When drafting a relief pitcher, I always say saves can be found late. Here are some relief pitchers that should be available in the middle rounds.
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 Pitcher (30-21)
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.
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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.
Here is my second tier of relief pitchers, those ranked 20 to 11.
Dellin Betances‘s opportunity for any save chances became even smaller with the signing of Chapman. That doesn’t make him an undraftable relief pitcher though. He’s been dominant over the last two seasons. In 174.0 innings, he recorded 10 saves with a 1.45 ERA, 0.891 WHIP and 266 strikeouts. He was the No. 16 reliever on the Player Rater.
Last year, Betances was so good that he received some recognition in the American League Cy Young voting. His strikeout rate was around the same, but his walk rate went up 5.1 percent. That is likely a control issue, something he lacked as a minor-league starter.
Betances induced a 47.7 ground ball and 31.6 fly ball rates, both improvements from his 2014 numbers. Opposing batters could not catch up to his 97 MPH fastball, as he had a 24.7 hard hit rate ranked 37th among all qualified relievers.
Betances isn’t going to get you any saves. However, if you’re looking for a relief pitcher that will help your ratio stats and strikeouts, Betances is your guy. He’ll have a 1.80 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 100 strikeouts.
As a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, Jake McGee‘s 2015 season didn’t get off to a great start. He missed the first month and a half of the season and lost the closing job to Brad Boxberger. He pitched 37.1 innings with a 2.41 ERA, 0.938 WHIP, 48 strikeouts and six saves. He is now in a hitter’s park, which should see a decline in a lot of his stats.
McGee posted his second straight 30-plus strikeout rate and a 5.4 walk rate. Even in Tampa Bay, he had a 45.6 fly ball rate and 7.3 HR/FB rate. Those are some of the numbers I expect to inflate in Colorado. In the dry air, that ball is going to go flying.
Opposing batters have nothing to chase when he throws just one pitch. His fastball clocks in at 95 MPH. He had a 12.3 swinging strike rate and 29.3 O-Swing percentage.
The Colorado Rockies signed a couple of relief pitchers to bolster the bullpen, Jason Motte and Chad Qualls. Both of them have closer experience, but they had pretty bad seasons last year, so don’t expect them to play a major role. McGee should start the season as the closer.
If he can stay healthy, he should record close to 30 saves this season, but his ERA and WHIP will be higher than his career averages.
My colleague, Brad Kelly wrote about Brad Ziegler and his sleeper status this season. He had a 1.85 ERA, 0.956 WHIP and 36 strikeouts with 30 saves. He was the 20th relief pitcher on the Player Rater. As a low-end RP2, you can’t do much worse than Ziegler.
Ziegler isn’t much of a strikeout pitcher. He broke 50 strikeouts just twice in his career. He had an 8.3 swinging strike and 58.6 first pitch strike percentages. His fastball lacks speed, averaging 83.9 MPH. He had a 4.76 K/9 and 13.7 strikeout rate.
Ziegler gets opposing batters out by making them put the ball on the grass. He had a 72.8 ground ball rate and just a 13.6 fly ball rate.
If you were able to draft another reliever or two that can help your strikeouts, Ziegler can come in and help your ratio stats. With the improvements the Arizona Diamondbacks made in the offseason, they should compete in the National League West. That means (hopefully) more save opportunities for Ziegler.
While he won’t record 40 saves, let alone 60, again, Francisco Rodriguez can still post more than 30 saves. Last season was his best in a few years. He recorded 38 saves with a 2.21 ERA, 0.860 WHIP and 9.8 K/9. He was the 12th-best relief pitcher on the Player Rater. Rodriguez will be pitching in the American League yet again with the Detroit Tigers.
Rodriguez made a lot of improvements between 2014 and 2015. He increased his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate. He also increased his ground ball and decreased his fly ball rates. While his fastball seemed to slow down a little, opposing batters were still not making good contact with the ball. He had a 30.3 hard hit rate, compared to his 42.0 hard hit rate in 2014.
The signing of Rodriguez greatly improved the Tigers bullpen. Detroit used a committee approach, maybe not intentional, throughout the season. Rodriguez gives them a bit of stability at the position, even at 34 years old.
His ERA and WHIP are likely to see an increase with the move to the AL. But it shouldn’t matter because you weren’t drafting him as your No. 1 relief pitcher anyway. He will have a 3.25 ERA, 1.15 WHIP with 35 saves.
I wrote about Shawn Tolleson‘s 2016 projections here. He was a good relief pitcher in his first year and a half with the Texas Rangers. He finally got a chance as the ninth-inning guy after Neftali Feliz struggled early. Tolleson finished the season with 35 saves, 2.99 ERA, 1.147 WHIP and 76 strikeouts. He finished 14th on the Player Rater.
Tolleson posted a career-best strikeout and walk rates, 25.5 and 5.7, respectively. He also made improvements to his ground ball and fly ball rates. His HR/FB rate was still over 12 percent, though.
He cut down the use of his fastball by seven percent and more than doubled the use of his change up. While he only had a 10.2 swinging strike percentage, he had a 29.1 O-Swing percentage.
As I mentioned in my previous article, Tolleson’s time as the Rangers closer could be short-lived. Texas recently developed their bullpen. Sam Dyson had two saves and a 1.15 ERA in 31 games last year. The team traded for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, who had a 3.19 ERA and 13 saves with the Seattle Mariners last season. Keone Kela also had a good season, 2.39 ERA and 1.160 WHIP in 68 games.
However, as long as his improvements stick this season, he’ll be the guy all year.
