Middle relievers get no respect in fantasy baseball. On the surface, they shouldn’t. Unless the league counts holds, they’re draft day afterthoughts. Yet at the end of every season, several of these top non-closers will be highly ranked. So, there appears to be a disconnect here. Let’s navigate through this slightly charted area to find when and how non-closers can be useful.
To begin, assume the pitchers being examined have no chance to close. Once potential saves are added to the mix, which I will do later in the article, valuations change. Depending on league depth, taking a chance for just a few potential saves may or may not be a worthwhile gamble. Instead, I’ll start by evaluating pitchers based on just their ability to produce in the non-save categories. Once determining their non-save values, a premium can then be placed on their closing potential.
To evaluate non-closers, a balance must be maintained. Strikeouts and wins are on the starters’ side of the equation and WHIP and ERA are on the relievers’ side. The relationship isn’t an even 1:1, because of differences in innings thrown.
Because relievers throw only a third as many innings, their influence on ERA and WHIP is also a third as much. For example, an owner is using the Rockies’ Chad Bettis. He’s a decent starter but is playing for the wrong home team. Say his ERA has ballooned to 4.50 over a quarter of the season (45 innings) and it needs to be offset to a 3.50 level by a reliever. An owner will need to use a 2.50 ERA reliever for the rest of the season to level out his team’s ERA. The difference in innings is significant. More importantly, a reliever needs to be more than a two-category contributor.
Non-closers must throw a ton of innings. Last season, only 33 relievers threw over 70 innings. About half of these pitchers were long relievers and posted sub-par numbers. The reliever with the second most innings pitched (85) was Erasmo Ramirez, who posted just a 6.3 K/9 and a 4.02 ERA.
If a reliever can get to 100 strikeouts, he starts start entering the really bad starter level. Of the starters who threw 150 innings, Jered Weaver and Martin Perez were both at 103 Ks. Reliever Dellin Betances collected 126 strikeouts, higher than 10 of these weak starters, including Felix Hernandez.
The key is to get one of these relievers while using minimal resources. Last year only three non-closers — Kyle Barraclough, Hector Neris and Brad Hand — totaled over 100 Ks. These guys are valuable, but hard to find. Chances are, none of those three pitchers were on the radar of even seasoned fantasy baseball players at this time last year. I tried to find a way to predict who these guys would be, but didn’t have any luck.
To help spot these pitchers, look for early-season usage patterns, especially elite strikeout pitchers averaging over an inning thrown per outing. Grab them early. One group of pitchers to target are rookies who had been starting pitchers in the minors. Their history as starters usually give them the endurance to go a few more innings, and their status as rookies means managers probably won’t trust them as end-of-game options.
Besides strikeouts, these relievers can be counted on for a few wins. Last season, non-closers with a minimum of 70 innings pitched and an ERA under 3.00 averaged five wins. These wins help offset the starters’ advantages. Using the same group of 150 innings-pitched starters as we did above, 12 had eight or fewer wins. Patrick Corbin totaled just five.
Just because these kinds of relievers can get you wins doesn’t mean you should hunt for reliever wins. It’s tough enough to predict starter wins, and it is even tougher do so with relievers. Just ignore the wins category and concentrate on strikeouts, WHIP and ERA. Just know that you can expect some wins over the season from these relievers.
In addition to these general guidelines, you need to establish your league’s replacement level. To find these replacement level pitchers, I used FanGraphs’ Auction Calculator, and put in the league size. The league I based this off of was my league where we roster 28 players. In it, we usually play seven starting pitchers and have another four on the bench. If your league parameters vary, you can alter the criteria in the FanGraphs Auction Calculator to figure out your replacement level. Remember, replacement level in this context means anyone who is valued at 99 cents or less, as in most (all?) leagues, you can’t bid less than $1.
I did this search for four different league sizes. Here are the first five replacement level starters I found across each.
