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A large portion of the conversation in fantasy circles has revolved around how the spike in home runs has altered the landscape—and with good reason. Home runs have increased from 4,186 in 2014 to 4,909 in 2015 to 5,610 in 2016. Entering action Wednesday, major-league hitters were on pace to hit 6,133 home runs in 2017. It is with good reason this has been analyzed ad infinitum. But since this fertile soil has been properly tilled, we can look at a different trend that is slipping under the radar somewhat.

Table 1: Major League Baseball Starting Pitchers, 2013-2017

Year

Innings

Wins

ERA

WHIP

Strikeouts

2013

28,676.33

1658

4.01

1.31

22,922

2014

28.992.00

1706

3.82

1.27

23,694

2015

28,223.33

1673

4.10

1.30

23,218

2016

27,412.67

1628

4.34

1.33

23,619

2017*

27,566.46

1657

4.41

1.35

24,013

*pace

If pitchers maintain their pace in 2017, they will strike out 40,606 batters, which would be nearly an 11 percent increase from 2013. However, these gains mostly have come because of relief pitchers. Starting pitchers have only increased their strikeouts by 4.7 percent over the same time.

Strikeouts per nine innings have spiked, which isn’t reflected in the table above. But since most of us don’t play in K/9 leagues, it is raw strikeouts we are concerned with, not strikeout rate. And on this front, relievers are gaining value.

Rather than simply look at this phenomenon from a real-life perspective, let’s tackle it from a fantasy angle as well. First, here are the 10 best starting pitchers from 2013-2017 in the AL and NL:

Table 2: Top 10 Starting Pitchers 2013-2017

Year

AL Starter $

NL Starter $

Top AL Starter

Top NL Starter

2013

$253

$279

Max Scherzer $35

Clayton Kershaw $41

2014

$281

$280

Felix Hernandez $39

Kershaw $41

2015

$253

$312

Dallas Keuchel $35

Jake Arrieta $44

2016

$278

$320

Justin Verlander $34

Scherzer $40

2017

$319

$326

Keuchel $42

Scherzer $46

Current-year statistics always must be taken with a grain of salt, particularly where the top earners are concerned. We already know that Keuchel won’t earn $42 this season, even if he does come back in two or three weeks. Scherzer could finish the season at $46, but it is more likely that he finishes in the high $30s or low $40s. This isn’t a knock on Scherzer, but rather an indication of how difficult it is for any pitcher to crack $45 in full season earnings. The only starting pitcher to turn the feat in the past decade was Justin Verlander, who earned $46 in 2011. Verlander’s 24 wins had a lot to do with his epic season, but Verlander’s strikeouts also were worth somewhat more in 2011 than they would be now.

The spike in league ERA could push any of Scherzer, Kershaw, or Sale above the $45 mark. But the biggest challenge any elite pitcher has in 2017 is getting enough volume to get into this stratosphere. Earnings are up for the top pitchers—especially in the NL—but the ceiling remains the same because 200+ inning seasons are much harder to come by. In 2013, 36 starting pitchers logged 200 or more innings. That number dwindled to 15 in 2016. There are not even as many pitchers on pace to finish with 200 innings in 2017 as there were in 2013; only 28 pitchers are on track to do so, and this total will drop as the season progresses.

With the perennial complaints about saves and the unreliability of closers, you would figure that the value of relievers has fallen over the last five years.

Table 3: Top 10 Closers 2013-2017

Year

AL Closer $

NL Closer $

Top AL Closer

Top NL Closer

2013

$213

$196

Greg Holland $27

Craig Kimbrel $29

2014

$199

$195

Holland $25

Kimbrel $24

2015

$190

$204

Andrew Miller $23

Mark Melancon $25

2016

$190

$186

Zach Britton $28

Kenley Jansen $30

2017

$214

$207

Kimbrel $37

Jansen $30

There is some variability in the distribution of dollars from season to season, but the overall amount of money that closers are worth changes little from year to year. Since most of a closer’s value resides in his save total, it matters little which names or performances are in the Top 10. Pitchers like Jansen or Kimbrel can earn a good portion of fantasy coin with their ERA/WHIP/strikeouts but, for the most part, closers don’t earn more than a few dollars in non-save categories. If Kimbrel finishes with a $37 season, we can talk about it this winter (he won’t).

Closer quality has eroded the past two seasons. In 2016, only six closers earned $15 or more. In 2017, eight closers are on pace to earn $15 or more. This might not sound like it matters much, but for contextual purposes since 2013 the AL has has at least 10 closers earn $15 or more—except for 2016, when only nine did. But closer valuation has not been impacted much by the changing landscape in increased innings for relievers/higher strikeouts as noted above.

If you’re looking for where the biggest changes have come, look no further than the next table.

Table 4: Top 10 Relievers (Non-Closers) 2013-2017

Year

AL Non-Closer $

NL Non-Closer $

Top AL Non-Closer

Top NL Non-Closer

2013

$123

$111

Luke Hochevar $15

Tyler Clippard $13

2014

$143

$116

Dellin Betances $21

Pat Neshek $16

2015

$119

$99

Betances $20

Kevin Siegrist $13

2016

$147

$126

Andrew Miller $26

David Phelps $16

2017

$174

$157

Miller $25

Felipe Rivero $24

As Rivero’s inclusion in Table 4 shows, the earnings in this chart are subject to change based on who changes roles between now and the end of the season. Rivero won’t be on this table in October. However, glancing at the middle relievers in the Top 10 in each league, no one else has a clear shot at saves or is in a bullpen with a shaky closer. Trevor Rosenthal is probably the best candidate to take over in the ninth if his team’s closer struggles.

The relievers who are changing the valuation landscape are the ones who earn big bucks even though saves are not a significant part of their earnings profile. Miller, Chris Devenski, and Betances are the obvious ones, but Carl Edwards and Archie Bradley have quietly joined the vanguard of pitchers who are providing their teams significant value despite not logging nearly as many innings as the top starting pitchers.

More than individual and group earnings, the place where the trend is most visible is in pitcher rankings.

In 2013, the 10th best AL middle reliever, Sean Doolittle, was the 64th best pitcher in 5×5 AL-only. In 2017, Matt Barnes is currently the 46th best AL pitcher. In 2013, Siegrist was the 69th best pitcher (oh, grow up) in 5×5 NL-only. Wandy Peralta is currently the 41st best NL pitcher. The top NL starting pitchers are holding their value and in the NL earning somewhat more than they have in the past. The mid-range starting pitcher tiers are collapsing.

In deeper mixed and especially mono leagues, it is time to reconsider how we construct our fantasy rosters. Even if you are committed to carrying six starters and three relievers on your team, how you allocate your draft slots or your auction dollars should change going forward. Paying $13-15 for a third starter while spending $1 for a middle reliever is something you should seriously reconsider. A team with one or two elite starting pitchers, one closer, and a staff of middle relievers is a viable strategy. Remember that you do not have to finish with the roster you purchased at auction either. The starting pitchers you can pick up for $1 at the end of your auction, or as free agents later in the season, can have just as much value as the pitchers you are spending money on at your auctions.