As I mentioned in the 30-21 slide show, Drew Storen is likely to block Osuna from any save chances. But Storen deserves this job. He pitched well with the Washington Nationals last season. In 55.0 innings, he had a 3.44 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 67 strikeouts and 29 saves.
Those numbers are a little inflated because of his struggles as the set-up man. He had a 7.56 ERA and 1.440 WHIP in from August 3 to September 9. Now, he’ll be back in the closer role, so he should see his ratio stats come down. However, moving to the AL East may not do that.
He posted a 10.26 K/9 and 2.16 BB/9 in the first half and 12.05 K/9 and 3.32 BB/9 in the second half. While his overall fly ball rate dropped in the second half, the fly balls he did allow went over the fence. He had a 15.0 HR/FB rate in the second half.
If you didn’t draft yet, draft Storen. Fantasy owners will likely look at his stats as a whole and not see the difference between him pitching in the eighth and ninth innings. He should have another 30 saves with a 2.90 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.
Even on this list, Jonathan Papelbon is ahead of Storen. The Nationals, for some reason, traded for Papelbon while Storen was one of the best closers in the league at the time. Now that Storen is with our neighbor to the North, Papelbon is the guy in Washington. I wrote about him as a top-15 closer this season.
Unfortunately, despite pitching in the same division, Papelbon struggled with the Nationals. In 22 games, he had a 3.04 ERA, 1.099 WHIP and just seven saves. His K/9 went down with the Nationals. It’s been going down since 2011. His ground ball, fly ball and HR/FB rates all went in the wrong direction with the move to Washington.
Papelbon used his fastball a lot more with the Nationals. That led to the decline in his swinging strike and O-Swing percentages. Opposing batters were not falling for any of his off-speed stuff. The NL East may not have the best-hitting offenses, but they could crush a ball or two off Papelbon.
Regardless of the apparent decline, Papelbon enters the 2016 season as the Nationals closer, and the contract proves it. If he performs well, he may get traded, but until then he’s draftable as a second-tier closer.
I touched on the Miami Marlins situation in the previous list. A.J. Ramos took over for Cishek early in 2015. Ramos finished the season with 32 saves, 2.30 ERA, 1.009 WHIP and 87 strikeouts. He was the 13th-best relief pitcher on the Player Rater. Despite that, Marlins management was not sold on Ramos as their closer.
I wrote an article about the competition for closer job. Early in Spring Training, there were talks between Ramos and Carter Capps as the Marlins closer. Unfortunately, that debate was settled by news that Capps will undergo Tommy John surgery. So, Ramos will enter the 2016 season as the Marlins closer.
Ramos had a 31.4 strikeout and 9.4 walk rate. His fly ball rate went 1.5 percent from 2014 to 2015. His HR/FB rate went up from 1.8 percent to 9.4 percent. His six home runs allowed were a career high. He had six blown saves throughout the season.
If Capps was not injured, I think it would have been a committee approach for the closer job. However, Ramos is the guy. He should get another 30 saves 3.10 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.
The Chicago Cubs have made great improvements on both sides of the ball over the last couple of seasons. The offense was one of the best and the rotation in anchored by an ace. The bullpen was dominated by a 27-year-old Hector Rondon. He pitched 70.0 innings and recorded 30 saves with a 1.67 ERA and 1.00 WHIP.
He was pretty consistent over the last two seasons, recording similar strikeout and walk rates. He increased his ground ball rate to over 50 percent and kept his fly ball rate the same. His HR/FB ratio rose over three percent. He doesn’t strike out enough batters to warrant a top-10 spot, but he pitches well enough to be close.
Rondon finished as the No. 8 relief pitcher. I wrote about him being a top-five closer this season. While taking a deeper look, that may be a little optimistic. Rondon turned 28 in February, so the ceiling is not as high as it is for other relievers. He is a solid option and safe for 35 saves, but that is the maximum I’m willing to project.
After one year as the Yankees closer, David Robertson pitched well in his first season with the Chicago White Sox. He recorded 34 saves with a 3.41 ERA, 0.932 WHIP and 86 strikeouts. He is a borderline top-10 closer for this season.
His ERA rose a bit, but did not allow as many base runners. The inflated ERA is due to seven home runs allowed. His ground ball rate went down over eight percent. Opposing batters made great contact with the ball last season, a 32.2 hard hit rate.
His O-Swing went up two percent and his O-Contact went down two percent. His fastball sped up a bit and increased its usage. He still uses a cutter and knuckle ball to throw off batters. Which caused his 14.1 swinging strike percentage, 26th in the league among relief pitchers.
The size of the contract and lack of competition are two factors that Robertson is a top-11 closer. If he can cut down on his home runs, he has the peripherals to be a top-10 guy. In this article, I projected 29 saves. But, I think with better command, that will go up to 35. He’ll have a sub-3.00 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.
There is some serious talent in this group. Some have potential to move up on the rankings. Others are solid second-tier guys. These are the relief pitchers that are your RP2 in standard leagues. There are maybe two I could see you anchoring your bullpen with, but I would like one of the top-10 guys.
One relief pitcher off this list to watch a little more is Ramos. I want to see him prove the Marlins management wrong. I hope the competition lit a fire under him and goes out and pitches as a top-10 relief pitcher. In that division, it’s definitely possible.
Another one is McGee. Pitching at Coors Field isn’t something a pitcher looks forward to. But, McGee could definitely put those fears to rest. He will only pitch for one inning, so if he has good control, the damage shouldn’t be that bad.
So, that is my second tier relief pitchers. Is there someone I overrated? Underrated? Let me know in the comments.
My top-10 relief pitchers will be posted later in the week.