Who out there likes Oreos? How about Moon Pies? Tootsie Roll Pops? What do they all have in common? Like Hugh Hefner, it's good to be in the middle.
For years, I've played in leagues where middle relievers are treated like a mutating virus -- avoidance at all costs. I'm here to tell you not to be so short-sighted in your player valuations.
Sure, starters can give you instant gratification: a win, a few (or a bunch of) strikeouts, and hopefully solid ratios. Closers can mow down three straight batters to offer up to three Ks and zeroes in the ratios, plus of course, a save. And those guys who bridge the gap? In the words of a close friend of mine, "Hey dumb ass, don't #%#@ it up!" OK, fair enough, but there's so much more to consider here. Let's dig into some important strategies for getting real fantasy value from the under-appreciated middle relievers.
You already know that 5x5 is the standard format for the vast majority of fantasy leagues, and I will focus on that format for most of this column. But you cannot ignore custom leagues. The most common way league commissioners create value for MRs is by including the "Holds" category. In many cases, this levels the playing field between closers and the rest of the bullpen, particularly the set-up men. However, it also saturates your free agent wire with viable options, so I recommend leaving this strategy to mono-leagues, huge mixed leagues, and formats where the bench is big as the starting lineup itself. Or unless you want to really try something different and omit saves as a category (fat chance there).
Our weekly "Pecking Order" column has been a great way to keep up on who is in line to close should opportunity knock. This is the most typical case where fantasy GMs roster MRs, and the safest way to dabble with them if you find yourself in a pinch at closer. It also changes weekly, so you need to stay on top of the depth chart obsessively to make this pay off.
Capitalizing on Spot Starts (or empty SP slots)
A lot of players like to keep tabs on "sixth starter" types. These guys remain in the bullpen until a rotation spot comes open due to injury, a trade, or a demotion of a SP. You can sometimes catch lighting in a bottle if they are promoted and keep the gig, but these guys are the first to get the hook if/when a viable starter comes available. This can happen if the injury heals or a hot prospect is called up to take the spot. I like to find guys who carry SP/RP eligibility. Not only are they more likely to get spot starts as mentioned previously, but they can also be started in your SP slots when none of your regular starters are on the mound. This can provide a lot of bonus stats over the course of a full season, since SPs only play every five games.
There are a lot of reasons that I think wins are a stupid category (e.g. effects of bad luck, poor team defense, shoddy closers). Still, since most of you use it, MRs are capable of contributing cheap wins to your weekly numbers. Heck, I've seen some MRs make it to double-digit wins over the course of a season. If you are faced with selecting a guy like Livan Hernandez in your last round (a veritable poison to fantasy ratios, who hardly ever strikes anyone out), or a long reliever in a pitchers' park with one of the best offenses in baseball supporting him, what would you do? You'd be surprised how many would blindly take the SP because they need wins. If you're that guy, please email me about a spot in one of my leagues.
One MR = One SP?
Following on the cheap wins idea, I contend that some MRs, particularly long relievers, can outperform non-elite SPs most weeks. How, you might ask? If you could have either of the following stat lines for a full week of play, which would you rather?
Player A: 7.0 IP, 1 W, 6 Ks, 2 ERs, 9 Hs, 3 BBs (2.57 ERA, 1.57 WHIP)
Player B: 6.0 IP, 1 W, 9 Ks, 0 ERs, 5 Hs, 0 BBs (0.00 ERA, 0.83 WHIP)
These are real stats taken from the first seven days of games after the 2009 All Star Break. Player A was A.J. Burnett (July 22, 2009 vs. Baltimore Orioles). Player B was Phil Hughes in a relief role on July 17, 19, 22, and 23. Phil also had two holds and a save that week. I guess sometimes one MR > one SP.
Rotisserie Stretch Run
Head-to-head players never have to contend with the problem of start limits, but roto players should be intimately familiar with them. Basically, you get up to 162 games at each offensive position and a pre-determined number of starts out of your pitching corps. Given the ongoing nature of roto and the difficulty of catching up once someone breaks out to a serious lead, this rule was originally adopted to discourage streaming or stacking SPs at the expense of other positions. So fantasy GMs stress out all year about whether to start or sit guys against good offenses. I say start 'em and damn the torpedoes! When you run out of starts, you can dump your fringe starters and bench the elites (just don't start dumping elite pitchers, or you're donating to the other teams' causes), and stack as many RPs as you can fit into your lineup. Hopefully, if you managed your team well, they can provide just enough to carry you to the title. If not, at least you're putting up the good fight and not giving up.
Investing in the Future
I would be remiss to ignore the importance of valuing middle relievers in keeper or dynasty leagues. A guy like the aforementioned Phil Hughes didn't just have value last year; imagine how much value he could have in a full time starting gig! And don't forget, he put up those numbers playing in a home park that channeled Wii Baseball -- HRs aplenty! You can't expect to play in these formats without having to do homework on your player acquisitions, so make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Derive the value you can get now, but be sure there's upside to be had later.
The "No Closer" Strategy
Extremer as it is. punting a category is a viable strategy. I've seen at least a couple of examples of fantasy players who outright ignored closers at the draft. They went for the best of the best middle relievers in the last three or four rounds, targeting closers-in-waiting, guys who can provide cheap wins, and long relievers. One of these teams even made the finals in a H2H league, so don't paint yourself into a corner when deciding what to do with your RP slots.
Anyone can buy a magazine the day before a draft and take the top SP or closer on the list. Only savvy fantasy players know how to make the most of middle relievers and set-up men. Never paint yourself into a corner during the draft; let it come to you. If your league mates overinvest in closers, then they are surely leaving some quality talent on the table elsewhere. If they overinvest in closers and SPs, then your offense had better be the best one in the league. In either case, just let them drive up the auction price or keep reaching a round too early. Rest assured that you can pick up the slack at the end of the draft with MRs, and who knows, you just might get lucky and draft a couple of guys who end up with ninth inning duties anyway.
Have I missed any cool tactics to employ? Have you tried these strategies and failed? Do you think I'm crazy? If so, you need to login and tell me your thoughts. Do it for yourself. Do it for pride. Do it for the other readers. Just DO IT!