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July 23, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Useful Non-Closer Relievers

by J.P. Breen

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In non-dynasty leagues, quality relievers who do not rack up saves are often overlooked. If employed correctly, though, they can be pseudo-saviors for two main types of squads: (1) teams who have an underperforming pitching staff and are striving to recover in specific categories in the second half of the season, and (2) leagues that have strict “games started” limits in order to keep teams from simply streaming starters all season.

Teams who have fallen behind in pitching categories can try to cobble together a trade or two, hoping to bolster their pitching staff for a second-half run. However, trades aren’t always possible. And even in the meantime, it can be useful to target specific relievers who can help in desired categories. This article will outline a few relievers who could be useful waiver-wire pickups to aid in WHIP/ERA or in strikeouts. I’m not including pitcher wins because that seems like a crapshoot.

WHIP/ERA

Pat Neshek (7.1% owned)
While lefty Sean Doolittle gets all the attention for his ridiculous 32.50 K:BB ratio and his dominating performance for the Oakland Athletics, there’s still one reliever in baseball who has bested him in WHIP thus far in 2014: Pat Neshek. The right-hander has compiled a 0.60 WHIP due to an uncomfortably awkward pitching motion and nasty stuff. His fastball velocity has climbed to 91.05 mph this season, which is his best mark since 2007 when he was with the Minnesota Twins. He’s finally healthy and taking advantage of it.

Many folks point to the minuscule .177 BABIP, but I’m not expecting a huge regression upward. He owns a career .224 BABIP. That’s right, a career .224 BABIP in 254 1/3 innings over eight seasons. That’s partially because he consistently induces terrible contact. This season, however, I believe his otherworldly BABIP can be explained in part by his 23.6 percent infield-fly rate. Almost one-fourth of the balls put in play are infield popups. Only Aaron Loup of the Toronto Blue Jays has a higher infield-fly rate. Unsurprisingly, he also owns a low BABIP (.240).

Pat Neshek has a 9.5 percent line-drive rate allowed, misses bats, and has finally curtailed his walk issues. He’s dominating the NL Central. If you need ratio help, he should be a wise investment in the second half, assuming his improvements carry into the later portion of the season.

Casey Fien (owned 0.2% ESPN leagues)
Few people pay attention to Fien because he’s 30 years old, he doesn’t close games, and he doesn’t post obscene strikeout numbers. However, he has posted a 2.97 ERA for the Minnesota Twins over the past three seasons with a stellar 0.98 WHIP. Though he’s solely a fastball-cutter guy, he’s been able to keep lefties in check throughout his career, and this year, they’re only hitting .247/.289/.423 against him. Of course, righties might as well wave the white flag in the batter’s box, as they’re hitting .188/.209/.293 against Fien. That’s almost unfathomably bad.

He’s not flashy and he’s not a source of strikeouts, but if you’re a fantasy owner who needs ratio help, Casey Fien has proven over the past three seasons that he can do the job. Owners would like to see the right-hander get a few more innings. Still, for a guy who is sitting on the waiver wire in 99.8 percent of ESPN leagues, that’s starting to get a little too greedy. Pick him up for nothing and enjoy the ratio help.

Darren O’Day (owned 3.5% ESPN leagues)
Now, here’s another guy who has flown under the radar for the past three seasons. He’s thrown 172 1/3 innings for the Baltimore Orioles since 2012, and he’s dominated with a 1.93 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 25.0 percent strikeout rate. The right-hander doesn’t get the publicity because he doesn’t collect the saves. For fantasy owners, though, pay attention. The 31-year-old veteran is the 96th-overall ranked pitcher in ESPN leagues, and he’s available in almost every league.

Like most of the relievers we’re talking about, O’Day has experienced a velocity increase on his fastball. That hasn’t been the cause of his success, though. He has a long track record of success in Baltimore. The velocity increase has seemingly brought about a higher level of success, as seen in his career-best 2.94 FIP and 13.1 swinging-strike rate. O’Day represents a reliever who can really help with your ratios without punting the strikeouts category.

STRIKEOUTS

Dellin Betances (51.5% owned)
Perhaps Betances shouldn’t be included in the strikeouts category because he’s really an all-around monster. His 40.6 percent strikeout rate is the fourth-best among qualified relievers, but he’s also rocking an 0.72 WHIP and 1.54 ERA (1.55 FIP). In ESPN leagues, the righty has actually been the 26th-best fantasy pitcher overall, which accounts for his higher-than-normal ownership rate.

Some have pointed to the .222 BABIP as being unsustainable, but occasionally, it’s important to note that a low BABIP can be earned. Perhaps a .222 BABIP is unreasonable to expect in the second half; however, it’s not likely to regress as much as one would normally assume. He has a 12.7 percent swinging-strike rate and an above-average ground-ball rate, and he’s limiting free passes. Although the term isn’t often used in connection with relievers, that’s the Holy Trinity that fantasy owners target for pitchers.

Oh, and it’s highly likely that big-league hitters wake up in a cold sweat after having nightmares about his curveball.

Zach Duke (0.5% owned)
Many people remember Duke as a mediocre starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he’s completely transformed his career through a lower arm slot and a new role in the bullpen. Milwaukee brought him in on a minor-league deal with hopes that he could be a LOOGY. He’s proven much more useful than that, as he’s striking out 34.6 percent of the batters he faces, which is 13th best among qualified relievers.

The lefty throws four pitches for strikes and has added a low-80s cutter to his repertoire. His ground-ball rate is also up to 52.2 percent—all of which has allowed him to be effective against lefties and righties. The Brewers may have K-Rod and Will Smith at the back-end of their bullpen, but Duke has perhaps been the best of the bunch and could be an unexpected source of strikeouts for your fantasy squad, while not costing a dime.

Brad Boxberger (owned 4.6% of ESPN leagues)
Tampa dabbled with a Closer By Committee™ earlier in the year, and although Jake McGee has seemingly settled into the ninth-inning role, Boxberger still deserves to be owned in a number of leagues. His 39.7 percent strikeout rate is fifth-best among qualified relievers and is supported by a healthy 14.1 percent swinging-strike rate. Part of the improved performance can likely be tied to a velocity jump on his fastball. Still, his bread-and-butter will always be the nasty changeup, which he’s throwing 34.8 percent of the time.

I’m not willing to dish out the same lavish praise I gave to Betances because Boxberger doesn’t project to help as much in all categories. He’s struggled with the home-run ball throughout his career in the majors. It’s continued into the 2014 season, which means he’s not projected to chuck up zeroes consistently in the second half, especially if that 94.2 percent strand rate comes down as one would expect.

If your team desperately needs strikeouts, though, the 26-year-old right-hander should provide a healthy number of them. For example, he’s almost struck out as many batters (60) this year as Rick Porcello (69), who is owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues. While I understand Porcello offers more value in other areas, fantasy owners must understand the value in adding someone like Boxberger to a roster over a fringe bench bat who doesn’t play more than once per week.

J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see J.P.'s other articles. You can contact J.P. by clicking here

Related Content:  Relievers,  Fantasy,  Era,  Strikeouts,  Roto,  5x5,  WHIP

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