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September 29, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers

by Mike Petriello

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Last week, in which we looked back at relievers with high expectations, was kind of a bummer. Who wants to talk about disappointments when we can talk about unexpected surprises? That's today's task, as we round out the Value Picks season by looking at bullpen arms who performed far past what we thought they would, and seeing if they're good bets to keep it up in 2011.

You can't start anywhere but in Texas, where Neftali Feliz blew away every expectation. It's hard to believe now, but he was actually pulling in just -$1 in Heater's 2010 preseason projections; he's now at $17, a stunning $18 turnaround and the 6th-highest final value of any reliever.

While Feliz was a highly-touted prospect based on his minor-league history and impressive 2009 debut, two factors conspired to keep his fantasy value down entering the season. First, no one was sure if the Rangers were going to move him back into the rotation, but more importantly, Frank Francisco was ahead of him in the pecking order. Francisco promptly blew two saves in the first week, earning him a place on my "disappointments" list from last week.

Feliz stepped in and ended up setting a rookie record for saves, with 38 and counting. Feliz will still be just 22 when next season starts, and he struck out more than a man per inning while averaging 96 MPH on his fastball. Barring the Rangers turning him back into a starter, which seems more unlikely with each save, Feliz will enter 2011 as a top-10 reliever. That's good news for Texas and for fantasy owners who are lucky enough to grab him, but he's well-known enough now that you shouldn't expect to see him popping up too often on "Value Picks" lists.

Unlike Feliz, well-known to prospect followers, John Axford entered the season on the radar of absolutely no one - going undrafted in just about every fantasy league. The Brewers seemed set with Trevor Hoffman in the 9th and LaTroy Hawkins & Carlos Villanueva ahead of him, and Axford had been so bad as recently as 2008 in A-ball that he'd walked 6.9/9 despite being years too old for the level.

Of course, Hoffman imploded, Hawkins got injured, and Axford took advantage of the chance he was given. His 2.57 is shiny on its own merits, but his FIP and SIERA each back that up by coming in under 3. Among pitchers who threw at least 50 IP, Axford's 11.6 K/9 ranks as 8th; any worries that he might be overexposed as he toured the league were unfounded, as he had a monthly ERA over 3 just once and never once had a month where batters had an OPS of .800.

Hoffman's likely to ride off into the sunset, having picked up his 600th save, and Axford will enter 2011 as the undisputed closer in Milwaukee. That said, his Q rating doesn't seem to be as high as you'd think, so he could be an underrated pick in drafts next season.

In 2009, Matt Capps was a great example of why saves alone don't make the pitcher. Sure, 27 saves was nice, but an ERA nearing 6 didn't help fantasy teams, and it earned him a non-tender from the Pirates. The Pirates' loss was the Nationals' gain, as Capps put up 26 saves and struck out 4 times as many as he walked before being shipped to Minnesota for a nice catching prospect, Wilson Ramos. He's kept up his success with the Twins since being traded, paying off for many fantasy players who picked him up cheaply ($6 per preseason projections).

The interesting piece about this is that Capp's K and BB rates aren't actually all that different than they were in his disastrous 2009. What doomed him that year was an unreasonably high .370 BABIP and a 1.66 HR/9 rate, more than double what he had in 2008 and what he's put up in 2010. It shouldn't have come as a big surprise that numbers like those would show some regression considering his previous success, and they did. Now that he's over 40 saves, Capps is going to be a hot pick in drafts next year, but beware: Joe Nathan will be attempting to come back from Tommy John surgery, and while he'll have to prove his health first, his history and salary are going to be heard from.

Be honest, what did you expect from Kevin Gregg coming into the season? He was joining his third team in three years (and fourth in five), was coming off a season in Chicago marked mostly by balls leaving the yard (1.7 HR/9), and was coming to a Toronto club which already had Scott Downs and Jason Frasor with closing experience in the bullpen. Considering that he went undrafted in most ESPN leagues and drew just a $3 price in Heater's projections, most of you expected little, if Gregg even crossed your mind at all.

Frasor left camp with the job, but that didn't last very long thanks to his early breakdowns; Gregg moved into the role so quickly that he was included in the first Value Picks list of the year, and held it all season - even weathering a tough stretch in late May & early June. Like Capps, Gregg's K/9 and BB/9 don't look all that different between his "good" and "poor" seasons; if anything, Gregg is walking more than he did last season. But he's keeping the ball in the park, and that's enough to keep the ERA down and his job as closer secure. Gregg is a free agent headed into the offseason, though the relief market offers quite a few good options. Be sure to gauge the situation he finds himself in (which could be his fifth team in six years!) before investing.

Like Gregg, Chris Perez ended the year $8 more valuable than he began it, according to our projections. That's mostly due to the situation in Cleveland, where Kerry Wood vascillated between "injured and unavailable", "active but awful", and "desperately trying to rebuild value" before being sent to the Bronx at the trading deadline.

Perez flew under the radar of most fantasy players, with an average draft position of the 23rd round in ESPN leagues. Even during the season, most didn't deem him worthy of a roster spot as they waited to see how the Wood scenario would play out. But once Perez got the job full-time, he grabbed it like he'd been there for years. Since August 1, he's converted 12 of 13 saves, allowing just 2 ER in 21.2 ER , with a 24/6 K/BB ratio and a .377 OPS against. Though he was basically an afterthought for the first few months, he's no doubt impacted a huge amount of fantasy playoff races for owners who were savvy enough to grab him before Wood was dealt.


That brings me to the end of the RP Value Picks column for this season, and thanks to everyone who read and especially those who commented and asked questions. Writing this column hasn't always been easy, but it's been a pleasure and it's made me a better fantasy player, helping me to make the playoffs in each of my two main leagues. I hope it's provided some measure of help for you as well, and we hope to see you all back next season. In the meantime, feel free to catch up with me on Twitter (@MikeSciosciasTI) as I contemplate another dreadful Dodger offseason. Cheers!

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Fantasy Drafts,  John Axford

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