When drafting a relief pitcher, it goes deeper than closers. The set-up man has become valuable, too. Here are the relievers ranked 30 to 21.
Other positions: Catcher (10-1); First Base (20-11), (10-1); Second Base (15-11), (10-1); Shortstops (15-11), (10-1); Third Base (20-11), (10-1); Outfield (50-21), (20-11), (10-1); Starting Pitcher (50-21), (20-11), (10-1)
Relief pitchers have become very valuable in fantasy leagues. Standard scoring consists of wins, ERA, WHIP, saves and strikeouts. Three of those categories favor relievers heavily. More leagues are including holds as a category, another stat geared towards relievers. While starting pitchers get you wins (or quality starts) and strikeouts, relievers can win you three, or four if you use K/9, of the five pitching categories in head-to-head matchups. As a result, I rank the top-30 relief pitchers for the 2016 season.
I use a couple of different of criteria when developing my rankings. I look at their 2015 performance, where they finished on the Player Rater, their career performance and if this past season was an outlier, their surroundings (lineup support) and where I think they project this season. Some of it may be subjective, especially the projections, but I try to keep it in line with other fantasy sites.
The stats I use for relief pitchers are ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, walks and saves (or holds if applicable). I know there are leagues, including mine, that use strikeouts per nine innings, and every league should. Strikeouts per nine favor relief pitchers in a sense because two strikeouts in an inning equates to an 18K/9 ratio. A starting pitcher will need to strike out 12 batters in six innings to get the same ratio. I will try to keep total strikeouts for the majority that use ESPN standard five categories.
Before we get into the list, here are two honorable mentions.
J.J. Hoover: Hoover enters the 2016 as the default closer after the Cincinnati Reds traded Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees. Last season, he went 8-2 with a 2.94 ERA, 1.166 WHIP, 52 strikeouts and one save. He had a 7.3 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9. He made some improvements in 2015. His HR/9 went down almost a full home run. His ground ball rate went up about 12 percent and his fly ball rate dropped 13 percent.
This season is going to put a big spotlight on Hoover. If he can perform like he did last season, his 26th-round ADP is a steal for whomever drafts him. However, he needs to raise his strikeout totals and lower his walk rate in order for that to happen.
Darren O’Day: O’Day has made improvements across the board over the last five seasons. His ERA in those seasons were 5.40, 2.28, 2.18, 1.70, and 1.52, respectively. He finished as the No. 25 relief pitcher on the Player Rater. The lack of saves is what hurt his rater value. He had an 11.30 K/9 and 1.93 BB/9. The big struggle O’Day had was against left-handed hitters. He allowed lefties to record a .293 OBP compared to a .236 OBP from righties.
If current closer Zach Britton gets injured at any point in the season, O’Day’s value skyrockets. He has the peripherals to be a top-25 relief pitcher, and the saves will bump him up the ranks.
Here are the relief pitchers I rank 30 to 21.
Jeremy Jeffress was not originally on my list. However, the Spring Training injury bug strikes again. The incumbent closer, Will Smith has a torn LCL. The decision for surgery hasn’t been made, but he will be out for a while. Before the injury, Smith and Jeffress would have both been in the mix. Now, it seems as if Jeffress has the job to himself.
Jeffress played in 72 games last season. He recorded five wins and 23 holds with a 2.65 ERA, 1.265 WHIP and 8.9 K/9 as a set-up man. He kept his ground ball rate around 58 percent, but gave up a few too many home runs, 14.7 HR/FB rate. Opposing batters were able to catch up to his fastball, as they made great contact with the ball, 81.5 combined medium and hard hit rates.
If you haven’t drafted yet, unfortunately I did, use one of your last picks on Jeffress. He could reach 20 saves in a partial season. He will climb up the ranks if it’s announced Smith is out for the year.
Andrew Bailey missed the second half of the 2013 season and all of the 2014 season. He spent most of 2015 in the Yankees farm system before being called up. His 10 appearances were not good. In 8.2 innings, he had a 5.19 ERA, 1.615 WHIP and six strikeouts. Now, he’s the Philadelphia Phillies closer.
The Phillies signed Bailey in December after trading Ken Giles to the Houston Astros.
There were some good things about Bailey’s short 2015 season. He had a better ground ball and fly ball rates. And, despite all of the injuries, his fastball velocity was just 0.9 MPH slower than his 2013 velocity. He had a 12.0 first pitch strike percentage.
