There are 750 active major leaguers on any given day, and roughly 730 of them are relief pitchers. This year, more than seven relievers have appeared, on average, per game, which is a record pace. Relievers have thrown more than 42 percent of all innings, which also would be a record. It's all but impossible to love and enjoy baseball in 2018 without loving and enjoying relievers.
This isn't always easy. Roughly 96 percent of relievers fall under seven reliever types -- the Brian Shouse, the B.J. Ryan, the Felix Rodriguez, the Chad Bradford, the Ron Villone, the Takashi Saito and the Sergio Santos -- and they enter and exit with such assembly-line rapidity that it can be hard to notice or recall all but the few best of them. So then, consider this a public service: It's a power rankings of Your New Favorite Reliever. The only rules are that they are relievers, they are lovable and they are unconventional enough to be surprised to read their own names in this article.
8. A.J. Minter is your new favorite reliever.
There are guys who throw harder than A.J. Minter, whose hardest fastball as a big leaguer is a mere 98.3 mph. But there are few guys who throw more relentlessly hard than Minter, a 6-foot Atlanta Braves left-hander who has only two pitches: the aforementioned fastball and a slider that averages 91. So, for example, in the first outing of his career, his slowest pitch was 90.4 mph. In his most recent outing, his slowest pitch was 91.1 mph. More than 90 percent of his pitches as a big leaguer have started with a 9; the slowest one was 88.
And he's legit. Last August, with the Braves chasing third place, Minter got the call-up, and he was fire: 15 innings, 26 strikeouts, just two walks and a 3.00 ERA. He didn't pitch nearly enough to get on any leaderboards, but if he had, his 0.96 FIP would have been the best in baseball, ahead even of [insert your previous favorite reliever here]. Only Craig Kimbrel struck out a higher percentage of batters; only six pitchers in all of baseball walked a lower percentage.
"I'm not sure how guys get a hit off of him," his manager, Brian Snitker, said after Minter's debut. And, as a twist, he's been exactly backward this year: He hasn't allowed a run in four appearances, but also hasn't struck out a batter and he's walked more (three) than he did last year. What a weird, mysterious phenomenon is A.J. Minter, your new favorite reliever.
7. Kirby Yates is your new favorite reliever.
Yates, a Padre, a right-handed Padre, a short, thick right-handed Padre, is one of the most unhittable relievers in baseball. Since the start of 2017, he has struck out 38 percent of the batters he has faced, eighth highest in the game. He doesn't throw all that hard -- 93, 94 -- but his fastball gets big tailing movement, and his splitter is a 50-percent-whiffs kind of pitch. He's pretty good.
But, so, here's the story: Nine years ago, he went undrafted out of college. That's pretty rare. The Rays signed him, he spent six years in their system, then began his long bounce-around journey: purchased by Cleveland, purchased by the Yankees, selected off waivers by the Angels, selected off waivers by the Padres. That last one came less than a year ago, after Yates threw his one and only outing with the Angels, and the club decided immediately afterward to "fortify the bullpen" with Brooks Pounders. Yates was 30 years old and a one-look pitcher: A team took one look at him, and immediately took steps to fortify the bullpen. With Brooks Pounders.
A week after that DFA, Yates was a Padre -- he got 11 swinging strikes in his second game with them -- and a year later, he's barely distinguishable from 26 other teams' closers. Five appearances so far this year (before tendinitis in his ankle landed him on the 10-day DL Tuesday), two baserunners, no runs, five K's. Someday, Brooks Pounders will probably be your favorite reliever, but today he's the punchline in the story of Kirby Yates, your new favorite reliever.
6. Kazuhisa Makita is your new favorite reliever.
Submariner, 33 years old, from Yaizu, Japan, but get this: His average fastball is 3.5 mph slower than Pedro Florimon's. Pedro Florimon is a utility dude who had to pitch a mop-up inning for the Phillies last week.
Makita's fastball has thus far averaged 80.8 mph. MLB's Gameday application reliably calls it a changeup. He throws a curveball in the mid-50s. It doesn't show up on radar guns. Look at the second pitch here:
After 62 pitches for the Padres this season, your hero Kazuhisa Makita has induced 11 swinging strikes. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Jordan Hicks -- a 22-year-old phenom whose average fastball is the hardest in the game this season, at 99.7 mph -- has thrown 63 pitches, and he has induced six swinging strikes. This is why Kazuhisa Makita is my favorite reliever. Join me, won't you?
5. Fernando Rodney is your new favorite reliever, for real!
Oh, man, I hate watching Fernando Rodney. Always have. As long as I've been alive, seems like Rodney's been out there getting into jams, falling behind on batters, walking the leadoff man, walking the tying run, bein' overrated, bein' overpaid, bein' far more confident in himself than I am in him, bein' more confident in himself than I am in myself, bothering me with his confidence, taunting me with his lack of self-hate, walking the go-ahead run into scoring position.
But now he's 41, he eats snow, the crooked hat is a baseball institution, and what once seemed flaky now seems sort of Zen: "Sometimes you see the roster and you say, 'Why am I here?'" Rodney said recently. "I say, 'I don't know, maybe I can control the game.'" That's really deep! On at least two levels!
