In Rotisserie or fantasy baseball, saves are what determines most of a reliever's value. In real life, this generally isn't true.
Of the eight relievers who saved 30 or more games in the American League last year only four were in the Top 10 in A.L. reliever Fangraphs WAR. Jon Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, Sergio Santos and Jordan Walden made the cut. Neftali Feliz, Brandon League, Chris Perez and Jose Valverde did not.
At the risk of destroying any potential suspense, I can tell you that Valverde did not make my top three. A decade ago, it would have been considered an outrage to omit a reliever who was 49-for-49 in saves with a 2.24 ERA. Now, even without looking at the WAR, it’s easy to notice that while Valverde had a good season, he wasn't an elite reliever in terms of his overall performance.
It was a pretty clear-cut case of who the best relievers were in the American League. The pertinent question was how should they be ranked.
Greg Holland (5 W, 4 SV, 60 IP, 74 K, 19 BB, 3 HR, 1.80 ERA, 0.93 WHIP)
Jim Johnson (6 W, 9 SV, 91 IP, 58 K, 21 BB, 5 HR, 2.67 ERA, 1.11 WHIP)
Neither Holland nor Johnson is in the same class as the three relievers ahead of them. But both pitchers were strong middle relievers who proved more than capable of filling in as a closer when needed toward the end of the season. Johnson gets some brownie points for putting up 91 innings all out of the pen. After Koji Uehara was traded, Buck Showalter leaned on Johnson more heavily and he delivered. Holland could very well be the closer of the future in Kansas City, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Joakim Soria get shopped at some point in the future with this in mind.
3) Jon Papelbon (4 W, 31 SV, 64 1/3 IP, 87 K, 10 BB, 3 HR, 2.94 ERA, 0.93 WHIP)
After being written off by more than a few, Papelbon returned to the ranks of the elites with a spectacular season that was only tarnished by Game 162. Paps seem to find some of the life he was losing on his fastball in 2010...and complimented that with a slower slider than he had thrown in the past. The result was that hitters were fooled for most of the year and Paps went back to being one of the best in the business.
2) David Robertson (4 W, 1 SV, 66 2/3 IP, 100 K, 35 BB, 1 HR, 1.08 ERA, 1.13 WHIP).
Robertson was the best set-up man in the American League on a team that needed all of the bullpen help it could get on the days where CC Sabathia wasn't pitching. Robertson picked up about a MPH on his fastball and started getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground when they weren't whiffing. There were a lot of reasons the Yankees made the play-offs, but Robertson was one of their unsung heroes.
1) Mariano Rivera (1 W, 44 SV, 61 1/3 IP, 60 K, 8 BB, 3 HR, 1.91 ERA, 0.90 WHIP)
Dominance, thy name is Mariano. Rivera broke Trevor Hoffman's MLB save record but unlike Hoffman it was clear that Rivera wasn't just cruising toward a record at the tail end of his career. For the fourth year in a row, Mo put up an ERA under two and a WHIP under one. Robertson might have been the better pitcher on the whole, but Mariano came through time and time again, shutting the door for the Yankees on their way to yet another postseason appearance.