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Toolshed's best of the decade: Relievers

Bullpen arms boasted impressive statlines on way to MiLBYs
Colin Poche has struck out 275 batters over 174 2/3 career innings in the Minor Leagues. (Brian McLeod/
November 10, 2020

There was no Minor League season in 2020 and, unfortunately, that means there will be no MiLBY Awards this year either. In their stead, Toolshed is taking the next couple weeks to look back at MiLBY winners from the major categories in the 2010s. The series will rank all the

There was no Minor League season in 2020 and, unfortunately, that means there will be no MiLBY Awards this year either. In their stead, Toolshed is taking the next couple weeks to look back at MiLBY winners from the major categories in the 2010s. The series will rank all the winners from 10-1 to evaluate which players truly had the most standout Minor League seasons in the last decade. (Note: The 2010 and 2011 MiLBYs were chosen by level, instead of Minor League-wide, so Toolshed has taken some license in selecting those year's winners for consideration in this series.) Previous editions focused on Offensive Players and Starting Pitchers. This edition covers Relievers.

10. Ben Rowen, 2012

Teams: Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach

Stats: 38 G, 57 1/3 IP, 19 SV, 1.57 ERA, 52 K, 3 BB, 0.77 WHIP, 2.39 FIP, 24.4 K%, .201 average-against

Overview: Elite control isn't something we always associate with relievers, especially submarine pitchers like Rowen. But that's how the right-handed sidewinder thrived during his time in the Carolina League -- by issuing only three walks in 57 1/3 innings. His 1.4 percent walk rate and 17.3 K/BB ratio were tops among MiLBY winners in the decade, and his 0.77 WHIP was best among Minor League relievers who threw at least 50 innings in 2012. What's more, Rowen generated 66.9 percent ground balls, limiting the hard contact made against him in Myrtle Beach. That was absolutely necessary for a pitcher who only topped out in the low 80s with his fastball and relied on a slider as his only off-speed pitch. Rowen debuted with the Rangers in 2014 and saw brief Major League time with the Brewers two seasons later. The 31-year-old is now a free agent after spending the past two years in the Braves system.

9. Oliver Drake, 2015

Teams: Triple-A Norfolk

Stats: 42 G, 44 IP, 23 SV, 0.82 ERA, 66 K, 16 BB, 0.89 WHIP, 1.54 FIP, 39.1 K%, .151 average-against

Overview: This should give readers an indication of the type of dominance needed to win a MiLBY in this category. Drake posted an ERA and a WHIP below 1.00, struck out almost 40 percent of the batters he faced and earned more than 20 saves, but couldn't crack the top eight of this list. His only hindrance is his innings total, and even that happened for a good reason. The right-hander was so dominant for Triple-A Norfolk that he debuted for the Orioles in May and amassed 15 2/3 innings at the top level, on top of his 44 frames in the International League. A Major League bow and a MiLBY were two crowning achievements at the time for a 2008 43rd-round pick out of the Naval Academy who thrived on a splitter he threw close to half the time. Drake has posted 196 career Major League appearances between the O's, Brewers, Indians, Angels, Twins and Rays.

8. Nick Wittgren, 2013

Teams: Class A Advanced Jupiter, Double-A Jacksonville

Stats: 52 G, 58 1/3 IP, 26 SV, 0.77 ERA, 63 K, 10 BB, 0.89 WHIP, 1.90 FIP, 27.8 K%, .198 average-against

Overview: Wittgren entered pro ball with a promising reputation for working out of the back end of the bullpen. He set the Purdue all-time record for saves and was a standout closer in the Cape Cod League in 2011. The Marlins grabbed the right-hander, who threw in the low 90s and benefitted from a deceptive delivery, in the ninth round of the 2012 Draft and watched him cook in his first full season a year later. Wittgren was the only Minor League reliever with more than 20 saves and an ERA below 1.00 in 2013. In fact, his 0.77 ERA was also fourth-lowest among MiLB bullpen arms. None of his earned runs came after a late August promotion to Jacksonville either; Wittgren didn't allow a hit or walk in any of his four appearances with the then-Suns. The 6-foot-2 hurler is likely the best active reliever on this list; he posted a 3.42 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 23 2/3 frames for Cleveland this past shortened season.

