Makinen: MLB season-opening bullpen rankings

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The MLB season sees its first regular season pitches thrown out on Thursday. As far as I’m concerned, it’s never too early to get a good handle on which teams are getting the best and worst performances out of their bullpens. You’ll see in the breakdown of my results from 2022 just how crucial it is to get going.

I say this each spring, but it seems that with each passing season, the relief pitching role takes on greater and greater importance, and anyone who has followed my baseball work for years knows how much weight I put on this part of the handicapping recipe. This past year, starters only went a tic over five innings per start, meaning more and more games are being decided in the late innings.

I probably tend to lean on my bullpen ratings more than ever nowadays, and I feel that the extra inning change made recently, implementing the California Rules, has only enhanced the importance of having pitchers that can get hitters out, and in most cases, in dominant fashion. Therefore, I tend to place a great deal of emphasis on the ability to strike hitters out, and the stat I tend to rely on is the strikeouts per 9 innings calculations. Combine that stat with WHIP, save percentage, and overall talent level of the staff and you’ll get the basic for my bullpen power ratings.

Before I reveal my current bullpen rankings and a few highlights of what the offseason has brought to the bullpen scene for 2023, it’s important to remind readers that the power ratings I have used are the same ones that go into creating the daily strength ratings and projections you’ll find on VSiN.com all season long. They are devised from both statistics/performance and perception in the betting markets. I also use ballpark factors in adjusting the statistics to accurately reflect the conditions a pitcher operates in.

Why do I find bullpen handicapping so important? Easy. Take a look at the results from my ratings for the 2022 season.

– There were 2413 MLB games last season in which one team had an SM bullpen rating edge. By simply taking the team with the higher Steve Makinen Bullpen Power Rating, a bettor would have gone 1467-946 (60.8%) for 117.57 units. That represents an R.O.I of 4.9%! There were 57 games in which the teams had equal ratings. A 5% return throughout a season, by simply relying on a fundamental handicapping concept, is an amazing accomplishment.

– In games where there was a Steve Makinen Bullpen Power Rating difference of 10 or more between the teams, the better-rated team was 822-407 (66.9%) for 112.95 units. This represents an R.O.I. value of 9.2%, a very strong return for 6 months of MLB betting.

– In games where the SMBPR difference was 20 or better, or essentially the top five bullpens versus the bottom five bullpens, the better-rated team was 280-123 (69.5%) for 38.27 units. This is an R.O.I. of 9.5% and a strategy that should earn the endorsement of any baseball bettor doing the daily grind.

Keep in mind, these ratings will move consistently throughout the season as I update them as often as daily. However, if you have a good gauge for the talent levels and you monitor the key stats regularly, you’ll be able to understand the differences between teams and perhaps even make your own strength ratings to take advantage of. For those of you who have and will continue to rely on my ratings, I do publish these daily on the VSiN website.

Here are some highlights from my rankings and the stats utilized.

– The Dodgers, one of the leading National League favorites in baseball for 2023, own the best bullpen in all of baseball, highlighted by new closer Evan Phillips. This team continues to find new live arms from its farm system and despite moving pieces seemingly every year, always has a strong relief corps.

– The #2 team on the list is Houston, the defending world champs, who have Ryan Pressly as their closing ace. It is a luxury of riches for the Astros, who seem to be coming up big even when they have to roll the dice at mid-season.

– The Braves, Cleveland, and Seattle round out the top five, and the familiar names are on board once again for all three teams. Their relief staffs were one of the primary reasons these teams were among the most profitable betting options in baseball last season.

– The Mets were my #5 rated bullpen until the injury to dominant closer Edwin Diaz. He figures to be replaced by David Robertson, but Robertson is nowhere near the talent of Diaz. The injury finds the Mets now at #15 and making them far from a lock to be a postseason team this fall.

– Speaking of key injury situations, Liam Hendriks of the White Sox was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma over the offseason, leaving the White Sox bullpen situation in flux. Kendall Graveman figures to get the responsibility of closing until, or if, Hendriks returns.

