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May 21, 2014

The Lineup Card

10 Dominant Early-Season Relievers

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Dellin Betances, Yankees
I’m a sucker for extremes in most cases. I like overt and obvious skews that are ridiculous on the surface and only get more ridiculous the deeper you dig. I like Dellin Betances because he is utterly ridiculous. The stat line is cut from the Brad Lidge/Carlos Marmol mold. Betances is currently striking out 44.7 percent of the batters he's facing, and he’s got more strikeouts this year than Chris Archer, Ricky Nolasco, and Phil Hughes. He’s a touch under Scott Kazmir on the strikeout leaderboards as well. Betances is obvious in a way that is simplistic. He’s a reliever, so he works with a hard fastball and a good breaking ball. The breaking ball has come a long way since he was on his way to bust-dom. Betances’ skillset is easy to appreciate. It’s cheating, but he’s my favorite early-season reliever performer. —Mauricio Rubio

2. Fernando Abad, Athletics
Few teams have enjoyed a better return on investment in the bullpen the past few seasons than the Athletics. Their latest find is Abad, a 28-year-old southpaw who was acquired over the winter. The lefty entered the season with a career 4.56 ERA in more than 120 big-league appearances, due in part to his tendency to yield the long ball. Yet Abad has not allowed an extra-base hit this season thus far, and leads all relievers (min. 15 appearances) in OPS against. Considering the Athletics traded Jerry Blevins (to Abad's former team, no less), they have to be thrilled with the production they've received from their new second lefty. —R.J. Anderson

3. Joakim Soria, Rangers
Every once in a while, I open up Google Maps and through the magic of StreetView, I electronically walk around places where I used to live. My old neighborhood in Chicago? Ah the memories! The places in Cleveland where my wife and I used to walk around and chatter—back before the kids came along and we could randomly go for walks and chatter—are just a mouse click away. Sure, like everything else that's on the internet, the real thing is always better (what?) but once in a while it's nice to fool part of my brain into thinking that it's 2007 and that I still live near Wrigley Field. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Here's 43 things that people who didn't live through 1995 wouldn't understand. You're looking for a way to click on that sentence, aren't you?

And so when I see that Joakim Soria is back to being one of the best relievers in baseball with a FIP under 1.00 and something near a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, I get that same special feeling. Soria, who was so dominant and so under-appreciated during his days in Kansas City (hi there, Greg Holland!) was like the little indie band that I felt self-righteously smug for knowing about, even though my friends didn't. But after 2011, he took ill and in 2013 had to play second fiddle to Joe Nathan. But undaunted, he is once again back to being an exceptional reliever and he's even earning saves again—once again on a team that's below .500. Between small sample sizes and luck indicators, Soria can't possibly sustain this level of performance throughout the year, but he's back to being the guy that everyone knew that he was, but never bothered to acknowledge. Just like he was in 2007. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Jean Machi, Giants
Twelve National League pitchers had at least five wins on the season when play began on Tuesday night. Only one of them was a reliever. That would be Machi, who picked up his fifth way back on May 5.

The two-week win drought for Machi should come as no surprise; after all, even the most opportunistic wins vultures run out of opportunities to snatch Ws away from deserving teammates. But Machi, who finally earned a promotion to the majors in 2012 after spending parts of 10 seasons in the minors, has found plenty of other ways to contribute.

The portly 32-year-old has only been scored upon in one of his 21 appearances to date, leaving his ERA at a shiny 0.42. He's given Giants manager Bruce Bochy a third strong right-handed option in the bullpen, alongside closer Sergio Romo and setup man Santiago Casilla, thanks to a dominant splitter that few hitters have thus far been able to solve. Not bad for a pitcher who bounced around five organizations and didn't make his major-league debut until after his 30th birthday. —Daniel Rathman

5. Tony Sipp, Astros
Here’s something fun I learned about FIP: It can be negative. Through Monday, we have Astros lefty Tony Sipp’s season FIP at -0.09. Baseball-Reference/FanGraphs FIP weighs in at -0.23, and either way, striking out 11 of 20 batters faced with no walks will do that. Also, Sipp rhymes with FIP. This probably means something.

And of all pitchers to put FIP into the red, it’s Sipp, left in Arizona’s lost-and-found box bin in 2013 due to lack of command. He was picked up by San Diego in spring training and promptly released, then given another chance by Houston, because why not he’s left-handed. Although Sipp, a 45th-round pick, is a different breed: He has never adhered to the platoon split theory, and it’s gone even more extreme in 2014. So far he has struck out eight of the nine righties he’s faced.

If you’re curious, there have been two other pitchers in MLB history to finish a season with a negative FIP, per B-Ref, minimum five IP: Francisco Rodriguez in 2002 (-0.04) and John Grabow in 2003 (-0.57). —Matt Sussman

6. Tony Watson, Pirates
Versus lefties and versus righties, Tony Watson is doing it all for the Pirates and, more importantly, for the fan of excellent reliever performances in me. Watson's four-seam fastball is back after a two-year hiatus, and while he should probably keep the pitch in his pocket against lefties, the 95-mph cheese has helped make the lefty nearly as effective against righties as he is against lefties. For those wondering, that is a very good thing. On top of that, the 2014 version of Tony Watson has a 51 percent ground-ball rate, 27 strikeouts (to 28 total bases allowed), and four walks over his first 20 1/3 innings pitched. —Jeff Quinton

7. Kirby Yates, Rays
He has allowed one run in 19 innings pitched as the closer for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. This is not a fluke. Yates had a 1.90 ERA (and 1.97 FIP) last season in 61 2/3 innings in Durham, sharing closer duties with Josh Lueke. Last year, Yates dramatically lowered his historically high walk rate while continuing to strike out batters at a high clip. He doesn’t throw that hard for a closer, about 92-94 miles per hour, but he has a deceptive delivery (“like he’s using a Q-tip, “one of his teammates said) that springs his release point upon hitters and gives his fastball late life. He throws a good slider and is hashing it out with a changeup he started to throw last year. His overall command isn’t perfect, but the movement on his pitches mitigates that to a degree.

