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March 1, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Reliever Draft Strategies

by Jason Collette

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First off, a giant thank you to all of the positive feedback to the closer matrix piece from last week. I am thrilled that it was received so well and your feedback helped end what was a rather disappointing professional week on a very high note. Many of you expressed a desire to see the same concept carried over to middle relievers and since this is a customer driven site, ask and you shall receive.

Middle relievers are mainly drafted in mixed leagues as owners hope to stash away the future closer for another team or to handcuff their rather suspect closer they were stuck with in the draft. Those of us who play in NL- or AL-only league can appreciate the value of a good middle reliever over an end game starter with questionable skills that grabs a handful of wins at the expense of our ratios. Tyler Clippard was a godsend in NL-only leagues last year even if the early flip of him for a struggling Aaron Harang did not work out as well as I had hoped it would.

As I stated in my last piece, no matter which path you decide to take with relievers, you must have a plan of attack for them on draft day. My personal preference is to find the relievers that safely meet the skill set of what I consider a potential closer. I want relievers that keep people off the bases by striking them out and limiting free passes and that throw a lot of strikes. I also want relievers that keep the ball on the ground and limit their home runs, since those are the quickest way to blow a save. Lastly, I want relievers who do not have a demonstrable weakness against righties or lefties as those types of pitchers tend to get put back into limited roles when they struggle. Each draft season, I put together a list of the top non-closers available in the draft pool and put their statistics into a matrix that contains the following categories:

  1. K/9
  2. K/BB
  3. GB%
  4. HR/9
  5. Difference between their best and worst split in batting average against righties and lefties
  6. STR% - the percentage of pitches they throw for strikes
  7. K% - the percentage of the plate appearances the opposing batter strikes out in

The table below shows the top 59 (if Goldstein can go one over the norm on his Top 101, I’m going one under) relievers that were not covered in the previous piece. The K/9, K/BB, GB%, and HR/9 are the projections from our Player Forecast Manager while the Splits, STR%, and K% are the pitchers’ career efforts in those areas. The green color represents strong performance in that category while the red area represents concern in those areas. My conditions for each are:

  1. K/9: Above 9.0; below 7.0
  2. K/BB: Above 3.0; below 2.0
  3. GB%: Above 48 percent; below 45
  4. HR/9: Below 0.7; above 1.0
  5. Splits: Less than 25; More than 50
  6. STR%: Above 65 percent; less than 62
  7. K%: Above 26 percent; less than 20

As an added bonus to this matrix, I included a comment on each reliever in the last column so you will need to use the scrolling arrows in the bottom right-hand corner of the embedded worksheet below to find those. If you do not want to mess with those and would prefer to view the entire page at once, click here.

The first thing I want you to notice is the first two pitchers on the list that have no red flags. Jenks catches a lot of flak, but it should not be for his statistics. His K% has improved each of the last three seasons and now he is the primary set-up man for one of the more volatile personalities in baseball in Jonathan Papelbon. Last season, Terry Francona rode out Papelbon’s issues because he did not have a viable alternative as he did not feel comfortable with Daniel Bard’s inexperience. This season, he has a huge hoss to pull in if Papelbon goes through his bouts of wildness as he did a number of times last season. In San Diego, many speculate who is going to be the closer when or if Heath Bell is finally traded but a look at this chart might have our answer for us. Both Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams are elite relievers but Gregerson has a rather dramatic difference in his R/L splits as his slider is not the same nasty death to lefties as it is to righties; Adams has a very small split and misses nearly as many bats with his stuff.

Rafael Betancourt is an interesting case because he is a mixed bag of awesome and caution: only Carlos Marmol and Billy Wagner had more plate appearances end in strikeouts, and shows excellent command, but he is a flyball pitcher in Colorado and the humidor has not been able to temper everything for him. He works in front of Huston Street (whose only question is health) but Betancourt has had several chances to close in the past when injuries occurred in Cleveland, and he did not do well. Scott Downs may have signed a new three-year deal with the Angels, but he is not a reliever without faults as his percentage of strikes is below league average for his career. Additionally, he does not miss as many bats as he has in the past and he is still much more effective against left-handed batters. That is one reason why I am high on Jordan Walden this season despite his low rankings on this matrix. He has a strong groundball rate, small splits, can throw 100 MPH, and can miss a lot of bats. If he can find the plate on a more consistent basis, he could end the season with the closer role as his electric stuff stands out in the Angels’ bullpen.

Another reliever who stands out as one without warning signs is Jay Jaffe’s favorite reliever in all of baseball, Chad Qualls. Qualls was the unluckiest S.O.B. in baseball last season and frustrated fantasy owners everywhere who targeted him as a closer with solid skills. The PFM likes his stats this year and his career averages as far as his splits, throwing strikes, and missing bats. Qualls’ value is in the toilet right now with most owners but he could be a valuable addition in NL-only leagues and he may even wedge his way into the Adams/Gregerson fight mentioned earlier: Qualls has proven to be an effective closer in the NL West in the past. I also want Ernesto Frieri on my reserve roster somehow despite his red areas because the Padres have an excellent track record with relievers and Frieri looks like another one of those finds that could come out and surprise as Gregerson and Adams did in 2009. Frankly, when in doubt, pick up a Padres reliever as they have become the E.F. Hutton of bullpen evaluation.

Further down the chart, we start to find relievers with several areas of concern: Robinson Tejeda and Tyler Clippard are at the top of that list. Clippard gets punished for his flyball tendencies and his walk rate despite his K% improving each of the past four seasons. Tejada is punished for the same sets of problems but unlike Clippard, Tejada has become more hittable each of the past three seasons. Jim Johnson has many areas of concern, which is problematic given he is the best bridge the Orioles have left to get from the starting pitchers to Kevin Gregg and Koji Uehara at the back end of the pen. Johnson’s K% is up each of the past three seasons but the PFM is not crazy about his control and really hits him hard in the K/9 department despite the improving K%. Ryan Webb is the last pitcher of note who shows a lot of concern despite often being mentioned as a potential replacement to Leo Nunez should he falter. I said in the closer piece I was actually high on Nunez for this season as Webb more of a dominating right-handed specialist at this point that has problems finding the strike zone on a consistent basis. Righties have a 593 OPS against him in 208 plate appearances but lefties have raked him at an 860 clip in 162 plate appearances so far which is not surprising given the lower arm angle and delivery Webb utilizes.

I hope you find this matrix as useful as you did the closer one, if not more so since I added the player comments out to the side. If I left off your favorite middle reliever or if there is someone you want me to list in the comments below, let me know.

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

Related Content:  Relievers,  A's,  The Who,  Tyler Clippard

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