Closer Encounters: Leveraging WPA & gmLI to Identify Potential Closers

Closer Encounters: Leveraging WPA & gmLI to Identify Potential Closers

This article is part of our Closer Encounters series.

With 10 percent of the 2022 season in the books, let's go division by division and review team leaders for a handful statistics I regularly monitor for relief pitchers. A few are your basic pitching categories like saves, holds and K/9, but I also like to look at win probability added (WPA) and leverage index (LI). FanGraphs' Sabermetrics Library offers more detailed explanations on WPA and LI, but in short:

  • WPA - measures how important your performance was to your team winning
  • gmLI - one iteration of LI that captures a pitcher's average LI upon entering a game

These stats are not gospel when it comes to evaluating closers, but they can often help identify potential closers in waiting. I leverage this information in combination with our Closer Grid when updating team closer hierarchies and closer-in-waiting rankings.

The statistics you'll find in the tables below are through April 25, using data from FanGraphs' 2022 pitching leaderboard. I filtered by team and by "Relievers" and pulled WPA and gmLI statistics from the Win Probability tab. Just keep in mind the season is still young and the average relief pitcher has only made 4.8 appearances. The league leaders among relievers have made nine appearances, but many are still working under very small samples.

AL East

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

BAL

Jorge Lopez (4)

Dillon Tate (3)

Jorge Lopez (13.0)

Jorge Lopez (2.64)

Dillon Tate (0.51)

BOS

4 tied (1)

Jake Diekman (5)

Jake Diekman

With 10 percent of the 2022 season in the books, let's go division by division and review team leaders for a handful statistics I regularly monitor for relief pitchers. A few are your basic pitching categories like saves, holds and K/9, but I also like to look at win probability added (WPA) and leverage index (LI). FanGraphs' Sabermetrics Library offers more detailed explanations on WPA and LI, but in short:

  • WPA - measures how important your performance was to your team winning
  • gmLI - one iteration of LI that captures a pitcher's average LI upon entering a game

These stats are not gospel when it comes to evaluating closers, but they can often help identify potential closers in waiting. I leverage this information in combination with our Closer Grid when updating team closer hierarchies and closer-in-waiting rankings.

The statistics you'll find in the tables below are through April 25, using data from FanGraphs' 2022 pitching leaderboard. I filtered by team and by "Relievers" and pulled WPA and gmLI statistics from the Win Probability tab. Just keep in mind the season is still young and the average relief pitcher has only made 4.8 appearances. The league leaders among relievers have made nine appearances, but many are still working under very small samples.

AL East

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

BAL

Jorge Lopez (4)

Dillon Tate (3)

Jorge Lopez (13.0)

Jorge Lopez (2.64)

Dillon Tate (0.51)

BOS

4 tied (1)

Jake Diekman (5)

Jake Diekman (15.4)

Ryan Brasier (3.04)

Garrett Whitlock (0.47)

NYY

Aroldis Chapman (4)

Clay Holmes (4)

Michael King (15.2)

Clarke Schmidt (2.52)

Michael King (0.69)

TB

Andrew Kittredge (2)

Ryan Thompson (2)

Jalen Beeks (13.5)

Jeffrey Springs (1.53)

Andrew Kittredge (0.71)

TOR

Jordan Romano (8)

Yimi Garcia (5)

David Phelps (12.2)

Adam Cimber (2.26)

Yimi Garcia (0.53)

Jorge Lopez, RP, Orioles - I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight Lopez, who has been outstanding as Baltimore's closer since the team traded Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott to Miami earlier this month. The former starter had a few shaky outings to open 2022, but has been remarkable in his last five appearances, tossing 6.2 scoreless innings with an 11:0 K:BB, a win and three saves to bring his total to four in as many chances on the young season. 

Per Statcast, Lopez has basically ditched his four-seam fastball in 2022, while increasing the usage of his sinker, changeup and slider.

He's also added velocity on all of his offerings, including his sinker, which averages 98 miles per hour (99th percentile). This is a +2.6 mph difference from last season! The way Lopez has blossomed has likely far exceeded manager Brandon Hyde's expectations, though his career ERA as a reliever (4.60) is nearly two runs better than as a starter. Lopez's current 13.0 K/9 is blowing away his career high (9.0).

Meanwhile, it's pretty clear that Dillon Tate is the next man up in this arm barn, despite impressive starts for Cionel Perez, Felix Bautista, Joey Krehbiel and Bryan Baker. After years of ranking near the bottom of league in ERA, this unit ranks 13th with a 3.32 ERA.

Michael King, RP, Yankees - I found it surprising that 2021 relief darlings Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green were absent from the Yankees' leaderboard. Both pitchers were commonly drafted in deeper leagues for ratio support and ancillary saves, but have yet to come through for their fantasy managers. They're still pitching important innings for New York, but Loaisiga sports a 7.11 ERA, 1.74 WHIP and 6:5 K:BB through 6.1 innings, while Green has a 4.91 ERA, 1.77 WHIP and 5:3 K:BB through 7.1 innings. Instead, it has been Michael King who has provided standout numbers in long relief. Through 10.2 innings (five appearances), King has a whopping 43.9 percent strikeout rate while walking two batters. He even struck out eight Guardians in three scoreless innings during an April 22 appearance. Those who play in deeper leagues or daily formats may wish to deploy King in their starting lineups on nights when Luis Severino pitches. As @BullpenGuru of Reliever Recon recently noted in his relief pitcher streaming article, Severino had not yet worked more than five innings in a start this season, until Tuesday night. 

