Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Primer

Closers are still the most important relievers in the fantasy game, but they finally have some company.
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Relief pitchers are a necessary evil of fantasy baseball. You can’t ignore an entire position, especially one growing in influence every season. That doesn't mean it's fun to draft a reliever. No one has even been all that excited about adding a 70-inning pitcher to his or her fantasy team, even if that pitcher is one of the most dominant relievers in the game. The position simply isn’t very exciting from a fantasy perspective.

You’ll notice that we’re referring to these pitchers as relievers and not closers. That’s because the days of closers as the lone valuable bullpen pitchers are long gone. We’ll get into that in more depth in two of our three burning questions. Relievers as a group have more sway over the outcome of MLB games than they have at any other point in the league’s history. Savvy fantasy owners will take note of that and adjust with the times.

Three Burning Questions

1. Is there a Josh Hader hiding in this year’s crop of setup men?

Earlier this offseason, I wrote a column detailing why fantasy owners should be going after high-volume, high-strikeout setup men, in addition to closers, when they build their bullpens. In that column, I highlighted five non-closing relievers who I believe will have significant fantasy value this season.

In addition to the five pitchers named in that column, one has emerged over the last few weeks as an obvious target for those of us who will employ this strategy. He may not be a perfect analog for Hader in that he won’t come from semi-obscurity, but he will fit the mold of a high-usage reliever who racks up strikeouts and is regularly gets used in high-leverage situations outside the ninth inning. That should give him a higher innings floor than a pitcher who was stuck in a traditional setup or closing role.

The Yankees built a Death Star of a bullpen over the last few years, and it could prove to be the ultimate strength of a World Series favorite that has a lineup with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres, among others, and a rotation headlined by Luis Severino, James Paxton and Masashiro Tanaka. Aroldis Chapman will be the closer, with Dellin Betances and Adam Ottavino setting up for him from the right, while Zack Britton handles setup duties from the south side of the mound. That leaves Chad Green to freelance in the middle innings, a role that may not come with much real-life glory, but does have significant fantasy value because of what a pitcher with his skill set can do in it.

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Green has put together two dominant relief seasons in relatively quiet fashion. He tossed 69 innings across 40 appearances in 2017, pitching to a 1.83 ERA and 0.74 WHIP with 103 strikeouts and a 40.7% strikeout rate. He took a slight step back last season but was still among the most effective relievers in the game, amassing a 2.50 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 94 strikeouts and a 31.5% strikeout rate in 75 2/3 innings across 63 appearances. Add that up, and you get a 2.18 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 197 strikeouts and a 35.8% strikeout rate in 144 2/3 innings the last two seasons. Among relievers, he ranks fourth in ERA, fifth in WHIP, seventh in strikeouts and eighth in strikeout rate since the start of the 2017 season.

With Chapman locked in as the closer, and Betances, Britton and Ottavino likely in setup roles confined to the late innings, Green will be able to move around and pitch in all situations. What’s more, it’s likely Aaron Boone will lean on him for multiple innings at a time. This is exactly what we want in a high-volume, high-strikeout, non-closing reliever. If you want a near-Hader clone for free, Green is your man.

2. Who’s this year’s bullpen-perfecting mid-tier closer?

If you were building a Frankenstein’s Monster of a closer, you’d give him four traits: elite swing-and-miss stuff, high-level command and control, and an ability to keep the ball on the ground. Any closer with some combo of these traits is going to have a great chance to stick around for a while.

Among closers selected outside the top 10 at the position in a typical draft, there is exactly one who had a strikeout rate of at least 30%, ground-ball rate of at least 50% and HR/FB ratio south of 10%. His name is Jose Alvarado, and he was much better than the arbitrary baselines we set in two of those categories.

Alvarado spent most of last year as a setup man before graduating to the closer’s role in the second half. He turned in excellent rates, pitching to a 2.39 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 64 innings. He struck out 80 of the 263 batters he faced, giving him a strikeout rate of 30.4%. His ground-ball rate of 55% ranked first among expected closers, while his 2.4% HR/FB ratio ranked third among all relievers and first among expected closers, two percentage points better than Blake Treinen, who had the second-best HR/FB ratio among relievers who will close this season.

Alvarado primarily throws a sinker and curveball, which explains the high ground-ball rate. He lives down in the zone, and the movement on both of those pitches makes them hard to lift at all, let alone with authority. If Alvarado can come close to matching last year’s strikeout, ground-ball and HR/FB rates, he’ll be a top-10 closer. If you draft him as your second or third reliever, you could be on your way to a dominant bullpen.

3. What’s your favorite rules tweak to make this a more competitive position?

Bullpen management is completely different than it was as recently as five years ago. It's given relievers more value, but spread that value across a deeper pool of pitchers. As such, more relievers matter on a day to day basis, and that reality should be reflected across fantasy leagues.

Part of the adjustment happens organically. A reliever like Hader is going to carry immense value, even if he doesn’t save a game all season. However, there’s no other reliever exactly like him, and few who can even approach what he does. In the age of bullpenning, though, a setup man or middle reliever doesn’t have to be Hader to have value that should be recognized in the fantasy game. Here is where we have to gerrymander things a bit by tweaking the standard rules. Instead of a saves category, try using a saves/holds category instead.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not advocating for holds because I think it’s a great stat. It’s just as silly as saves. However, it is a way to quantify the increasing value of middle relievers and setup men. Last year, nine of the top-20 relievers by fWAR had fewer than 10 saves, and 13 had fewer than 15. None of those relievers, not even Hader or Dellin Betances, was owned in 80% of leagues. Eight were owned in fewer than 50% of leagues, and even that inflates how well a standard league values non-closing relievers. Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, Jeurys Familia, Joakim Soria and Kirby Yates spent part, but not all, of last season as closers. It was their time in the ninth inning that boosted their ownership rates. All were persona non grata in fantasy leagues before or after they were closers. These relievers need to matter in fantasy leagues, and the best way to do that is to make a hold count the same as a save.

Not only does that change accrue more value to relievers, it does so in a fashion that reflects how valuable they are. By now we all know that it’s leverage, and not necessarily inning, that determines how tough a spot is for a reliever. High-leverage moments can come at any point in a game, and more managers are starting to use their relievers in those spots, no matter if they’re in the fifth, the sixth or the ninth. A hold in the sixth inning is often more valuable in terms of win probability added than a save. It’s time for middle relievers and setup men to get their just due in all fantasy leagues. Add holds to you saves category. You will not be disappointed.

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