As baseball becomes more specialized, as more young relievers are called up just to blow fastballs past guys and then go home, as strikeouts keep ticking up, you’re going to see more and more of what I like to call Roman Candles: Relievers who come out of nowhere and light up the sky, even though you previously had no idea who they were. Some of them hang on to become Josh Hader. But all are incredible, if even just for a short, glorious period of time.
We’ve reached the point in the sport where just about every team has one of them, an under-the-radar reliever who is fantastic right now. Here are your Roman Candles, burning bright on a nightly basis.
All stats are up to date entering Friday’s games.
Blue Jays: Adam Cimber
Key stat: 0.763 WHIP
This might have been 30-year-old Tim Mayza, but he’s on the injured list, so we’ll go with the sidewinding Cimber, who has been very effective for a while, if not necessarily quite this good. And honestly, it’s just nice to have as many sidearmers in the game as we can find.
Orioles: Jorge López
Key stat: Sinker has gained 2.4 mph of velocity
The Orioles are starting to get a little bit of a reputation as a team that can get stuff out of older pitchers that no one else could, and Lopez is Exhibit A. He’d struggled through two years in Baltimore (and three years in Milwaukee, and three years in Kansas City) before becoming the shutdown guy he is now. He’s still walking too many guys, and eventually he’s going to give up a homer, but for now, he’s one of the best relievers in the game.
Rays: Jason Adam
Key stat: 35.3% strikeout rate
The Rays are the kings of having guys like this, and while the obvious answer here is J.P. Feyereisen — who still hasn’t given up a run — how about Adam? Over 18 2/3 innings, he has given up only two runs, and he has the second-best strikeout rate on a team that has a lot of strikeout guys.
Red Sox: Austin Davis
Key stat: 93rd-percentile hard-hit rate
Matt Strahm was also an option here, but you might have heard of Strahm. You probably haven’t heard of Davis, who has been knocked around his entire career until finding a home in a Boston bullpen that desperately needs him. (He’s the guy the Red Sox got for trading Michael Chavis, by the way.)
Yankees: Clay Holmes
Key stat: 81.4% ground-ball rate
Holmes clearly figured something out last year, with a 1.61 ERA in 25 appearances. But he has become unhittable this year, giving up just one earned run in an MLB-leading 22 appearances.
Guardians: Sam Hentges
Key stat: .339 opponents’ OPS
A high school star out of Minnesota, Hentges has become a lefty specialist in an age where it is difficult for them to thrive. It helps that he — like a lot of players on this list — hasn’t given up a single homer yet.
Royals: Joel Payamps
Key stat: Zero homers allowed in 20 2/3 innings
Payamps has been waived four times in the last two years by three different teams, and he was traded for cash considerations just a year ago. He’s become the most reliable arm in the Royals’ bullpen, and maybe on their entire pitching staff.
Tigers: Wily Peralta
Key stat: 0.93 ERA
Exactly the sort of where-did-this-come-from veteran you love to have on this list. Peralta was in Milwaukee for six years, then Kansas City for two seasons, before missing the 2020 season. He was OK for the Tigers last year, but he’s been nails for them out of the bullpen in 2022. His walk rate is higher than you’d like, but Detroit will take every inning he can give the club.
Twins: Joe Smith
Key stat: 37.2% chase rate
One of the oldest guys in baseball is having the best year of his 15-season career, giving up just one earned run over his first 18 games. He’s not doing anything different — it’s not like he’s suddenly throwing 100 mph or anything — but hey, he’s always been a good pitcher. He’s just never been this good.
White Sox: Matt Foster
Key stat: .146 batting average allowed on four-seamers
It was a little difficult to pick someone on the White Sox for this list — it remains remarkable, with the injuries they’ve had and the pitching problems that have popped up, that they’re still very much in the hunt. But for a guy who had a 6.00 ERA last year, Foster has been a godsend for manager Tony La Russa, who could probably use four more guys like him.
Angels: Jaime Barría
Key stat: 0.857 WHIP
The Angels have been so desperate for starters that they’ve tried putting Barria out there 55 times over the last five years, but it looks like the ‘pen is the right place for him. His stuff has never looked better, and he’s averaging three innings per relief appearance.
Astros: Rafael Montero
Key stat: .158 slugging percentage allowed on four-seamers
At one point he was a top prospect with the Mets, coming up at the same time as Jacob deGrom and (believe it or not) considered a better prospect. But Montero put up a 5.38 ERA for New York over four seasons and bounced around before finding a home in Houston. This year, he has given up just one earned run in his first 20 appearances and is yet another guy killing it for the Astros right now.
Athletics: A.J. Puk
Key stat: One barrel allowed (out of 51 batted balls)
Dany Jiménez was another possibility here, but how do you not pick the oft-injured, post-hype prospect-turned-relief superstar that Puk has become? This might not have been the career Puk or the A’s would have imagined for him, but he’s at his absolute best at this moment.
Mariners: Penn Murfee
Key stat: .406 opponents’ OPS
Murfee made his big league debut three days before his 28th birthday, and every time the Mariners have run him out there, he’s been fantastic. More than a strikeout an inning, a low walk rate, no homers? Yeah, that’ll play.
