In 2014, there were 24 relievers who pitched at least 40 innings with an ERA under 2.00. In 2013, there were 10; in 2012, eight; in 2011, 13. There were a record 83 relievers who pitched at least 40 innings with an ERA under 3.00. Before 2010, only twice had there been as many as 50 relievers to do that (1989 and 1992).
In other words, there are a lot of dominant relievers out there, so finding a good closer shouldn't be that difficult. Teams win 95 percent of the time when leading heading into the ninth inning, so the key isn't those routine saves when leading by two or three runs, but converting those one-run leads. Let's rank the closers, the guys I'd most want protecting a one-run lead:
1. Greg Holland, Royals
2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
3. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
Statistically, it's hard to separate the three during the past two seasons:
Holland: 129.1 IP, 1.32 ERA, .170 AVG, 193 SO, 38 BB, 6 HR
Chapman: 117.2 IP, 2.29 ERA, .145 AVG, 218 SO, 53 BB, 8 HR
Kimbrel: 128.2 IP, 1.40 ERA, .154 AVG, 193 SO, 46 BB, 6 HR
Holland does have the best save percentage, however:
Holland: 93 of 98 (94.9 percent)
Kimbrel: 97 of 105 (92.4 percent)
Chapman: 74 of 81 (91.4 percent)
I'm a little worried about Kimbrel's increased walk rate the past couple of seasons -- he has gone from 14 in 62.2 innings in 2012 to 26 in 61.2 innings last season. His fastball velocity is fine, still clocking in at 99 mph; batters just aren't chasing that slurve quite as much (although it's still mighty tough to hit). Chapman, meanwhile, elevated his game in 2014, increasing his strikeout rate while cutting down on home runs allowed from seven to one. His record in protecting one-run leads, however, has been spotty in his career, which is why I have Holland in the top spot.
4. Dellin Betances, Yankees
No, he has never closed before and it's possible he ends up sharing duties with Andrew Miller -- I say Yankees manager Joe Girardi ends up picking Betances as his full-time closer, however -- but he was the most valuable reliever in baseball last year as a setup guy and should be just as dominant as a closer. Girardi would also be wise to use him 80-90 innings again instead of the coddled 60-65 innings that modern closers get. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, he showed last year that he can handle the extra workload.
5. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
6. David Robertson, White Sox
These two are close to the top tier with dominant strikeout rates -- Jansen has that wicked swing-and-miss cutter, and Robertson puts batters away with his curveball -- but both can be a little vulnerable to the home run.
Update: Forgot to mention that Jansen is out until at least late April following foot surgery. Joel Peralta probably takes over as closer.
7. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
He's in the low 90s now with his fastball instead of the mid-90s but he still gets the job done, converting 39 of 43 saves in 2014, although he was a shaky 29-for-36 in 2013. Still, he's a reliable bet to do the job again. And if the Phillies trade him, hard-throwing Ken Giles is ready to step in.
8. Steve Cishek, Marlins
9. Huston Street, Angels
These two aren't overpowering, but they quietly rack up the saves. Cishek, a sidearmer, is 73-for-79 the past two seasons, and while you would think he'd be more vulnerable to left-handers with his delivery, he has held both righties and lefties to a .224 average the past two seasons. Like Holland and Kimbrel, Street is another undersized right-hander, but the veteran is a master at deception and changing speeds. The knock against him is he hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009, and he did give up 12 home runs in 2013, so the long ball is a potential worry.
10. Mark Melancon, Pirates
11. Zach Britton, Orioles
You still hear things like "closers are born, not made." Nonsense. Most good relievers would be good closers and sometimes you happen upon a closer out of nowhere. Melancon became Pittsburgh's closer when Jason Grilli got hurt late in 2013 and then Britton, who had struggled as a starter in the past, stepped in early last season when Tommy Hunter faltered. Both were excellent, with Britton's fastball ramping up from the low 90s as a starter to the mid-90s as a closer. I expect both to be solid again in 2015.
12. Joaquin Benoit, Padres
It's hard to argue with the numbers: a 1.49 ERA and .212 OBP allowed, lower than any of the guys listed above him. Can he do it again?
13. Drew Storen, Nationals
He took over the closer's job that he once had from Rafael Soriano late in the season. He should be fine again, although he's not as good as his 1.12 ERA would indicate. With him, of course, the question isn't what he does in the regular season, but in the postseason, as he has two monumental blown saves on his résumé.
14. Santiago Casilla, Giants
He has a 2.10 ERA in the past five seasons. Sometimes he walks too many guys, and he doesn't strike out as many batters as the top guys, but he's tough to hit and he keeps the runs off the scoreboard.
