keys to the Indians bullpen and, in turn, the Indians' hot start.

    Although the .151 BAA is super attractive, the four HR are holding him back.

    Sipp has been downright filthy against lefties this year, and should remain a more than viable option for Cleveland down the road.

    Important Stats 2011: .079 BAA facing lefties, 31 IP, 16 H (3-0, 0 BS, 13 Holds)

27. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Axford has been awesome for Milwaukee this year. Finally, they have solved the post-Trevor Hoffman closer carousel.

    Not only has Axford been striking out batters at an exceptional rate, he also looks scarily similar to the dude in "The Killing."

    After an awful first appearance this season (.2 IP, 4 ER), John has shut the door to the tune of only six ER in his last 31.2 IP.


    Important Stats 2011: 32.1 IP, 1 HR, 44 SO (2-1, 19 SV, 2 BS)

26. David Robertson, New York Yankees

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    Robertson could easily be in the top 10 of this list if it weren't for two things:

    1) 20 BBs in only 29.1 IP

    2) 1.40 WHIP (obviously Nos. 1 and 2 are closely related, but they are both outrageously high)

    He has been a strikeout king, and has yet to let up a home run. With Joba Chamberlain going down with yet another injury, Robertson has been brilliant as his replacement.

    Important Stats 2011: 29.1 IP, 47 SO, 1.23 ERA, .193 BAA (1-0, 2 BS, 13 Holds)

25. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers

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    Valverde has been stellar the last four years, and this year was no different.

    With veteran savvy, a canon arm, and a knack for making the big strikeout, Valverde has been terrific this year despite two alarming statistics: 16 BBs in 30 IP, and an awful 1.53 WHIP against lefties.

    As you would expect from Valverde, he is among the league leaders in saves, and will continue to keep Detroit alive in the ultra-competitive AL Central.

    Important Stats 2011: 30 IP, 31 SO, .187 BAA, 0 ER in June (2-2, 16 SV, 0 BS)

24. Rafael Perez, Cleveland Indians

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    With only six holds, Perez hasn't been nearly as valuable as most of the other guys on this list. But, the numbers are there, and it isn't his fault that Cleveland's bullpen has been bulletproof.

    The one big fault I see is the lack of strikeouts—only 15 in 28 IP, but nobody is perfect.

    Except for Eric Gagne circa 2003, but he was on roids, so I guess that tells you something.

    Important Stats 2011: 28.1 IP, 1.27 ERA, 0 HR (2-1, 1 BS)

23. Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants

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    "The Beard" doesn't belong much higher on this list, because his numbers suggest that he is maybe getting a little lucky.

    He has a 1.41 WHIP, and a 33:19 K:BB, yet he somehow only has a 2.53 ERA, and a superb 5-1 record.

    Something's got to give.

    It is possible that Wilson's ability to keep the ball in the park is also what is keeping him afloat, but a 1.41 WHIP is much too high. He has got to pitch with better control.

    Important Stats 2011: 32 IP, 20 SV (tied for league lead), 2 BS

22. Mark Melancon, Houston Astros

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    Somehow, someway, Melancon has been successful in Houston. If Houston was a better team, Mark would probably be higher on this list, but their pathetic excuse of an offense has kept his holds and saves down.

    He has good control, he keeps the ball in the park and he is great on the road (1.02 ERA).

    Unfortunately, his numbers do suggest a slight bump in ERA and, if Houston continues to be terrible (which it will), Melancon will soon find his name off the list.

    Important Stats 2011: 33.1 IP, 1 HR, 1.62 ERA (4-1, 6 SV, 2 BS, 3 Holds)

21. Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Madson has finally put things together. After struggling for years in the closer role, Madson has found a way to translate his success as a set-up man into a lights-out finisher.

    The one nitpick with him is that he walks too many right-handers (8 BBs in 13.1 IP).

    Still, I would like to see Madson do it for a little more than three months before I push him forward on this list.

    Important Stats: 31 IP, 1 HR, 2.03 ERA, 34:11 K:BB (3-1, 15 SV, 1 BS, 2 Holds)

20. Aaron Crow, Kansas City Royals

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    The 12th pick of the 2009 MLB draft has found his way to the Major Leagues.

    And boy, is he making an impression.

    With a sick slider and a sinking fastball, Crow is making himself very comfortable. Besides for the two BS, and 16 BBs, Crow has been dynamite. Kansas City has itself a gem.

    Important Stats 2011: 33.2 IP, 22 H, 34 SO, .188 BAA (2-0, 2 BS, 7 Holds)

19. Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians

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    Perez's numbers are strikingly similar to Brian Wilson's. He walks a bunch of guys, but he keeps the ball in the park.

    The biggest difference is that Wilson goes for strikeout, and Perez is better at not allowing hits. If we are talking about closers, I will take the guy who doesn't allow base runners over the guy with the power arm all day.

