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Targeting Elite Middle RP Strategy (2019 Fantasy Baseball)

by Carmen Maiorano | @cmaiorano3 | Featured Writer
Feb 4, 2019

Dellin Betances has been a solid middle reliever for the Yankees, but he’s far from the best one on the team

We’ve all been there. You took a hitter in the first round, then took a starting pitcher with one of your next two picks, and slowly rounded your team into form with a couple more starters, a bunch of hitters, and a top-tier closer. You think you’re sitting pretty in the 13th round, thinking you’re snatching up Ken Giles as your second closer. However, a run on closers comes, and you watch as Giles, Corey Knebel, Wade Davis, and Kirby Yates all get picked up, and you’re staring wide-eyed at your computer, wondering how the heck you’re going to find a dominant reliever. Now, this isn’t quite the level of how exasperated you were when watching the refs ruin the New Orleans Saints’ chance to reach the Super Bowl (too soon?), but this surely gives you the heebie-jeebies.

Maybe you don’t trust rocky and/or oft-injured vets such as Cody Allen, Brandon Morrow, or Kelvin Herrera. You also can’t figure out if David Robertson or Seranthony Dominguez will be the Phillies’ closer, or if Aroldys Vizcaino or A.J. Minter will be the Braves’ stopper. What has happened in the past few years, and moreso this upcoming year, is that fewer clubs have a defined closer, and are preferring to go with the “closer by committee” approach based on matchups, or simply whoever has the hot hand.

This makes drafting closers a difficult task, and you may prefer to find value in hitters who have fallen in the draft, and then pick up dominant relievers that help you in *three* categories instead of just one. Refer here for Bobby Sylvester’s Marmol strategy, which demonstrates how to pick up elite relievers for value while loading up on hitters in the beginning of drafts. Typically, you want to have this strategy headed into the draft, but closer runs can come and go before you can blink, so it’s imperative to have a backup plan and be ready to pivot on the fly.

Even if your goal is to pursue three closers in stable positions, you may want to reconsider your strategy. Often, especially on bad teams, the closer has poor ratios (think, Fernando Rodney or Trevor Hildenberger on the Twins last year) but garners a few saves, leaving you as unsettled as eating Grandma’s meatloaf. You’d rather have a steady guy who has a strong K rate, and has great ratios to go with it; thus, this reliever helps you in three categories.

Our advice below will give you several guys to target throughout certain parts of drafts that will help you with strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. Some may even have an outside shot at a closer role, especially if the incumbent guy gets injured or starts off the season poorly. Now that we’ve outlined a bit why you want elite middle relievers on your team, and a strategy to go about it, we need to name some guys to help you get there.

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The Poster Boy

Josh Hader (MIL) – Steamer projection: 36.6 K%, 26 K/BB%, 2.23 FIP, 14 saves

Current ADP: 133 overall, 11th reliever (excluding SP/RPs. All ADPs as of 2/1/19.)

Quick hit: I don’t need to tell you much about Hader, as he is widely known as the most dominant reliever in all of baseball. Last year, he struck out an absurd 15.82 hitters per nine innings, stymied hitters for a .220 BABIP, and allowed a ridiculous .086/.186/.169 slash line to lefties. His K rate last year was 46.7%. Expecting six wins and 12 saves again is ambitious, but he’s well worth the draft day price regardless.

Future Poster Boy?

Trevor May (MIN) – Steamer Projection: 25.3 K%, 17 K/BB%, 3.99 FIP

Current ADP: 316th overall, 51st reliever

Quick hit: The projections don’t do May’s profile justice. In 2018, May posted a 35 K% over 25 and 1/3 innings with a minuscule 1.78 BB/9. As the Twins just signed Blake Parker to close, May will go undervalued in drafts. Parker is not the most stable reliever, allowing May to potentially start closing on a suddenly upstart Twins’ team. If May can keep this K-BB ratio up while lowering his 18.2% HR/FB rate, his four-pitch arsenal will play well.

The Yankee Trio

Dellin Betances – Steamer Projection: 36.4 K%, 25.6 K/BB%, 2.81 FIP

Current ADP: 245 overall, 23rd reliever

Quick hit: Betances has been an absolute fireballer since 2014 for the Yankees. His 2018 numbers include a 42.3 K% and 2.47 FIP, which are just a touch below Hader. His 20.5% HR/FB last year is scary, but will likely regress to the mean, as that percentage rates as his highest since becoming a full-time big-leaguer, and by an eight percent margin at that. He figures to handle eighth-inning duties, but probably won’t be the first in line to close if/when Aroldis Chapman gets the injury bug.

That would probably belong to Zach Britton, who is a solid middle reliever in his own right, but is clearly the fourth best middle reliever in this ‘pen. He is a groundball machine, but posted sub-par K/9, BB/9, and was extremely lucky with his 3.10 ERA last year. I would rather have the other guys here.

