As many of you who have experience playing in fantasy baseball leagues well know, the closer position is one of the most volatile in fantasy baseball. Managing the saves category is not easy, and fantasy baseball players will invariably find that many of the relievers who open the season as their team’s primary closer will lose their job by the end of the season. Fantasy baseball players will also have to contend with the growing number of teams who opt to use a closer by committee approach to manage their bullpens instead of utilizing one dedicated closer. With so much unpredictability surrounding the fantasy baseball closer position, some fantasy baseball managers will gladly invest a huge chunk of their draft capital on or more elite relievers. The following are five relievers who we consider to be the best in the business. They are elite but to prove just how volatile the closer position can be, some of them have a few warts (which we’ll point out) to be concerned about.
1) Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Guardians
Clase led the major leagues in saves, converting 42 of 46 opportunities last season. He throws two pitches, and both are virtually unhittable. His cutter routinely hits triple digits on the radar gun and his slider has a 42.4 Whiff%. When hitters were able to make contact against Clase’s pitches last season they were hitting ground balls 63.9% of the time. Statcast has Clase ranked in the 100th-percentile in Chase Rate, Fastball Velocity, and Fastball Spin rate. Clase has improved his plate discipline, lowering his BB/9 in each of the past two seasons (1.24 in 2022) Clase’s 2022 9.54 K/9 may not be as high as some of the other elite closers featured in this article, but with opposing batters either hitting the ball on the ground or striking out, Clase is keeping the ball in the park (0.37 HR/9). Clase is only 24 years old and just reaching his prime. Barring an injury, he seems like a lock for at least 30 plus saves this season.
2) Edwin Díaz, New York Mets
Diaz posted a career low 1.31 ERA and had an equally impressive 0.841 WHIP last season. Opposing batters routinely fell behind in the count when facing Diaz as evidenced by his 71.1 first strike %. With his gaudy 17.1 K/9 once batters fell behind, there often was no coming back. Diaz’s fastball usage decreased from 62.2% in 2021 to 41.9% last season and conversely, his slider usage increased to 58.1% last season, up from 37.8%. With a 54.7 Whiff% on that slider, it’s no wonder he led all relievers with 118 strikeouts last season. Walks have been an issue for Diaz in the past. He had a 4.91 BB/9 in 2020, but since then he’s lowered his walk rate in each of the past two seasons. Diaz finished the 2022 season with a 2.61 BB/9. According to Statcast, Diaz was in the 100th percentile in xSLG, xBA and not surprisingly, K and Whiff% last season. Diaz has had some mediocre seasons in his recent past (5.59 ERA in 2019, 3.45 ERA in 2021), but with the changes he’s made to his pitch mix and the fact that he’s increased the velocity on his pitches for the past three seasons, he’s likely to be one of the elite relievers in the game once again this season. It should be noted that Mets manager Buck Showalter occasionally used Diaz in late inning high-leverage non-save situations last season, taking advantage of best matchups. If Showalter continues to use that strategy, that may put a cap on Diaz’s potential save total. Nevertheless, Diaz is still very likely to save well over 30 games for a very competitive Mets team this season.
3) Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Romano posted a 2.11 ERA, 1.016 WHIP and he converted 36 of 42 save opportunities last season. Like Diaz, Romano also changed his pitch mix, utilizing his slider a bit more and fastball a bit less. His K% slightly declined, but he got opposing batters to chase more of his pitches outside the strike zone. His 36.9% O-Swing% was a career high and also above the 32.6% league average. Romano had better control over his pitches, lowering his BB/9 from 3.57 in 2021 to a career low 2.95 last season. He also almost cut his HR/FB rate in half from 12.5 in 2021 to a career-best 6.5 last season. With the Blue Jays expected to be a very good team this season, Romano will likely once again be among the league leaders in saves.
4) Josh Hader, San Diego Padres
As one of the top two projected closers in the game, Hader got off to a fast start last season, saving 25 games in his first 27 appearances and pitching to a 1.05 ERA during that time span. But then seemingly out of nowhere, Hader’s season unraveled. In 17 appearances beginning on July 4th, Hader compiled a 17.31 ERA, gave up six home runs and opposing batters feasted on his pitches (.429 BAA). There were no trips to the IL, no drops in velocity or strikeout rates to help explain his sudden slump. Hader did have some family issues that might have contributed to his on-field performance, but things of that nature are hard to quantify and predict. Some, like Jeff Sanders from the San Diego Tribune, suggested that Hader’s issues stemmed from him tipping his pitches. Hader eventually snapped out of his funk and in his last 12 regular season appearances, he pitched to 0.79 ERA and struck out 14 batters in 11.1 IP. Hader saved seven games during that stretch and most importantly, he didn’t give up a home run. Hader has typically been one of the first two closers taken in preseason fantasy drafts over the past couple of seasons and as the third closer being taken in NFBC drafts this preseason, you’re still going to have to invest some heavy draft capital in order to roster him. Most projection models predict that we’ll see the Hader of old this season. He’ll only be 29 years old on Opening Day and with no known lingering injuries or previous loss of velocity to be concerned about, there’s a good chance that Hader could once again be one of the top closers in baseball this season.
5) Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Williams inherited the Brewers’ closers role when they traded Josh Hader to the Padres just before the 2022 MLB trade deadline. Williams’ post trade comments to the media clearly conveyed his shock and displeasure with the move, but based on his on-field performance Williams was ready for the promotion. In his 22 games as the Brew Crew’s closer, he converted nine of 11 save opportunities, struck out 30 batters in 21 IP. Overall, he was an elite strikeout artist (14.24 K/9) who induced above-league-average soft contact (21.6%). Most of the balls hit against Williams were ground balls (51.4%) and that helped limit his HRs allowed. Williams cut his HR/FB rate from 12.5 in 2021 to 6.3 last season. Free passes have been an issue for Williams throughout his career and while he allowed 4.5 walks per nine IP last season, opposing hitters batted just .150 against him and his xBA was in the 100th percentile per Statcast. Interestingly, Williams’ ERA was almost a full run higher once he was named the Brewers’ closer (2.57) compared to his ERA as their setup man (1.59). That could have been caused by the sudden shock of being thrust into the closer's role. Coming into spring training, Williams will be mentally and physically prepared to be the Brewers’ closer all season long and based on his skill set and track record he should be among the top closers in baseball.
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