7. Jonathan Albaladejo, 2010

Teams: Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

Stats: 57 G, 63 1/3 IP, 43 SV, 1.42 ERA, 82 K, 18 BB, 0.88 WHIP, 2.23 FIP, 33.1 K%, .170 average-against

Overview: Saves aren't the be-all, end-all for the MiLBY Reliever category. They can certainly help a candidacy, but since the Minor Leagues don't typically feature closers the way we think of them in the Majors, it can be best to look elsewhere. Except in this case. Albaladejo broke the International League record when he notched 43 saves for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 10 years ago. The previous record was 38, set by Matt Whiteside with Richmond in 2004. The 6-foot-5 right-hander had the statistical goods elsewhere too, of course. His 1.42 ERA and 0.88 WHIP both stood eighth-best among Minor League relievers with at least 50 innings in 2010, and his 33.1 percent K rate was 19th among that group of 505. The 2001 19th-rounder was aided by his move away from being a sinker-heavy pitcher in the previous decade to more of a power arm in 2010. He was last seen in the Minors working as a starter at Triple-A Syracuse in the Mets system in 2017 and continued to work out of that role in the independent Atlantic League the next two years.

6. Jackson Rees, 2019

Teams: Class A Lansing, Class A Advanced Dunedin

Stats: 39 G, 61 2/3 IP, 9 SV, 0.73 ERA, 88 K, 15 BB, 0.89 WHIP, 1.50 FIP, 37.3 K%, .183 average-against

Overview: Rees signed for $1,000 as an undrafted starting pitcher out of Hawaii in June 2018. One year later, he won a MiLBY as the top reliever in Minor League Baseball. With a 1.50, the 6-foot-4 right-hander posted the lowest FIP among Minor League relievers, while his 0.73 ERA placed second among the 487 who threw at least 50 innings. Rees threw in the low 90s with an impressive spin rate on his heater, but by his own admission, "I probably throw 50 percent sliders, maybe more." That breaking ball was enough against bats in the lower Minors, and it's a shame he couldn't prove its worth at the upper levels of the Toronto system in 2020.

5. Cam Bedrosian, 2014

Teams: Class A Advanced Inland Empire, Double-A Arkansas, Triple-A Salt Lake

Stats: 43 G, 45 IP, 18 SV, 2.00 ERA, 82 K, 18 BB, 0.76 WHIP, 1.33 FIP, 48.5 K%, .109 average-against

Overview: This represented a breakout season for the son of 1987 NL Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian, and it's not difficult to see why. Bedrosian underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, and three years later, he transitioned to become a reliever throwing in the mid-90s with a power slider. That combo enabled the right-hander to strike out 48.5 percent of the Minor League batters he faced in 2014, including an astonishing 75 percent during an early-season five-game stint with Inland Empire. Bedrosian ranked among the top two 2014 Minor League relievers (minimum 40 innings) in FIP, WHIP, strikeout rate and average-against. His low innings total -- again, caused in part by various Major League promotions to the Angels throughout the summer -- was the only thing keeping him from the top five. The 2010 first-rounder made 285 appearances out of the Los Angeles bullpen over seven seasons in The Show before electing free agency last month.

4. Jonathan Holder, 2016

Teams: Class A Advanced Tampa, Double-A Trenton, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

Stats: 42 G, 65 1/3 IP, 16 SV, 1.65 ERA, 101 K, 7 BB, 0.66 WHIP, 1.30 FIP, 42.4 K%, .160 average-against

Overview: No one on this list was better at keeping opponents off the basepaths than Holder in 2016. His 0.66 WHIP stands as the best of the bunch and the only one below 0.70. A big reason for that was Holder's impressive control as he walked only 2.9 percent of batters he faced. But he also stood out in a big way for generating whiffs; his 42.4 percent K rate was third-best among relievers in his season and on this list. Lots of strikeouts and limited free passes meant Holder's FIP also proved conspicuous, and at 1.30, it was the best for Minor League relievers in 2016. A starter the season before, Holder, who threw primarily a fastball, cutter and curveball in those days, was a multi-inning reliever at all three of his stops in 2016 and put together one especially dominant four-inning save in which he fanned 11 batters in a row against Rochester on Aug. 28. The Yankees called him up five days later during September roster expansion, and the right-hander has made 157 Major League appearances since in pinstripes.