– There are several teams that will be making moves to new closers in 2023. Heading that list are the Dodgers, who I already detailed, the Red Sox, who turn to veteran Kenley Jansen, and the Cubs, who steal former setup man Brad Boxberger from the rival Brewers.

– Perhaps the most intriguing bullpen situation in all of baseball resides in Philadelphia, where the defending NL champs completely turn over their relief corps in hopes of taking that next step. Journeyman Craig Kimbrel and former Tigers’ star Gregory Soto figure to battle it out for the top closing role.

– There are several teams once again this season that will run their bullpen as more of a committee or hot-hand approach. Oakland and Arizona are teams that have declared this already.

– Besides some of the major moves I’ve already described, there are some other interesting faces in new places that will affect team bullpen strength this year. Former Yankees stud Aroldis Chapman lands in Kansas City, A.J. Puk of the A’s moves over to Miami, Trevor May of the Yankees could eventually be the closer in Oakland, and Erick Swanson, formerly of Seattle, fortifies the bullpen now in Toronto.

Here are MLB’s 30 teams ranked in order of their Steve Makinen Bullpen Power Ratings. These will be updated on a regular, and even daily, basis throughout the season. Note that players currently dealing with short-term injuries are denoted with (INJ) and may or may not be available in the opening days/weeks of the season.

1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS – Power Rating: 22    

Expected usage: 3.3 Innings/G (#17 of 30)      

Closer(s): Evan Phillips, Daniel Hudson (INJ)  

Top alternative(s): Brusdar Graterol, Alex Vesia        

Other key pieces: Yency Almonte, Blake Treinen (INJ), Alex Reyes (INJ)

Steve’s thoughts: How good of shape is the Dodgers’ roster in that it can simply just turn to a new and potentially dominant closer after the one it picked up mid-season last year, Craig Kimbrel, faltered? Kimbrel is no longer with the team, so Evan Phillips figures to take over. Phillips posted a 0.76 WHIP and struck out 77 hitters in 63 innings last year. He looks the part as well. Graterol and Vesia were solid last year in bigger roles while Almonte showed signs of dominance in a more limited role. The healthy return of Blake Treinen and JP Feyereisen at some point would be icing on the cake for this loaded unit.

2. HOUSTON – Power Rating: 21          

Expected usage: 2.8 Innings/G (#29 of 30)      

Closer(s): Ryan Pressly    

Top alternative(s): Rafael Montero. Christian Javier  

Other key pieces: Ryne Stanek, Bryan Abreu, Hector Neris

Steve’s thoughts: What a luxury it is to be able to move a guy like Christian Javier down to the bullpen. That is what happened for the Astros last season and he thrived in the role of supporting closer Ryan Pressly, who was good as ever for the world champs. This group boasts a tremendous set-up man in Rafael Montero and five other major contributors that threw at least 38 innings and posted WHIP numbers below 1.25. This group is deep and elite.

3. ATLANTA – Power Rating: 20

Expected usage: 3 Innings/G (#25 of 30)         

Closer(s): Raisel Iglesias 

Top alternative(s): A.J. Minter, Joe Jimenez   

Other key pieces: Collin McHugh, Kirby Yates, Dylan Lee

Steve’s thoughts: The Braves bullpen is as deep and talented as anyone’s in baseball, evidenced by the fact that four pitchers from this group a year ago posted WHIP numbers below 1.000, and all showed the ability to mow down hitters while demonstrating control. Losing Kenley Jansen after just a single season should prove negligible. This unit has a strong lefty/righty balance too and should be among the best in the league all season long. Iglesias was solid down the stretch for the Braves after coming over from the Angels but he can’t get too comfortable as there could be other closing options breathing down his neck.

4. CLEVELAND – Power Rating: 20      

Expected usage: 2.9 Innings/G (#27 of 30)      

Closer(s): Emmanuel Clase         

Top alternative(s): Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak          

Other key pieces: Nick Sandlin, Sam Hentges

Steve’s thoughts: All-star game closer Clase gave up just 43 hits in over 72 innings last season with a WHIP of just 0.73. He saved 42 games and while his stuff isn’t as overpowering as many of his colleagues, he is efficient at getting hitters out. In fact, his two premier set-up men, Stephan and Karinchak boast far better strikeout numbers and could be closers if on other franchises. Beyond those three, there is plenty more talent. This is a strong unit right now and should carry the Indians in late games.

