- Covering the best strategies and tactics for building a winning fantasy bullpen.
Bullpen management has changed radically over the last five years, and managers seem to put more innings on the arms of their relievers every season. The changes haven’t affected dramatically affected closers, where most of the bullpen-related fantasy value still lies, but it has created a new class of relievers that the savvy fantasy player can use to his or her advantage. Want to steal an SP2/3 type for free? All you need to do is build yourself a Montvenski.
Mike Montgomery of the Cubs and Chris Devenski of the Astros were two of the most obvious examples of how managers are using their best relievers in the modern game. Montgomery made 44 appearances for the Cubs, including 14 starts. All 62 of Devenski’s appearances came as a reliever, but he threw more than one inning in 25 of them. Montgomery, meanwhile, pitched more than an inning in 23 of his 30 relief appearances. These may have once been typical usage patterns for relievers, but they haven’t been for some time. What’s old is new again. And it’s creating opportunities in the fantasy game.
For the sake of this conversation, we’ll throw out what Montgomery did as a starter. He (as a reliever only) and Devenski combined for 142 innings, more than Kyle Hendricks and Rich Hill. They totaled a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 144 strikeouts. Their combined ERA was better than every starter’s, other than Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, while their WHIP would have ranked eighth, sandwiched between Zack Greinke and Carlos Carrasco. Montgomery and Deveski combined for a 25.3% strikeout rate, tied with Carlos Martinez for 19th best among starters, and better than Gerrit Cole and Jake Arrieta. The Montvenski is a legitimate weapon in fantasy leagues, essentially replicating SP2/3 value at a fraction of the cost.
Now, to be sure, building your own Montvenski is easier said than done. Few fantasy owners, if any, saw Devenski coming last season, and it took winning a bidding war on the waiver wire to acquire him. Still, we know pitchers like him will exist every season, and it is possible to find them if you spend some time hunting. For starters, both Montgomery and Devenski should be in similar, if not identical, roles this year. Other relievers who could form one end of a 2018 Montvenski include Carl Edwards, Josh Hader, Dominic Leone, Archie Bradley, Tommy Kahnle and Cam Bedrosian, just to name a few.
Closers may still be the most valuable relievers, and that’s where we’ll focus the rest of the primer. Still, by channeling your inner-Terry Francona and building your very own Montvenski, you’ll not only embrace the modern era of bullpen management, you’ll lengthen your fantasy rotation with a Frankenstein’s monster of an SP2/3.
Five Big Questions
1. Considering the changes in bullpen management, are high-end closers worth their draft-day prices?
There is no question that the truly elite closers are more valuable now than they were five years ago. Strikeout rates have skyrocketed, and the best of the best in the ninth inning make significant contributions to four of the five traditional pitching categories. If you’re in a league that uses K/9 or an innings cap, then Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman are certainly worth their respective price tags.
Most fantasy owners, however, do not play in K/9 or innings-cap leagues. And in those more common formats, I still cannot get on board with Jansen at pick No. 40 or Kimbrel at pick No. 50.
This is all about opportunity cost. Even if we grant that Jansen is going to give his fantasy owners 65 innings worth of a 1.50 ERA and 0.75 WHIP to go along with 100 strikeouts and 35 saves, is he really more valuable than, say, Andrew Benintendi? Or Jose Abreu? Or Zach Greinke? Would you really rather have Kimbrel than Justin Upton, Carlos Martinez, Anthony Rendon and Yu Darvish? Going by ADP, those are the players you would have to pass on to secure the league’s best closers. It’s just not worth it.
One of the best traits of the elite closers is that they carry nearly zero bust risk. Closers go bust with more frequency at all levels than any other position. Chances are if you get in right after the top options are off the board, you’re flirting with significant risk. Still, even knowing that and understanding the changes in bullpen usage, I cannot in good conscience take a 65-inning reliever over 200-inning potential SP1, or a high-level hitter who’s going to rack up 600 plate appearances. I’m still passing on the position’s best and waiting for the sweet spot, which takes us right into big question No. 2
2. Where is Goldilocks Equilibrium?
We all know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, right? One bowl of porridge is too cold, one bowl is too hot, and one bowl is just right. One bed is too big, one bed is too small, but one is perfect. Goldilocks Equilibrium refers to the story, and states that, in certain instances, we are looking for the ideal spot that falls between two extremes. It applies perfectly to the closer position in fantasy baseball.
