We’re about to hit the halfway point of the 2016 MLB season, and so far, this year has been dominated great individual first-half performances, from Clayton Kershaw’s dominance to Trevor Story’s first week as a major leaguer and David Ortiz doing things no other 40-year-old has done in league history, and seemingly countless other achievements. However, one of the quieter, yet still impactful, developments I will remember is the rise of setup-man-as-fantasy-asset.
The specialization of pitching staffs and bullpens has helped foster a culture in which relievers who fill the space between starters and closers are more valuable than they’ve ever been in fantasy leagues. Not only do middle relievers and setup man have the stuff necessary to rack up strikeouts like closers, but the good ones also get more work than they used to, typically pitching two to four innings per week. That’s helping turn a significant number of them into fantasy weapons.
Despite the fantasy community coming around to the idea that a reliever can be valuable even if he doesn’t get saves, there remains an ownership-rate deficit in this class of player. Fantasy owners have come around on some setup man individually, but not all as a whole, failing to realize that there is little difference between the top and bottom of the elite tier.
See if you can guess the identities of the two setup men who have compiled the numbers in the table below.
|Pitcher A||29 2/3||55||1.21||0.67||86%|
Pitcher A is the electric Andrew Miller, one of the best relievers in baseball. His value could get a shot in the arm if he’s dealt to a contender that turns him into a closer, or if the Yankees trade Aroldis Chapman and once again install him in the ninth, but even if he remains a setup man all season he’s going to be a fantasy mainstay. Pitcher B is Seung-hwan Oh, who might actually have a better chance at being a closer than Miller this season, but, like Miller, is an incredibly valuable setup man, from both real-life and fantasy perspectives.
No one would claim that Pitcher B is better than Pitcher A. The latter has more strikeouts in fewer innings and better rates. Is the difference between the two so great, however, that Pitcher A’s ownership rate should be more than three times as high as Pitcher B’s? Surely, if Pitcher A is on more fantasy rosters than Marco Estrada and Aaron Nola, Pitcher B probably shouldn’t be in the same ownership-rate neighborhood as Nathan Eovaldi and Clay Buchholz.
Oh is turning in an absolutely dominant season in his first year on this side of the Pacific. The Cardinals have called on him 36 times. He surrendered a run in just four of those appearances, and didn’t let anyone reach base in 20 of them. He’s 18th in ERA among all relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, but third in FIP—trailing only Miller and Dellin Betances—sixth in fWAR and 11th in WHIP. The 29.4-percentage-point spread in his strikeout and walk rates is seventh best among relievers.
Oh’s 36 appearances lead the league and translate to the Cardinals using him, on average, a little more than three times per week. Given that he has thrown 37 innings, we can comfortably project him for one inning per appearance. Let’s further assume that the Cardinals continue using him at this pace, about 3.2 innings per week, and that his ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate remain flat for the rest of the season.
We can now do some quick back-of-the-napkin math to calculate Oh’s weekly impact for the typical fantasy owner. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use the most standard fantasy format, which is 12-team, 5x5 and head-to-head. Roster construction and two-start weeks can alter how many innings an individual owner’s team racks up, but we can ballpark the average innings pitched per week for a team in that format at 60 innings. Using the leaguewide ERA of 4.12 and WHIP of 1.31 as our baselines, Oh would lower his owner’s ERA by 0.12 and WHIP by 0.03 while adding 4.3 strikeouts in an average week.
By now, it should be clear that Oh is already plenty valuable on his own merits. He may become even more valuable if the man in the closer’s chair, Trevor Rosenthal, continues to falter. Rosenthal has a 4.50 ERA, 4.03 FIP and 1.92 WHIP in 24 innings this season. Despite saving 93 games in 2014 and ’15 combined he was never a truly dominant closer, finding a way to pitch around a 1.34 WHIP in those seasons. Mike Matheny is a famously by-the-book manager who trusts his veterans, but if the performance gap between Oh and Rosenthal remains the same or widens, he may have no choice but to make a change in the ninth. Regardless of that, however, Oh is a strong buy in all fantasy formats. The good news for most of you is that means you can simply pluck him off the waiver wire.