5. SEATTLE – Power Rating: 16

Expected usage: 2.9 Innings/G (#28 of 30)      

Closer(s): Paul Sewald     

Top alternative(s): Andres Munoz         

Other key pieces: Diego Castillo, Matt Brash, Penn Murfee

Steve’s thoughts: So much of Seattle’s success last season can be attributed to a bullpen unit that collectively overachieved beyond reasonable expectation. Sewald, Munoz, and Murfee all produced WHIP numbers of 0.95 or less and Diego Castillo was also very effective. This team’s bullpen was ranked #13 at the outset of the season and made the single-year jump to #5 to open ’23. That is quite impressive.

6. TAMPA BAY – Power Rating: 15       

Expected usage: 4.2 Innings/G (#1 of 30)        

Closer(s): Pete Fairbanks, Jason Adam

Top alternative(s): Jalen Beeks, Garrett Cleavinger  

Other key pieces: Ryan Thompson, Shawn Armstrong

Steve’s thoughts: As usual, Tampa Bay’s bullpen is expected to get the most work in MLB in ’23. The Rays’ starters just don’t get called on to work that deep into games often. There is a nice group of arms in the bullpen though, led by expected loser Pete Fairbanks, a huge 6’6” right-hander that posted a 0.67 WHIP and 14.25 K’s/9 last season. He was also 8-for-8 in closing opportunities. Jason Adam also posted a gaudy 0.76 WHIP after coming over from the Cubs prior to last year. That was way above expectation. The rest of the group is a collection of young lively arms that posted respectable stats in ’22. There’s a reason this group gets utilized a lot.

7. BOSTON – Power Rating: 14 

Expected usage: 4 Innings/G (#2 of 30)

Closer(s): Kenley Jansen 

Top alternative(s): John Schreiber, Chris Martin        

Other key pieces: Tanner Houck, Joely Rodriguez

Steve’s thoughts: The addition of Kenley Jansen as the new stopper bumps Boston’s bullpen rating up a good amount although his reign as the long-term option might be in doubt with the 2022 emergence of Schreiber and Martin, both of whom posted strong numbers in warranting significant work in the season’s second half. Martin walked just 5 hitters in 56 innings while striking out 74. Schreiber had an ERA of 2.22 and WHIP of 0.97. I expect this to be a better unit in 2023, with Jansen anchoring the back end.

8. MINNESOTA – Power Rating: 14      

Expected usage: 3.5 Innings/G (#9 of 30)        

Closer(s): Jorge Lopez, Jhoan Duran    

Top alternative(s): Caleb Thielbar         

Other key pieces: Griffin Jax, Emilio Pagan, Jorge Alcala

Steve’s thoughts: The Twins figured they acquired their closer of the future when they got Jorge Lopez from Baltimore in a trade, but he wasn’t anywhere near as effective in Minnesota as he was prior in ’22. He is a good option, but Jhoan Duran might prove to be the better option long term. He struck out 89 hitters in 67 innings last season while posting a WHIP of 0.98. Thielbar, Jax, and Pagan all posted strong numbers in mid-inning roles and give this unit solid depth and balance. This unit should be a plus for this franchise in 2023.

9. NEW YORK YANKEES – Power Rating: 12    

Expected usage: 3.5 Innings/G (#10 of 30)      

Closer(s): Clay Holmes

Top alternative(s): Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta          

Other key pieces: Tommy Kahnle, Lou Trivino, Michael King

Steve’s thoughts: There is a lot of pressure that comes with closing games for the Yankees. Clay Holmes did a respectable job in the role a year ago, although he is no Rivera or Chapman at this point. The mid-season injury to Michael King last year was a huge blow to this unit, although he is expected to be back in the fold for opening day. King has overpowering closer stuff if you ask me. This group as a whole isn’t what it was a few years ago, but it hasn’t dropped off that far either. Keep an eye on the name Ron Marinaccio, as he put up very good numbers in his first season last year in a limited 44-inning role.