Yates was added to the Rays’ 40-man during the off-season. The hated Lueke, who is essentially blocking Yates in the bigs, has pitched poorly this year. Tampa Bay may be holding onto Lueke merely because he’s out of options (they’ve been reluctant in the Friedman era to risk losing guys to waivers, as though loath to acknowledge mistakes). They may simply be keeping their finger hovering over the start button on Yates’s major-league service clock. Maybe they’re not sold on his fastball command. Whatever the case, Yates’s results have been pretty hard to deny, and the Rays’ bullpen has been leaky. By swapping out Yates for Lueke, they could kill two birds (an Oriole and a Blue Jay, maybe?) with one stone—one bird performance-based, the other moral.

Whether DFAing a ballplayer should have anything to do with his supposed character is a topic for another Lineup Card. —Adam Sobsey

8. Sean Doolittle, Athletics
It's shooting fish in the barrel to note that, just a few months after Billy Beane uncharacteristically spent big to get a Proven Closer, his team has turned to unProven Sean Doolittle to lock down games. But it's more fair to note that, when Jim Johnson uncharacteristically unproved himself, Beane characteristically had a bunch of good relievers (including Doolittle) to step in. Doolittle's real good, but he's especially fun because he made it this far into the season without walking a batter: 28 Ks, no ball fours through Monday's game. Naturally, he walked a batter Tuesday; he also struck out two, so he made it 30 strikeouts before his first walk. How's that rank, historically? Well, as it happens, pretty high! Assuming I'm searching history correctly, Doolittle matched the second-longest stretch to start a season, and matched the longest as a reliever. In 1990, Dennis Eckersley made it 30, and in 2004 Billy Wagner made it 30. The longest start is by Adam Wainwright—35—and for now, that's safe, as safe as the A's ninth-inning leads should be. —Sam Miller

9. Wade Davis, Royals
I’ll admit, I was one of those who thought Wade Davis would work as a starter with KC. He didn’t. At all. They scraped that idea entirely this year and kept him in the pen from the start and he’s been even better than his full season there with TB in 2012. His fastball, cutter, and curve are all working brilliantly this year en route to a 45 percent strikeout rate—baseball’s best mark. He’s been so unhittable that his 11.3 percent walk rate hasn’t even matter. While they would most definitely have preferred even a league average 160-inning season from him, a star turn out of the bullpen will help KC win round two of the Shields-Myers trade. He’ll need to maintain that strikeout rate and then some to win the deal by himself in 2015-17 if Shields doesn’t resign. —Paul Sporer

10. Dan Otero, Athletics
I’m as bewitched by a sky-scraping strikeout rate as anyone, and even though Mauricio took Betances, there are many more major-league bullpen bat-missers I could have chosen to salute: starter-in-disguise Will Smith, the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez, high-wire Chris Withrow. In the minors, there’s Mets righty Akeel Morris, who’s recorded a 0.66 ERA in 67 2/3 innings since the start of last season (striking out 96), or Diamondbacks Double-A arm Jimmie Sherfy, who touches 98 and has fanned 30 of the 72 batters he’s faced this season.

But guys who can blow away everyone in a one-inning outing are increasingly common. What we don’t often see are relievers who excel without strikeouts and can deliver length as well as one-out appearances in high-leverage spots. That list begins (and almost ends) with Oakland’s Dan Otero, who’s struck out only 12.8 percent of opposing batters this season—the lowest rate of any reliever with at least 20 innings pitched, save for the Twins’ Anthony Swarzak, who has a 5.48 ERA.

Otero’s ERA is 1.65, and he leads all relievers with 27 1/3 innings pitched. Six of his 20 appearances have lasted at least two innings, and he went 3 2/3 on Saturday, when Scott Kazmir’s early ejection left the A’s in need of outs, yet he still has the team’s third-highest average Leverage Index. His OPS allowed with the platoon advantage last season was the same as it was without it: .613. And he’s done all of this despite sitting at 91.5 mph with his four-seamer and sinker. No, he’s not a southpaw.

Since Oakland selected him off waivers last March—as R.J. mentioned in the Fernando Abad blurb above, Billy Beane has been on a bit of a roll lately, reliever-wise—Otero has recorded a 1.54 ERA in 64 1/3 big-league innings (not to mention his 0.99 ERA in 27 1/3 frames for Sacramento). He has great control, and he gets groundballs for a team that’s allowed the league’s lowest BABIP on grounders (.184!). And no, that’s still not going to be enough to sustain a sub-2.00 ERA, which is hard enough for even Craig Kimbrel to do.

Even if he does regress to his low-3.00s FIP, though, I’ll be indebted to Otero, and not just because he’s carried my Effectively Wild Reliever League team. He and Burke Badenhop have helped break up the season’s strikeout-monster monotony and reminded us not only that the democratic approach still has its successful supporters, but that there’s more to life than matchups. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Relievers,  Relief Pitching

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