    Just look at Trevor Hoffman.

    Important Stats 2011: 26.1 IP, 0 HR, .194 BAA (2-2, 17 SV, 1 BS)

18. Eduardo Sanchez, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Prior to going on the DL, Sanchez had thrown 9.2 scoreless innings.

    Although he walks too many people, he is extremely consistent, holding lefties to .162 BA and righties to a .143 BA.

    Did I mention that he only lets up a hit once every two innings?

    Yeah, this guy's having himself a year. Now all he has to do is get back on the field.

    Important Stats 2011: 28.2 IP, 14 H, 1 HR, 1.88 ERA, .151 BAA (2-1 5 SV, 2 BS, 7 Holds)

17. Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels

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    Armed with a great last name, Walden has been a lockdown presence in L.A. this season.

    Even though he walks too many guys (this seems to be a theme with this list) and he had a brutal May, he has settled down nicely in June: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 10 SO.


    Important Stats 2011: 30.1 IP, 0 HR (0-1, 16 SV, 3 BS, 2 Holds)

16. Logan Ondrusek, Cincinnati Reds

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    The 6'8" rookie from Texas is starting to find his way in only his second season in the MLB.

    Already Cincinnati's set-up man, Ondrusek has a very bright future ahead of him. I haven't researched this lately, but he might be the tallest closer ever if he ever gets the chance.

    What a monster.

    Important Stats 2011: 35.2 IP, .197 BAA (.170 against lefties)—(3-2, 2 BS, 8 Holds)

15. Heath Bell, San Diego Padres

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    However unfair it is, I am giving Bell some slack here because he is right in the middle of every trade rumor this season. It is obviously affecting his performance.

    But let's look at some facts. He has only blown four saves in his last 100 games. Righties have a miniscule .123 BAA facing him. He is on one of the worst teams in baseball.

    Still, I understand if you don't think he deserves this spot.

    Just know this: Like Adrian Gonzalez before him, Bell will leave San Diego and do extremely well in a big market, finally earning some recognition.

    Important Stats 2011: 29 IP, 0 HR, .210 BAA (2-3, 18 SV, 1 BS)

14. Eric O'Flaherty, Atlanta Braves

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    The lefty from Walla Walla, Washington has been filthy this year.

    His 1.38 ERA is only the beginning. He has one walk in 11 innings against lefties, and has a 30:9 K:BB.

    Over the last three years, O'Flaherty has been getting better and better. Now, he has finally arrived. 

    Good for him.

    Important Stats 2011: 32.2 IP, 1 HR (1-2, 2 BS, 13 Holds)

13. J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    At first glance, Putz's numbers don't look so special.

    Then you realize his numbers on the road are unstoppable: 12 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 11 SO, 11 SV, .105 BAA.


    That's the problem though—Putz plays half of his games at home. Ugh. Too bad, he could have easily been top 10.

    Important Stats: 30 IP, 22 H, 29:6 K:BB, 2 HR, .202 BAA (1-1, 18 SV, 3 BS)

12. Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians

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    I can't believe how well represented the Indians are in this list. What a fantastic bullpen.

    Even though he is merely a set-up man, Pestano has been Cleveland's star in relief. With extremely similar numbers to O'Flaherty, Pestano barely beat him out for the No. 6 set-up man spot.

    Barely making the cut (only 26 IP), Pestano made up for it by producing 36 SO, and a godly .148 BAA.

    He's a star.

    Important Stats: 4 ER (1.38 ERA), 2 HR, 34:10 K:BB (1-0, 2 BS, 9 Holds)

11. Drew Storen, Washington Nationals

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    He doesn't actually pitch underhand.

    In fact, the 10th pick of the 2009 MLB draft has been dominant against both lefties and righties. Not only is he consistent against both sides of the plate, his numbers are almost identical at home and on the road.

    Storen is going to be very good for a long time. Washington, after years and years, has finally found their closer.

    Important Stats: 37.1 IP, 29:12 K:BB, .182 BAA (4-2, 17 SV, 2 BS, 3 Holds)

10. David Pauley, Seattle Mariners

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    Pauley has been sensational this season.

    With his numbers, you may be surprised how he fell to No. 10. Well, just wait until you see the next few guys...

    Important Stats 2011: 40.1 IP, 1.12 ERA, 0 HR, .179 BAA (.138 for lefties)—(4-0, 5 Holds)

9. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

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    The small right is trying to buck the trend. With most closers being big, strong heat-throwers, Craig figured he would start the trend of the 5'11", 180-pound fire-thrower.

    Kimbrel was nearly perfect after last season's call up: 20.2 IP, 1 ER, 40 SO.

    Yes, you did read that correctly.

    This year, despite a few more runs given up, Kimbrel has continued to bring the heat like it's nobody's business. He does have trouble against righties, though.