While the depth chart may not say so, multiple websites base their Bailey projections around him being the closer. The Phillies play in a division that did not have the best statistical offenses. The lineup and rotation may not be anything to brag about, but getting 30 saves from Bailey would be great. The only thing you should worry about is the probability of a 4.00 ERA.
The Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has a tough decision to make. Along with Arodys Vizcaino, the Braves have Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson to use in the ninth inning. He was quoted to saying, “I can use all three. Mix-and-match.” That statement ruins any value either man has in standard leagues.
Grilli tore his left Achilles while covering first base. I don’t want to come off as praising an injury, but this could be the best thing to happen to the Braves and Vizcaino. Grilli will likely be gone by the trade deadline anyway, which paves the way to more saves for Vizcaino. If Grilli doesn’t recover in time, the opportunity to saves could come early for Vizcaino.
His ground ball rate went down 5.1 percent last year. His fastball can reach 98 MPH and he mixes it up with a curveball and change up. That caused his 11.5 swinging strike percentage.
As either a set-up man or closer, Vizcaino is a valuable pitcher. He recorded 37 strikeouts in 33.2 innings last season. Pair that with a 1.60 ERA and 1.188 WHIP and Vizcaino becomes a top-15 closer.
What’s the phrase? Karma is a b****.
In his rookie season, he had a 2.58 ERA, 0.919 WHIP and 9.7 K/9. He also recorded 20 saves in 23 chances. This was amazing for a pitcher that never threw a pitch in Triple-A.
Osuna had a 34.3 ground ball and 46.1 fly ball rates. Luckily, he pitches at Rogers Centre or else his 8.5 HR/FB rate would have been a lot higher. His fastball averaged 95.6 MPH and his slider and change up can strike out batters on both sides of the plate.
While an official announcement hasn’t been made. Storen is the Toronto Blue Jays closer, which makes Osuna the set-up. If you play in a league with holds, he is definitely worth drafting. He may get some saves opportunities, but not enough to warrant him as a top-20 closer.
In a dynasty league, Osuna becomes interesting. If the Blue Jays want, they could transition him into the rotation. He made 27 starts in Toronto’s minor league system. At the ripe age of 21, Osuna is a name to watch for years to come.
Steve Cishek was a solid closer for the Miami Marlins in 2013 and 2014, racking up 73 saves. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in July 2015 and then signed with the Seattle Mariners.
Cishek was relieved of his closer duties by A.J. Ramos after early season struggles. In his first 10 games of the season, he had three saves. That was the best stat. He also had a 7.71 ERA and 1.392 WHIP in 9.1 innings. He finished the season with a 3.58 ERA and 1.482 WHIP.
Cishek saw a big decline in his strikeout rate, only 19.8 percent. His ground ball rate rose a little under four percent, so there was some upside. But back to the negatives. Opposing batters were not fooled by anything Cishek was throwing. He had a 26.6 O-Swing, 78.0 contact and 9.2 swinging strike percentages. That will be the case when you throw your off-speed pitch about 50 percent.
None of the five relief pitchers that recorded at least one save with the Mariners are currently with the team. Seattle needed someone to pitch in the ninth innings, so they are taking a chance on Cishek. If he can get back to his 2013/2014 self, he’s a top-20 closer.
Last season was a lost season for Sean Doolittle. He tore his labrum and made only one start between Opening Day and August 22. He chose rehab instead of surgery to repair the injury. His first couple of appearances were bad. He had one blown save and one hold with a 10.13 ERA and a 2.875 WHIP. He settled down once September rolled around.
In 10.0 innings, he had a 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 11 strikeouts. He threw his fastball over 90 percent of the time. He was able to get it up to 93 MPH, but it’s not where it was before the injury. Let’s hope another offseason of rest and rehab helped.
The Oakland Athletics signed Ryan Madson and a couple of other relievers to bolster the bullpen. The veteran had a 2.13 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 63.1 innings with the Kansas City Royals. He could give the A’s management something to think about when naming a closer.
As of this writing, Doolittle is listed as the A’s closer. In a full, healthy season, Doolittle should post 30 saves with a 3.00 ERA and 1.05 WHIP as Oakland tries to compete in the American League West.
After spending some time in the Minnesota Twins bullpen, Glen Perkins was named the full-time closer in 2013. He’s recorded at least 32 saves in the last three seasons, but his ERA has been above 3.30 and WHIP above 1.18 in two straight seasons. He finished as the 27th-best relief pitcher last season.