Adam Ottavino – Steamer Projection: 29.3 K%, 18.1 K/BB%, 3.88 FIP

Current ADP: 285 overall, 31st reliever

Quick hit: Ottavino was an absolute stud in Colorado last year, striking out 36% of hitters while racking up 77 and 2/3 innings. There are some risk factors for the 33-year-old, as he hasn’t logged that many innings since 2013, and has battled arm troubles throughout his extended big league career. However, having this kind of season in Coors Field should give us some faith in him.

As stated above, he will likely get some save opportunities if Chapman goes down with an injury. I also picked him up in the 21st round in a mock draft prior to signing with the Yankees, and now he is being drafted even lower since he will not be a closer, so you can get him even later than that. He’s worth that price.

Chad Green – Steamer Projection: 30.8 K%, 23.8 K/BB%, 3.32 FIP

Current ADP: 323rd overall, 37th reliever

Quick hit: Yes, Chad Green is the unheralded dominator of this bullpen, and you can get him at the modest pick of 318. That means you aren’t drafting him in standard 12-team leagues. He won’t be garnering any save opportunities with the guys in front of him, but if you need great ratios (2.50 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) with a solid K ratio, Green can be your guy.

Old Faces, New Places

Andrew Miller (STL) – Steamer Projection: 30.8 K%, 22.5 K/BB%, 2.94 FIP

Current ADP: 207th overall, 18th reliever

Quick hit: Miller had a down season, by his standards, in 2018. He was on and off the disabled list with arm and leg troubles, but still managed to strike out hitters at a 29% clip. His 4.24 ERA doesn’t look good, but you’ll accept his 3.51 FIP as a better indicator of his skills. Of course, we hope that number returns to his pre-2018 days.

The soon-to-be 34-year-old vet may split closing duties with Jordan Hicks and, as a result, his draft price is a bit higher than expected. He will more likely than not be a fireman in the seventh and eighth innings, allowing you to scoop him up off waivers once your league-mate drops him after being scared that he won’t be getting consistent saves.

Jeurys Familia (NYM) – Steamer Projection: 26.5 K%, 17.1 K/BB%, 3.31 FIP

Current ADP: 266th overall, 29th reliever

Quick hit: Probably the “weakest” out of all the relievers so far, Familia has made a living off of inducing groundballs. Between 2014 and 2017, his lowest groundball rate was a very absurd 57.4 percent. Unfortunately, that number decreased to 46.3% in 2018. According to FanGraphs, Familia increased his slider usage 13% to 28.4%, which was offset by a decrease in his sinker from 64% to 52%, which likely resulted in the decrease in grounders. If he can get back to his old ways, Familia will be a great source of ratios and is only an Edwin Diaz injury away from being a top-10 closer.

Young Guns

Ty Buttrey (LAA) – Steamer Projection: 24.6%, 14.2 K/BB%, 3.95 FIP

Current ADP: 374th overall, 47th reliever

Quick Hit: Many people in the fantasy community were bummed when the Angels signed Cody Allen, as Buttrey no longer had closer potential. He had quite the rookie season, getting grounders at a 57% rate, striking out 11 batters per nine, and finished with an insane 1.63 FIP. If Allen were to get injured, which is possible given his downward trend in velocity, Buttrey instantly becomes a top-15 closer.

Seranthony Dominguez (PHI) – Steamer Projection: 29.7 K%, 19.2 K/BB%, 3.45 FIP

Current ADP: 284th overall, 33rd reliever

Quick Hit: Seemingly out of the closer role, given that a closer-by-committee approach is expected, Dominguez has seen his stock fall in drafts. But with a similar profile to Buttrey and with a better shot to garner saves, Dominguez is worthy of being drafted in 12-team leagues.

Lou Trivino (OAK) – Steamer Projection: 25% K%, 15.2 K/BB%, 3.70 FIP

Current ADP: 515th overall, 123rd reliever

Quick Hit: Trivino’s rookie season was a tale of two halves, classified by before and after the All-Star break. In the first half, Trivino struck out more than a batter per inning while posting a sub-1.25 ERA, fueled by a .213 wOBA. In the second half, that wOBA jumped to .335, and he posted an ERA of 5.40. If the Athletics can limit his innings to 60-65 innings, he may be a valuable asset throughout the season. Don’t count on it though, since the A’s rotation is currently a list of no-namers. He’s one Blake Treinen injury away from being must-owned in all leagues.

Jace Fry (CWS) – Steamer Projection: 27.2 K%, 16.5 K/BB%, 3.74 FIP

Current ADP: 485th overall, 76th reliever

Quick Hit: This young man put on a show on the South Side of Chicago last year, posting a 32.7 K percentage. He does it with a variety of pitches, including a slider, curveball, changeup, and different variations of fastballs. He’s probably third in line to close, but it’s not like Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera are the pillars of health and/or consistent relievers.