Tyson Ross, SP, Padres
Injury optimism is the most dangerous drug in the fantasy world. You should basically never trust a team when they set a timetable for a player’s return, and you should never assume that the player is going to hit the ground running when he does come back. That goes double for a pitcher returning from a shoulder injury. Still, this is the time of year when you might need to take a chance, and if you can get Ross at a discount, that could be worth a roll of the dice. He threw his first bullpen session last weekend, and could have him on pace to start a rehab assignment before the All-Star break. If Ross progresses smoothly from this point forward, we’d likely see him back on the mound for the Padres by the end of July. That would give him about six weeks to make some noise for his owners before the end of a typical fantasy regular season.
Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins
Stanton hitting a homer used to be as noteworthy as Clayton Kershaw adding another strikeout to his gaudy total. Times have changed for the slugger, who went yard for the first time in nearly a month on Monday. He’s finally coming out of the worst slump of his career, racking up eight hits in his last five games. What’s more, he struck out just (for him) five times in those five contests. It’s entirely possible that an owner who stuck with Stanton through the last six weeks won’t want to sell him now that he’s showing signs of life. That’s why we first recommended him as a buy a few weeks ago. At the same time, his owner may not trust him and could use this surge as a last-ditch opportunity to sell. I’d rather be on the buy side of this one, but it’s admittedly close. If you’re looking for help in the power department, acquiring Stanton is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward move.
Fernando Rodney, RP, Padres
We first brought up the idea of selling Rodney last week. He has made three appearances since then, and while he surrendered his first run of the season on Tuesday, he fanned eight batters while picking up three saves in that time. He now has a 0.34 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings. Just as was the case a week ago—and will be a week from now and the week after that—the Padres aren’t going anywhere this season. That will help make Rodney one of the likeliest players to get dealt before the trade deadline. As good as he has been this year, there’s a better chance that a team with an established closer acquires him to be a setup man, rather than a team that’s looking specifically for ninth-inning help. If and when that happens, Rodney will lose most, if not all, of his fantasy value.
Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Orioles
I’ve been holding off on this one for a while, largely because Trumbo seems too obvious a sell-high candidate. After all, we’re talking about a guy who, from 2013 through ’15, hit .244/.299/.443 with an average of 23 homers per season. Even in ’11 and ’12, when he belted a total of 60 homers, he hit .261 with a .305 OBP. Trying to sell him high seemed a fool’s errand.
Now that Trumbo has been one of this season’s premier power hitters through June, however, you could realistically sell him at a profit. Two numbers that work together should really scare Trumbo’s owners, and those are his 26.4% strikeout rate and .324 BABIP. Remember, home runs are not counted in BABIP. Add in his 6.4% walk rate and 6.8% home-run rate, and Trumbo is putting the ball in play in just more than three-fifths of his plate appearances. When his BABIP dips, which it almost certainly will, given his batted-ball rates, we’ll see the batting average and OBP plummet to his career marks. We shouldn’t doubt his power, but it’s incredibly likely that we’ve already seen, by far, the best of Trumbo this season.
Steven Matz, SP, Mets
The hits keep coming for the Mets, who watched Steven Matz leave his last start in the sixth inning with an elbow issue. Right now, the Mets are saying that the injury isn’t serious. Undoubtedly, they and his fantasy owners are hoping that’s indeed the case. We may not know more until this weekend, so hold off on making any Matz-related moves until we get more news.
Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Is the oft-discussed, much hoped-for breakout finally here? Abreu slogged through a miserable start to the season, carrying a .242/.304/.382 at the end of May. He has turned it all around in June, hitting .343/.380/.614 with four homers, seven doubles and 17 RBI in the month. Abreu’s season-long slash line is now a respectable .267/.324/.440 with 10 homers and 44 RBI. What’s more, check out Abreu’s monthly splits over his career.
Clearly, he’s a guy who has always enjoyed hitting in the summer rather than the spring. If you’ve held on this long, congratulations. You’re rewards aren’t likely to stop any time soon.