With the regular season just about over, the fantasy season is just about over—which means it’s time for a special time of year on the interwebs: Retrospective season. In fantasy circles, that means we’re going to be looking back at a whole lot of surprises from 2017. We’ll get that started early here by looking at surprises from the position that is most prone to surprises. Let’s take a look at five of the most surprising relievers in fantasy baseball this year. Note that these are in no particular order.
I know I just said that this list is in no particular order, but in my eyes, there was no reliever nearly as surprising in 2017 as Norris. After bouncing around the league as a mediocre-at-best starter for years, he found himself in the Angels bullpen. Injuries forced him into the closer role and many, including yours truly, were expecting the worst. Instead, Norris continued to put up more than respectable numbers. The righty agreed with his move to the bullpen as it worked to hide his control issues while the short outings allowed his stuff to play up. He experienced a modest bump in fastball velocity and started leaning on his cutter as his primary secondary and the results were outstanding. He didn’t hold onto the closer role for the entire year, but that was more because of others’ performances rather than his own. He was much more solid and consistent than anyone could have imagined.
2018 Outlook: Norris is a free agent, and it seems almost certain that whoever signs him will decide to keep him in the bullpen. He showed enough this year to think he should still remain solid, though I don’t see a team giving him a role that would make him fantasy relevant. If he were to provide any sort of significant fantasy value in 2018, he’d probably find himself in this column yet again.
This one is probably more of a reflection on my own valuation system than anything else, and many probably weren’t all that surprised by Holland’s 2017. I tend to play things cautiously when it comes to injured pitchers so after he missed all of 2016 and then moving to Colorado for 2017 my expectations weren’t very high. Instead, the former Royal was arguably the top closer in baseball for the first half and, outside of a bad month of August, he was good all year long. His walks were a bit of an issue, though that August stretch made his rates look worse than his whole season would suggest, and he gave up more home runs than usual. Even with those issues, he struck out plenty of batters and has saved over 40 games.
2018 Outlook: Because Holland stayed healthy and remained the closer all year, he has a $15 million player option for next year. Whether or not he accepts it — I could see it going either way — it seems inevitable that he’ll be a closer to start 2018. His ADP is going to be quite a bit higher than the 261st pick where he was being selected last spring.
It seems like forever ago at this point, but the Brewers started the year with Knebel as their setup man behind Neftali Feliz. That hierarchy was certainly short-lived, and Knebel got the job and ran with it. It always was clear that the righty had potential to be a strong high-leverage reliever, but he went from being an intriguing young pitcher in 2015 and 2016 to a legitimate stud in 2017. His control remains an issue but, if anything, that just makes him scarier because there’s still room for improvement. His fastball took a jump up, as did his strikeouts, as he set down almost 15 batters per nine innings while saving almost 40 games for the surprising Brewers. More than anything, he is a reminder that the jump from good to great can happen in the blink of an eye, particularly for relievers.
2018 Outlook: Knebel absolutely is going to be the closer for the Brewers next year, and there’s little reason to think they won’t be just as competitive. Knebel is going to be one of the top closers available in drafts.
Claudio’s performance in and of itself wasn’t all that big of a surprise, though the lefty did take a step forward. He burst onto the scene last year and proved that he is going to be a very strong reliever in this league for a long time. He absolutely kills lefties, and though he doesn’t rack up strikeouts like most fantasy-relevant closers in today’s game, he has impeccable control and induces a ton of weak contact. With his high ground-ball rate, he keeps the ball in the yard, and that ended up being enough to give him a stronghold on the closers role for most of the year. There were some strange circumstances that led to Claudio getting the job, but he still came out of nowhere to be a fantasy-relevant reliever for a large chunk of the season.
2018 Outlook: The Rangers are in a strange position so it’s not entirely clear what direction they are going to trek in for next year. I could see a scenario in which Claudio begins the year as their closer, though my best guess is still that Keone Kela will be the best fantasy option in their bullpen for 2018.
There is no position as unpredictable as reliever, and there is no reliever as unpredictable as Rodney. In a given year, he can be anything from the best reliever in baseball to the worst. In one way, he can’t be a surprise because you never know what to expect. However, it was still hard to see him being a fantasy-relevant closer all year given his age and his 2016 results, but he still was able to remain the closer of the one of the best teams in the National League for the entire season. Rodney is an enigma and that continued in his age-40 season.
2018 Outlook: ¯_(ãƒ„)_/¯