Here we are folks, the end of the TOC Top Ten. And what better way to end our countdown with the top ten right-handed relievers? There are really some special relievers in this group, and not all of them are the closers that you're used to seeing at the end of games either. Middle relievers that are dominating have become a valuable commodity in today's game as well, and there's definitely a question of how exactly a proper bullpen should be built. Well, here's the list. Debate away.
Remember: this list (and all of the lists we'll be rolling out this week) reflect the order I'd prefer to have the players for the 2013 season. I don't care about 2016, I don't care about 2010, I care about 2013. Got it? Good.
10. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
Jansen has been one of the more feared relievers in baseball over the last couple of seasons due to a vicious fastball that hitters just can't make contact with. In 2011, Jansen struck out 44% of hitters he faced. That number dipped to 39% in 2012, but Jansen also cut his walk rate, resulting in a 4.50 strikeout to walk ratio that was nearly a full point better than his 2011 mark. Jansen's lack of groundballs isn't even a huge concern just because of how little hitters make contact with his pitches. Jansen had a 68.9% contact rate in 2012, tenth-best among all relievers in the league. In 2011, that contact rate was just 63.5%, third-best in the league. Despite their signing of Brandon League this winter, Jansen is still the best reliever in the Los Angeles bullpen, and he'll probably reclaim that closer job sooner rather than later.
9. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Papelbon's 2012 debut season in Philadelphia was just the second full season in his career in which he's been worth less than two wins. Of course, the other one came in 2010, potentially indicating a downward trend. But dig a little deeper, and you'll see that a lot of bad luck had to do with Papelbon's 2012 season. His strikeout rate was the third best of his career (north of 30%, mind you), his walk rate was right around his career average, and his groundball rate was north of 40% for just the second time in his career. Even with an 83.8% strand rate, Papelbon was saddled with a career-worst 12.1% HR/FB and a .296 BABIP that do a lot to explain his slightly disappointing overall value. Papelbon's velocity did tick bleow 94 for the first time in his career, and at 32, that's not a good sign. But it'll take a full-blown meltdown to completely destroy his stock.
8. Junichi Tazawa, Red Sox
Tazawa's career has been underwhelming due to heightened expectations, but it's back on track after he missed all of 2010 following Tommy John surgery. Working as a reliever and splitting the year between AAA and the majors, Tazawa was dominant. With Boston last season, Tazawa struck out nine times as many hitters as he walked while adding a 48% groundball rate to his resume as well. Tazawa sat at 92 in Boston's bullpen, harder than he was throwing in 2009 as a starter before his surgery, and got hitters to chase 37% of pitches he threw outside of the strike zone along with posting a whiff rate just shy of 14%. With a full year in front of him in 2013, Tazawa could be an absolute monster for the Red Sox, shades of his new teammate Koji Uehara.
7. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Nathan had an awesome first half to the 2012 season before struggling a bit in the second half, but his year as a whole was solid after a disastrous 2011 while recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2010. Nathan's 6.00 strikeout to walk ratio was the best of his career, buyoed by a career-best 5.1% walk rate and his strikeout rate jumping past 30% for just the second time since 2007. Nathan also posted the second best groundball rate of his career, an essential trait in a home park like the Ballpark in Arlington, and his fastball also sat at 94 for the first time since 2007. He might not be the Joe Nathan of old anymore, but this Joe Nathan is pretty damn good too, even at 38.
6. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
I think this is an approporiate spot for Rivera, who only pitched for a month in 2012 before tearing his ACL. While Rivera is now 43 and coming off of a major injury, his track record was sublime prior to the 2012 injury. He's the best reliever of all-time, and until he shows everyone that he can't do it anymore, he's not going to be written off by myself or anyone else with a brain in their heads. I wouldn't want to put him in the top five coming off of a major injury, but would feel guilty putting him any lower than this.
5. Kelvin Herrera, Royals
While Greg Holland gets a good bit of the love in an electric Kansas City bullpen, Herrera isn't exactly chopped liver. While Holland struck out 50% more hitters than Herrera, the rookie walked half as many, leading to a strikeout to walk ratio that was a full point better than Holland's. Herrera also put together a nice 55% groundball rate to go along with a fastball that sat at 97, giving him a unique skillset that could lead to a monstrous step forward in 2013 for the 23-year old.
4. David Robertson, Yankees
Robertson has essentially become what the Yankees hoped Joba Chamberlain would be as a reliever. Robertson's ERA more than doubled last season and he lost a win in value, but he was still a great pitcher in 2012. The Yankees setup man managed to slash his walk rate by nearly 40%, and while his strikeout rate fell as well, that drop wasn't nearly as drastic, and he still struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced. It's funny, though. His BABIP increased by 42 points, and his HR/FB quadrupled…and his ERA was still 2.67. That should tell you just how filthy Robertston can be when he's getting things to go his way.
3. David Hernandez, Diamondbacks
Who in the hell is David Hernandez? Arizona acquired him two winters ago as part of the Mark Reynolds trade with the Orioles (imagine him in that Baltimore bullpen right now), and he matured as a pitcher last season after showing flashes of brilliance in the Diamondbacks bullpen in 2011. Hernandez struck out 35% of the hitters he faced last season while continuing to cut his walk rate (dropping it below 10% in the process), and allowed a filthy .190 batting average. Two things that could rain on Hernandez's parade are his home park and pitching style. Hernandez doesn't get many groundballs, and his HR/FB has settled in around 5% over the last two seasons in Arizona. If that number progresses to the mean, which seems like a near certainty in Chase Field, Hernandez's ERA could spike with as many fly balls as he allows.
2. Fernando Rodney, Rays
There is a lot of poo-pooing related to Rodney's 2012 season. And honestly, I completely understand it. It was the career year to end all career years, a 2.4 fWAR season from a 35-year old coming off of a sub-replacement level season. But while there's no chance in hell Rodney will post a 0.60 ERA again, I wouldn't be surprised if he was successful this year if he keeps pitching the same way. He struck out 27% of batters in 2012, the highest rate of his career, and walked just 5.3% of batters, his first time below 10% since 2007. Rodney's groundball rate was a stocky 57.9%. His velocity was up, and he forced hitters to chase 35% of pitches outside of the strike zone. Yeah, that microscopic ERA was a a total fluke that was supported by a .220 BABIP and 89% strand rate. But even at his core in 2012, Rodney was a damn good pitcher, tiny ERA aside.
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
There really wasn't another choice here. Kimbrel struck out 50% of the batters he faced in 2012, and posted an 8.29 strikeout to walk ratio. As if that isn't silly enough, Atlanta's closer also had a 49% groundball rate and had a fastball that sat at 97, making hitting against him a chore for opposing hitters. Hell, the man had a 19.2% whiff rate. That's just absurd. If Kimbrel, who won't turn 25 until the end of May, stays healthy, he could end up as one of the most dominant relievers of all-time.