It doesn’t seem like the non-closers start to really become useful until the jump to 15-team leagues. In 10- and 12-team leagues, bad closers become available and they should probably be used to accrue saves. Additionally, the replacement starting pitching market is still decent. In a 12-team league, the 110-K pitchers should be owned, but just a couple of teams will be able to roster these guys.
The transition to owning top non-closers happens here with 15-team leagues. Most teams will own set-up men for potential saves, but relievers who are elite regardless of their opportunities to pick up saves start having value. The starter pool is weak. Using a quality non-closer will help with ratios while staying even in strikeouts and possibly grabbing some wins.
I’d aim for a top-notch reliever and not worry about his chances for getting saves rather than simply picking up a bad set-up man who might have the opportunity to garner some saves. Owners need their teams to get similar stats that they would from bad starting pitchers, not to fall behind. Roster restrictions may limit the number of non-closers rostered but there should be room for at least one to use when the starter quality drops off.
When a league gets to 20 teams (or 10 or more teams if we’re talking American League- or National League-only), these non-closers become essential. All starters will be owned and most are used, even if some shouldn’t be. In general, all starters except for aces need to be benched in Colorado. Also, I would be worried about most starters going against the Cubs. Sometimes it is more important to avoid the blowup start, which can ruin the ratios beyond repair. Cycling non-closers into the mix can help to give a team an edge.
In those deep leagues where non-closers are in play, teams need to start the season with a conservatively balanced approach. Teams will need to continuously monitor their pitching standings for improvement. Can a team use a couple of non-closers to bring down its ERA and WHIP while some starters have a tough match-up? Additionally, does the team need to get every possible win and strikeout, so much so that it takes some chances on some sub-par starting pitchers? Each team will have ever-changing needs, so owners need to be versatile and constantly be asking themselves these questions to create the optimal output.
Now we get to point where the potential for possible future saves must be valued. In 10- and 12-team leagues, only the most desperate of save-hunting teams will roster set-up men. With so many actual closers available, teams will be fighting over the real deal, not guys with potential.
Now, in 15-team and deeper leagues, I expect most set-up men to be owned. Saves are scarcer and teams will be digging for options. Owners may be forced to roster low-strikeout guys like Brad Ziegler and Joakim Soria when aiming for saves, but they should not be used.
Owners should try to make sure one of their next-in-line guys is a top-notch reliever. Even if the reliever never gets saves, he can be plugged into the lineup as needed. These pitchers should be available in most 15-team leagues at a cheap price. When the league gets to 20 or more teams, two good non-closers should be owned. The pitching is just too thin at that point. Here are a few non-closers for owners to target this season:
- Brad Brach: Over the past two seasons, Brach has thrown the most relief innings. He’s done it with a 10.3 K/9 and 2.39 ERA. He is one of the most under-the-radar relievers who isn’t in line for saves, though since he was an All-Star last season he might not be quite as far under the radar as he used to be.
- Michael Feliz: The Astros plan to use him as a multi-inning reliever. While he didn’t post a great ERA (4.43), he struck out over 13 batters per nine innings last season. If he can maintain the same strikeout rate and throw 75 innings, he will accumulate 112 strikeouts.
- Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen: The Reds plan on using both as “alternating, multi-inning closers.” I think the closer’s job will eventually be Iglesias’ and Lorenzen will throw multiple innings in a set-up role. While Lorenzen doesn’t have an above average strikeout rate, he would have a chance to get to 100 innings should Iglesias command the closer’s spot.
- David Phelps, Seth Lugo and Christopher Devenski: These three pitchers fall into the mold of Danny Duffy and Tanner Roark. While they may throw a decent number of bullpen innings, they have no chance to close. If they change roles, the transition will be to the rotation.
Good non-closers provide a cheap option as fill-ins when a team’s starters have bad match-ups. Their usefulness begins with 15-team leagues and expands as the league size increases. The key is to try to get as many high-strikeout innings as possible while providing decent rate stats. If used correctly, these cheap pitching options can be a difference maker for a championship team.