3. Gabriel Moya, 2017

Teams: Double-A Jackson, Double-A Chattanooga

Stats: 47 G, 58 1/3 IP, 24 SV, 0.77 ERA, 87 K, 15 BB, 0.77 WHIP, 1.40 FIP, 39.7 K%, .150 average-against

Overview: This is what one-league dominance looks like. It's even better that it came with two different teams. Moya posted a 0.82 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP and a .148 average-against in 34 appearances for Jackson when the D-backs traded the southpaw to the Twins in a deadline deal for catcher John Ryan Murphy. At the time, he hadn't allowed an earned run in 30 2/3 innings. (He would add 3 1/3 more frames to that scoreless streak before it ended.) Moya's numbers were similar in 13 games for Chattanooga the rest of the way: 0.61 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .156 average-against. He saved 17 games for the Generals. He saved seven more for the Lookouts. He didn't take a blown save with either of them. Moya might have been the easiest selection on that year's Southern League end-of-season All-Star team. The Twins liked enough of what they saw from their new left-hander, who thrived with a tough-to-pick-up fastball and changeup, to skip him over Triple-A and give him a September debut. That's notable considering Moya couldn't get out of Rookie ball for four straight seasons from 2012-15. He still has 42 Major League games on his resume, but hasn't signed with a club since declaring free agency in November.

2. Addison Reed, 2011

Teams: Class A Kannapolis, Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham, Triple-A Charlotte

Stats: 43 G, 78 1/3 IP, 5 SV, 1.26 ERA, 111 K, 14 BB, 0.73 WHIP, 1.60 FIP, 37.9 K%, .157 average-against

Overview: There's always the temptation to say college relievers could move quickly through a system. (Hello, Garrett Crochet.) Reed, a 2010 third-round pick out of San Diego State where he worked as a closer on the same team as Stephen Strasburg, is one reason why such a temptation exists. The 6-foot-4 right-hander typically sat in the mid-90s while flashing a 70-grade slider in his first full season, and Minor League batters at four different stops were helpless to stop him. Reed didn't post an ERA above 1.57 at any of the four stops, and his highest WHIP was 0.88. His 1.60 FIP and 0.73 WHIP were tops among Minor League relievers in 2011, while his 37.9 percent K rate sat fifth. The White Sox made Reed a September callup that year, putting him on his fifth club in five months, and turned him into a closer the following year. Despite notching only five Minor League saves in 2011, the former Aztec earned 101 saves over three seasons between 2012 and 2014 between the White Sox and D-backs.

1. Colin Poche, 2018

Teams: Double-A Jackson, Double-A Montgomery, Triple-A Durham

Stats: 40 G, 66 IP, 2 SV, 0.82 ERA, 110 K, 19 BB, 0.79 WHIP, 1.26 FIP, 45.6 K%, .151 average-against

Overview: One could make the case Poche was one of the most dominant Minor League relievers of the entire decade without having to single out a specific season. His career 40.4 percent K rate and 2.13 FIP rank among the top four Minor League pitchers with at least 150 innings in the 2010s, and his 2.22 ERA and 1.02 WHIP are nothing to disregard either. But no, this is about one season, and the left-hander's best came in 2018, coincidentally the same one in which he was traded from Arizona to Tampa Bay in early May as the player to be named later in a previous deal. Poche didn't allow an earned run over 16 innings at either of his two Double-A stops that season and was perhaps Triple-A's best reliever soon after with a 1.08 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 50 innings with Durham. Poche sat in the low 90s with his fastball but was so effective with the extension and deception of the pitch that he was able to throw it around 80 percent of the time and still keep hitters incredibly off balance. He got swings-and-misses on 16.4 percent of his pitches in 2018, despite having just the one basic offering. Poche's 2019 was rough by his standards -- even though that still included 72 K's in 51 2/3 innings in the Majors -- and his 2020 season was sadly nonexistent following Tommy John surgery in July. When he is able to return, keep an eye on that fastball. Hitters will likely have a tough time doing so.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.