They say politicians, buildings, crooked hats and ballplayers all get respectable with age, and Rodney seems like a real threat to take over the Lovable Old Man title once Bartolo Colon and Ichiro Suzuki finally retire. At 41, he's roughly as good as he's ever been. He still throws in the mid-90s and strikes out 10 batters per nine; he still has that fantastic changeup separation and keeps the ball on the ground; he still walks too many, although it's not quite as bad as it used to be.
If he were 26, he'd be pitching the seventh inning somewhere, but he's Fernando Rodney, so he always finds the one team that needs a closer. He's somehow the active leader in saves, even though he has the same career ERA as Shawn Kelly (15 career saves) and Craig Stammen (one). He's playing for his ninth team, and he might play for nine more, and he'll be the closer for all of them, and when he's ready to retire, he'll finish a save and reach into his quiver, pull himself out of it, shoot himself into the distance, and we'll try to figure out how he did that.
You love Fernando Rodney. How did this happen?
4. Wander Almonico is your new favorite reliever.
Almonico was drafted out of junior college as a center fielder, but he converted to pitching because he thought it might help him quit chewing tobacco. He throws an 89 mph fastball with screwball movement, and a 91 mph changeup, which really confuses batters. That's helped him post consistently strong xFIPs -- 3.30, 3.31, 3.31 and 3.30 over the past four years -- even as his ERA has bounced around (0.61, 7.84, 2.10, 4.50). His save celebration -- he pantomimes making coffee in a French press -- takes five and a half minutes, mostly spent sitting around and waiting. He doesn't actually exist, but he's your favorite reliever.
3. Chaz Roe is your new favorite reliever.
Roe (roe: "The mass of eggs contained in the ovaries of a female fish or shellfish, typically including the ovaries themselves, especially when ripe and used as food") already is a bit of a cult favorite among baseball writers for his curvy slider, which regularly leads the league in horizontal movement. Here's an example, with GIFs. Enjoy the GIFs. It's the sort of pitch a comic book artist would draw.
The problem is Roe's not that good. He spent a bunch of last year in Triple-A, for instance, even though he was 30 years old. He has played for 10 teams already (the Rays being the latest), for another instance. You shouldn't fall in love with Chaz Roe in expectation of him pitching the eighth inning effectively. You should fall in love with him because when he's called into the sixth inning of an 8-2 game, he will throw a pitch that will make you say "lol." You won't laugh, so much as you'll say the word "lol."
Anyway, Roe's Roe. But this year Roe's slider has been even wormier: It has had, on average, 14.2 inches of horizontal break, which you should understand is so stupid it should sound like I made it up as a gag. It's more than 2 inches more than the next-biggest break, almost 9 inches more than the average slider, and almost 4 inches more than Roe's slider break in 2017.
At some point, the Law Of Relievers says Roe will have a full season with a 2.12 ERA, and we'll all believe he's actually incredibly good. But so far as we can tell, Roe is like a dude who is really good at card tricks but not very good at cards. Still, the slider is something no other human being alive can do, and you looooooove him.
2. Josh Hader is your new favorite reliever.
Dominant relievers are fun enough, but what we all really crave is a good-enough reliever used sliiiiiiiiightly differently than other relievers are used. Josh Hader is a dominant reliever -- he struck out 13 batters per nine as a rookie last year, with a 2.08 ERA, and became the Brewers' best reliever as soon as Corey Knebel injured his hamstring last week -- but he's also out-Andrew Millering Andrew Miller: In his last outing, he came into the game in the fourth inning, which is so early that they hadn't even played the fifth inning yet.
Three times last year he completed three innings, 10 times he got six outs or more, and 16 times he got at least four. It's pretty obvious that on a boring team he'd be a closer, you'd have him on your fantasy team, he'd be famous enough not to be included on this list, and you'd plan all your naps around baseball games. But the Brewers are using Hader differently, and they've stuck with it even after Knebel's injury (so far). Baseball is putting on cologne and buying you flowers and hoping you'll notice it. Notice it, will you?
1. Dick Bleier is your new favorite reliever.
Technically, he goes by Richard, but he's so dead ball era that it's impossible not to call him by a dead ball first name. Dick Bleier, an Oriole, a left-hander, with an 89 mph sinker, struck out 26 batters in an entire major league season last year -- last year, 2017, when the league set yet another strikeout record. He pitched 63 innings and stuck out as many batters as A.J. Minter (remember him? From right up there?) did after his Aug. 23 call-up. That's 3.7 K/9, which would have been the league average in 1949, when the minimum wage was 40 cents an hour and the population of Las Vegas was 24,000.
In any season there's bound to be some pitcher who can't strike anybody out, but Bleier is actually really good. He had a 1.99 ERA last year (and 1.96 the year before), and after six outings he's at 1.04 this year. Wait, this fun fact has potential: OK, Bleier has -- yes! -- the best ERA+ in major league history, minimum 95 innings! (He has thrown 95 innings.)
Look, I'm a realist: It will take me seven years of this to believe Richard Bleier is good. But I'm also a cynic, and it will only take me 95 innings to believe there's something wrong with all of Major League Baseball for failing to see Richard Bleier is obviously good and everybody just missed it. That's why I like watching Richard Bleier. That's why I like relievers: They can mean almost anything you want them to mean.