10. MIAMI – Power Rating: 12    

Expected usage: 3.1 Innings/G (#22 of 30)      

Closer(s): Dylan Floro, A.J. Puk  

Top alternative(s): Tanner Scott, Matt Barnes

Other key pieces: J.T. Chargois, Steven Okert

Steve’s thoughts: Miami has some good talent in its pitching staff, but mistakes were plenty last year, as three of the returnees noted above combined to blow 15 saves. A.J. Puk figures to step in as the closer after coming over from Oakland. He was more of a set-up man there however, but has closers’ stuff, having struck out 76 hitters in 66 innings while recording a WHIP of 1.15. Chargois and Okert put up the best numbers of the group, while Barnes comes over from Boston where he served in a secondary role. This should be a fairly strong unit in ’23.

11. SAN DIEGO – Power Rating: 10      

Expected usage: 3.4 Innings/G (#13 of 30)      

Closer(s): Josh Hader       

Top alternative(s): Luis Garcia, Robert Suarez           

Other key pieces: Tim Hill, Drew Pomeranz, Nabil Crismatt

Steve’s thoughts: It’s teams like San Diego that challenge my recipe for accurately building power rankings for bullpen units. I know the talent is there, and any relief staff headed by Josh Hader has to be given respect. Still, which Hader will the Padres get for 2023? The one that struggled horribly after being acquired from Milwaukee, or the one that finished the season returning to vintage-Hader form? As a whole, Hader’s ERA was just 5.22 for the season. Suarez, Garcia, and Crismatt were all solid in secondary roles for this unit in ’22 but so much of this group’s ranking depends upon the performance of Hader.

12. ST LOUIS – Power Rating: 9

Expected usage: 3.4 Innings/G (#14 of 30)      

Closer(s): Ryan Helsley    

Top alternative(s): Giovanny Gallegos 

Other key pieces: Andre Pallante, Jordan Hicks, Genesis Cabrera, Chris Stratton

Steve’s thoughts: There may not be another unit in baseball that matches the pure arm talent of the Cardinals. There are a plethora of hard-throwing studs in this group. Can they put it together, pitch consistently, and put up numbers befitting of a top-ranked unit in ’23? That is the big question. Closer Helsley can be unhittable when on. However, he, Gallegos, Cabrera, and Hicks all allowed at least 5 HRs in less than 65 innings of work and the three combined for a middle-inning ERA of around 4.00. Stratton had a nice second half of the season after being acquired from Pittsburgh last year, well above career norms however.

13. MILWAUKEE – Power Rating: 8      

Expected usage: 3.5 Innings/G (#11 of 30)      

Closer(s): Devin Williams 

Top alternative(s): Matt Bush, Peter Strzelecki

Other key pieces: Hoby Milner, Javy Guerra

Steve’s thoughts: Milwaukee’s bullpen is night and day different from what it has been over the last handful of seasons in which it was always ranked in the top five at the outset of the campaign. That’s what happens when you lose a player the talent level of Josh Hader, who was sent to San Diego in a trade last season. The pieces the Brewers got in return did not fill the void. Devin Williams is a very good pitcher who may or may not be built for the closing role. Time will determine that. This unit has some good arms, most of whom posted strong numbers in smaller roles last season, but more will be asked of them in ’23. Still, a long way from the Boxberger-Williams-Hader procession that awaited hitters at the outset of ’22.

14. TORONTO – Power Rating: 4          

Expected usage: 3.3 Innings/G (#18 of 30)      

Closer(s): Jordan Romano           

Top alternative(s): Erik Swanson, Yimi Garcia

Other key pieces: Tim Mayza, Anthony Bass, Nate Pearson

Steve’s thoughts: The Blue Jays are another team that saw its bullpen put up strong statistical numbers but blow a lot of saves over the course of the 2022 season. In fact, of the top six pitchers on this unit’s depth chart, they combine for 24 blown saves. Romano saved 36 games last year and should reach that many or more in 2023 if healthy. Erik Swanson is a very nice addition from Seattle, where he put up a 0.91 WHIP and 70 K’s in 53 innings. More consistency from this unit and they could be a top 10 ranked group.

