“A closer is when preparation meets opportunity.”
OK, so that’s not the popular phrase. But like luck, being a closer does require one to be in the right place at the right time. If talent is the biggest factor in becoming a closer, opportunity is a close second.
In that vein, the way we in the fantasy community try to find the next crop of closers is to look at the best of the rest. Sometimes all a superstar setup man needs to become a superstar closer is a chance. See: Yates, Kirby.
Even if they don’t all become closers -- this year or in the future -- Josh Hader proved that high-usage, high-leverage relievers can provide fantasy value without earning saves. In deeper mixed leagues and -only leagues, relievers who can boost ratios while racking up strikeouts usually find their way onto rosters.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the next men up among the relief community.
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The Rays sure know how to pick ‘em. After coming over from the Athletics this past winter in the three-team trade that sent Jurickson Profar from the Rangers to the A’s, Pagan has been spectacular as part of a bullpen that’s been at the core of the Rays’ vault to the top of the American League East standings. The right-hander is, per Statcast, literally not allowing hitters to barrel up the baseball -- a 0.0 percent barrel rate -- while striking out 37.5 percent of batters faced. His success seems to be due at least in part to a more even pitch mix than last year, with Pagan upping his slider usage to nearly 42 percent while decreasing his four-seam fastball frequency to 53.4 percent, keeping hitters off balance and generating swings and misses on both. That success has led the Rays to use him to save three games, but manager Kevin Cash has seemed more interested in letting Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado finish games, using Pagan in high-leverage spots prior to the ninth inning. With a 0.82 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and 30/5 K/BB ratio in 22 innings thus far, Pagan would rank among the best closers in the league if he had the saves to be in the conversation. As it is, he’s an elite non-closer who’s still worthy of a fantasy roster spot.
Perhaps Anderson’s inclusion in this list should be under a “File away for later” subhead, but he’s shown such flashes that it’s worth mentioning how potentially good he could be. First, the bad: the rookie has a 4.56 ERA and 1.32 WHIP that are both earned, by virtue of walking too many batters and giving up way too much way-too-hard contact when hitters do put bat to ball. The good, or at least intriguing, then, is that he doesn’t often give his opponents the chance to hurt him, striking out more than 41 percent of batters he sees. His 95-mph fastball is actually his downfall, too often the reason he’s being hurt -- all four of his home runs allowed in his 25 2/3 innings of work this year have come off his fastball -- but it’s the curve (slider?) that he throws more than 47 percent of the time that’s the real story. He’s given up just five hits, all singles, when throwing the pitch, and he’s gotten more third strikes with the pitch (24) than balls put in play (19). If he can figure out how to spot the fastball, the 28-year-old has a real shot to be the next great closer. As it is, he’s just a guy worth knowing, and dreaming on.
The Twins perhaps wish they could have this one back. The Minnesota club, shaping up to be a contender this year, was not one last summer, and they traded Pressly to the Astros at the trade deadline. Upon joining the Astros, the 30-year-old struck out 32 with a 0.77 ERA and 0.60 WHIP in his final 23 1/3 innings last season, and he’s picked up this year where he left off, with a 0.93 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and 32/4 K/BB ratio across 29 innings of work. Of course, he shares a bullpen with Roberto Osuna, so Pressly has been kept in a setup role despite his strong work, and unless something befalls Osuna it appears things will remain that way. The change seems to have come from his reduced reliance on the fastball and an increased willingness to throw any pitch in any count, as usage of all three of his fastball, curve and slider is between 26 percent and 38 percent. Adding to his appeal as a fantasy commodity is the fact that he’s on one of the best teams in baseball, meaning one break and he could be in line to lead the league in save chances. The good news is, even without the saves, Pressly has the goods to provide value even as a non-closer.
The Yankees have approached building a winning baseball team as building a winning bullpen, and amid more recognizable names like Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, it’s Kahnle who’s been the real star this year. The 29-year-old does his best work with his changeup, which plays off his 96-mph fastball and has helped him strike out 36.5 percent of batters faced. Like with Anderson’s curve, Kahnle’s change has led to more strikeouts than balls in play, with the change responsible for 25 strikeouts and just 21 balls put into play. When they do put it in play, opposing hitters are batting just .111/.131/.178 against the changeup. As mentioned, the line ahead of him is long -- even Dellin Betances, who has been out all year due to injury, might be ahead of Kahnle in the pecking order when healthy -- but like with Pressly, given the opportunity Kahnle would certainly become a household name in short order. It probably should be anyway for fantasy players.
Garrett showed some promise but flamed out hard in his first go-round in the majors. That was as a starter, but as a reliever he’s found much more success in the Reds’ bullpen. The southpaw has posted a 1.69 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 39/12 K/BB ratio in 26 2/3 innings of work thus far, part of a group of Cincinnati relievers that has shown promise this year. The key to his turnaround has been his freedom to throw his breaking ball more -- to the point that he’s thrown his slider nearly 54 percent of the time, more than his two fastballs combined. The ability to lean on such a dominant pitch wasn’t an option as a starter, but in short bursts as a reliever he’s able to throw it without those same concerns for familiarity and longevity. And it’s not just situational success, either -- Garrett is being asked to retire right-handed hitters as well, and he’s done so, keeping them to a .200/.321/.333 line in 45 at-bats, as compared to a .220/.291/.280 line in 50 at-bats against lefties. Raisel Iglesias is locked in as the Reds’ closer, but with the team not contending the possibility always exists that they could trade the established closer, despite his new, team-friendly deal, and find a cheaper alternative to save games. That scenario would likely find Garrett closing, but regardless of where things go moving forward, the 27-year-old has been stellar enough to justify rostering anyway.