I already covered why you do not want to dive into the position too early. Dive in too late, though, and you’ll effectively punt saves, and put too much pressure on your starting pitches to maintain competitive rate stats. Finding the spot that’s just right can ensure that you don’t miss out on the big bats and top-end starting pitchers in the early rounds, but that you also field a bullpen that rounds out a successful pitching staff. I like to represent Goldilocks Equilibrium with a specific closer, one who’s good enough to anchor a bullpen but also doesn’t cost you a premium pick. This year, that closer is Raisel Iglesias.
Iglesias is the 10th closer off the board in a typical draft, with an ADP of 106.31. That should give you plenty of time to nab the two more closers necessary to be generally competitive in the bullpen in a standard fantasy league. Iglesias was one of the lone bright spots for the Reds last year, totaling a 2.49 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 92 strikeouts in 76 innings. He converted 28 of his 30 save opportunities, and allowed fewer homers per nine innings than Jansen, Kimbrel and Corey Knebel.
Iglesias has the stuff to develop into a multi-season, high-end closer, with a four-seamer that sits at 96-97 mph, a power slider with which he had a 22.8% whiff rate last season, and a still-developing changeup that helped him significantly improve his performance against lefties last season. In 2016, lefties hit .264 with a .446 slugging percentage against Iglesias. Last year, those numbers were down to .256 and .349, respectively.
Kimbrel? Too early. Hector Neris? Too late. Iglesias is just right.
3. OK, so then who are you going after late?
If you plan on hitting Goldilocks Equilibrium, while also remaining a player in the bullpen, that necessarily means you’re going to be targeting closers ranked in the bottom-third of the position. These guys are ranked here for a reason. None is perfect, and a handful are fated to lose the job. In that vein, it does help to try to find substantive reasons to believe in one or two over the others. In hunting for those reasons during draft prep, I keep coming back to the same guy.
Blake Treinen spent the first three seasons of his career as a mostly reliable setup man and middle reliever for the Nationals. In that time, he amassed a 2.91 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 3.43 FIP with 158 strikeouts in 185 1/3 innings. That, admittedly combined with a lack of options, was enough to elevate Treinen to the closer’s chair in Washington to start last season. For whatever reason, Treinen decided that was the time to tinker with his pitch usage. The results were not pretty.
Treinen was largely a sinker-slider pitcher over his first three season. He’d mix in the occasional four-seamer and changeup, but the sinker and slider accounted for about 80% of his offerings. In the first half of last season, he leaned on the four-seamer more than ever, throwing it 20% of the time, with the additional 10 percentage points coming almost entirely at the expense of his slider. Hitters totaled an even .400 batting average against the pitch with a .600 slugging percentage. That helped make Treinen expendable, and the Nationals shipped him to the A’s days before the All-Star break.
Almost immediately, Treinen reverted to his previous usage tendencies. The sinker’s usage remained flat at 53.5% in the second half, but he shaved 10 percentage points off his four-seamer usage, giving it back to the slider. Treinen looked like an entirely different pitcher in Oakland, pitching to a 2.13 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 3.08 FIP with 42 strikeouts in 38 innings. The slider was the star of the show, limiting hitters to a .105 batting average and .140 slugging percentage, with a whiff rate of 30.1%.
Treinen is the 22nd closer off the board in a typical draft, with an ADP of 201.47. That places him in the 17th round of a 12-team league, and the 15th round of a 14-teamer. Make sure to have him on your mind when your draft approaches the end game.
4. Who is on bust watch?
You mean other than Wade Davis? I covered him in our player profile series, laying out why I believe he will be unable to reconstruct this year the great seasons he has had with the Royals and Cubs in the past. So, we’ll move on to the closer I believe has the second-greatest bust risk among the top 10 by ADP, Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel.
