With the Mets out of the top-tier market for free agent relief pitchers—and two of three of that tier having already signed contracts with other teams—we started to delve into the rest of the relievers in free agency on Thursday. For the purposes of this series, we’re running down the list of available players by strikeout rate, an imperfect but straightforward way of looking at things.
Since then, Koji Uehara—seemingly the best fit for the Mets among pitchers who struck out 10.0 or more batters per nine innings in 2016—signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cubs. It would have been exciting to see the Mets sing him to exactly that deal. Failing that, though, we continue the series by looking at pitchers who had an above-average strikeout rate. This year, major league relievers struck out 8.70 batters per nine innings.
Pitchers with 8.70-9.99 K/9 in 2016
David Hernandez starts us off, as the 31-year-old struck out 9.91 per nine in his first, and thus far only, season with the Phillies. He wasn’t awful overall, but the strikeout rate was the highlight. He walked 3.96 per nine, a higher rate than usual, but for the third-straight year, he had a troublesome home run rate. He threw 72.2 innings and finished with a 3.94 ERA and 4.32 FIP. He hasn’t had a dominant season since 2012, but he at least seems worthy of a flyer.
Believe it or not, Junichi Tazawa is still just 30 years old. He struck out 9.79 per nine, and his 2.54 walks per nine was a very good rate. As has been a bit of a theme with this series so far, he had a home run issue in 2016. The walk rate was a bit high compared to his career norms, but the home run rate was much, much higher. He finished the year with a 4.17 ERA after putting up a 4.14 in 2015. Before the last two years, though, he was outstanding, and he’s not so old that a bounce-back season is impossible. His fastball velocity was down about a mile per hour this year compared to last, but if he’s available on an affordable deal, he’s absolutely worth a look.
Sergio Romo was part of the Giants’ imploding bullpen in 2016, but he wasn’t the one doing the imploding down the stretch. In his final nineteen innings, he had a 1.42 ERA. Before that, he missed most of April and all of May and June with an elbow injury. In total, he threw 30.2 innings in 40 appearances and finished with a 2.64 ERA and 3.80 FIP, the latter the result of—wait for it—a high home run rate. He struck out 9.68 per nine, and after nine seasons with the Giants, he’s another interesting, but not guaranteed, arm for the Mets as they look to contend next year.
Ross Ohlendorf struck out 9.32 per nine this year with the Reds but had a 4.46 ERA and a 5.58 FIP. He walked 4.39 per nine, which isn’t good, and gave up a staggering 1.92 home runs per nine. That strikeout rate was a career high, and while he was better before 2016, the 34-year-old hasn’t yet turned in a dominant season.
It took me a while to come around to the notion, but Joe Blanton is an awfully good reliever. From 2004 through 2013, he was a middling starting pitcher, but he made just four starts in 2015 and has pitched exclusively in relief otherwise. Over the last two years, which he spent with the Royals, Pirates, and Dodgers, he has a 2.65 ERA. He struck out an even 9.00 per nine this year, and by the standards of this year’s performance, he belongs among the upper-end of free agent relievers. He turns 36 years old this weekend, which combined with his relatively short track record of dominance might make make him a little less in-demand than he would be otherwise.
Anthony Swarzak struck out 9.00 per nine, too, but he blew away the home runs issues that anyone else had with 2.90 allowed per nine. As a result, he had a 5.52 ERA and 6.11 FIP in 31.0 innings with the Yankees.
Of this group, Blanton is the most interesting name, simply because of his recent success. Romo and Tazawa are at least worthy of a spot on the Mets’ roster, even if neither one is a sure thing. Hernandez already has a slider that generates whiffs, but maybe working with Dan Warthen would help him turn it into an elite pitch. And finally, neither Ohlendorf nor Swarzak seem to be a fit on anything less than a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.
Maybe all of the good options in this group end up too pricey for the Mets, too, but they should all end up well below the contracts that have been doled out to the top-tier closers. And the Mets could use help in the bullpen.