A two-man race has added a new member – Aroldis Chapman
Every season, baseball fans track home run races, batting average races, ERA races and so on. These numbers are more exciting and home runs always dominate the conversation, anyway. So it’s fair to argue that fewer baseball lovers closely follow the league leaders in saves. But this year, the American League has three relievers vying for the lead. Those other numbers might get more attention but saves impact the game just as much as homers and strikeouts. For this reason, let’s take a closer look at the trio that sits atop the chart.
Aroldis Chapman almost single-handedly changed the fortunes for two franchises. When the Yankees traded for the lefty flamethrower in December 2015, they got him for cents on the dollar because he was under investigation for an incident related to domestic violence. The former Reds All-Star rebuilt his value in a few months with New York before the Yankees traded him to the Cubs. With this trade, the Yankees received Gleyber Torres, who has blossomed into a star in the Big Apple and Billy McKinney (later traded to the Blue Jays in the deal for J.A. Happ,) among other players. Meanwhile, Chapman set an NLDS record for saves and carried a heavy workload in the Fall Classic en route to the Cubs’ World Series triumph. In free agency, he returned to the Yankees and, once again, his dominant fastball calls Yankee Stadium home. Chapman made the 2018 All-Star roster (but skipped the game due to injury) and he looks like a prime candidate to make this year’s Midsummer Classic, too.
In 2011, Brad Hand began his MLB career as a starter for the then-Florida Marlins. Like countless other pitchers, he shuffled between the Marlins and their minor league affiliates before finally landing a solid spot with the team in 2014. Miami used Hand has a long reliever and spot starter but uninspiring numbers ( a 5.68 ERA as a starter and 4.71 ERA as a reliever) made him expendable. The San Diego Padres scooped up the former second-round pick on the waiver wire in April 2016. The change of scenery worked wonders for Hand, who quickly emerged as one of the best left-handed relievers in the National League. He made the All-Star Game in 2017 and 2018 and, in January 2018, San Diego rewarded their star reliever with a contract extension that kept him under team control for three more years. But impressive relievers with team-friendly contracts are the hottest commodity on the market so the Padres shipped Hand to Cleveland for Francisco Mejia, a highly-touted young catcher. Since moving to Cleveland, Hand has remained consistently spectacular; when you discount his limited innings as a reliever, his 2.36 ERA this year places him near the top of the AL ERA leaderboard.
Like Chapman, Shane Greene was a member of a trade that significantly impacted the Yankees. In December 2014, New York traded Greene to the Detroit Tigers in a three-team trade that brought Didi Gregorius to New York. Greene, another converted starter, hasn’t been the most consistent reliever in baseball (5.82 ERA in 2015, 5.12 ERA in 2018) but when he’s on, he’s on. Greene’s first major breakthrough season came in 2017 with a 2.66 ERA. A down year in 2018 diminished his stock, but he looks better than ever in 2019. His 0.87 ERA is off the charts. As the closer for the Detroit Tigers, Greene set a record his year when he recorded eight saves in the teams first 12 games. Of the three relievers on this list, Greene is the likeliest to change teams this year. Chapman is the closer for a contending Yankees team and, despite a disappointing season, the Indians might not be ready to tear it down. But the desirability of trade candidates is a topic for another day…
Looking at the trio’s 2019 stats, let’s try to determine which of these relievers is the most impressive. According to ESPN, Hand, Chapman and Greene have appeared in 36, 34 and 31 games, respectively. Greene’s 0.84 WHIP and opponent’s batting average (.152,) and opponent’s OBP (.221) lead the trio. In fact, he leads the group in most major categories. Hand and Greene are tied for second-place in saves with 22 apiece while Chapman (23) leads the way. Chapman’s microscopic ERA against lefties (0.74) makes him a weapon. On the other hand, the Indians’ closer is trending in the wrong direction with a 4.63 ERA in the last month and an unsightly 11.57 ERA in the past two weeks. By comparison, Greene hasn’t allowed a run in June…but he’s only pitched 11 innings (four in the past two weeks.) Overall, based on his previous track record and his current dominance, Chapman seems like the member of the trio who’s the most likely to maintain this level of success in 2019.