Fantasy Baseball Middle Reliever Targets: Week 11

by Andrew Gould | @andrewgould4 | Featured Writer
Jun 17, 2017

Sean Doolittle should return to high-leverage situations soon

The game of ninth-inning musical chairs has stagnated, but the melody never stops in the middle innings.

Fantasy managers in holds or saves-plus-holds formats can’t grow complacent with their current middle relievers, a fungible group defined by streakiness. If a once exciting option—like most of the Washington Nationals guys besides the one highlighted below—slips, it doesn’t always pay to wait for him to regain his footing. There are too many hot hands waiting for recognition.

This isn’t the typical middle-relief roundup eyeing future closers. Instead, this column aims to help those in holds (or saves-plus-holds) formats. In some cases, they’re even useful for deep-league managers eyeing a strikeout and ratio boost beyond the obvious names.

Let’s take a look at a few such options worth adding or at least monitoring.

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Enny Romero (WAS)

As the Washington Nationals’ bullpen burns, Enny Romero is quietly offering some stability.

It’s problematic when a 3.82 ERA stands out as a bright spot, but the 26-year-old lefty hasn’t allowed a run since May 19. In those 10.1 innings, he has yielded four hits and collected 16 strikeouts.

He has also scooped up three holds in June, establishing the team lead at seven. Who else can Dusty Baker trust? Matt Albers is the only other pitcher with an ERA below 4.00, and that probably makes him the closer by default with Koda Glover on the disabled list. A returning Joe Blanton could provide some late-inning insurance, but he has allowed 15 runs in 15.1 innings.

Romero is far from perfect. A 3.95 FIP doesn’t encourage significant improvement, and a middling 3.52 BB/9 represents a major upgrade from his 4.62 career clip. He has thrown strikes on just 63.9 percent of his pitches, so the walk rate could soon soar.

He’s also missing bats with an average fastball velocity of 98 mph. Hopefully, fantasy managers have better relief options than the Nationals, but their imploding bullpen creates a major opportunity for Romero, who will gain mainstream attention as a sleeper for saves if he stays this hot.

Kirby Yates (SD)

The San Diego Padres’ bullpen entered Friday night with a collective 4.86 ERA, and closer Brandon Mauer deserves much of the blame for his 6.15 ERA. Yet their struggling stopper embodies an intriguing unit of power arms which also boasts a 9.80 K/9.

Yates has led the punchout charge. Claimed off waivers in late April, the 30-year-old journeyman has sealed 32 strikeouts over 21.2 innings. His 18.9 swinging-strike percentage ranks third among qualified relievers, and just five of his peers have generated a lower contact rate.

He also carries a 4.15 FIP behind his 3.32 ERA, and it’s hard to overlook last season’s 5.23 ERA with the New York Yankees. Even if he’s just a hot hand still behind Brad Hand and Ryan Buchter in San Diego’s middle-reliever hierarchy, that hot hand has recorded at least one strikeout in each of his last 12 outings. Hand, and perhaps Buchter to a lesser extent, will also draw trade interest from contenders next month, so Yates could find himself in a better role if he doesn’t revert to his career norms.

For now, add him for strikeouts in deeper formats and monitor his situations in shallower leagues.

Sean Doolittle (OAK)

Doolittle has pitched 61.1 innings over the last three seasons, but this gamer can’t turn away from his elite strikeout-to-walk rates. Since debuting in 2012, only Koji Uehara and Kenley Jansen have a better K/BB ratio than the Oakland Athletics reliever’s 6.15.

After missing over a month with an injured shoulder, the 30-year-old returned to work a perfect frame on Saturday. Oakland is sure to be cautious with the oft-injured veteran; he has pitched just once since. Don’t expect a workhorse, but the team’s longest-tenured member should work his way back into high-leverage situations.

Those will likely occur in the seventh or eighth as opposed to the ninth. Should closer Santiago Casilla falter enough to lose the job, Ryan Madson is probably next in line. They’re also all potential mid-season trade candidates, so Doolittle doesn’t warrant a speculative add in five-by-five leagues.

If holds (or saves+holds) are in the mix, grab him. Middle relievers are plentiful enough that another injury would send him back to the waiver wire without a second thought. While healthy, he’s especially helpful in the WHIP department.

Joe Kelly (BOS)

Highlighted in this column’s debut, Kelly has underwhelmed. That’s a weird thing to say about someone sporting a 1.24 ERA, but the Boston Red Sox’s hard-thrower has lived on the edge all season with 21 strikeouts and 14 walks in 29 suspicious innings.

He’s poised for regression of both the negative and positive variety. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Those subpar strikeout and walk rates don’t support elite run-prevention, and a .235 BABIP below his career .300 mark likely won’t support him all season. The 29-year-old righty is also bound to surrender a home run eventually, and a 4.09 xFIP suggests trouble when that time arrives.

On the other hand, let’s not assume his strikeout woes continue. His 10.5 swinging-strike percentage is a hair above last year’s 10.4, which produced a 10.8 K/9 with some luck. Only Trevor Rosenthal has a higher average fastball velocity than Kelly’s 98.8 mph, and FanGraphs has assigned it the highest fastball grade of all relievers. The simple solution seems to be throwing fewer secondary pitches and firing more gas.

A 63.8 first-pitch strike percentage, a considerable improvement from last year’s 51.6, also offers some encouragement of posting a passable BB/9 below four. There are still signs of the preseason sleeper, who has limited righties to a .175 wOBA. Even if he’s fortunate to have not allowed a run since April 30, he might help fantasy gamers more from now until September despite an inevitable ERA uptick. In some league formats, he also carries SP eligibility which can be useful stratgey-wise.

Scott Alexander (KC)

There’s little ordinary about Scott Alexander, a lefty stifling opposing righties to a .172 wOBA. He has pitched at least two innings in each of his last three outings, accumulating eight strikeouts in the process.

The unconventional Kansas City Royals southpaw almost exclusively relies on a sinker, deploying it 85.47 percent of the time according to Brooks Baseball. Hey, it’s working. Opponents are hitting .138 with a 76.19 ground-ball percentage against his lethal weapon.

He has parlayed that offering into a 1.66 ERA despite a 2.99 FIP crying foul. Don’t assume regression with so many batted balls dying in the dirt. Alexander’s unorthodox repertoire is capable of beating the system. Although a traditional role would yield more holds, his current usage is intriguing if he can withstand more innings. Watch him carefully.

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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Andrew Gould is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive and follow him @andrewgould4.

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