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Player Showdowns: Relievers

by NBC Sports EDGE Staff
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Often in the midst of your draft, you’ll find yourself deciding between a couple players at the same position. With Player Showdowns, we take two players who are closely ranked by Average Draft Position (ADP) and/or Rotoworld’s 2015 season projections and have writers take a side and debate who should be selected first. Whose side will you be on?

 

Greg Holland vs. Craig Kimbrel

 

Holland

 

Kimbrel was the unquestioned No. 1 fantasy closer a couple years ago following his historic 2012 campaign. The Braves’ ninth-inning man is still undoubtedly elite, it’s just that he now has some company atop the fantasy closer mountain. Holland is one of those stoppers who is right there with Kimbrel. In fact, his numbers over the last two seasons are ever so slightly better than Kimbrel’s, as Holland holds a slender edge in ERA (1.32 to 1.40), FIP (1.59 to 1.88), WHIP (0.889 to 0.894) and K/BB (5.08 to 4.2). Kimbrel is a little younger than Holland, as he’ll turn 27 in May while Holland turned 29 in November. However, Holland certainly isn’t near an age where we might be worried about a decline in performance. So what’s the tiebreaker here for two guys who look pretty identical on paper? Simple: Holland is on the better team. The Braves are headed for a rebuilding year, while the Royals will be looking to return to the postseason after last year’s run to the American League pennant. With a questionable offense, good pitching and defense, Kansas City again looks poised to play in a bunch of close games, putting Holland in line for a bevy of save chances. Saves are fluky, which means Kimbrel could still wind up with more save opportunities than Holland even though the latter looks like the better bet on paper. That said, you might as well play the odds. – Ryan Boyer (@RyanPBoyer)

 

Kimbrel

 

This one is pretty close statistically, so I’m guessing that Boyer’s argument is going to center around Holland having a better team. More team wins provide more save opportunities and all of that jazz. But look at the American League saves leaders over the past two seasons: in 2014 it was Fernando Rodney of the third-place Seattle Mariners and in 2013 it was Jim Johnson of the third-place Baltimore Orioles. Both teams missed the playoffs. Now, to somewhat unfairly swing this debate back around to my guy, look at the National League saves leaders over the past four seasons: Kimbrel, Kimbrel, Kimbrel, Kimbrel. The hard-throwing Braves stopper owns a dazzling 1.43 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 14.8 K/9 in 289 innings since breaking into the major leagues in 2010 and he doesn’t turn 27 years old until late May. Holland, who turned 29 years old this winter, has a good-but-not-as-great 2.19 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 12.5 K/9 in 275 career major league frames. I think the Royals will be better than the Braves this season. I also think that doesn't really matter. Save opportunities come in close games, and I’m better on Kimbrel to convert more of the chances he gets with better accompanying stats. – Drew Silva (@drewsilv)

 

Zach Britton vs. Steve Cishek

 

Britton

 

While Britton’s peripherals last year didn’t match his 1.65 ERA, it still doesn’t seem like any sort of fluke that he turned into one of the best relievers in baseball. He throws 95-mph sinkers that are nearly impossible to lift, and though it didn’t result in a huge strikeout rate, it was just because he got so many quick grounders. His swinging strike rate looked like that of a reliever who struck out a batter an inning. Britton, though, usually wouldn’t get three in a row before the batter rolled out to J.J. Hardy. The Orioles have produced a huge number of save chances for their closers three years running (Jim Johnson notched 50 saves in both 2012 and 2013, and Britton’s 37 saves last year came in three-quarters of the season). I’m not sure that’s a trend with any predictive power, but it doesn’t hurt the case for Britton. He’s a top-10 reliever for me. – Matthew Pouliot (@matthewpouliot)

 

Cishek

 

There's no denying Britton was spectacular in 2014. It can be denied, though, that Britton was as good as his numbers suggest. Despite a velocity spike that legitimizes the improvements, Britton benefited from an unsustainably low .215 BABIP -- even more unbelievable given his 75.3 ground ball percentage -- and a .179/.265/.294 line against right-handers that was well below his career line against righties. In fact, it's arguable that Britton isn't even the best reliever on his own team -- Darren O'Day, who posted a 1.70 ERA last year, actually strikes out more batters and walks a lower percentage than Britton. Cishek also enjoyed a strong 2014 season, but his peripherals were actually better than his final numbers. Cishek traded some ground balls for strikeouts and fly balls in spacious Marlins Park, punching out a career-high 84 batters in 65 1/3 innings. And unlike Britton, Cishek actually had a .331 BABIP while suppressing homers, meaning he should allow fewer hits this year. Now, with a better lineup that should afford Cishek more save opportunities, Cishek could be in the discussion for the league lead in saves this year. He's the right choice here. – Nathan Grimm (@Nate_Grimm)

 

Jenrry Mejia vs. Luke Gregerson

 

Mejia

 

I understand the hesitation about Mejia, as Bobby Parnell is due back from Tommy John surgery in the early part of the season, but I don't think it's a lock that he'll get his old job back. Parnell still has to prove his health and effectiveness and Mejia could change the conversation with a strong start. While he allowed too many baserunners at times last season, it wasn't all bad. He had a 2.72 ERA in 56 relief appearances while notching 60 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings. His control was also better out of the bullpen than it was in the rotation (eight of his 21 walks out of the bullpen were intentional). The Mets have alternatives if he struggles, but Mejia has the stuff to keep the job. The Astros gave Gregerson an $18.5 million deal over the winter, so he's the current favorite to serve as closer, but Chad Qualls was plenty effective in the role last season and he's still around. And while Gregerson owns a 2.75 ERA and 1.08 WHIP for his career, he has been fortunate to pitch in pitcher-friendly environments. Calling Minute Maid Park home will be his biggest challenge to date. Gregerson's control keeps getting better and he still gets plenty of swings and misses, but his strikeout percentage fell to a career-low 20.8 percent last season. I'd rather gamble on Mejia taking another step forward this year. - D.J. Short (@djshort)

 

Gregerson

 

If all else is equal between two closers, a good rule of thumb is to simply choose the pitcher who will likely be afforded more save opportunities – go with the closer on the better team. Between Luke Gregerson and Jenrry Mejia, though, their respective teams are projected to finish within three wins of each other, per FanGraphs (81 for the Mets and 78 for the Astros). This may mean only one or two more save opportunities for Mejia compared to Gregerson, which is not enough to overcome simple random variance. In this case, I would choose Gregerson over Mejia because of his track record. Gregerson has posted an ERA of 2.75 or lower while averaging at least 3.4 strikeouts per every one walk in each of the past four seasons. He doesn’t give you the total strikeouts Mejia does – Mejia averaged better than a strikeout per inning in 2014 while Gregerson averaged 7.3 per nine innings – but he also doesn’t have Mejia’s spotty control, walking only 15 in 72 1/3 innings to Mejia’s 41 in 93 2/3 innings last season. If both pitchers were starters, then Mejia’s higher strikeout rate would carry more weight over 200 innings as compared to 60. As it stands, it’s not enough of an edge in my view. To sum up: Gregerson should be better in ERA and WHIP while Mejia should come out ahead in strikeouts, and both should push the saves category. – Bill Baer (@Baer_Bill)

 

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