Knebel enjoyed a breakout 2017 campaign, racking up a 1.78 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2.53 FIP and 126 strikeouts in 76 innings, all while converting 39 of 45 save opportunities. He made his first All-Star Game, and is now the fourth closer selected in a typical draft, about two picks behind Aroldis Chapman. That is a risk nowhere near worth taking.
First, let’s start with Knebel’s pre-2017 history. He was decent enough in 83 relief appearances in the first two years of his career, pitching to a 3.80 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 3.85 FIP with 96 strikeouts in 83 innings. He had a 27.1% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate, and allowed 1.2 homers per nine innings. Those are all solid numbers, but none portend a dominant closer in the making.
Any time a player breaks out, we should look for substantive changes in his game. For pitchers, this typically comes in their repertoire or velocity. In 2016, Knebel threw his four-seamer 72.3% of the time and his curveball 27.6% of the time. Last year, those offerings were at 71.8% and 28.2%, respectively. No meaningful change there. His fastball velocity did tick up to 97.8 mph from 96.2 mph, but that’s not the sort of change that would drive the leap that Knebel made last year. In repertoire and velocity, Knebel was effectively the same pitcher in 2017 he was previously.
Knebel had a 40.8% strikeout rate last year, which ranked fourth among relievers. He was one of 10 with a strikeout rate better than 35%. We should expect a pitcher with that high a strikeout rate to generate a lot of empty swings and to post a high o-swing rate, which measures the rate at which hitters swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Among those 10 pitchers, only Dellin Betances had a lower whiff rate than Knebel’s 14.1%. Betances and Chad Green were the only ones with a lower o-swing rate than Knebel’s 28.8%. In fact, among the top-30 pitchers in strikeout rate, Knebel ranked 19th in whiff rate and 25th in o-swing rate.
In short, I’m dubious about Knebel’s ability to even come close to last year’s strikeout numbers, let alone repeat them. It’s those strikeouts that are driving him to the top of the draft board at his position. I’d let someone else take that plunge.
5. Which closer-in-waiting is your top target?
The first thing you have to do when answering a question like this is look for a closer who enters the season with a tenuous hold on the job. There are more than one of those, but Luke Gregerson jumps out at me. He’ll open the season as the Cardinals closer, but he’s unlikely to have much leeway from Mike Matheny. Gregerson was a league-average reliever last year, and the notably old-school Matheny won’t like that he’s not a proven closer, having spent just one year of his career as his team’s primary man in the ninth inning.
Alex Reyes seems the obvious choice here, but the Cardinals are already pushing back against that idea. GM Mike Girsch said placing their prized pitching prospect in the ninth could make his innings, and the stress on his surgically repaired elbow, unpredictable. Plus, they still rightly view him as a starter in the long term. That could just be front-office speak, but I think we should take Girsch at his word, especially since the Cardinals understandably want to get Reyes back in the rotation. With Reyes off the table, consider new Cardinal Dominic Leone as the one most likely to step in should Gregerson falter.
Leone came over to the Cardinals from the Blue Jays in exchange for Randal Grichuk. He had the best year of his career in 2017, totaling a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 2.94 FIP and 81 strikeouts against 22 non-intentional walks in 70 1/3 innings. As we just discussed with respect to Knebel, we should always look for a major change when a player experiences so dramatic an improvement. In Leone’s case, we can find one.
Leone turned to his cutter more than ever last year, throwing it 36.3% of the time. He threw it 30% of the time in 2016, and no more than 21.5% of the time in the first two years of his career. The offering quickly became his go-to out pitch. When he got to two strikes against righties, he threw the cutter 39% of the time. Against lefties, it was 28% of the time. Leone racked up a ridiculous 44.7% whiff rate with his cutter, and held hitters to a .202 batting average and .360 slugging percentage with the pitch. Mariano Rivera he is not, but the cutter is turning Leone into a reliable reliever with legitimate closer potential.
Leone’s four-seam fastball accounted for a plurality of his pitches last year. He mixes in a sinker and slider, and while it would be nice to see him develop the latter considering the way it can work in conjunction with a cutter, he doesn’t necessarily need it if he can command the cutter to both sides of the plate. Entering his age-26 season, Leone may already be the best reliever on the Cardinals. He’ll be on my radar at the very end of my drafts and auctions.