The 2022 Major League Baseball season is the third straight non-"normal" season. There were two seasons heavily impacted by COVID-19 and then this time around there was an owner lockout in the offseason that ended up truncating spring training by a few weeks. As such, rosters were allowed to expand for this month.
Active rosters will drop back to 26 from 28 on May 2 with a 14-pitcher limit.
Part of the biggest impact of a shortened spring training is the starting pitchers didn't have time to fully stretch out before the season started. They generally aren't full go to start the season anyway, but taking away a few weeks of spring training meant it was a chore to get starters through five innings for a bit.
Team that with the fact that starting pitchers going deep into games was already becoming more rare in recent years and it's easy to see that relievers took on extra importance here in the first month. In fact, a positive side effect is that we've seen a good number of high-volume relievers pitch like stars in the early going. From pitchers with an arsenal capable of being in the rotation to relievers who have simply emptied their tank on a few occasions, the rise of the stud long reliever has been really fun to see.
Dodgers southpaw Tyler Anderson was probably the first one drawing a quick turn of the head. He threw four innings, allowing just one run on two hits, in their second game of the season. Less than a week alter, he piggybacked on starter Tony Gonsolin, again, for four innings with two hits and one run allowed. Anderson picked up the win there. His work was good enough that he slid into the rotation when Andrew Heaney hit the injured list with a shoulder injury.
It isn't just Anderson. There's been a crop of long and/or middle relievers who have excelled in multi-inning roles here at the beginning of the season. In some cases, it's just the role the teams carved out for them. In other cases, it was a situation borne of necessity with the shortened spring training. Either way, it's a generally unheralded role and I felt like these guys deserved their due for some great work in 2022.
Let's highlight some of the new stars, and by no means is this list exhaustive. There are plenty more worth our while (Spencer Strider, Cristian Javier, etc.) and we'll continue to pay attention as the season unfolds.
1-2. Wil Crowe and Dillon Peters, Pirates
While we're here, let's also note that David Bednar appears to be their closer -- or is at least splitting duties with Chris Stratton -- and he's been excellent as well, though mostly in one-inning outings.
Crowe, a righty, and Peters, a lefty, have done some serious heavy lifting, though. They are a big reason the Pirates are 8-9 so far, despite the expectation they'd be one of the worst teams in the league.
Crowe has taken the ball six times and his shortest outing was 1 1/3 innings. He ate two innings in the Pirates' 9-0 loss on Opening Day, but the Pirates have won his ensuing five appearances. In his last three outings, the Pirates have won by two, one and one runs, respectively, and he has only given up six hits and one walk in six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts. In all, it's a 0.00 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with 16 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings.
Peters has gone at least two innings in four of his five appearances. The Pirates have won four of the five games in which he's appeared. He's only given up one hit all season, as he's holding opponents to a .035/.152/.035 line in scoreless 10 1/3 innings.
The Pirates are 3-0 when both Crowe and Peters pitch.
OK, so Whitlock isn't "new" here, as he hurled 73 1/3 innings in 46 appearances last year and then we saw him in the long relief role in the playoffs, too. He's still worth mention, though, as he's been so good. He did take a start, but there were four relief appearances, three of which were at least 2 1/3 innings and one that was four innings. He's rocking a 0.66 ERA and 0.51 WHIP with 18 strikeouts against two walks in 13 2/3 innings this season.
He'll continue to be a valuable weapon for Alex Cora all season, no matter how he's deployed.
4. Keegan Thompson, Cubs
In four appearances, Thompson's shortest stint was 2 2/3 innings. The Cubs are 3-1 when he pitches and in the lone loss, he threw four scoreless innings to keep his team within striking distance and so easily would have gotten the win with some run support. In 13 2/3 innings this season, all scoreless, he's given up just six hits and three walks (0.66 WHIP) with 14 strikeouts.
He's also leading NL pitchers in WAR. Among NL players, only Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado have more to this point. Yes, it's incredibly early and it won't last, but it shows how good Thompson has been.
If the Cubs were contenders, there'd be an argument that Thompson has been the most valuable pitcher in baseball this month.
5. Keegan Akin, Orioles
It's a run on Keegans!
This Keegan is a lefty. He's now worked five times, each of them with at least two innings. He's pitched to a 1.54 ERA and 0.60 WHIP. Unfortunately, the Orioles have lost all five games in which he appeared. Still, Akin deserves to be listed here. He's been great and there's residual value to a reliever eating multiple innings and allowing his manager to rest others.
6. Michael King, Yankees
On April 14, King only recorded three outs. He only faced two hitters. If you only saw the one inning pitched in the box score, it might not have looked so impressive, but he took over with the bases loaded and no out after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman had nothing (he walked three hitters on 15 pitches). King got a strikeout and double play to close things down.
That was King's lone one-inning outing of the season. The other four times he's gone at least two innings. In all, he's now sporting a 0.84 ERA (0.25 FIP) and 1.03 WHIP with 18 strikeouts against one unintentional walk in 18 2/3 innings. In Fangraphs' version of WAR, it's King, not Thompson, pacing relievers.
The lefty went just one inning last time out, but three of his five appearances have been at least two innings and he went four once. Through 10 1/3 innings, he still has a 0.00 ERA with a 0.58 WHIP. He's holding opposing batters to a .063/.167/.094 line.
8. Jalen Beeks, Rays
Hey, the Rays have to be represented on such a list, right? They recently have seemed to either churn them out of the minor or trade for previously uncovered gems. Beeks, a lefty, has been a volume reliever before (104 1/3 innings in 33 games in 2019), but this is the best he's been so far. In four games, he's pitched 7 1/3 innings, posting a 0.00 ERA, 0.88 FIP and 0.55 WHIP with 11 strikeouts against two walks.