Wins are hard to target in roto. They are awarded haphazardly, and they are driven as much by the performance of a pitcher’s teammates and by the timing of runs as they are by a pitcher’s own work. Wins still matter in most roto leagues, though, so you have to find them. In deep AL-only and NL-only leagues, I like to look for starters likely to throw 180+ innings who didn’t throw many innings last year due to innings limits, role changes or injury, depressing their innings and wins the prior season, thereby drawing little attention from fantasy players who give little more than a quick scan across the categories before their auctions. In pursuit of wins, I also look for pitchers likely to throw 180+ innings for good teams who don’t put up roto-friendly numbers in ERA, WHIP, or K, keeping their salaries low on auction day.
When it comes to relievers, modern bullpen usage dictates that the wins usually don’t go to any of the top three guys in the pecking order, since those guys are typically reserved for the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings in games where their team has a lead. Unless the starter leaves without throwing five innings, relievers can’t get a win if they enter the game with a lead unless they proceed to blow that lead and get lucky via a comeback by their teammates. The pitchers who come into the game when their team is down get more wins than the seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-inning guys. The exception, as always, is Andrew Miller, who breaks just about every rule regarding reliever performance, deployment patterns and just about everything else, but he’s not exactly an unknown quantity in fantasy, either.
Brad Brach, RP, Baltimore Orioles
Brad Brach is the setup man in Baltimore, clearly the second-best pitcher in their bullpen behind Zach Britton. If manager Buck Showalter stuck to typical modern reliever usage patterns, the tall righty would only enter games the Orioles were leading in the eighth inning. Showalter is anything but typical, though, using his relievers in a decidedly post-modern fashion, calling for the New Jersey native based on leverage rather than whether his team has a lead. This is how Brach racked up 10 wins in 79 innings in 2016. That’s a lot of innings and wins for a reliever. He’s likely to throw roughly the same number of innings in 2017 but unlikely to post double-digit win totals again. He’s a better bet for wins than just about any other reliever, though, due to his high inning totals and usage patterns.
Junior Guerra, SP, Milwaukee Brewers
One of the feel-good stories of 2016, Junior Guerra posted nine wins, a 2.81 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 20 starts as a 31-year-old rookie. The Venezuelan missed some time in August due to elbow soreness but returned to make a few starts in September before being shut down due to an innings limit. The Brewers probably won’t be contending for a playoff spot in 2017 so they won’t win tons of games for Guerra on their own, but he is expected to throw 180+ innings as a critical part of their rotation. His pedestrian K/9 tamps his overall value down, potentially making the wins he’ll accumulate a little less expensive than they otherwise would be.
Dylan Bundy, SP/RP, Baltimore Orioles
It feels like Dylan Bundy has been around for a long time, but he’ll be 24 for the duration of the 2017 season. Prior to last season, he hadn’t thrown many innings due to a seemingly endless string of injuries that kept him off the mound. In 2016, he spent the first half of the season working out of the bullpen with an eye towards building his innings slowly. In the second half he joined the rotation, making fourteen starts and presenting himself as a viable option for Baltimore’s rotation in 2017. In 109 2/3 innings last year, he posted 104 strikeouts with ten wins, a 4.02 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. Those numbers probably won’t attract a ton of attention going into 2017 auctions, although his former top prospect pedigree might. Bundy is likely to begin the season in the rotation and should throw 150-160 innings before Baltimore thinks about shutting him down, giving him plenty of time to improve on his 2016 win total.
The Interesting Cases
Joe Blanton, RP, Free Agent
He hasn’t signed yet, but after posting a 2.48 ERA with a 1.01 WHIP in 80 innings with 80 strikeouts for the Dodgers, he should garner plenty of interest. As a 36-year-old with fastball that tops out in the low-90s, he won’t be closing for anyone and is unlikely to be the eighth-inning guy, so he’ll probably get plenty of chances to pitch in situations where his team is losing or tied, giving him plenty of chances to vulture wins.
And, since I’m writing about Joe Blanton, I’m obliged to link to the home run he hit in the World Series. Sorry, rules are rules.
Martin Perez, SP, Texas Rangers
He doesn’t strike out many batters and his rate stats leave a lot to be desired. Martin Perez is reliable, though, throwing 198 2/3 innings for the Rangers as they coasted to a division title. He’s a good bet to start 30-plus games for Texas again in 2017 as they defend their AL West title, giving him lots of chances to equal or better the ten wins he posted in 2016. Since the lefty doesn’t provide much roto value outside of the wins category, he could offer decent value as a wins play on auction day.
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Do you think guys like Blanton -- trusted middle relievers on winning teams with rotations that won't pitch deep - can be something we can find value in for drafts?
LA is unusual since they had several guys returning from injury, Urias pitch counts, etc. but created environment for 7th/8th guys to get wins.
Any other teams you could see with a similar formula or players like that for 2017?
In general, looking for wins from relief pitchers is not an optimal strategy. Relievers need a fortuitously timed lead change to get a win. The only leagues where you might want to look for wins from bullpen guys are very deep leagues, and even then, to paraphrase Joe Sheehan, variance will often swamp any well-conceived plans.
If you're in a deep league, you should definitely consider the win potential of your relief options, but you should do so with the understanding that the success rate on your selections will likely be low, no matter how well researched and well reasoned those selections are. It's not you, it's just the nature of the category.
Getting value from a reserve pick, or even just thinking of a decent early-season FAAB option is where this could be beneficial.
Heck, it even could be a deep-league oriented article researching the number of wins by middle relievers over the past few years, and taking in the context of the manager and how the rotations will look this year vs in past.