When talking about relievers across the league, you know the story...Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman have been dominant, Fernando Rodney is having an unreal year after being signed on the cheap by the Rays, Chris Perez has been excellent but a loudmouth, and so on and so forth. If you're a fantasy baseball freak, you probably have already picked up and dropped all of these guys...but that doesn't mean that their names have been in the mainstream spotlight that much this season. Here are ten relievers that are having pretty awesome years, but no one is talking about on a larger stage.
1. David Hernandez, Diamondbacks
Hernandez was part of the return that Arizona acquired from the Orioles in exchange for Mark Reynolds prior to the 2011 season. All that Hernandez has done in his new home in the desert is strike out 12.74 batters per nine while walking 3.05 (both rates have vastly improved from 2011) while lowering his ERA by a run to 2.35 this year. Hernandez has been part of a solid Diamondbacks bullpen headed mainly by JJ Putz and Brad Ziegler, but I bet you've heard those names before.
2. Greg Holland, Royals
HOLY CRAP JOAKIM SORIA BLEW OUT HIS ELBOW AND THE ROYALS BULLPEN IS DOOOOOMED! Well, not really. Holland has slid into Soria's closer role after veteran Jonathan Broxton was dealt at the trade deadline to the Royals, and he's been awesome all year. Holland has struck out 12.17 batters per nine this year, up a full batter from 2011, and while his walk rate and ERA have both gone up, Holland is still mowing hitters down while pitching more than he did in 2011. Even without Soria, the Royals young bullpen of Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and Tim Collins has been awesome this year.
3. Sean Doolittle, Athletics
Doolittle is probably my favorite story of the 2012 season. He originally came up as a hitter in Oakland's system, but after missing the 2010 and nearly all of the 2011 season, he was converted to a pitcher and called up to the majors this year after just 25 minor league innings. Of course, as we all predicted, he has a 6.22 strikeout to walk rate (which is actually better than the vaunted Chapman's mark), and has been a huge part of the A's fantastic year. Could anyone have imagined that a former first baseman would walk under two batters per nine as a pitcher in his rookie season? I doubt it.
4. Jake McGee, Rays
McGee worked his way through the Rays' system as a starter, but struggled with injuries and stamina, and was shifted to the bullpen in 2010 when he was called up to AAA. After a middling 2011, McGee has blossomed into a shutdown bullpen arm for the Rays. He's struck out over a third of the batters he's faced, is stingy with walks, and is nearly unhittable, allowing just a .175 batting average. In a year where JP Howell has struggled for the Rays and Kyle Farnsworth has been hurt, McGee (and Rodney, of course) has helped this team out a lot in the pen.
5. Junichi Tazawa, Red Sox
Tazawa has been with the Red Sox since being signed out of Asia before the 2009 year, but missed all of 2010 after blowing his elbow out. He was awful in the majors as a starter in that 2009 rookie year, and the team nursed him back in 2011 by starting in the low minors and relieving in the high minors. This year, Tazawa was strictly a reliever (although a multi-inning reliever) in Pawtucket, and since getting called up to the majors, he's been the most effective Boston reliever. His 1.10 walk rate is the second lowest among all relievers with at least 30 innings, and he's also striking out more than a batter per inning. Put those in a blender, and you get an 8.60 strikeout to walk rate, the best mark in baseball this year. Red Sox Nation needs a bright side to the 2012 season, and Tazawa is that highlight.
6. Octavio Dotel, Tigers
Dotel has been great with the Tigers, his 13th career team at age 38. While Dotel has always struck out batters by the bucketload, his walks have been a problem. Predictably, his 1.96 walk rate this year is the best mark in his long career. His 0.49 homer rate is the first time he's allowing less than one homer per nine innings since 2004. While Dotel's 3.76 ERA doesn't look so great on the surface, his .310 BABIP and 66.3% strand rate are worse than both his career marks and the league average...thanks, Tigers defense!
7. Vinnie Pestano, Indians
While Perez is getting all of the headlines in Cleveland's bullpen due to his magnetism for controversy, Pestano has been just as good without any of the fuss. Pestano is striking out just as many batters as Perez, and while he's also walking more hitters, Pestano has had better luck with balls in play and has thrown a dozen more innings. Perez is also making a lot more money than Pestano, who won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season. If the Indians do trade Perez this offseason, they've already got an in-house replacement.
8. Wilton Lopez, Astros
Alright, 2012 has been an unmitigated disaster for Houston, with very few exceptions. Lopez is one of those exceptions. The 29-year old has walked a major league best 1.01 batters per nine innings. Lopez has moved into the closer's role in Houston after Francisco Cordero's ineffectiveness and injury issues, and his 5/5 in save chances in September. Lopez was also very good for the Astros in 2010 and 2011, and has emerged into a pretty solid option for Houston this season.
9. Casey Fien, Twins
Who in the name of all that is holy is Casey Fien? The 28-year old has become a great option for the Twins after washing out of both the Tigers and Astros organizations. Fien has thrown 78 1/3 innings between AAA and the majors this year, striking out 72 and walking 23. In the majors, he still hasn't allowed a homer this year and has a 1.39 ERA. His 26.1% groundball rate indicates that the ERA is going to balloon sooner rather than later, but it's at least been a solid year for him so far.
10. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
I had a lot of guys in mind for the final spot, but eventually went with Janssen, a guy I had when I played fantasy baseball in 2007 (he's qualified as a starter, BUT IS A RELIEVER!!!!) and still have a bit of a soft spot for. After expected closer Sergio Santos dealt with shoulder problems all year, the quietly effective Janssen slid into Toronto's closer's role and provided a lot of stability. In his first year as closer at age 31, Janssen has posted career bests in both strikeout and walk rates while blowing just three saves all season. A lot of his great year has been based on luck, but it's still an awesome year at any rate.
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This list should include Darren O'Day of the Orioles, who's had as fine a season as anyone listed here, and has the distinction--shared only by Sean Doolittle--pitching for a team in the playoffs. O'Day's mainly been the seventh inning reliever, coming in ahead of Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. His stat line is quite impressive: 7-1, 2.28 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, .202 BAA, 69 K in 67 IP.
@JohnWeiskittel O'Day is indeed having an awesome year. I didn't put any Orioles on for the (admittedly flaky) reason of there being multiple awesome Orioles relievers. O'Day is an odd one too, as he was great in 09 & 10, but missed a ton of time in 11 before rebounding this year. Great story.
@joelucia O'Day is a prime example of how the Orioles' front office (with major contributions from Showalter and scouting) have assembled a team that includes players of proven ability (also Jason Hammel, Nate McLouth, Miguel Gonzalez come to mind), who other teams gave up on too quickly.