15. NEW YORK METS – Power Rating: 8 

Expected usage: 3.1 Innings/G (#23 of 30)      

Closer(s): David Robertson         

Top alternative(s): Adam Ottavino         

Other key pieces: Brooks Raley, Drew Smith

Steve’s thoughts: The injury to Edwin Diaz, which will keep him out for the entire ’23 season, was a brutal blow to a franchise that has obvious postseason goals. Diaz was nothing short of incredible for the Mets in ’22, striking out 118 hitters in 62 innings while recording a WHIP of 0.84 and 32 saves. Quite frankly, there aren’t many other options across the entire league that are that dominant. David Robertson, who comes over from Philly, figures to step into the closer role, but this is an overwhelming drop-off. Adam Ottavino, who served this team well in the setup role last year, could be called on more to close games. In all, there’s good arm talent here, but the injury to Diaz caused me to drop this unit 10 spots in the rankings.

16. PHILADELPHIA – Power Rating: 7 

Expected usage: 3 Innings/G (#26 of 30)         

Closer(s): Craig Kimbrel, Seranthony Dominguez       

Top alternative(s): Jose Alvarado, Gregory Soto

Other key pieces: Matt Strahm, Andrew Bellatti

Steve’s thoughts: There may not be a single bullpen situation more interesting than what is going on at Philadelphia in between a run to the World Series and opening day of ’23. The coveted closer role is wide open and should come down to one of three options. Journeyman and former elite stopper Craig Kimbrel arrives from L.A., Gregory Soto comes over from Detroit, and Seranthony Dominguez tries to earn a promotion this spring. The latter had a strong ’22 campaign in a setup role. There are big names and big arms in this bullpen this season, but they’ll all collectively need to improve for this team to overcome the Mets and Braves again.

17. SAN FRANCISCO – Power Rating: 5         

Expected usage: 3.7 Innings/G (#5 of 30)        

Closer(s): Camilo Doval   

Top alternative(s): Taylor Rogers          

Other key pieces: Tyler Rogers, John Brebbia

Steve’s thoughts: Camilo Doval plugs in as the Giants’ closer for the second straight season after a ’22 campaign in which he saved 27 games while blowing three. He posted a modest 1.24 WHIP. Taylor Rogers has now become a journeyman and made the move to San Francisco after struggling with Milwaukee in the late season. He would seem to be in a nice spot to be the set-up man as a left-hander. Tyler Rogers and John Brebbia were middle-inning guys and neither has proven to be overpowering, posting modest WHIPs in the high 1.2s last year. While the numbers don’t project out horribly, I’m not a huge fan of the arm talent here.

18. CINCINNATI – Power Rating: 4       

Expected usage: 3.6 Innings/G (#7 of 30)        

Closer(s): Alexis Diaz       

Top alternative(s): Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone (INJ)   

Other key pieces: Tony Santillan, Reiver Sanmartin, Fernando Cruz

Steve’s thoughts: In his first season in the big leagues, Alexis Diaz showed the stuff worthy of becoming a legit long-term closer option for the Reds. He can be totally overpowering. Fernando Cruz also showed tremendous potential in just over 14 innings of work last year and should see his role expanded. This unit has had a lot of moving pieces since mid-season of 2022, but on the surface, it looks much improved.

19. CHICAGO WHITE SOX – Power Rating: 3

Expected usage: 3.3 Innings/G (#19 of 30)      

Closer(s): Kendall Graveman, Liam Hendriks (INJ)    

Top alternative(s): Aaron Bummer, Reynaldo Lopez 

Other key pieces: Jake Diekman, Joe Kelly

Steve’s thoughts: The devastating news regarding Liam Hendriks being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma has obviously been a big blow to the White Sox franchise. This bullpen was expected to be among the league’s best last year with him, Kendall Graveman, and Craig Kimbrel leading the way. Like most other facets of the campaign, it was an utter disappointment. For 2023, I have this group ranked 19th, and that could be ambitious depending on whether or not they get anything from Hendriks. Bummer & Lopez will need to be even bigger parts of this group than they were a year ago for it to not sink.