AL Central

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

CLE

Emmanuel Clase (2)

Nick Sandlin (3)

Anthony Gose (14.4)

Nick Sandlin (2.05)

Trevor Stephan (0.43)

CWS

Liam Hendriks (4)

3 tied (4)

Aaron Bummer (16.5)

Liam Hendriks (2.27)

Jose Ruiz (0.24)

DET

Gregory Soto (3)

Alex Lange (2)

Alex Lange (12.7)

Gregory Soto (2.39)

Michael Fulmer (0.58)

KC

Josh Staumont (2)

3 tied (2)

Jake Brentz (16.6)

Josh Staumont (2.02)

Collin Snider (0.84)

MIN

Emilio Pagan (2)

2 tied (2)

Jhoan Duran (15.0)

Joe Smith (2.00)

Joe Smith (0.55)

Liam Hendriks, RP, White Sox - I touched on Hendriks' struggles last week and his latest performance since then was a 1.1 IP, 3 H, 3 R (2 ER) line against the Twins on April 24, during which he allowed a walk-off home run to Byron Buxton in the bottom of the 10th inning. He labored again with 30 pitches thrown in the outing, only 15 of which were strikes. White Sox manager Tony La Russa revealed after the game that Hendriks was dealing with back tightness, but downplayed the severity of the issue. I'll be monitoring Hendriks closely this week to see if a few days of rest are what's needed for him to right the ship, but in the meantime, his -1.13 WPA is the lowest on the White Sox.

Emilio Pagan, RP, Twins - After spending months wondering how the Twins would split save opportunities between Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey and Jorge Alcala, we finally have some closer clarity in Minnesota. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned relievers have been the beneficiary of said opportunities. Rogers was traded to San Diego on Opening Day and Alcala hit the injured list with right elbow inflammation after just two appearances with reduced velocity. Duffey earned three saves last season and has been one of the Twins best relievers for three years running, but blew his first save chance April 9. Therefore, manager Rocco Baldelli turned to his newest acquisition for his team's most recent save opportunities. Pagan has experience in the closer role during his time with Tampa Bay in 2019, but the right-hander hasn't been great since then and owns an unsightly 1.7 HR/9 for his career. Pagan allowed his first home run of the season Tuesday night and his poor home run rate is why I always figured Duffey would be the primary option for saves. Also worth monitoring is Pagan has walked six through 5.2 innings this season. Pagan appears to have earned some security in the closer role for now, but Duffey and exciting rookie Jhoan Duran remain threats to usurp him if he shows any signs of struggle. Duran, in particular, is worth rostering in deep leagues due to his immense upside.

AL West

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

HOU

Ryan Pressly (3)

Phil Maton (3)

Rafael Montero (16.7)

Ryan Pressly (2.56)

Rafael Montero (0.50)

LAA

Raisel Iglesias (3)

Ryan Tepera (4)

Jimmy Herget (11.3)

Jose Quijada (1.56)

Raisel Iglesias (0.31)

OAK

Dany Jimenez (3)

4 tied (3)

Justin Grimm (12.5)

Lou Trivino (2.05)

Sam Moll (0.39)

SEA

3 tied (1)

3 tied (2)

Matt Festa (17.1)

Drew Steckenrider (1.69)

Matt Koch (0.30)

TEX

Matt Bush (1)

3 tied (2)

Brock Burke (16.4)

Matt Bush (1.56)

2 tied (0.07)

Rafael Montero, RP, Astros - When Ryan Pressly (knee) was placed on the IL, many rushed to pick up Hector Neris as his short-term replacement for saves. Neris is off to a fantastic start this year, but I have to imagine that many, myself included, overlooked Montero as a viable option for the closer role in Pressly's absence. Although he has yet to be afforded a save chance, take a look at Montero's numbers this season:

His 14:1 K:BB might be the most surprising small sample stat I've seen yet this season. Despite my ignorance to his success, the former Rangers and Mariners closer has been logging important innings for Houston, being called upon to pitch during a tie game or 1-run lead in five of his eight appearances. Montero has also pitched the eighth inning in each of his last six appearances. As a result, I've moved him ahead of Ryne Stanek on Houston's closer hierarchy, but don't expect an abundance of save chances in the short term with the possibility of Pressly's return this week.

