Building a competitive bullpen in fantasy baseball leagues was once an automated task in a draft or auction. You’d allocate as little capital as possible to the position, aiming to start the season with three closers. If you did that and were active on the waiver wire throughout the season, you could compete in saves while getting meaningful contributions from your relievers in strikeouts, ERA and WHIP.
The era of bullpenning and openers has altered that calculus. In 2014, 11 of the top-15 relievers by fWAR were primary closers on their respective teams. Last year, just five were. In the intervening years, value trickled from closers toward setup men. Eleven closers were among the top-15 relievers in WAR again in 2015. That number fell to nine in 2016 and six in 2017. The last two seasons have demonstrated that value exists in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, a trend isn’t reversing any time soon.
Three relievers in 2018—Collin McHugh, Chad Green and Scott Oberg—made zero starts, saved zero games and totaled at least 2.0 WAR. There were four such pitchers from 2014 through 2017. McHugh and Green both threw more than 70 innings with strikeout rates north of 31%. McHugh had a 1.99 ERA and 0.93 WHIP, while Green ended the year with a 2.50 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Their managers trusted them in high-leverage situations, and since they worked in middle relief, they often entered in tie games or situations where their teams were trailing by a run or two. As a result, they combined for 14 wins.
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Combine McHugh’s and Green’s stats and you get a 2.25 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 188 strikeouts to go with those 14 wins, all over 148 innings. That’s more strikeouts than Jameson Taillon, a better ERA than Justin Verlander, a lower WHIP than Corey Kluber and more wins than Noah Syndergaard. That’s a pretty good pitcher to have on your fantasy team, right?
Here are five relievers who could follow the script laid out by McHugh and Green last year while coming at a pittance in fantasy drafts and auctions.
Dellin Betances, Yankees
Betances is the prototype. The veteran Yankees reliever created the form in his first full season in 2014 and has perfected it ever since. Though he has never been the Yankees primary closer, he has led the team in fWAR in three of his five seasons. Consider his career-worst marks in all pertinent categories for a dominant, non-closing reliever: 66 appearances, 59 2/3 innings, 100 strikeouts, 38.3% strikeout rate, 3.08 ERA, 1.22 WHIP. Now, consider his averages: 69.8 appearances, 74 2/3 innings, 121.4 strikeouts, 40.3% strikeout rate, 2.22 ERA, 1.02 WHIP.
Who cares if Betances doesn’t save a game this season? He’s going to give his fantasy owners elite rates and more than 1.5 strikeouts per inning while ranking among the league leaders in appearances. The Yankees may ease some of his burden after building a Death Star bullpen that also includes Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Zack Britton, but Betances may still get more work than all of them. He may have ceded No. 1 status at this particular position to Josh Hader, but he’s coming off the board in a typical draft about 180 picks later.
Ryan Pressly, Astros
Pressly spent the first half of last season dominating in obscurity, pitching for a Twins team that was one of 2018’s greatest disappointments. A midseason trade to Houston flipped his fortunes, and he rewarded his new team with an electric half-season that cemented his place among the best relievers in baseball. Pressly ended the 2018 season with a 2.54 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 34.6% strikeout rate, fanning 101 batters in 71 innings. He was one of 10 relievers with an ERA below 3.00 and more than 12.5 K/9. You likely know the other nine: Aroldis Chapman, Josh Hader, Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz, Craig Kimbrel, Jose LeClerc, Brad Hand, Adam Ottavino and Kirby Yates.
Pressly owes much of his success to his slider, which had a league-leading whiff rate of 32.3%. According to Baseball Savant, Pressly threw 1,114 pitches last year, and 96 of them were whiffs on sliders. That means 8.6% of Pressly’s total pitches were slider whiffs. Nearly one in 10 times he threw a pitch, he got a hitter to swing and miss at a slider. Pressly’s other pitches aren’t bad, either. His curveball had a 16.7% whiff rate, while his four-seamer induced an empty swing 12.5% of the time. With Roberto Osuna entrenched as the closer in Houston, Pressly will go overlooked in most drafts and auctions. Make sure that isn’t the case in yours.
