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Other than sports, I don't typically watch much TV, but I got hooked on a new show this past weekend. Saturday morning I was flipping channels and happened to come across a show called American Pickers. The show follows two guys as they travel around the Midwest looking for treasure in junkyards, barns and basements. We're not talking about lost "Mona Lisa's" here. These guys dig up old signs and rusty bikes, moth-eaten movie posters and leaking oil cans, and turn them into money.
So how can we apply this "picking" in a fantasy baseball realm? Is there hidden value in strange places just waiting for us to "pick" it? You know there is or I wouldn't have spent the last 150 words telling you about some show on the History Channel. Our hidden value lies in the vastly untapped source of pitching stats among the middle relievers of Major League Baseball. It's widely accepted that middle relievers have value in mono-leagues, but fantasy owners in mixed leagues have, for the most part, ignored this aspect of "real" baseball.
Just to illustrate the value of middle relievers, let's take a look at two pitchers. Whom do you prefer?
Pitcher A: 8-2 record, 2.43 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 98 Ks
Pitcher B: 9-5 record, 1.59 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 95 Ks
Pitcher A is perennial Cy Young candidate Roy Halladay, who is having a typically strong year. OK, so I cheated on Pitcher B. Those numbers are actually from two pitchers combined. I took Luke Gregerson and Tyler Clippard and morphed them into a starting pitcher. Halladay was a second round pick at worst, while Gregerson and Clippard went undrafted in the majority of mixed leagues. Sure, I cherry-picked these two, as it's hard to predict which middle reliever will get eight vulture wins. We also have to account for the extra pitching slot taken up by our two relievers, but the point is clear; elite middle relievers have value in ALL formats.
Let's go "picking" and dig up "rusty gold" by checking out the middle relievers who are quietly dominating hitters this season. You keeper-leaguers need to pay extra special attention. Some of these pitchers could be closing out games in the near future.
Luke Gregerson (RHP, SD): 35.2 IP, 1 W, 1.51 ERA, 0.477 WHIP, 43 K
Gregerson isn't just having the best year of any middle reliever; he's arguably having the best year of any pitcher not named Ubaldo Jimenez. He's only vultured one win, but his other numbers are incredible. He's provided 43 Ks in his 35.2 innings, to go along with a 1.59 ERA. He's walked just three hitters and given up 14 hits. You do the math; that works out to a WHIP of 0.477. When you don't allow baserunners, it's pretty hard for the other team to score. With the Padres leading their division, a Heath Bell trade is not the given we thought it was, but do you think the Padres will have a problem trusting Gregerson with the closing role next season?
Joaquin Benoit (RHP, TB): 18.0 IP, 0 W, 0.50 ERA, 0.555 WHIP, 26 K
Benoit was salvaged as a minor league signing after missing all of 2009 while recovering from a torn rotator cuff. Nobody knows it, but Benoit has twice struck out more than 80 batters in a relief role. Because of his recent shoulder injury, the Rays are being careful with their usage of Benoit. As the season wears on, we can expect to see more of him. His low innings total limits his value this season, but it should be noted that Rafael Soriano is on a one-year contract. Soriano will be getting big free agent money with the year he's having, and the Rays will have to turn to a cheaper alternative.
Tyler Clippard (RHP, WAS): 43.2 IP, 8 W, 1.65 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 52 K
No, we can't always count on eight early season wins from Clippard, but he's not getting the credit he deserves for his other numbers. Over the last two seasons he's pitched 104 innings while providing a 2.25 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 119 Ks. He's not the future closer in Washington with Drew Storen on board, but he will be pitching in high leverage situations that are conducive to a high number of vulture wins. With pitching making a comeback, carrying a starting pitcher with an ERA near 5.00 makes less and less sense. Instead, turn to a workhorse reliever like Clippard.
Evan Meek (RHP, PIT): 40 IP, 3 W, 0.67 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 36 Ks
Pitching middle relief for the Pirates is like being the fifth Beatle; except instead of the Beatles, think of a band like Winger. Seriously, if Meek were pitching in a big market, he'd be getting a lot more attention. Octavio Dotel has turned things around, so Meek probably won't close soon, but Dotel is a prime trade candidate as the deadline approaches. Meek is the logical candidate to take over ninth inning duties at that point. It's not sexy to own a Pirates closer, but their saves count just the same.
Daniel Bard (RHP, BOS): 36.2 IP, 1 W, 2.21 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 38 K
Pitching for Boston gets Bard more attention than the previously mentioned pitchers, but he deserves mention as a prime closer candidate for 2011. He's obviously second in command in the Boston pen and there are already whispers that Jonathan Papelbon could be dealt this offseason. Bard has been his usual tough self to hit, allowing just 21 hits in 36.2 innings, and has lowered his BB/9 to 2.95 from last season's 4.01. He's actually throwing harder this year (average fastball 97.9 mph) and controlling it better. It's not a given that Papelbon takes his show elsewhere, but if he does, Bard will take over and produce the same type of numbers.
Jason Motte (RHP, STL): 29.0 IP, 2 W, 2.17 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 35 K
Motte got a lot of sleeper love last year and completely disintegrated under the pressure. Ryan Franklin's success has hid the fact that Motte is now pitching as we expected. He's done most of his damage in low-pressure situations, but earned a save last week in relief of Franklin. Franklin is still under contract for '11, but the Cardinals might be ready to make the move to Motte with Franklin as a safety net.
Mike Adams (RHP, SD): 32.1 IP, 1 W, 2.27 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 37 Ks
Gregerson is the better long-term bet to take over closing duties when Heath Bell gets traded, but it's certainly possible that Adams could get the call if it happens this season. Adams currently sits with a 0.89 WHIP, which follows last year's 0.59. Fantasy owners frequently turn to more advanced stats, but sometimes all we need to do is look at how many baserunners a pitcher allows. Adams is just flat out good. The only issue is whether the Padres would trust him in a closer role with his recent shoulder issues. If you're toward the top of the ERA and WHIP categories, it's time to protect your numbers, sit your questionable starters and turn to the middle men. Adams is one of the best.
"Picking" is one of the aspects that make keeper leagues so much fun. Digging through the middle relief junkyard can net you solid value for this year and who knows ... maybe a closer next season. In the meantime, I have to figure out if the 36-ounce rocked-chipped golden aluminum bat I've had since 1977 is rusty gold or just rust.
* All statistics current as of June 20.
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Doug Anderson is the Executive Editor at RotoExperts.com. Look for Man in a Box every Tuesday and catch him on The Fantasy War Room, Thursdays at 8 ET. Wanna climb in the box and talk baseball? E-mail Doug at email@example.com.