Bullpen report: Robert Stephenson’s dominance, Jonathan Loáisiga’s quietly excellent return and more


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With just over one month of the regular season remaining, teams with postseason aspirations underwent changes in their leverage ladders, though one was because of an injury. Amidst a breakout season, Félix Bautista departed a save chance after throwing a pitch with two outs in the top of the ninth and landed on the 15-day injured-list with a UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) issue. There’s been no timeline for a return shared, nor specifics on the severity of the injury, but it created a ripple effect in roles for the Orioles.

Texas shifted roles in its “arm barn,” demoting Will M. Smith from the primary save share with mixed results. Varying levels of performance in recent contests, along with some frustrating losses during a nine-game road trip, resulted in six blown saves, by five different relievers, while the team clings to the last Wild Card spot in the American League.

Last, but not least, Miami removed David Robertson from the “closer” role. Since his arrival, he owns a 1.73 WHIP through 11 appearances with an 11:6 K:BB, four losses and four saves in seven opportunities. More changes may lie ahead across the fantasy landscape, though saves as a statistic have been more concentrated this season, than the past three “full” seasons (2020 not included). In games played through August 30, here’s an updated chart displaying league wide trends for saves:

Not reflected in the chart? There are four relievers with 29 saves (David Bednar; Carlos Estévez; Kenley Jansen; Ryan Pressly) and two with 28 (Josh Hader; Paul Sewald). If these six relievers reach 30 saves, it will represent the highest amount (12) in this timeframe. There are also two more with at least 25, plus a couple of “closers” on teams pushing for the playoffs who could reach 30 with a strong finish, though their chances remain tethered with their team’s results.

As the introduction indicates, bullpen hierarchies rarely remain static, not only do the relievers listed in our high-leverage pathways change, team concept pathways towards them also must adapt . Our updated rating system uses one of these three descriptors, along with identifying the relievers in the mix for save chances:

  • Mostly Linear: A more traditional approach, with a manager preferring one reliever in the seventh inning, another in the eighth and a closer (when rested) in the ninth. There’s shades of gray. For instance, if the Yankees face a team with their best pocket of right-handed hitters lining up for the eighth inning, Clay Holmes may be called upon, since it represents the highest-leveraged moment in the contest.
  • Primary Save Share: Team prefers one reliever as the primary option for saves, but he may also be used in match-ups based situations, whether dictated by batter handedness or batting order pockets in the late innings, which provides more than one reliever save chances each series or week throughout the season.
  • Shared Saves: Usually two relievers split save opportunities, sometimes based on handedness or rest or recent usage patterns keeping them fresh. While these situations usually rely on a primary and ancillary option, others can get into the mix. One reliever may eventually emerge, so this can be fluid.

Those in leagues that use SOLDS (saves plus holds) or holds as a separate category should target relievers in the stopper/HLR (highest leveraged reliever) or “stealth” labels on teams with winning records on stream favorable match-ups on a weekly basis.

For daily coverage of bullpens, check out my work at Reliever Recon.

American League High-Leverage Pathways

 As our chart indicates, the Orioles placed Yennier Cano atop their bullpen hierarchy, but it’s with a caveat. He did record a save since Bautista was sidelined. However, during a recent victory, he was warming up for the top of the eighth, during a tied game matching up with the top of his opponents’ lineup, which could signal he’s the primary save share, with HLR (highest-leveraged reliever) tendencies. There may be contests where he faces the toughest pocket of a batting order, not exclusively reserved for save situations in the ninth inning. Plan accordingly.

Expounding on the Rangers struggles in high-leverage events, only five teams own a worse save percentage this season. Texas has only converted 26 of their 52 save chances this season compared with a league average of 63 percent. This season, the team owns an 11-19 (.367) record in one-run contests and a 2-7 mark in extra-inning games. If they miss postseason, these results will be contributing factors. It appears Aroldis Chapman will remain the primary save share, but he’s suffered two blown saves and a loss over his last five outings. This leverage ladder remains unstable from a fantasy perspective, so tread lightly if mining saves from these relievers.

Including games played on August 30, here’s the updated saves and SOLDS trends for American League teams:

National League High-Leverage Pathways

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Beginning with the newly aligned leverage ladder in Miami, Tanner Scott assumes the top spot, representing his team’s primary save share moving forward, though the lack of a reliable right-handed option may be a factor in the late-innings.

With its postseason hopes fading, San Diego may regret its results in close contests, especially with zero wins in 11 extra-inning games this season and a 6-22 (.214) record in one-run games despite having a reliever with 28 saves. Rostering a top tier closer does not ensure success, a strong leverage ladder getting to him remains a foundation for late-inning success.

