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Best MLB Players of the 2010s: Relief Pitcher

by Chris Brown

With the 2010s in the rearview mirror, 110 Sports is taking a look back at the best MLB players of the last decade at each position. We’ve gone through all the hitting positions as well as starting pitcher, so now it’s time to shift to the bullpen and look at the best relievers of the last 10 seasons.

Reliever usage has changed drastically in the last 10 years. Not long ago, essentially every team had a set closer, with everything else coming into place around that. Now the back end of a team’s bullpen is often more fluid, and the most established closers can lose their job with a few weeks of poor performance. We’ve seen a team’s best reliever pitching in the seventh inning and the evolution of the “opener” concept. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring at the position. But before we get too caught up in the future, let’s take a look back at the best relievers of the 2010s, starting with a few honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions

Wade Davis | TB 2010-12, KC 2013-16, CHC 2017, COL 2018-19

Davis spent the early part of his career in the rotation, but once he made the switch to the back end of the bullpen there were few more dominant closers in baseball for a significant stretch. From 2014-16, the Royals closer talled 79 saves and a miniscule 1.45 ERA in nearly 250 innings. In 2015, he finished off a World Series run, posted a 0.94 ERA and finished sixth in Cy Young voting. He was great in his first and only season with the Cubs in 2017 before signing with the Rockies, where he hasn’t fared nearly as well.

Fernando Rodney | LAA 2010-11, TB 2012-13, SEA 2014-15, CHC 2015, SD 2016, MIA 2016, ARI 2017, MIN 2018, OAK 2018-19, WSH 2019

Longevity was the greatest asset of this well-traveled veteran. Rodney’s 257 saves in the 2010s are fourth-most of any pitcher in Major League Baseball, behind only the top three players on this list. Rodney made his MLB debut in 2002 at the age of 25 and pitched for 11 different teams in 17 major league seasons before capturing a World Series ring with the Nationals just last year. He tallied 25+ saves six times in the decade, including in 2014 when he led all of baseball with 48 in his age 37 season along with a 2.85 ERA. Rodney’s best season was undoubtedly 2012, when he finished fifth in Cy Young balloting after posting a 0.60 ERA and registering 48 saves for the Rays in roughly 75 innings.

Andrew Miller | FLA 2010, BOS 2011-14, BAL 2014, NYY 2015-16, CLE 2016-18, STL 2019

Miller was one of the most dominant lefty relievers of the decade. In a five-year span from 2013-17, he posted a 1.82 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 14.5 K/9 in nearly 300 innings. In 2016, Miller pitched to a 10-1 record, 1.45 ERA in roughly 75 innings, finishing ninth in AL Cy Young balloting. That year he helped power the Indians through the playoffs, winning ALCS MVP after pitching 7 ⅔ scoreless frames with 14 strikeouts and zero walks. Miller only had 59 saves in the decade, as he worked primarily in a setup role, but there’s no doubt he was one of the best relievers of the past 10 years.

Top 5

5. David Robertson | NYY 2010-14, CHW 15-17, NYY 2017-18, PHI 2019

Robertson was only a full-time closer for a few seasons in the 2010s, but this is a list of top relievers, not top closers, and Robertson certainly qualifies for the former. The longtime Yankees setup man was one of the most reliable, durable arms of the decade, pitching between 60 and 70 innings in every season from 2010-18. Robertson posted an ERA below 3.50 each season from 2011-18, with his best season coming in 2011, when he tallied a 4-0 record with a 1.08 ERA in 66 ⅔ frames and finished 11th in AL Cy Young balloting. Long underappreciated in his career, Robertson has somehow only made one All-Star team.

4. Zack Britton | BAL 2011-18, NYY 2018-19

Despite not emerging as a closer until 2014, Britton is in the top 15 in baseball in saves for the 2010s with 145. He first broke out in 2014, registering 37 saves with a 1.65 ERA. The next year, the Orioles closer was named an All-Star for the first time, posting a 1.92 ERA and logging 36 saves. He found another gear in 2016, leading the AL with 47 saves and pitching to a sensational 0.54 ERA in 67 frames, finishing fourth in Cy Young balloting. He’s dealt with some injuries and no longer served as a closer in recent years, but Britton has still shown he has plenty left in the tank, as evidenced by his 1.91 ERA in 61 ⅓ innings for the Yankees just last season.

3. Kenley Jansen | LAD 2010-19

Now we get to the truly elite tier, the three relievers who most defined the 2010s. Jansen’s 2.35 ERA over the last 10 seasons is fourth-best in baseball, trailing only the next two players and Clayton Kershaw. The three-time All-Star tallied 25+ saves every season since 2012. From 2014-17, Jansen posted a 2.04 ERA and averaged 42 saves per season for the Dodgers. His performance in 2019 in his age 31 seasons led to questions about his ability to be an elite closer moving forward, but there’s no doubting he was one of the best in the 2010s. Jansen was one of only two pitchers to reach 300 saves in the 2010s, and his 903 strikeouts in the past 10 seasons leads all relievers.

2. Aroldis Chapman | CIN 2010-15, CHC 2016, NYY 2016-19

Chapman’s 30-game domestic violence suspension, the first of its kind in MLB history, will always be a part of his career. On the field, there was no doubting that he was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball over the last decade. Since first becoming a full-time closer in 2012, Chapman has notched 30+ saves in all but one season. He’s been named an All-Star six times, including in 2012, when he finished eighth in Cy Young voting after posting a 1.51 ERA and 0.809 WHIP in just over 70 innings. Chapman helped the Cubs capture a World Series title in 2016 and his 41.1% strikeout rate for the decade is tied with the next player for the best in the majors.

1. Craig Kimbrel | ATL 2010-14, SD 2015, BOS 2016-18, CHC 2019

There was never any doubt who would come in No. 1 on this list. Kimbrel was unquestionably the best reliever of the 2010s, and one of the best of this century. The seven-time All-Star finished the decade 13th on the all-time saves leaderboard. His 2.08 ERA over the last 10 years led baseball, as did his 346 saves. From 2011-14, Kimbrel led the NL in saves and finished top 10 in Cy Young voting every single year. His 2019 season was a disaster, but if Kimbrel can right the ship and register a few more productive seasons, he could easily climb into the top 10 in all-time saves.

Catch up on 110 Sports’ entire series looking back at the best MLB players at each position of the last decade here.

Photos by Arturo Pardavila III / Flickr (Chapman), Dustin Nosler / Flickr (Jansen), Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons (Kimbrel)

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