3 fantasy relief pitchers with the necessary skills to earn late-inning appearances in 2022
Written by: Jake Floriolli
[Source: AP Photo/Phil Long]
Some say that success comes when talent and opportunity collide. After being traded two times in two seasons and serving a 60 game suspension in 2020 for PED use, Emmanuel Clase was a mere afterthought in fantasy baseball drafts last spring.
After a rocky start to his professional career, opportunity and talent finally collided for Clase in 2021 as he finished the season with 24 saves and six holds after being considered nothing more than a late-round flier in fantasy baseball drafts.
Adjusting our focus to 2022, who could be the next Emmanuel Clase? In other words, which relief pitchers might have the talent and opportunity next season to ascend from late-round flier to being drafted in the top 5 at their position? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates.
Jonathan Loáisiga (RP, NYY) NFBC ADP: 412th overall
Yankees reliever Jonathan Loáisiga, also known as “Johnny Lasagna'' in the Bronx, has come a long way in his career while still being just 27 years old.
From signing with the San Francisco Giants nearly ten years ago to undergoing Tommy John surgery back in 2016, Loáisiga was finally able to put everything together in 2021 as he finished with a 2.17 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 69 strikeouts in 70.2 innings pitched. As a new fixture in the back end of the bullpen last season, Loáisiga was able to pick up five saves and 17 holds.
Based on arsenal alone, it is easy to love Jonathan Loáisiga. His sinker sits in the high-90s with movement that tails away from lefties and runs inside on righties.
Last season Loáisiga made a conscious effort to throw his sinker more often as his usage percentage jumped from 24.6% in 2020 to 54.9% in 2021. And the results show that he made the right call in doing so.
Loáisiga was able to add two mph to his sinker last season and opposing hitters certainly struggled as his xBA against the pitch was down from .302 in 2020 to just .213 in 2021 according to Statcast.
And if Loáisiga’s 98-100 mph sinker wasn’t enough to impress you, he also did extraordinary damage with his curveball last season. Opposing batters hit just .098 with a 50.0% Whiff% and 17 strikeouts against Loáisiga’s curve in 2021. Take a look below at just how unhittable Loáisiga can be with his current pitch mix.
In addition to the flashy arsenal, Loáisiga’s success from last season seems to be backed by his underlying metrics. With improvements in velocity and command in 2021, Loáisiga finished the season in the 99th percentile among pitchers in several metrics such as hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, and xERA as you can see below.
Aroldis Chapman, who will be 34 years old on Opening Day, has been the primary closer for the Yankees for more than five years now. However, he is certainly not the same perennial All-Star that he used to be. In 2021 Chapman finished with a career-worst 3.36 ERA, 3.87 xERA, and 3.99 FIP.
Digging deeper than just surface-level statistics, additional cause for concern is found as Chapman’s FB/HR%, hard-hit percentage, and barrel-rate were all career worsts in 2021. In other words, Chapman gave up a career-high number of home runs while also giving up more hard contact last season.
In addition to opposing hitters having more success off him in 2021, Chapman also displayed significant issues with his command last season. Out of all pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2021, Chapman had the 3rd worst BB% at an appalling 15.6%.
Loáisiga made tangible improvements to his game last season however longtime veteran and current closer Aroldis Chapman stands in the way for saves. Projected to be the setup man behind the aging and declining Chapman, Loáisiga is easily worth his current ADP of 412 as talent and opportunity could certainly collide in 2022.
Anthony Bender (RP, MIA) NFBC ADP: 427th overall
Speaking of relievers that have come a long way in their career, let’s take a closer look at Anthony Bender of the Miami Marlins. Bender, formerly of the Royals, Brewers, and even two Independent Professional Baseball League teams, now finds himself in the Marlins bullpen while still being just 26 years old.
After making his first MLB appearance on May 5th, Bender finished the 2021 season with a 2.79 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 71 strikeouts in 61.1 innings pitched. Bender did make one start in 2021, however more often saw late-inning appearances where his two-pitch mix could be better utilized in the back end of the bullpen. Bender was able to pick up three saves and 12 holds last season.
Anthony Bender is primarily a two-pitch pitcher with a 97 mph sinker and 85 mph slider. However, Bender is a little unorthodox as he tends to throw his sinker up in the strike zone while still achieving an elite 56.2% GB% with the pitch.