Steady Vets

Ryan Pressly (HOU) – Steamer Projection: 28.8 K%, 20.6 K/BB%, 3.26 FIP

Current ADP: 424th overall, 58th reliever

Quick hit: Pressly had an incredible year in 2018, posting a 2.54 ERA on the heels of a 2.47 FIP while striking out 35% of hitters. Even more crazily, he posted a 17.6% swinging strike rate in 2018 — the league average is around 9.5%! While you can expect some regression in the strikeout department (previous high was 8.95 K/9 in 2017), he has incrementally increased his curveball usage over those past two years, and with a 5.5 pVAL in 2017, it shows that the pitch has been successful. The Astros’ bullpen is so loaded (see below) that you can’t count on him getting saves if Roberto Osuna gets injured, but he will provide you with enough in three categories to not worry about saves. He’s currently going outside the top 400, even though he has better numbers than the next guy on the list, who is going 100 picks earlier.

Jeremy Jeffress (MIL) – Steamer Projection: 24.8 K%, 15.6 K/BB%, 3.48 FIP

Current ADP: 289th overall, 35th reliever

Quick hit: Even though Pressly has better ratios and more Ks, Jeffress is going higher due to his save potential. However, that potential is not as high as it may seem, as Steamer is projecting him for one measly save. Jeffress has a dynamite changeup, which allows him to generate 56.4% groundballs. He posted a career-high 10.45 K/9 in 2018, and surprisingly the changeup was his least effective pitch! His fastball registered a 6.5 pVAL, and his curveball a very good 8.4.

He stranded 93% of runners in 2018, so expect regression in that department. In other words, don’t expect a 2.81 ERA again. Due to this expected regression and Josh Hader and Corey Knebel hanging around, Jeffress is going in the 24th-25th rounds of drafts.

Brad Peacock (HOU) – Steamer Projection: 25.6 K%, 16.8 K/BB%, 4.04 FIP

Current ADP: 402nd overall, 50th reliever

Quick hit: This is one place where I disagree with the Steamer projections. Peacock was primarily a starter since his big-league career began in 2011, was converted to a full-time reliever in 2018. His K/9 immediately went from 10.98 in 2017 to 13.29 in 2018, and his BB/9 decreased.

His HR/FB ratio of 18% last year should regress back to the low-to-mid teens, making his ERA much more viable going forward. Plus, he is eligible as a starter, which helps create roster flexibility. With the Wade Miley signing, Peacock likely will be returning the bullpen for 2019.

Matt Barnes (BOS) – Steamer Projection: 30.3 K%, 20.2 K/BB%, 3.24 FIP

Current ADP: 599th overall, 66th overall

Quick hit: This may be the most underrated player on this whole list. Barnes was dominant in the 2018 regular season, posting 14.52 K/9. He needs to work on his control to become fully dominant, but this ADP is far too low.

Roster Resource currently has him as sharing closer duties with Ryan Brasier, who is going 442nd overall. Brasier had a bit of a lucky season last year, considering his 86% strand rate and 7.75 K/9. Sharing closer duties for the reigning champions is a pretty great opportunity for Barnes, who will get a shot at getting the duties all to himself.

Post-450 Control Freaks

Craig Stammen (SD) – Steamer Projection: 23.7 K%, 16.2 K/BB%, 3.55 FIP

Current ADP: 464th overall, 85th reliever

Quick hit: While not the most dominant reliever in terms of Ks on this list, Stammen has incredible control (just 1.94 BB/9 last year, and a 22.4% K/BB ratio), and ended last year with a 2.19 FIP. While there is regression to be expected based on lower-than-normal HR/FB ratio and low K rate, Stammen is in line to be the Padres’ closer if/when Kirby Yates is traded to a contender at the deadline. Then again, Stammen could be moved as well. He is someone to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Tony Watson (SF) – Steamer Projection: 23.4 K%, 15.7 K/BB%, 3.58 FIP

Current ADP: 486th overall, 92nd reliever

Quick hit: Watson has never struck out a ton of guys, but he has historically done a great job of limiting walks and hard contact. He has slightly regressed over the years, but he pitches in one of the best pitchers’ parks out there and could be in line for saves if Will Smith is traded.

Final Thoughts

It’s near impossible to read a manager’s mind…especially a guy like Gabe Kapler. However, it is less impossible to find value in pitching, especially if you execute a strategy of targeting multiple, dominant middle relievers. You’re better off trusting the process over the results, or the skills over the roles. The process and the skills tend to win out over the long term, which is why you need to focus on getting talent on your roster with high upside, especially at the end of drafts.

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and follow him @cmaiorano3.

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