Middle Relievers as Fantasy Baseball Sleepers | Are You Ignoring a Huge Source of Hidden Value?
When last we talked... Well, mostly I talked and you listened... I hope. Anywho, I'd just started my annual search for Fantasy Baseball sleepers, with a look at some possible BABIP Bounce-Backs for 2018. Today we'll look in a different direction, away from big-time statistical analysis, and more toward an often ignored source of value hidden right in front of your face.
Those of us who have played in NL or AL-only leagues have known it for years, but middle relievers have largely gone ignored in most mixed leagues and you rarely see them mentioned as potential Fantasy Baseball sleepers.
It's understandable in some ways. They don't get the strikeouts or wins that good starting pitchers do. They don't rack up the saves like more heralded closers, and with relatively low innings totals, their effect on ERA and WHIP wouldn't seem to help all that much. Conventional wisdom says middle relievers just don't have a place in a typical 12-team mixed league. I'm gonna take this opportunity to tell conventional wisdom where to go with its false assumptions.
These are the MLB relievers who've accrued more WPA than Addison Reed over the past 2 seasons: Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Kenley Jansen, Brad Hand. That's it. Just behind him: Craig Kimbrel and Wade Davis. Amazing company. #mntwins
— Nick Nelson (@NickNelsonMN) January 21, 2018
5 Reasons Middle Relievers are Fantasy Baseball Sleepers
1. Middle relievers have real value
No they don't get 15 wins or 30-plus saves, but you can't ignore the numbers they do provide. Let's take the case of 'failed' starter Archie Bradley. After two years of shaky results as a starter, he was in danger of beginning the 2017 season in the minors. He had a strong spring and lobbied to stay with the team as a reliever. To say it worked out is an understatement. He upped his strikeout rate to 10.17, posted a 1.73 ERA to go along with a 1.04 WHIP, and enters 2018 with a chance to take over closing duties. Even with just one lonely save, there is value in that line. In fact there are quite a few middle relievers producing that kind of value.
A typical 12-team league uses 108 pitchers at any given time. According to the Fantasy Baseball dollar value calculator on TGFantasyBaseball.com, there were more than 15 middle relievers among the top 108 pitchers. There were also a handful more just outside that who could have been used during the frequent DL stints that we see during the season. This isn't just a subjective ranking. There's some variance in how dollar values are computed, but these values would not differ much from any other site. Too many Fantasy players spend their time watching focusing on the flashier stats and don't realize how value is actually earned in Fantasy Baseball. This alone qualifies these relievers as true Fantasy Baseball sleepers.
2. Middle relievers maximize the value of your best pitchers
Using middle relievers is one way to 'game' the system. In 5 X 5 leagues ERA and WHIP are 40 percent of the points you can earn in the pitching categories. Besides the help that good relievers give you in these areas, their lack of innings pitched also means the bulk of your ERA and WHIP stats are more heavily affected by your best starting pitchers. While other teams paid for six or seven starting pitchers, a few of which might actually hurt ERA and WHIP, you can invest in two top starters and easily dominate two of the five pitching categories. Of course you're going to struggle in wins and strikeouts, but maybe not as much as you think. Especially early in the season when starters don't pitch as late into games, relievers tend to vulture more wins and pile up Ks, while the starters are getting stretched out. More on using middle relievers early in the season with reason No. 3.
3. Middle Relievers provide evaluation time for your pitching sleepers
While more focus has been put on starting pitchers over the last couple of years, many Fantasy players still choose to wait on pitching until the later rounds of their drafts. I tend to do this as I pride my self on finding some gems at the end-game. There are pitfalls with this strategy though. You can definitely find value, but there is a reason these pitchers were still available in round 22. They typically carry huge risk. For every Chase Anderson or Zack Godley that gives you decent results, there's a Matt Moore or Martin Perez that blows up in your face. I'm always digging around for pitching gold and my ego says I'll find it, but adding one or two good middle relievers let's me keep my fantasy baseball sleepers in reserve until they prove their worth. So the middle relievers help give me a solid base in ERA and WHIP, allow my overall stats to be based on my best pitchers, and now they provide a safety net in case my high risk pitchers don't pan out.
4. Middle relievers become closers
Sure everyone knew guys like Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel would be among the top closers, but the list of saves leaders for 2017 is littered with relievers that weren't exactly next in line. I'm sure you were all over Corey Knebel and Hector Neris in last year's drafts, right? And you knew Felipe Rivero and Brad Hand were going to end the season as two of baseball's best closers. By my count 17 MLB teams went through closer changes during the 2017 season. Sure some Fantasy owners will try prospecting the obvious "next in line" types, but you might just luck into saves just by rostering good middle relievers. The worst case is you have a head start when the vultures start circling the latest closer casualty.
5. Innings eaters have negative value
In my opinion one of the most common mistakes in Fantasy Baseball is the overuse of lower level starting pitchers. Fantasy owners are chasing wins and strikeouts, but in the process give away precious points in the standings.
I think the main problem is that few owners actually know how player valuation works. They see pitchers like Jeremy Hellickson and Michael Wacha as a chance to pile up double-digit wins and jump all over that "value" in later rounds. What they don't realize or at least underestimate, is that pitchers can have negative value. When a pitcher has a WHIP or ERA below that of your league average, it works against the value they produce in wins and strikeouts, possibly leaving that pitcher with negative value.
I'll use one 12-team mixed league I was in last year as an example. The average ERA at the end of the season was 3.586. The average WHIP was 1.235. There are a ton of starting pitchers below these levels and they all had negative value in those categories. Some of those pitchers more than made up for it with 150-plus strikeouts, but many of these innings-eater types barely had more strikeouts than most good middle relievers.
You'd be surprised at the pitchers who lose value due to below league average ERA and WHIP. Zach Davies won 17 games, but a mediocre ERA and just 124 strikeouts put his value right in line with Ryan Madson, he of two saves.
Trevor Bauer also posted 17 wins and even added 196 Ks, but his ERA and WHIP brought his value down in the same neighborhood as Mychal Givens and Juan Nicasio. Do I take Bauer first? Sure, but the difference is nowhere near as much as people think.
I guess the lesson here is to know the damage that bad starting pitchers can do, and with pitching on a bit of an uphill trend, that means "bad" may not be as obvious. A few years back a 4.00 ERA might not do that much damage. Now with more starting pitchers putting up low 3.00 ERAs and below, that same 4.00 is a huge detriment. In addition with few pitchers working deep into games, the divide between starter and reliever is getting much closer. Use the innings eater types later in the season if you have points to gain in wins or strikeouts, but if you're settling for the Hellicksons and Matt Moores of the fantasy world, you might want to turn to the Tommy Kahnles instead.
Ready to add middle relievers to your Fantasy Baseball repertoire? Check back tomorrow for 20 Middle Relievers to Target in Mixed Leagues.
Got some Fantasy Baseball sleepers of your own. Don't be greedy! Share them with me on Twitter @RotoDaddy.
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