Making Sense of Three Different Bullpen Situations
In this article, DailyRoto analyst Ricky Sanders takes a look at National Fantasy Championship (NFC) average draft positions (ADP) and discusses how the market has mispriced or overlooked certain players in some of the most uncertain bullpens. If looking for cheap save possibilities in seasonal leagues, let this be your guide:
San Francisco Giants
Recently, I was a part of a dynasty draft that included both holds and saves as categories, and two relievers were selected prior to the guy with the clearest closer skills on the roster: Trevor Gott (SF). The masses seem to believe Tony Watson (SF) is the favorite for saves, especially in the early-going, as he possesses a NFC ADP of P150, which may not sound like much, but it is just after the likes of presumed closers Wade Davis (COL) and Matt Magill (SEA). Realistically, Watson’s ADP is treating him like one of the shakiest closers in the league, but still assuming he is the top relief pitcher (RP) to draft on this squad…and that is wrong.
Watson is a lefty who has not averaged over 93.5 mph on his fastball over the course of his past two seasons and posted a career-worst 4.81 FIP, 4.89 xFIP and 4.41 SIERA a year ago despite playing in the most pitcher-friendly environment in all of baseball. Somehow, someway that has inspired sporadic publications across the industry to refer to him as a sleep closer. It is tough for someone with a 17.8-percent K rate and a rising career hard hit rate allowed to hang onto the closer job for the entirety of a season especially when he is best deployed as a lefty-specialist in innings where multiple left-handed hitters (LHHs) are scheduled against him.
Tyler Rogers (SF) was the other Giants bullpen member selected ahead of Gott in my most recent dynasty draft but, despite being the brother of top tier closer Taylor Rogers (MIN), Tyler is a completely different pitcher. In 2019, Rogers only posted 17.7 innings of sample size at the big league level and was dominant: 1.02 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 2.87 xFIP, 69.4-percent GB rate and 2.71 SIERA. However, Rogers had posted a FIP of 3.98-plus in back-to-back years in Triple-A with an xFIP exceeding 4.85 in two of the past three seasons (and the sample sizes were much larger). It should also be noted Rogers is a submariner with a delivery resembling that of ex-MLB pitcher Chad Bradford. His major selling point is the fact he rarely ever allows fly balls but he also translates to more of a specialist who is extremely tough on righties that have never seen his sort of delivery before. If the minor league sample is any indication, last year was simply a flash in the pan for a 29-year old Rogers.
That leaves Gott to discuss who happened to be a dominant closer in college (Kentucky) and has averaged 95.0 mph on his fastball for his professional career. In 52.2 innings for the Giants last year, Gott posted a respectable 26.6-percent K rate, 3.12 FIP, 3.73 SIERA and a solid 10.8-percent swinging strike rate. Of the bunch, Gott is also the only one who passes the eye test as a guy who looks like a true closer with true closer stuff. It is not that throwing sidearm or submarine cannot be effective but it is simply that Gott’s stuff is so good he does not need a gimmick to retire opposing hitters. Gott’s improvement on his sweeping slider led to a 29.4-percent O-swing rate against him and a career-low 65.6-percent O-contact rate. For his career, Gott has yielded a 50.3-percent GB rate, which is not Tyler Rogers-esque, but is still quite good. While league-mates who hold off on closers target someone like Watson, wait a few rounds after Watson and then pounce on the true guy who is likely to lead the 2020 Giants in saves.
Unlike the Giants, there is no real clear top talent in this bullpen, but there is at least a clear favorite for early saves: Matt Magill (SEA). Unfortunately, Manager Scott Servais has already gone out of his way to state “There will be no closer. It’s just going to depend. Some nights it might be a particular guy matchup-wise or because he has the freshest arm, he hasn’t pitched in a couple of days and he will be asked to get the final three outs of the game. Unless somebody jumps up and the position and he looks super comfortable and he’s just shoving it and looks great, then it might grow into that. But right now, we don’t have one.” This is a problem for any and all members of the Mariners bullpen especially in mixed leagues that do not count holds in addition to saves.
Having said that, Magill, if healthy, is clearly a superior pitcher at this point in his career comparatively to the newly-acquired, 35-year old Yoshihisa Hirano (SEA). Sure, Hirano acted as a reliable closer during his days in the Japanese baseball league, finishing his Japanese career with 156 saves in 11 seasons (despite beginning his career as a starter). Even so, Hirano is no youngster anymore and he is coming off a year where he finished with a 3.95 SIERA, 4.04 FIP and 4.24 xFIP while walking nearly 10-percent of the hitters he faced. Although those numbers are not awful, they are do not exactly scream “dominant closer” numbers, or even “closer” numbers at all.