Rangers: Brock Burke
Key stat: 33% strikeout rate
I know this sounds like a random name generator on MLB The Show, but no, Burke is real. He missed 2020 with Tommy John and spent last year in Triple-A, but this season he has been the best pitcher on the Rangers’ staff. Burke used to be a starter way back in 2019, when he made six starts (with a 7.43 ERA) for Texas. Would they try him there again?
Braves: Jackson Stephens
Key stat: .053 batting average allowed on four-seamers
Isn’t this the name of Bradley Cooper’s character in “A Star Is Born”? That’s Jackson Maine? Eh, close enough. Stephens hadn’t pitched in the Majors since 2018, when he had a 4.93 ERA in 29 games for the Reds, but he has been a lifesaver for the Braves, one of the few happy aspects of their season so far. Considering he was in the Mexican League last year, that’s quite impressive.
Marlins: Cody Poteet
Key stat: .178 opponents’ batting average
I swear, I am not making up any of these names. Poteet got in seven games last year but had a 4.99 ERA in them; this year, he gave up just two earned runs in his first 10 appearances, including one start as an opener.
Mets: Drew Smith
Key stat: .133 batting average allowed on sliders
The Mets’ bullpen has been one of their few struggle spots this year, but Smith is essentially doing just what he was last year: walking too many guys, but getting himself out of trouble.
Nationals: Erasmo Ramírez
Key stat: One walk in 18 innings
Remember when Ramírez was one of the Mariners’ most promising starting pitching prospects? It has been quite a while, and now he’s out of the starting game entirely. He’s an innings-filler for the Nats, but they need a lot of innings filled, and he’s doing the job.
Phillies: Andrew Bellatti
Key stat: 37.5% strikeout rate
Bellatti was a former Rays prospect who spent nine months in jail more than a decade ago after a fatal car crash. He has worked his way all the way back, through several years in the Atlantic League, to have the best strikeout rate on Philly’s entire staff.
Brewers: Trevor Gott
Key stat: 37.6% chase rate
It doesn’t seem fair that the Brewers can find a guy like Gott considering how much pitching they already have, but after signing him in November (after he spent 2021 in the Minors with the Giants), he has elevated his strikeout rate and dropped his walk rate, because of course he has.
Cardinals: Andre Pallante
Key stat: 64.8% ground-ball rate
Pallante was a starter in Double-A Springfield last year, but he made the Opening Day roster for St. Louis as a reliever. You can’t argue with what he’s done so far: Two earned runs allowed over his first 16 appearances.
Cubs: David Robertson
Key stat: 60.9% whiff rate on curveballs
There were other guys in competition here, like Keegan Thompson, but you have to love Robertson’s story. He’s 37, he was the guy who took over for Mariano Rivera and he missed the 2020 season. After disappointing with the Phillies in 2019, posting a 5.40 ERA over just seven games, he has taken over the closer’s job with the Cubs and does not look like he’s giving it back. Remember, too: He closed out the last World Baseball Classic and the last Olympic Games!
Pirates: David Bednar
Key stat: 34.5% whiff rate on four-seamers
The Pittsburgh native is making his hometown fans delighted: He has an 0.78 ERA and, in a nice touch, isn’t a straight-up “closer:” The Pirates just use him whenever they need him most.
Reds: Alexis Díaz
Key stat: 100th-percentile fastball spin rate
Yep, this is Edwin Díaz’s brother — they actually had saves on the same day this year. Alexis is actually having a better year than his more famous brother. He walks too many guys, but he still strikes out twice as many as he walks. He’s one of five guys on the Reds with at least one save; the others all have ERAs of 4.80 or higher.
D-backs: Joe Mantiply
Key stat: Zero barrels allowed
How do you become a 0.51 ERA guy at the age of 31? Walk only one guy in 17 2/3 innings and don’t give up any homers. It’s actually not that hard!
Dodgers: Evan Phillips
Key stat: Fifth in MLB in horizontal slider break vs. league average
One of the guys Baltimore got for Kevin Gausman, Phillips was released by the O’s in 2021 after three years of a 7.36 ERA. He is one of the best Dodgers relievers now, with a walk rate that has been slashed by more than a third since he left Baltimore.
Giants: John Brebbia
Key stat: 38.4% chase rate
Famous for being a guy who shaves right before the season starts and then not again until it’s over, Brebbia was good for a few years in St. Louis but has been even better in San Francisco. We could have gone with Jarlín García here, by the way — he still hasn’t given up an earned run — but he’s been this incredible for San Francisco for three years now.
Padres: Taylor Rogers
Key stat: .376 opponents’ OPS
Rogers did make an All-Star Game last year, but he’s never been anything like he is right now. He has surrendered just one run over 19 appearances and already has 16 saves, which is tied with Josh Hader for the Major League lead.
Rockies: Tyler Kinley
Key stat: Zero barrels allowed
The journeyman right-hander has found his true best self in Colorado. He appeared in 70 games last year, but he never had a stretch like he’s had in his first 18 games this season: 1.10 ERA, zero homers given up.