    Important Stats 2011: 36 IP, 1 HR, 55 SO, .214 BAA (2-2, 19 SV, 5 BS)

8. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals

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    I bet the Yankees wish they hadn't traded this stud.

    In the last three years, very quietly, Clippard has become one of the most explosive set-up men in baseball. This year, it all came out.

    Just look at this: 41.2 IP, 23 H, 53 SO.

    Oh goodness. Hide the children.

    Clippard is just exterminating people. If you are a lefty? Have fun—30:5 K:BB against lefties.

    Better luck next time.

    Important Stats 2011: 53:15 K:BB, .165 BAA (3 BS, 19 Holds—nine in his last nine appearances)

7. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

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    The relief pitching has been so good this season that Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, probably the best any of us will ever see, is No. 7!

    As usual, Rivera is putting up video game numbers.

    His 20:4 K:BB is almost as gorgeous as his 18 scoreless innings streak he has going at home. As usual, he saves his best for the best: Against Texas this season, the team that knocked the Yankees out of contention last postseason and one of the best offenses in the majors, Rivera has 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 5 SO, 3 SV.


    Important Stats 2011: 27.1 IP, 1 HR, 1.98 ERA (1-1, 17 SV, 3 BS)

6. Antonio Bastardo, Philadelphia Phillies

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    They weren't good enough?

    The Phillies got really lucky with this one. I don't think anyone saw it coming. He has hit the magic age of 26, when most players start to "blossom," so this isn't totally random. But it basically is.

    Bastardo has been a nobody his whole career.

    Now he's pitching like Billy Wagner! I'll let the numbers do the talking, because honestly, when I saw these numbers my jaw dropped.

    Important Stats 2011: 27 IP, 11 H, 3 ER (1.00 ERA), 32:12 K:BB, .124 BAA (3-0, 2 SV, 0 BS, 7 Holds)


5. Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds

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    Let's take a look at something:

    2007 numbers—spectacular. 2008 numbers—solid but unspectacular. 2009 numbers—spectacular. 2010 numbers—solid but unspectacular.

    I bet you can guess how he has been doing this season.

    Cordero has been totally lights out.

    At home he is 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA and .150 BAA. I expect some changes with his overall numbers, but it is actually possible that he stays on pace for a career year at the young age of 36. Impressive.

    Important Stats 2011: 33.1 IP, 18 H, .157 BAA (3-1, 15 SV, 2 BS)

4. Mike Adams, San Diego Padres

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    They say he has a bionic arm.

    Hard to argue with them. Look at his ERAs from the last three seasons (including this year):

    1.39, 1.76, .073

    You might as well not bat against him. You aren't scoring either way.

    Important Stats 2011: 32.1 IP, 17 H, 34:4 K:BB, .150 BAA (2-1, 1 SV, 1 BS)

    I thought he would for sure be the number one set-up man, but you will understand why he's number two in a minute.

3. Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Before you turn off your computer and go punch a wall, please just hear me out.

    I thought he was terrible too. I've watched him give up home run after home run every year. He has a 4.27 career ERA. He stinks.

    But magically, he has turned into a total beast.

    Just look at the numbers for a second.

    Important Stats 2011: 26.2 IP, 18 H, 1 HR, 18:2 K:BB, 1.69 ERA (2-1, 15 SV, 1 BS)

    That 18-2 K:BB is definitely the single most surprising statistic of 2011.

2. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    You are probably wondering why there are two closers in a row. Well, when you look at No. 1, you will understand.

    Until then, let's take a look at the unexpected, yet strangely understandable season of the immortal Joel Hanrahan.

    Listen, I have no idea how he is doing it either. It makes no sense. Yet, you look at his 2009 numbers (31.1 IP, 0 HR, 1.72 ERA), and at least it is possible. Unlike Farnsworth, who is probably taking elephant steroids or something.

    Important Stats 2011: 32.1 IP, 1 HR, 29:7 K:BB, 1.39 ERA, .99 WHIP, .216 BAA (0-1, 19 SV)

    Again, this doesn't mean that I would take these guys over Rivera, or even Papelbon, it just means that right now they deserve these spots. They earned it.

    Anyway, we are finally here. The top spot. Are you as excited as I am? Probably not.

    Without further ado, your number one relief pitcher so far this season.

1. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves

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    Don't even ask.

    Just look:

    45.1 IP, 23 H, 3 ER, 0 HR, 13 BB, 49 SO, .60 ERA, .79 WHIP, .153 BAA (4-0, 3 SV, 1 BS, 15 Holds)

    I'm just putting this out there. I expect one of you guys to rip me apart and bring some proof, and I look forward to it. Has anyone in the modern era had as dominant a start as Venters?

    Not possible, right?

    No HR is fantastic, but obviously doable. Three ER is damn impressive.

    I don't know, you guys tell me. I can't imagine someone was ever this perfect through 45 innings.


    Let me know what you find! Thanks for reading!