Assuming Hirano is being overhyped by certain circles, Magill becomes the likeliest to register saves. Had it not been for injury, Magill was amidst a solid season last year when healthy, striking out a whopping 28.0-percent of the hitters he faced and finishing with a career-best 3.71 SIERA. Hell, Magill induced a 14.3-percent swinging strike rate, which was identical to the likes of Felipe Vazquez, Aroldis Chapman (NYY), Julio Urias (LAD) and the aforementioned Hirano. Heading into Spring Training, Magill was dealing with a shoulder issue that could have held him back, but now thanks to the long layoff, Magill is back to full health. Due to the late season opportunity to hold down the closer role last year, he is certainly the favorite to grasp onto the role and hang onto it.
There is a darkhorse candidate here though and his name is not Carl Edwards Jr. (SEA) or Dan Taltavilla (SEA). No, the longshot candidate to pitch his way into the closer role is Austin Adams (SEA) who quietly was one of just five relievers last year (min. 20 IP) to exceed a 40-percent K rate. The others to accomplish a 40-plus percent K rate? Josh Hader (MIL), Drew Pomeranz (SD), Nick Anderson (TB) and Kirby Yates (SD). Adams relied insanely heavily on his slider (63.6-percent usage) and it led to a 16.6-percent swinging strike rate. It should be noted Adams posted a 20-plus percent swinging strike rate at every level he played at in 2019 and has historically flirted with at least a 15-percent swinging strike rate regardless of level. He only features two pitches in his arsenal but when your fastball is nearly 95.5 mph and your slider grades as an excellent pitch then you can get away with that sort of arsenal.
If drafting today, Magill would be the first player I would select out of this bullpen, but I would attempt to complement him with Adams (as a last round pick) if benches allowed it. In holds leagues, or leagues with K/9 or K percentage, Adams is an attractive late-round buy as well considering steamer projects a 33.3-percent K rate this year (and does not view last year’s K rate as a flash-in-the-pan). Hirano is not a player I would be overly interested in investing in.
Kansas City Royals
Following a 30-save season where 34-year old Ian Kennedy (KC) posted a career-best 2.99 FIP, he is being drafted at an average pick of 200 in the NFC, or right in between Sean Doolittle (WAS) and Giovanny Gallegos (STL). Kennedy pitched quite well out of the bullpen as he registered a career-high 27.4-percent K rate and posted his lowest BB rate since 2012. Strangely, Kennedy saw a nearly 2.5 mph uptick on his fastball comparatively to 2018, as he averaged 3.0 mph more on his fastball (94.8) than his career average (91.8). Apparently, moving to the bullpen allowed him to exert more energy because large upticks in velocity are so very unusual at 34-years old.
The question remains whether the increased velocity is sustainable for a 35-year old pitcher, but, one noticeable positive last year was the fact Kennedy basically stopped throwing his historically ineffective changeup. Sticking with a fastball (with increased velocity), cutter and knuckle curve mix really worked for Kennedy but he still is being given way too much credit for his reliability this season.
Trevor Rosenthal (KC) was brought in and, according to Alec Lewis of the Athletic, Rosenthal clearly separated himself as one of the team’s best relievers in Spring Training. In just 5.0 innings, Rosenthal posted a 9:0 K:BB ratio and allowed just three hits. Thus far, Rosenthal owns a career 30.6-percent K rate at the Major League level but simply is coming off by far the worst season of his career in 2019. To be fair, Rosenthal was coming off Tommy John surgery and only ended up pitching 15.1 total innings, so it is not like a fork should have been put in his career. This Spring, Rosenthal proved he had more to offer to the game of baseball, and the Rosenthal of old was a rather dominant closer: 3.08 SIERA, 3.32 xFIP, 26.5-percent hard hit rate and multiple 40-plus save seasons for his career. By the way, his velocity was all the way back last year, averaging 98.3 mph on his fastball, or 0.1 mph above his career average. If Kennedy falters whatsoever, Rosenthal will be waiting to pounce on the closer role, and he is someone who is a recommended draft in leagues with deep benches regardless of whether you draft Kennedy or not.