Perkins’ K/9 has dropped from 11.06 (2013) to 8.53 (2015). His ground ball, fly ball and HR/FB rates have gone in the wrong directions in the same span.
He only throws two pitches, but many closers have three pitches at most. He threw his 94 MPH fastball 70.2 percent of the time. The frequency of the pitch lent to the most home runs allowed (nine) since 2009.
Perkins is an average closer. He will get you 30-plus saves, but his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts (or K/9) won’t be beneficial to your fantasy team. He was a top closer just a couple of years ago, but has taken a tumble ever since. He’ll suffice as an RP3 in standard leagues.
Casilla posted a 2.79 ERA, 1.276 WHIP, 62 strikeouts and 38 saves in 58 innings last year. He was the No. 19 relief pitcher at the end of the season. Casilla had a career-high 25.4 strikeout rate. His ground ball rate took a big drop, from 56.3 to 46.5.
His 62 strikeouts were a career high, but he got those strikeouts with just a 10.4 swinging strike and 44.4 swing percentage. That is not something he can sustain from year to year. He needs to induce more swinging strikes to be a more effective relief pitcher.
Casilla lost one full MPH off of his fastball, but mixed in his slider and curveball a little more. He will be turning 36 at the end of July, so there could be even more regression in his velocity.
The lack of job security is a cause for concern heading into Opening Day. Casilla is definitely the team’s closer, for now. Romo, or possibly someone else, could come in and take the job back.
Before the addition of Chapman, my colleague Brad Kelly wrote about the possibility of Andrew Miller being the top closer for 2016. While that is out of the question now, Kelly made some really good points. After nine years as a starting and relief pitcher, Miller had his best season to date. He recorded 36 saves with a 2.04 ERA, 0.859 WHIP and 100 strikeouts.
Miller did miss some time due to a forearm issue, but that didn’t affect his fantasy value much. He finished as the third-best relief pitcher and 43rd player overall on the Player Rater. He posted his second straight plus-40 strikeout percentage. He saw a two percent rise in his ground ball and fly ball rates. Because he was pitching at Yankee Stadium, he had a 12.5 HR/FB ratio.
With the suspension to Chapman, Miller will take his place back in the closer role for the first month of the season. He’ll go back to his set-up role once Chapman returns. If you play in a league that records holds, Miller is one of the best relief pitchers. Sixty innings with another 100 strikeouts, 10 to 12 saves, and 20 holds makes him a middle-round draft pick.
Huston Street quietly finished as the 17th-best relief pitcher last season. He posted a 3.18 ERA, 1.155 WHIP, 57 strikeouts and 40 saves in 62.1 innings. Some stats look good, others not so much, but he’s solid nonetheless.
Street strikes out just under a batter per inning (8.23 K/9), but gives up too many home runs (seven). He had a 45.4 fly ball and 8.9 HR/FB. Opposing batters made better contact with the ball, 26.4 hard hit rate.
He relies heavily on his slider that comes in at 83 MPH, a sinker and change up that are about five MPH slower than his fastball. Batters were waiting for the right pitch, resulting in a 8.5 percent drop in his first pitch strike percentage and 2.2 total swing percentage.
Like I said, Street is solid. However, he isn’t someone you’re excited to draft. He will record 35 to 37 saves with a 3.40 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. His strikeout rate won’t do much, but as an RP3, it’ll get the job done. If the Los Angeles Angels rotation can keep a lead, set-up man Joe Smith and Street should be able to close out games.
Relief pitchers are quietly valuable. In most leagues, they are a better value that starters because of their low ERA and WHIP and ability to record saves. If you’re in a holds league, their value increases. Most of these pitchers I listed aren’t going to excite you in the draft room, but they could win you a week or two in head-to-head leagues.
One relief pitcher that I’m watching in Jeffress. As someone who drafted Smith, Jeffress is someone I may pick up. Saves can be found late, and adding someone who could rack up 25 saves off the waiver wire is a prime example.
Another pitcher I’m looking at is Miller. I wonder if the move to add Chapman shook his confidence. He’ll be back in the closer role for about a month, so let’s see how he pitches.
The Blue Jays situation should be something to watch. I know I didn’t talk about Storen here, but if Osuna outpitches him or if Storen blows a save or two, a move could be made, especially if Toronto wants to win the AL East crown again.
I know I started with No. 30, but I’m on a time crunch. Is there someone I overrated? Someone I missed? Let me know in the comments.
The relief pitchers ranked 20 to 11 will be posted on Sunday.