NL East

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

ATL

Kenley Jansen (4)

Tyler Matzek (3)

Collin McHugh (18.0)

A.J. Minter (1.19)

Kenley Jansen (0.20)

MIA

Anthony Bender (2)

2 tied (3)

Tanner Scott (16.0)

Anthony Bender (2.73)

Cole Sulser (0.39)

NYM

Edwin Diaz (2)

Drew Smith (4)

Edwin Diaz (15.8)

Trevor Williams (2.80)

Chasen Shreve (0.40)

PHI

Corey Knebel (3)

Seranthony Dominguez (3)

Jeurys Familia (12.0)

Jeurys Familia (1.55)

Brad Hand (0.20)

WAS

Tanner Rainey (3)

Kyle Finnegan (3)

Victor Arano (14.0)

Victor Arano (1.46)

Sean Doolittle (0.41)

Victor Arano, RP, Nationals -  A former top prospect of the Phillies, Arano last pitched in the majors in 2019 before hurting his elbow. He failed to appear in Atlanta's stacked bullpen last season, but was afforded a chance with Washington this spring and flashed his upside with seven strikeouts over 3.2 Grapefruit League innings. Now Arano is tied for the league lead among relievers with 10 appearances this season. He's been effective too, stifling batters with his slider that he throws 56 percent of the time. Note his increased sinker usage too, which he's favoring over his four-seamer:

Nationals closer Tanner Rainey is off to a nice start this year with three saves in as many chances, but he's been erratic in the past with a 6.6 BB/9 for his career. Kyle Finnegan saved 11 games last season and is the team leader with three holds, but has been largely inconsistent. Should Rainey (or Finnegan) falter in the near future, Arano is who I'd place my bet on for saves in Washington.

NL Central

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

CHC

David Robertson (4)

Mychal Givens (2)

Chris Martin (14.3)

Keegan Thompson (1.96)

Keegan Thompson (0.87)

CIN

3 tied (1)

Tony Santillan (2)

Buck Farmer (12.2)

Tony Santillan (1.25)

Art Warren (0.17)

MIL

Josh Hader (8)

Devin Williams (7)

Devin Williams (17.1)

Brad Boxberger (3.19)

Josh Hader (1.01)

PIT

2 tied (2)

David Bednar (3)

David Bednar (13.5)

David Bednar (1.79)

David Bednar (0.80)

STL

Giovanny Gallegos (4)

3 tied (3)

Ryan Helsley (18.6)

Genesis Cabrera (1.28)

Genesis Cabrera (0.29)

David Bednar, RP, Pirates - Even though Bednar and Chris Stratton share the Pirates' team lead with two saves apiece, Bednar is the only reliever in this article who dominated all five of the above categories across the board. He's a stud and is particularly valuable in saves plus holds (S+H) formats since he's sharing the closer role and pitching in the team's highest leverage situations otherwise.

Ryan Helsley, RP, Cardinals - Helsley has yet to allow a run across 5.1 innings this season while yielding just one hit with no walks and 11 strikeouts. He's demonstrated increased velocity on his fastball that averages 98.6 mph — up 1.2 miles per hour from last season — and has topped out a 101.5 mph this season. With Giovanny Gallegos allowing four earned runs during his last appearance that resulted in his first blown save of the season, don't be surprised if Helsley or Genesis Cabrera receive the next save opportunity for the Cardinals, especially now that manager Oliver Marmol has clued us in to how he manages his bullpen.

NL West

Team

Saves Leader

Holds Leader

K/9 Leader

gmLI Leader

WPA Leader

ARI

Mark Melancon (2)

Ian Kennedy (3)

Corbin Martin (11.6)

Mark Melancon (2.34)

Joe Mantiply (0.32)

COL

Daniel Bard (5)

Tyler Kinley (3)

Tyler Kinley (12.3)

Daniel Bard (2.10)

Ashton Goudou (0.29)

LAD

Craig Kimbrel (3)

Daniel Hudson (3)

Daniel Hudson (12.7)

Blake Treinen (1.62)

Daniel Hudson (0.45)

SD

Taylor Rogers (5)

Pierce Johnson (5)

Steven Wilson (14.7)

Taylor Rogers (1.70)

Taylor Rogers (0.26)

SF

Camilo Doval (4)

Tyler Rogers (6)

Dominic Leone (10.0)

Jake McGee (1.68)

John Brebbia (0.47)

Jake McGee, RP, Giants - I totally understand if fellow fantasy managers are panicking over McGee's lack of saves to start the year, especially since manager Gabe Kapler announced prior to the season that he'd be his closer on Opening Day. Instead, Camilo Doval has earned four of the Giants' seven saves thus far, while McGee has tallied only two. Despite the low save total, if the Giants maintain a similar 55-30-15 split for saves to what they have now — with Doval receiving slightly more than half of the opportunities, McGee receiving 30 percent and the rest of the bullpen compiling the remaining 15 percent — I still think McGee will be valuable, especially with Doval displaying questionable command (4.3 BB/9) and struggling against left-handed batters (.462 batting average against with three home runs allowed among 18 batters faced). Based on last year's team save total (56), the estimated split for saves would equate to roughly 17 for McGee. There's no guarantee San Francisco records that many saves again this year, but they currently have one of the best records in baseball. Don't give up on McGee just yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Rufe
Ryan manages the MLB Closer Grid and authors 'Closer Encounters'. He also contributes to the MLB draft kit and has been helping RotoWire subscribers through our 'Ask An Expert' feature since 2014. He's an NFBC enthusiast.
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