Wrapping up the series with a look at the senior circuit's fantasy-relevant setup man.
The Only-Landscape: National League Relief Pitchers
As Nick Shlain alluded to in his AL-relievers piece yesterday, as we close out The –Only League Landscape series by previewing the senior-circuit crop, we thought it would be appropriate to stray a bit from the format used in the previous articles and take a look at the bullpens on a team-by-team basis, identifying relief arms that could have fantasy relevance this year. Like Nick, I am not going to focus on closers, since we know who those will be for the most part, and we understand their greater value based on save opportunities. Instead, I would rather offer up some setup men and middle relievers who can quietly amass fantasy earnings despite the lack of fanfare surrounding them. These pitchers do have value in mono leagues, and they are always available on the cheap. So let’s go around the senior circuit and pick a few relievers from each team that could be worthy of a roster/reserve spot come draft day.
Because dynasty league rankings are relatively league-dependent, I set up parameters for ranking the players below (and the ones who will follow at other positions). The list here presupposes a 16-team standard dynasty format, where there are no contracts/salaries, players can be kept forever and owners have minor league farm systems in which to hoard prospects. So feel free to adjust this as necessary for your individual league, whether it’s moving non-elite prospects without 2014 ETAs down if you don’t have separate farm teams or moving lower-risk, lower-reward players up in deeper mixed or -only formats.
Examining relievers who are worth targeting in leagues that count Holds or have innings caps.
I want to start this article by stating, clearly and in no uncertain terms, that I did not want to write this article. Bret made me do it. While on the one hand, aggressively targeting middle relievers in the early season is one of my favorite strategies for driving down my pitching ratios, projecting middle relievers before the season starts for draft day consumption is just a terrible, terrible idea. Yes, the flame-out rate is high. But just as importantly, the out-of-nowhere-hero effect is even higher. Dellin Betances? Yeah, that dude got drafted in like one percent of leagues last year. Wade Davis, Ken Giles, Brad Boxberger… none of those guys were high priority for drafters outside the deepest of leagues last spring.
Relievers come, and relievers go. How they’ll perform, nobody knows. Still, there do tend to be some traits in particular you’ll want to go after if you’re targeting guys in a Holds league. For one, there’s a significant correlation between strikeouts and the Holds leaderboards. Since accumulating Holds oftentimes depends on securing outs in high-leverage situations, this would seem to follow rather logically. Jeff Zimmermanwrote a nice piece to this effect last winter, and the basic punchline was that using past performance to predict future Holds totals is basically pointless, but that middle relievers with higher strikeout rates tend to be the best bets.
A closer look at each team's non-closer 'pen arms.
As the positional series comes to a close this week with relief pitchers, we’re changing up the format for the –Only Landscape pieces. Instead of looking at the closers, all of which will have value in “only” leagues, Keith Cromer and I decided it would be best to examine each team carefully and identify interesting deep targets that aren’t in line for saves right away. This was originally Keith’s brainchild, so if there’s credit, I’ll humbly accept, and if there’s blame, well, you know where to find Keith. Kidding aside, if this does go awry, Bret, (to paraphrase Animal House) you screwed up, you trusted us.
Baltimore Orioles: Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter
Despite being a setup man, O’Day is one of the best relievers in all of baseball. Over the last three seasons, he’s seventh among relievers (min. 150 innings) in ERA (2.05) and sixth in WHIP (0.94). He tied Andrew Miller and Brad Boxberger for the second highest earnings among non-closing relievers in standard 5x5 AL-Only leagues last year with $15, according to valuation expert Mike Gianella. He’s worth owning for the ratios alone, but he also makes for solid Zach Britton insurance because the Orioles don’t have many other options in the bullpen. They tried making Hunter the closer last year and it backfired in May when he allowed eight earned runs and 18 baserunners over 10 games. His ERA was 9.39 for the month, but he recovered to post a 1.83 ERA in 44 and 1/3 innings while in a lower-leverage role over the last four months of the season.
These pitchers might not rack up saves, but they could still hold considerable fantasy value.
From my perspective, it’s never too early to begin speculating about teams’ bullpens during the offseason and researching who could make a fantasy impact the following year. Playing fantasy baseball for as long as I have has taught me that finding those hidden reliever gems can be the difference between hoisting a trophy and waving the white flag in July. Spending time studying every arm in all major-league bullpens is a staple of my pre-draft routine, and just as important as the homework done for position players, starting pitchers, and impactful rookies.
Please note I am not talking about closers, but rather those reliable bullpen arms that have impressive peripherals and produce in high-leverage situations, not just save situations. These pitchers have earned the trust and confidence of their managers and will continuously be given the opportunity to pitch in similar future situations that could result in wins, holds, and potentially some saves. Even in deeper AL- and NL-Only leagues, the value of these relievers is sometimes unappreciated, despite how they can offset bad performances by starting pitchers in any given week.