So much about how closers are used today makes no sense. It's insane that managers won't use their best reliever in a four run game in the ninth, but will in a three run game just because it qualifies as a save opportunity. It makes even less sense that a manager will save their best reliever for the ninth inning, even if it's the bottom of the line up coming up, as opposed to using them in the eighth inning to face the best hitters. Despite this mishandling of relievers they have become more important than ever in today's era.
Due to all the off days in the postseason schedule playoff baseball has become a different game than the regular season. Managers can rest their hard throwing relievers so are able to use them more often and shorten nine inning games. This is part of the strategy the Royals have used to win back to back pennants, it's what the Yankees tried to do entering this season, and it's why the Cubs just gave up so much for Aroldis Chapman. As we take a look at the best relievers in the game it comes as no surprise that they all play for teams above .500 and in playoff contention.
Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox, Age: 28
Entering the season he likely would have ranked top three on this list but is having an uncharacteristic season so far by his standards. He has been great during save opportunities with a 1.45 ERA and 27 strikeouts to 3 walks in 18.2 innings in those situations. However, in non save situations he has a ridiculous 6.28 ERA due to walking 12 hitters in those 14.1 innings. This has caused his WHIP to rise for the fourth consecutive season. Still just 28 years old Kimbrel has too impressive of a track record to not be mentioned in this conversation.
5. Wade Davis, Royals, Age: 30
In 2014 Wade Davis finished eighth in the American League Cy Young voting and wasn't even the Royals' closer. That season in his first year as a full time reliever he went 9-2 with a 1.00 ERA and 109 strikeouts in just 72 innings pitched. If we look at his numbers since the beginning of that year, which include his time as Kansas City's closer, he has a 1.09 ERA with a 11.4 K/9 rate. A very important stat for relievers is how few home runs they give up, since a long ball can blow a lead on one swing of the bat. Since the beginning of 2014 Davis has given up a league leading 0.16 HR/9 innings. For comparison Yankees legend Mariano Rivera averaged four homers allowed during his 16 years as a closer. Over the past two and a half years Davis has given up a total of just three.
4. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers, Age: 28
Jansen has been so efficient now for so long that he often gets overlooked during the discussion of best closers in the game. He is the type of guy who most everyone will have in their top five but few will have as their number one. This season he has been his usual great self with a 30.9 K-BB%, which currently ranks fourth among relievers. His 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings ranks fourth all time yet somehow he became an all star for the first time this season. Hitters are currently hitting just .154 off him, which ranks sixth among relievers. He has saved 25 games every year since 2012 and his BB/9 have improved each of the past three seasons, which makes him a strong candidate to continue pitching well as his velocity diminishes later in his career.
3. Andrew Miller, Yankees, Age: 31
Everything you need to know about Andrew Miller is that he is the only pitcher to get batters to swing at more pitches outside of the strike zone than inside. Similar to Davis, Miller began his career as a starter but struggled and became a dominant relief pitcher instead. Since his breakout 2014 season Miller is second among relievers in strikeouts per nine innings. In 2016 he has struck out 44.8% of the batters he has faced, which ranks second in baseball and is nearly six percent higher than the pitcher who ranks third. Strikeouts are even more valuable when combined with an elite walk rate. Miller's ranking on this list is due to the fact that this year he ranks first among all relievers in strikeout to walk ratio.
2. Aroldis Chapman, Cubs, Age: 28
Strikeouts matter for pitchers no matter how you can get them. But there is something to be said for a closer coming in to protect a lead who can throw the ball faster than any human has ever been able to do so. In the era of power bullpen arms Chapman reigns as the best of them all. His 15.2 career strikeouts per nine innings is the best of all time. Combine this with reasonable control (currently 30th among relievers in BB/9) and it means he has the chance to go down as one of the best closers the game has ever seen. He has shown no signs of slowing down either. On July 18, 2016 he tied the all time mark for the fastest pitch ever thrown at 105.1 mph, a record he set himself back in 2011.
1. Zach Britton, Orioles, Age: 28
This may come off as controversial but when you take a closer look at the numbers it absolutely shouldn't. We have discussed the importance of closers registering strikeouts and keeping the ball in the ballpark. Perhaps the most important stat to look at for relievers is how often they keep the ball on the ground. When a ground ball is hit it cannot leave the park. It most likely only results in a single if it gets through the infield. This means it takes multiple hits to beat an extreme ground ball pitcher, which is the kind of arm I want saving a one run game for my team.
Nobody in baseball is better at getting ground balls than Zach Britton, who in 2016 does so at a 79.2% rate, which is one of the best of all time. This year batters are hitting just .149 off him, which is third best in the league, and he has allowed just one home run. He has done this while still averaging over a strikeout per inning and ranks top 20 in K-BB%. Britton currently has a 0.63 ERA. He was built to protect one run leads, which makes him the best closer in the game right now.