By popular demand we are including a baseball’s best setup men list in our Off the Rankings series this year! Set up men are a vital, yet largely unheralded group. Typically, fans know the top two or three guys but so many good pitchers fly under the radar just because they lack the gaudy save numbers of guys like Craig Kimbrel and Trevor Rosenthal.
But no longer! After reading this post you’ll know at least ten set up men, baseball’s best ten.
There is one complication to note however. The term ‘set up man’ is poorly defined. For our purposes today we’ll call set up men typically late inning relievers that don’t usually get saves for their teams. By that definition, teams with stellar bullpens can have more than one set up guy on this list.
- Luke Gregerson, Houston Astros
Gregerson was very good in his first season with the Astros, saving 31 games for the Wild Card winners. With the arrival of Ken Giles this winter though, it looks like Gregerson’s foray into the 9th inning will be a one year wonder. Perhaps getting back to the 8th innings will allow Gregerson to lower his ERA closer to the 2.12 he posted in Oakland in 2014 than the 3.10 he put up last season in Houston.
- Joe Smith, Los Angeles Angels
Joe Smith wasn’t able to replicate his spectacular 2014 campaign in 2015 but he was still a very reliable bullpen piece for the Angels. In fact, 2015’s 3.58 ERA was Smith’s highest since 2010 with the Indians and his ERA+ dipped for the first time since 2010 as well. But Smith was so good from 2011-2014 that he still earns a spot on this list. There’s a good chance that Smith returns to his nearly unhittable ways in 2016, even though it looks like 2014 (1.81 ERA, 200 ERA+, .804 WHIP) was a bit of an aberration, but even if he doesn’t, the Angels still have a top notch reliever on their hands.
- Liam Hendriks, Oakland A’s
Liam Hendriks is one of baseball’s only Australian born players but, given the quality of the game down there, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more guys from Down Under in the pros over the next few years. Hendricks bounced around for the last few years before finally settling in Toronto towards the end of 2014. Though he struggled then, last season was his renaissance. He moved to the bullpen full time for the first time and posted a career low ERA and WHIP, and career high ERA+ and WAR. His first season without a game started saw him get the first consistent action of his career and he was so good, that the Oakland Athletics traded starter/swingman Jesse Chavez for him this winter. Hopefully he can replicate his Toronto success as a bullpen piece in Oakland.
- Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
The 40 year old Uehara has been Boston’s closer for each of the last three seasons, even garnering MVP and Cy Young votes for his utterly spectacular first season with the team in 2013. He’s been very good since then, though he missed some time last season with an injury and his k/9 numbers were way off their previous levels. In 2016, though, the Red Sox won’t be counting on Koji to pile up the saves, that’ll be Craig Kimbrel’s job and that makes Uehara and his nasty splitter a stellar 8th inning option for manager John Farrell.
- Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays
Osuna pitched the entirety of last season at age 20 and was spectacular. He compiled 20 saves and posted a 2.58 ERA and a .92 WHIP as the icy-veined closer on a Toronto team that went deep into the playoffs. However, though he might very well be a stellar closer for much of the next 10 or 15 seasons, he’ll be the set up man for new Blue Jays closer Drew Storen in 2016. Given Osuna’s age and relative inexperience, it’ll probably be good for him to be able to get through a full major league season without the added stress of having to close games. Toronto will have the flexibility to manage his workload while simultaneously providing a killer 1-2 punch to end games.
- Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals
World Champion Kelvin Herrera was a decidedly better pitcher in 2014, when he was part of KC’s troika of bullpen studs along with Wade Davis and Greg Holland, but he was still pretty great last season. As the season wore on and Holland got hurt, Wade Davis, who would otherwise have been featured prominently on this list, moved into the closers role and Herrera started to pitch in the 8th more than his traditional role in the 7th. It will be interesting to see where Ned Yost, who is renowned for his strictly defined bullpen roles, decides to use Kelvin in 2016, but the flame thrower’s track record would indicate that it doesn’t much matter. Herrera is entering his 5th season and has posted sub 3 ERA’s in 3 of them. His ERA+ in 2014 was an astronomical 280 but last season’s 153 is nothing to scoff at. He’s absolutely one of the best bullpen arms in the game.
- Darren O’Day, Baltimore Orioles
Darren O’Day was the most sought after reliever on the free agent market this winter, and it’s not hard to see why. O’Day and his funky near submarine arm angle posted his second straight season with a sub 1.70 ERA and sub 1 WHIP. In fact, O’Day has been consistently improving over the last four seasons, all with Baltimore. He’s thrown just about 65 innings every year since 2012 and has lowered his ERA every year. Darren was very up and down during the early parts of his career but has been the model of reliability since getting to Baltimore. The O’s are hoping he keeps that up as they just inked the 33 year old to a 4 year/ $31 million contract.
- Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates
Tony Watson has quietly been one of baseball’s best relievers over the last 2 years. Don’t get me wrong, he’s been great since breaking into the league in 2011 but 2014 and 2015 were on another level. Two straight years of sub 2 ERA’s, ERA+’s over 200, Sub 3 FIPs, and sub 1 HR/9 rates. His WHIP dipped below 1 last year as well and he’s put up two straight identical 2.5 WAR seasons. All of which are excellent for a guy who only pitched 77.1 and 75.1 innings respectively. Watson is a lefty who last year dominated lefties to a tune of a .186 batting average against and still limited righties to just .212. He carves up lineups in the 8th before handing the game over to Mark Melancon to close it out and he’s among the best at doing it. The Pirates hope to compete for a very tough NL Central title this year and Watson should once again be a huge help in getting them there.
We’ve written about Miller and Betances extensively over at LoHud’s Yankees blog but I’m happy to rehash some of the best tidbits here. Last season, Betances, a righty, held right handed opponents to a .175 batting average and lefties to an upsettingly good .135 average. Miller, a left, posted a slightly more human .233 average against against lefties and a silly .131 average against righties. Miller struck out a silly 14.6 batters per 9 and Betances nearly matched him with a 14.0. Betances also posted a career low 263 ERA+ in 2015 and finished 14th in the Cy Young voting, 4 spots behind Miller.
No matter how you slice it, these two are the cream of the crop. The only reason Miller isn’t the Yankee’s closer again, as he was in 2015, is because the team acquired Aroldis Chapman over the winter making a simply unfair big three at the end of the ‘pen.
I’m not sure which one is number one and which is number two on our list but, really, does it matter?