Bender’s slider is what truly makes his profile intriguing though as opposing hitters managed just a .162 batting average and .210 xwOBA against the pitch while generating a 45.2 Whiff% and 43.6 K%. Take a look below at an overlay of Bender’s sinker toward the top of the zone and his put-away slider.
Bender started his career with 21.1 straight scoreless innings and the underlying metrics tend to support his success. As you can see below, Statcast expected statistics portray a dominant reliever with good strikeout potential as shown by his 10.4 K/9 in 2021.
The only cause for concern with Bender is his 4.77 xFIP against lefties, but if used correctly by Miami, Bender will have no problem reproducing his 2021 success this season.
As of this writing, Bender is currently projected to be the setup man for the Marlins in 2022. Projected closer Dylan Floro recorded 15 saves for the Marlins in 2021 while posting a 2.81 ERA in 64 innings.
Despite his success, Floro put up an xERA and xFIP of 3.57 and 3.95 respectively last season with six blown saves. Additionally, Floro was surprisingly able to maintain a low ERA in 2021 despite an increase in hard-hit rate, exit velocity, and barrel percentage compared to 2020.
Floro does not appear to have made any sustainable changes to his game in 2021 and a lot of his success looks to have been luck-driven. Steamer and ATC projections have Floro putting up a 3.63 and 4.00 ERA respectively with a 1.30 and 1.35 WHIP to go along with it.
Bender certainly has the strikeout potential and necessary arsenal to be a valuable fantasy asset; however, Dylan Floro currently stands in his way for save opportunities. But with a spotty track record and inexperience as a closer, Floro does not have a firm hold on the role leaving the door open for Bender and his wipeout slider to find some saves next season.
Art Warren (RP, CIN) NFBC ADP: 575th overall
Former Seattle Mariners prospect, Art Warren, was called up by the Cincinnati Reds in May of 2021. An oblique strain would force him to miss two months of the season, but Warren would be able to return and finish the season with a 1.29 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and an astounding 14.57 K/9.
Due to Warren’s mid-season oblique strain, he was only able to pitch 21 innings last season, however, that did not stop him from being productive. Warren gave up just three earned runs in those 21 innings with a stretch of 8 scoreless appearances to finish out the season after returning from the injured list. Heading into 2022 with a clean bill of health, Warren will look to pick up where he left off in the back end of the Reds bullpen.
Only three pitchers in all of baseball last season had a K-BB% greater than 30%, Hard Hit% less than 31%, and a HR/9 of 0.50 or less (minimum 20 innings pitched). Those guys were Josh Hader, Corbin Burnes, and you guessed it, Art Warren. Some elite company, undoubtedly.
Looking at the tweet below, Reliever A is Brewers closer Josh Hader and Reliever B is none other than Art Warren.
Warren is not a flashy prospect with a lot of hype, however, his recent success is hard to ignore. In his entire major and minor league career (272 innings), Warren has given up ten total home runs. Additionally, Warren has a 2.11 career ERA since reaching Double-A in 2018 with a K/9 above 13.0.
Statcast expected metrics fully support the breakout we are in the midst of witnessing as Warren posted an xERA of 1.71, xwOBA of .201, and xSLG of .200. A lot of Warren’s success can be attributed to his devastating slider. Out of all pitchers with min. 50 PA last season, Warren’s slider ranked 3rd in the league in xwOBA above the likes of Liam Hendriks and Emmanuel Clase.
Standing in the way of Art Warren becoming a superstar closer is 27-year-old Lucas Sims. Now Sims did not blow anyone away with his 4.40 ERA last season, but he showed a lot of potential with a 14.55 K/9 and xERA of 2.51.
On top of the promising metrics, Sims was also able to increase his fastball velocity and drop his walk rate to a career-low last season. ATC and Steamer projections believe that Sims will lower his ERA down to the mid three’s in 2022 while maintaining improvements in his strikeout rate. Unlike the other existing closers mentioned above, Sims himself is most likely worth his current ADP for the saves he can provide.
Art Warren has all the makings of a high-strikeout closer, but another promising arm in the bullpen could end up taking control of the opportunity instead. With Sims presumably starting 2022 with the closing role, it will be an uphill battle for Warren to find save opportunities. However, with talent like Art Warren’s, he’ll be ready when opportunity strikes.
Statistical and Visual References: Baseball Savant, NFBC, Fangraphs, Twitter