20. BALTIMORE – Power Rating: 2       

Expected usage: 3.2 Innings/G (#20 of 30)      

Closer(s): Felix Bautista (INJ)     

Top alternative(s): Bryan Baker, Cionel Perez, Dillon Tate (INJ)     

Other key pieces: Mychal Givens, Keegan Akin

Steve’s thoughts: Bautista had a solid 2022 season and should be ready for opening day after a mild knee injury in spring. Perez posted a 1.56 ERA in 57 innings but doesn’t boast the strikeout numbers of an overpowering closer. Walks were a problem for this unit last season and they’ll need to keep more hitters off the bases to improve their ranking in 2023.

21. ARIZONA – Power Rating: 1

Expected usage: 2.8 Innings/G (#30 of 30)      

Closer(s): Kevin Ginkel, Joe Mantiply, Andrew Chafin

Top alternative(s): Miguel Castro, Cole Sulser

Other key pieces: Scott McGough, Mark Melancon (INJ)

Steve’s thoughts: Mantiply, Chafin, and Ginkel all put up really good numbers last year although none boasts the power characteristics that will enable them to capture the job for themselves. It’s a decent committee and a good replacement for the injured Mark Melancon, who is expected to miss “months.” His best days seem to be behind him. Hopefully, a true stopper emerges in the early season.

22. KANSAS CITY – Power Rating: -1  

Expected usage: 3.4 Innings/G (#15 of 30)      

Closer(s): Scott Barlow     

Top alternative(s): Dylan Coleman, Aroldis Chapman           

Other key pieces: Amir Garrett, Taylor Clarke

Steve’s thoughts: Since being moved into the closer role in the 2021 season, Scott Barlow has gotten the job done for the Royals, saving 40 games. His stuff isn’t dominant, thus leaving room open for someone to step in and supplant him. Could it be longtime relief stud Aroldis Chapman? His stuff has fallen off the last few seasons but perhaps a fresh start in Kansas City could reinvigorate him. Amir Garrett, who boasts a similar frame to Chapman, gives this team two hard-throwing left-handers. Dylan Coleman was strong in the middle innings for this team a year ago. If nothing else, the Chapman addition makes this an intriguing group to watch in ’23.

23. PITTSBURGH – Power Rating: -2   

Expected usage: 3.8 Innings/G (#4 of 30)        

Closer(s): David Bednar

Top alternative(s): Wil Crowe, Robert Stephenson    

Other key pieces: Chase De Jong, Duane Underwood Jr.

Steve’s thoughts: David Bednar was solid in the closer role last year for Pittsburgh and represented the team at the all-star game. He saved 19 games and struck out 69 in just over 51 innings. Between him, Chase De Jong, and Wil Crowe, the Pirates have a solid group on which to build their relief staff. This certainly isn’t the weakest part of what Pittsburgh brings to the table this season.

24. DETROIT – Power Rating: -2

Expected usage: 3.5 Innings/G (#12 of 30)      

Closer(s): Alex Lange       

Top alternative(s): Jason Foley 

Other key pieces: Will Vest, Jose Cisnero

Steve’s thoughts: Lange was both tremendous in the closer’s role last season and maddeningly wild. He definitely strikes fear in opposing hitters, however, a key trait to being a dominant stopper. Jason Foley, Will Vest, and Jose Cisnero stepped up with solid seasons last year, each with a HIP right around 1.35, although none show dominant stuff. Beyond that, it is a stretch to find anyone that figures to contribute heavily. Thus the #24 ranking.

25. COLORADO – Power Rating: -2      

Expected usage: 3.4 Innings/G (#16 of 30)      

Closer(s): Daniel Bard      

Top alternative(s): Pierce Johnson, Dinelson Lamet 

Other key pieces: Lucas Gilbreath, Justin Lawrence, Tyler Kinley, Brent Suter

Steve’s thoughts: