Those of you who play in mixed leagues rarely have to look at middle relievers for anything more than reserve roster filler, if that. Those who play in AL- or NL-only leagues, however, are well aware of how endgame relief picks in March can play a difference within a season, and nailing the right ones can often turn huge profits. Some relievers, like David Robertson, can be valuable assets even while not getting any saves while others can perform well and then step in for a closer when the closer is injured or ineffective.
The frustrating part is finding which non-closer relievers are going to be the ones that turn the most profit each season because the performance of middle relievers and setup men tends to be quite volatile from year to year. If we look back at last season to see which non-closers had the highest VORP ratings, we find Ryan Webb at the top of the list. This season, Webb’s numbers are down across the board as he left a cozy park on the west coast for one on the east coast (plus the regression to the mean effects expected for anyone at the top of a leaderboard). Next on that list comes Sean Marshall, who was the exact opposite as he has actually been better this season as he picked up a few saves and cut down on his walk rate. Clay Hensley, Matt Belisle, Jonny Venters, and Bobby Jenks are all next, and the results there are quite a mixed bag as well.
If we flip that over and look at the least valuable relievers in the game last season, Brandon League and Tony Sipp are right near the bottom of last year’s VORP ratings. Sipp had a -2.9 score last season and League had a -1.4, cementing the due among the 16 least valuable relievers in 2010. This season, League took over the closer role as Aardsma never was able to recover from his hip injury, and Sipp has had a very strong season in relief for the Indians while getting six wins with a 1.03 WHIP and a 2.62 ERA.
Since production can vary so much from one season to the next, it is best to focus on skills and try to avoid the white noise that can cloud judgments. Too often, ERAs are used as an excuse to avoid a reliever, even if it is related to something such as severe misfortune with batting average on balls in play or some fluctuation in stranding baserunners against career norms. One thing that can lead to that kind of noise is a big inning. We have all watched a baseball game and seen a reliever from our favorite team or our fantasy team flat out “wear” a bad inning where nothing goes right. The pitcher starts a laser show with the opposing offense and fills the bases up quickly while the next reliever lets them all score. Worse, the pitcher does not get an out and since it is garbage time in a game, the skipper decides to leave the pitcher out there and work through his troubles. Six runs and seven baserunners later, you are left with a rather unsightly ERA and WHIP for the night. Three such guys that have put up good overall skills whose numbers are being clouded by some ugly innings are Chris Resop, David Hernandez, and Matt Albers.
Resop is with his fifth organization since 2005 and has been relatively effective this season for the Pirates out of the bullpen. 26 percent of the batters he has faced have struck out, but a .353 batting average on balls in play plus a 10 percent walk rate has resulted in a 1.52 WHIP and a 4.66 ERA. His FIP is a full run lower, and two outings in particular have really hurt his overall numbers. Twice this season, Resop has made an appearance in which he has failed to retire a batter, and he has looked horrible doing so.
On May 8, he squared off with the lowly Astros offense and faced three batters. Chris Johnson hit a home run, Bill Hall singled, and Humberto Quintero doubled to drive in Hall. Resop was pulled and Joe Beimel permitted Quintero to score, thus giving Resop a third earned run without retiring a batter. On August 6, Resop faced the Padres and gave up a single to Jesus Guzman, another single to Orlando Hudson, walked Will Venable, and gave up a grand slam to Kyle Blanks before once again being replaced by Beimel. If we were to remove those two outings from his seasonal stats, his ERA drops from 4.66 to 3.68 and his WHIP from an unsightly 1.52 down to 1.41. If Resop can have some better BABIP fortunes next season and improve his control a bit while maintaining his strikeout rate, he is a very intriguing target for deeper league drafters. As it is, his numbers this season do not look much different than what David Robertson was doing in 2010.
David Hernandez has been a big part of the Arizona bullpen as he has struck out 25 percent of the batters he has faced and has given up just three home runs on the season while saving 11 games in place of an injured J.J. Putz, culminating in a 3.41 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. As good as those numbers are, they could be even better if not for three disastrous outings this season. In those three outings, Hernandez has thrown two-thirds of an inning while surrendering 12 hits and 14 earned runs. Yes, 14 earned runs in less than one inning of work.
On June 7, Hernandez came in to face the Pirates with a two-run lead. He allowed a lead-off double to Garrett Jones, another double to Jose Tabata, followed up by a single to Josh Harrison; a sacrifice fly to Xavier Paul was the only out he recorded. He proceeded to walk Andrew McCutchen to load the bases and then allowed a double to Lyle Overbay that cleared the bases. Three weeks later, he came on to face the Tigers, walking Magglio Ordonez and giving up back-to-back-to-back singles to Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Jhonny Peralta. He was pulled for Bryan Shaw, who could not strand the runners, and Hernandez paid the price. Two nights ago, Hernandez faced the Rockies and retired the first batter. After that, he allowed a single to Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was then forced out on a fielder’s choice. That would be the last out Hernandez would record as he would allow a single to Mark Ellis, a single to Carlos Gonzalez, a home run to Troy Tulowitzki, and another single to Ty Wigginton before being pulled; Wigginton would eventually come around to score. If we wipe out those 13 of the 14 earned runs there, Hernandez sees his ERA go from 3.41 to 1.71, and he looks much more attractive as a draft target.
Matt Albers has been a surprise for the Red Sox, posting a career high strikeout rate this season. Coming into the year, he had a career strikeout rate of 15 percent, but that number has spiked to 23 percent this season, and the Red Sox have given him nearly 60 innings of mostly low-leverage work. He has 59 strikeouts in 57.2 innings of work but has a 4.53 ERA and 1.47 WHIP that hide a more attractive 3.66 FIP. Albers has had three very rough outings that have skewed his overall line, one in May and two in late August.
In those outings, he threw a combined 1.1 innings but gave up 10 hits, five walks, and 14 earned runs. Given that he has permitted just 29 earned runs all season, the fact that nearly half of his earned runs this season came in three of his 49 outings says something. Albers has been unscored upon in 35 of his 49 outings this season; converting these three disastrous outings into scoreless outings gives Albers a 2.34 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP on the season. Put that along with his strong groundball tendencies and improving strikeout rate and you have a very intriguing relief target in AL-only leagues next season.
These are just three of the names I was able to find that intrigued me despite some unattractive ratios. The skills are there, and these guys have been effective in roles for most of the season but have had a few monumental slip-ups that have hurt their overall numbers. That should help keep their value down with some of your leaguemates allowing you to speculate on the skills for 2012 and hope that they can do next season what guys like Brandon League and Tony Sipp were able to do this season.