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April 22, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

The Men in the Middle

by Mike Gianella

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Last week, one of the commenters on my article on FAAB spending suggested that it’s doubtful that middle relievers make that much of an impact, even in deeper fantasy leagues

Even in an only league, someone's not likely to keep $15 earner Darren O'Day in their lineup weekly if he's not getting save chances.

Did it play out this way in Tout Wars?

Ten Best Middle Relievers, Active/Not Active in Tout Wars

Pitcher

$

Weeks Active

Weeks Inactive

Darren O’Day

$16

20

6

Jake McGee

$15

17

9

Jared Burton

$13

12

14

Kelvin Herrera

$13

12

14

Wade Davis

$12

25

1

Ronald Belisario

$12

11

15

Vinnie Pestano

$12

23

3

Craig Stammen

$11

14

12

Sean Marshall

$11

26

0

Jerry Blevins

$11

6

20

Totals

 

166

94


For the purposes of this chart, the cutoff is 10 saves. Sean Marshall with nine saves in 2012 barely makes the cut.

The 10 best middle relievers in Rotisserie in 2012 spent a total of 64 percent of the season on an active fantasy roster. This is not adjusted for players that started the season in the minors and then were called up later in the season. However, my commenter was quite correct: Even in the deepest of leagues, middle relievers aren’t simply plugged into the line-up on Opening Day and left there by their owners all year long. Marshall, Pestano, and Davis were the only three relievers left in their lineups by their owners for most or all of the season. For even the best relievers, their active/inactive status seemed capricious. Jerry Blevins—the 10th-best reliever in Roto last year—wasn’t picked up until July 16, was dropped six weeks later, and then wasn’t added again.

One way of looking at this is that I was wrong and middle relievers aren’t important in deep league fantasy. But another way of looking at this is as a lost opportunity to field the best team you possibly can.

  • Pitcher A: 170 1/3 IP, 12 W, 153 K, 5.02 ERA, 1.468 WHIP
  • Pitcher B67 IP, 2 W, 2 SV, 84 K, 3.63 ERA, 0.985 WHIP

Which of these pitchers was better in 2012, Pitcher A or Pitcher B?

Without having access to or knowledge of the earnings, you might sit here and struggle with this one for a while. Those 12 wins from Pitcher A help a lot, and those 153 strikeouts are great, but even in an -only format, that ERA and WHIP had to hurt, no? And while two wins and two saves from Pitcher B don’t help much, those 84 strikeouts had to count for something? Did the WHIP help?

As it turns out, it wasn’t that close. Pitcher B—Joel Peralta—earned $11 in 2012. Pitcher A—Ivan Nova—earned $8. You would have been better off with Peralta last year, and it wasn’t particularly close.

You need starting pitchers. But indiscriminately inserting six starting pitchers, two closers, and one middle reliever into your lineup week in and week out is a recipe for disaster in -only leagues.

In Tout Wars, where I accidentally purchased a $34 staff, I have fallen into a strategy that will rely heavily on middle relievers. I have been lucky with Travis Wood, lucky with Barry Zito until he hit the road in Milwaukee, and doing well with Mat Latos as my ace. Andrew Cashner picked up a spot start on Saturday, but there is a good chance that he will be starting every fifth day at some point this year.

However, the play isn’t to get greedy with starting pitchers but rather to maximize relievers to my advantage. Most of the relief arms I own are middle-relief types—boring to watch, but fun to own if you’re willing to wait them out. Craig Stammen, Antonio Bastardo, Brandon Kintzler, and Matt Belisle are unlikely to get any saves, but their rate stats should be okay and the hope is that they all strike out enough hitters to prevent a total shutout in the category. The goal isn’t to win every pitching category but finish with 30-35 pitching points while my hitting carries me.

The other place where middle relievers are useful is in leagues with start limits. In a league with a standard 180 start cap, it’s good to have one or two high-strikeout middle relievers waiting in the wings to pitch so that you continue to accumulate stats on the days you need to sit a starter. Eighty strikeouts from a middle reliever sounds boring, but it’s better than carrying a dead spot in a start-limit league with daily lineup moves.

The best pitchers in fantasy baseball are your top starting pitchers and your best closers, in that order. But forgetting the value of middle relievers is something you do at your own peril. Make sure to keep these guys in mind when constructing your roster, especially in deep leagues.

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

Related Content:  Relievers,  Craig Stammen

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