Including games played through August 30, here’s the updated saves and SOLDS trends for the National League:

Relievers on the Rise

  1. Tanner Scott (MIA): Buoyed by his new role with the Marlins, he’s been scoreless through 10 appearances in August with two wins, a save and three holds while posting a 13:2 K:BB (28.2 K-BB percentage).
  2. Yennier Cano (BAL): While saddened by the Bautista news, one cannot ignore the fact Baltimore provides a bevy of save opportunities, tied for first in the majors (68 through its first 133 games). This puts Cano in line for a strong finish as the primary save share. Through 13 outings in August, he recorded a 12:1 K:BB (23.9 K-BB%) with a 0.67 WHIP over 12 innings.
  3. Robert Stephenson (TBR): He leads all qualified relievers in swinging strike percentage (28.8 percent), allows the least amount of contact 46.7 percent) in the second-half and makes for a sneaky add in SOLDS formats with a growing leverage role for the Rays, recording a hold in each of his last three appearances.
  4. Adbert Alzolay (CHC): Speaking of the second-half, he leads all relievers with 15 saves since the All-Star break, including 10 in August with an 11:3 K:BB during 14 outings. It may be a longshot, but he could reach 30 saves with a strong September despite recording his first save this season on May sixth.
  5. Kyle Finnegan (WSH): Proving a team’s record may not tell the whole story for save totals, he ranks second in the second-half with 14 saves. His hold on the primary save share may be challenged if his recent WHIP trends continue. For now, enjoy the volume with eyes on the underlying statistics.

“Closer” Concerns

  1. Clay Holmes (NYY): It’s a small sample size, but the splits by half by the Yankees highest-leverage reliever provide stark differences. During the first-half, he owned a 4-2 record with 10 saves in 12 chances, five holds, a 47:15 K:BB (21.6 K-BB percentage), 1.10 WHIP and .524 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) over 36.1 innings. Since the All-Star break, he’s suffered two losses, converting six of seven save opportunities with an 11:4 K:BB (10.6 K-BB percentage), 1.83 WHIP and .919 OPS through 13.2 innings. He’s ramped up his sinker use, yielding more contact, which has not benefited his results:
  2. Paul Sewald (ARI): No fantasy managers will complain about his recent surge in saves, racking up seven in his last nine appearances for the Diamondbacks. However, he’s struggled at times with his command, issuing six walks in these contests of 42 batters faced (14.3 walk percentage) fueling a 1.72 WHIP in his last 8.2 innings.
  3. Carlos Hernández (KCR): Beginning with his save environment, which ranks last in the majors, the Royals have only produced 39 save opportunities through 135 games this season. Hope lied in the relievers’ arsenal making him the primary save share after the trade deadline, but his sparse chances and usage patterns have only resulted in two saves in August, with a price. During 11 outings in August, he owns a 1-3 record with the two saves and two holds, while suffering two blown saves. He’s also entered a game in the eighth inning in three of his last six contests. Biggest concerns, his 1.93 WHIP through his last 9.1 innings with a 10:7 K:BB (6.7 K-BB percentage) and a 73.2 contact rate allowed resulting in three shutdowns versus five meltdowns, less than optimal.

Saves Stash List

  1. Jonathan Loáisiga (NYY): Since returning from the injured-list, he’s turned in eight scoreless appearances, over 8.2 innings with four strikeouts against zero walks (13.8 K-BB percentage) and a minuscule 0.23 WHIP. He will suffer some migration towards the mean, and one would prefer a better strikeout percentage, but hope lies in his slider (22.7 swinging strike rate in August) being used more in September.
  2. José Alvarado (PHI): After forging a save-share earlier this season, two stints on the injured-list opened the door for Craig Kimbrel, leaving Alvarado in a set-up capacity since returning in August. However, the pendulum may be shifting, though the southpaw may not pitch on consecutive days often down the stretch. Monitor the usage patterns in this bullpen closely as the Phillies chase down a postseason berth.
  3. DL Hall (BAL): Noting Cano may be the HLR, not a traditional closer in the reconstructed Orioles bullpen, Hall could accrue an ancillary save or two in his team’s last 29 games this season. Fueled by a velocity spike as a reliever, if he’s throwing strikes in high-leverage events, he could be a sneaky stash in deeper formats.
  4. Hunter Harvey (WSH): Although he represents more of an ancillary option, he’s only allowed one earned run in his last 8.1 innings back from the injured-list with eight strikeouts against one walk. If Finnegan struggles, or needs a day off, Harvey could fill-in or retake his lost primary save share.

Ancillary Save Relievers of Interest

Ratio Erasers

**In an effort at making these relievers reflective of a process, any reliever listed has recorded a Strike percentage of 67 percent or better, a swinging strike rate of above 14 percent, a contact rate allowed percent below 70 and a K-BB percentage of 20 percent or higher in the second-half, while not being his team’s primary save share, with the caveat of having more shutdowns than meltdowns:

  • Robert Stephenson (TBR): 71.2 Strike%; 28.8 SwStr%; 46.7 Contact%; 40 K-BB%
  • Fernando Cruz (CIN): 67.6 Strike%; 22 SwStr%; 59.9 Contact%; 30.6 K-BB%
  • Joe Jiménez (ATL): 69 Strike%; 20 SwStr%; 63.2 Contact%; 29.9 K-BB%
  • Julian Merryweather (CHC): 71 Strike%; 15.2 SwStr%; 69.1 Contact%; 28.9 K-BB%
  • Pierce Johnson (ATL): 69.2 Strike%; 16.1 SwStr%; 68.1 Contact%; 25.7 K-BB%

The Good Stuff

2023 High-Leverage Ladders

Tiered Rankings for Relievers

Top photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images; Statistical Credits: FanGraphs.comBaseball-Reference.comBaseballSavant.com, BrooksBaseball.net

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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