LOOKING TO BOUNCE BACK
15. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
16. Koji Uehara, Red Sox
17. Glen Perkins, Twins
Rosenthal and Uehara matched up in the 2013 World Series after lights-out seasons, but both struggled at times last year as Rosenthal (2-6, 45-for-51 in save chances) had control issues and Uehara (6-5, 26-for-31 in save chances) served up 10 home runs. Perkins blew seven saves last year after blowing just eight in 2012 and 2013 combined. He's currently out with discomfort in his side, although it's not believed to be serious.
18. Sean Doolittle, A's
The former minor league first baseman had a great year -- well, until he blew a save in the wild-card game -- pounding the strike zone with high fastballs. He had 89 strikeouts in 62.2 innings with just eight walks. He's currently out with a sore shoulder and won't be ready by Opening Day, otherwise I'd rank him higher. He isn't expected to miss a lot of time but obviously his shoulder is a concern. Tyler Clippard, acquired from the Nationals, should close in the meantime.
19. Hector Rondon, Cubs
The Cubs haven't had a reliable closer since ... well, maybe Lee Smith back in the '80s. I'm not sure Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster, Randy Myers or Mitch Williams would qualify as reliable. From 1996 to 2005, no Cubs reliever led the team in saves in consecutive seasons. Rondon has a chance to be a guy to hold the position for several years after recording 29 saves with a 2.42 ERA last season. The stuff is there: His fastball averaged 95.5 mph and batters hit .136, without an extra-base hit, against his slider.
20. Cody Allen, Indians
He was 24-for-28 in saves opportunities last year with a 2.04 ERA and an excellent strikeout rate. Why isn't he higher here? He did give up seven home runs, all on his fastball, so that's a concern. If he can command that pitch better to get to his curveball, he'll become a top-10 closer.
21. Jenrry Mejia, Mets
He made seven starts last year with a 5.07 ERA, but he moved to the bullpen and posted a 2.72 ERA. He's not a sure bet -- the hit rate was high for a closer -- but he could develop into a four-pitch closer, or eliminate his weakest offering and become more of a fastball/slider guy.
VETERANS IN A NEW ROLE
22. Luke Gregerson, Astros
23. Brett Cecil, Blue Jays
Chad Qualls was Houston's closer last year and he's still around, but Gregerson signed a three-year, $18.5 million free-agent contract and presumably will leave spring training as the closer. He has 19 saves in his career so this would be his first chance at closing on a regular basis. Early in his career he had a big platoon split, but that hasn't been an issue the past three seasons. Cecil was a 2013 All-Star and has 146 strikeouts in 114 innings in the past two seasons. The lefty would be fine in the ninth inning, although the Jays haven't declared him the closer just yet. Keep an eye on Aaron Sanchez, currently battling for a rotation job but who profiles as a dominant late-inning reliever, as we saw when he was called up last year.
COVER YOUR EYES AND KEEP THE KIDS AWAY
24. Fernando Rodney, Mariners
Rodney led the majors with 48 saves and blew just three, but there were a lot of red flags in his performance, as he went 1-6, allowed 61 hits in 66.1 innings and walked 28. The Mariners have a deep bullpen that led the majors in ERA last year so we'll see if he's still shooting arrows come September.
25. Joe Nathan, Tigers
There's a chance he bounces back, but he's 40 and coming off a 4.81 ERA with declining peripherals. The trouble for the Tigers, however: Who steps in if he falters? Joba Chamberlain? Yuck.
26. Addison Reed, Diamondbacks
Reed owns a 4.20 ERA in three seasons. I'm not quite sure what the lure is in having him pitch the ninth inning at this point.
27. Neftali Feliz, Rangers
He wasn't really all that good when he was good. Ignore the 1.99 ERA he had in 31.2 innings last year; his FIP was 4.90.
28. LaTroy Hawkins, Rockies
A tip of the cap to Hawkins, who will retire after the season. He's 16th on the all-time games pitched list and with 35 appearances will move into the top 10.
29. Grant Balfour, Rays
He was terrible a year ago, walking 41 batters in 62.1 innings. Jake McGee, once he returns from elbow surgery in late April or May, could beat out Balfour, or maybe Brad Boxberger, who racked up 104 strikeouts in 64.1 innings last year.
30. Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
He's like the old Energizer rabbit: He just keeps on ticking. He did save 44 games in 49 opportunities last year but also gave up 14 home runs. I wouldn't trust him.