Middle Relievers with Big Fantasy Value
While middle relievers have started to get more run on the fantasy landscape in recent years, even in leagues that don’t give them a clear path to value via the holds category, they are still a mostly overlooked group. In this strikeout-heavy era where we are seeing obscene rates from many seventh and eighth inning guys, there are some guys who have fantasy viability even if they have almost zero hope to accumulate saves in the near future – which is the main reason someone would roster a setup man.
I have five relievers for you to look for on your waiver wire and while one or two may be rostered regardless of your league format, you’re sure to find at least a couple to choose from to pick up some cheap strikeouts and quality ratios. These guys are obviously best-deployed in “only” leagues, but they are also more likely to already be rostered in those leagues (especially the first two guys on the list). They are also great fill-ins for those of you with daily transactions because you can continually shuffle them in for your starters who aren’t throwing and gets those additional strikeouts and clean innings.
- Dellin Betances (NYY) – Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman have ruled the top of the strikeout rate charts among relievers lately with 15-16 per nine over the last few years including Kimbrel’s 16.7 K/9 rate from 2012 – the best ever from a reliever with at least 30 innings. Betances is forcing them to make some room up there with a 15.1 K/9 in 40.7 innings of work so far this season. While I generally prefer strikeout percentage as a measure of a pitcher’s quality, we are more concerned with volume here so I’ll revert back to K/9. For what it’s worth, Betances leads all relievers with a 45.3 percent rate thanks to his brilliant 6.7 percent walk rate, though he’s fourth in K/9 behind three closers – Kimbrel (16.5), David Robertson (16.4), and Kenley Jansen (15.2). A full-time starter as recently as 2012, Betances also logged a few starts last year as well leaving the Yankees confident enough to use him for longer stretches with 19 of his 29 appearances going more than an inning. He’s got a 38.4 percent ownership rate in ESPN leagues which may seem low, but it’s actually pretty high given that he’s behind a rock solid Robertson for saves and ESPN caters predominantly to 10-team mixed leagues.
- Wade Davis (KC) – I was in the small group of people who believed Davis could be successful as a starter for at least 160-170 league average innings, but he was a nightmare for 135.3 innings last year with a 5.32 ERA. His 4.18 FIP says I may’ve been right had he continued to pitch in the rotation, but at some point the .361 BABIP and 67.6 percent LOB rate are at least partly your fault. The Royals put him back in the bullpen where he had excelled in 2012 and he’s outdone even those impressive marks. His 14.5 K/9 is just behind Betances while his 1.19 ERA and 0.86 WHIP are both among the league’s best. He has one of the highest leverage indexes among non-closers, too, meaning he’s in there when games are on the line which has helped him vulture five wins. Henderson Alvarez is on pace for 130 strikeouts in 200+ innings while Davis is set to rack up 114 in just under 70.
- Andrew Miller (BOS) – Once a blue-chip prospect – even more so than Betances – Miller has settled into the bullpen having last started back in 2011. Since becoming a full-time reliever, he has a 2.88 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 13.1 K/9 rate in 100 innings of work, but 2014 has been his best work to date. He’s only two innings from topping last year’s total of 30.7 innings and there’s a chance he’ll bypass his relieving high of 40.3 (set in 2012) by the All-Star break. The 29-year old southpaw has tamed his platoon split with a devastating slider that he busts in on righties and drops away from lefties. There have been 24 relievers with 100+ strikeouts in the last 10 years, but there are 10 pacing toward that mark so far this season, though half are regular closers and long gone. If you aren’t in desperate need of innings, someone like Miller can offer more value than a starter like Tommy Milone or Dan Haren even with their otherwise palatable ratios.
- Joaquin Benoit (SD) – Benoit might be on more rosters than our other guys despite “only” a 10.6 K/9 because he’s next in line in San Diego behind Huston Street who entered the season with a dodgy health record and an unspectacular 2013 season. Street has returned to his All-Star level, but Benoit is having his best season that brilliant 2010 in Tampa Bay when he rebuilt his career after missing all of 2009 to injury. What he lacks in strikeouts (pacing for 80, which is still plenty strong for a reliever), he makes up for in minuscule ratios and a proximity to saves.
- Will Smith (MIL) – While drafted by the Angels, he spent the bulk of his time in the upper minors and all of his MLB time prior to this year with the Royals which has become a reliever factory. He was excellent in 33.3 relief innings with the Royals a year ago before getting flipped to Milwaukee for Nori Aoki this offseason. He’s already topped his innings count from last year with 33.7 while greatly improving his ERA from 3.24 to 1.07 which is actually lower than his 1.19 WHIP. Smith, a lefty, has dominated southpaws to the tune of a .332 OPS while righties have had a bit more success at .698, but I believe he can still improve against righties as I think he has the stuff to start if that was ever a need for the Brewers. He’s got big velocity from the left side (93-95 MPH) and I can easily see him cutting into that .919 OPS off the fastball against righties. Even if he doesn’t right away, he’s still missing enough righty bats and his obliteration of lefties will allow him to rack up big numbers.
Five More Names:
These guys might not have the mixed league viability of the ones listed above, but they are definitely worth a look in only leagues and they could play themselves into all-formats usefulness.
Tony Watson (PIT) – 0.84 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, and 4.6 K/BB in 32 IP – Watson earned his firm role by being a lefty specialist, but he’s improved markedly against righties the last two years fueling a career-best strikeout rate and putting him on pace for 95.
Jake McGee (TB) – 1.44 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and 4.5 K/BB ratio in 31.3 IP – Another lefty, McGee has actually done his best work against righties recently while still stifling lefties en route to some silly numbers. Additionally, his ability to shut down both sides of the plate should help him earn consideration for saves as the Rays look for a replacement for Grant Balfour.
Tyler Clippard (WAS) – 2.40 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, and 2.6 K/BB ratio in 30 IP – The rubber-armed reliever would’ve made a list like this in any of the last five years and he continues to have tons of success despite an elevated walk rate this year.
Brad Boxberger (TB) – 3.00 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 13.5 K/9, and 3.0 K/BB ratio in 24 IP – He’s learning how to shut down righties, but he needs to keep the ball in the park more consistently to get on that next level of reliever excellence.
Jake Diekman (PHI) – 4.54 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, and 3.5 K/BB ratio in 33.7 IP – His ERA indicators suggest he is markedly better than his 4.54 ERA, but a pair of 4 ER outings (47% of his season ER in just 3.9% of his IP) have inflated his numbers. He has 14 multi-strikeout appearances in his 33 outings.