Keone Kela, Pirates
Kela bided his time as a setup man in his first few years in the league and fought through injuries in 2016 and 2017, establishing himself as one the more reliable, if anonymous, relievers in the majors. He finally got his chance to close last year and made the most of it, converting 24 of 25 save opportunities in 38 appearances with the Rangers. That success, however, eventually forced him back to a setup role when the Rangers dealt him to the Pirates just before the trade deadline. He’ll remain in that spot this year, pitching in front of the dominant Felipe Vazquez. Kela, however, is every bit as reliable in the eighth inning as Vazquez is in the ninth.
In four MLB seasons, Kela has a 3.05 ERA, 1.19 WIHP and 30.4% strikeout rate. An elbow injury wrecked his 2016 season, costing him about three months and robbing him of much of his effectiveness when he was healthy. Take that year out of the equation, and he’s never had an ERA higher than 3.29 or WHIP worse than 1.16. Over the last two seasons, he has pitched to a 3.08 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 32.2% strikeout rate in 90 2/3 innings.
Jace Fry, White Sox
If you’re trying to find this year’s Josh Hader, your best bet is 90 miles south of Milwaukee. Fry, like Hader, is a lefty who dominates with a platoon advantage, but is more than a standard LOOGY. Last year, as Hader became the league’s most dominant reliever, holding lefties to a slash line of .090/.186/.169, and righties to a line of .153/.236/.311. Fry wasn’t quite as good, which should be obvious. But he was a middle-class version of the Brewers’ relief ace, holding lefties to a .143/.217/.190 line, and righties to a .234/.317/.374 slash. When Rick Renteria turns to Fry this year, it won’t be just to get out lefties. That’s good, because it gives him the possibility to rack up enough innings to fit the archetype of player we’re looking for here.
Fry experienced some growing pains last year during his first full season in the majors, ending the year with a 4.38 ERA, but with peripheral stats that support better numbers . He had a 2.95 xFIP, 1.11 WHIP, got 1.35 grounders for every fly ball, and surrendered just four homers while pitching 51 1/3 innings and facing 214 batters. What’s more, he had a 32.7% strikeout rate, good for 16th among relievers.
Nearly every reliever features at least one dominant out-pitch. Nobody knows what Fry’s is yet, but there’s no question he has it. Baseball Savant calls it a cutter, while Brooks Baseball says it’s a slider. It’s not rare to see cutter/slider confusion, especially when it sits in the high-80s to low-90s, as Fry’s does. No matter what it is, the pitch is lights-out. Last year, Fry got a 30% whiff rate with the offering, the fourth-highest whiff rate for any pitch in the league. The backend of the White Sox bullpen is far from settled, and it’s entirely possible the Fry ends up as the closer. For the time being, Kelvin Herrera is expected to close, and with Alex Colome and Nate Jones also in the mix, it’s likely that Fry is more of a swingman than anything else. That will keep his draft-day price to an absolute minimum, which could make him a huge steal this season.
Diego Castillo, Rays
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a Ray on this list. The Rays pushed bullpenning to its outer limits last year, hatching the opener idea and getting 824 1/3 innings out of their bullpen, nearly 200 more than the A’s, who had the second-most reliever innings. Jose Alvarado broke out last season and will begin this year as Tampa Bay’s closer. Just behind him in terms of finding another gear last year was Castillo, who should be a prime bargain in fantasy leagues this season.
Castillo tossed 56 2/3 innings across 43 appearances last year, including 11 starts as an opener. He amassed a 3.18 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 29.3% strikeout rate. There are two major factors working in Castillo’s favor as a high-volume, high-strikeout non-closer with fantasy value. First, while the Rays upgraded their rotation by trading for Tyler Glasnow in the middle of last season and signing Charlie Morton this winter, they’re unlikely to abandon the opener this year. Castillo will be in that mix, and that should add to his innings bottom line. Second, even before he was an opener last year, Kevin Cash leaned on him for more than one inning at a time with regularity. He recorded at least four outs in 12 of his 32 appearances as a reliever. If Castillo makes 50 appearances this year, he should approach 70 innings. If he does that and stays on the trajectory he set for himself last season, he’ll be among the most valuable non-closing relievers in the league in 2019.