Relief Pitcher Primer (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
Not too long ago, MLB teams would ask their starter to go six strong innings, bring in a couple set up men, and then cue the music as their closer took the mound in the ninth in hopes of a save. In recent years, teams are rarely following such a formula. Major league clubs have changed how they seek to get 27 outs, and as a result, we need to change our approach as fantasy owners.
In this relief pitcher primer, we will discuss some of the changes that we have seen in the deployment of relievers, and how we need to adjust as we enter fantasy baseball draft season.
Perhaps the most prominent change across the league has been the installment of “the opener.” The Tampa Bay Rays were the first to use this strategy, in which a traditional relief pitcher was asked to pitch the first inning before the de facto starter entered the game. In 2019, the deployment of an opener only became more popular across the league.
The strategy has many trickle-down effects on fantasy baseball. For the boxscore, the pitcher credited with the start has to be the player who got the ball in the first inning. The player enters the game in the second inning and is asked to pitch the bulk of the innings while not counting against a fantasy owner’s start limit.
Clearly, the opening pitcher himself does not hold much fantasy value. The player will count against a starts limit while only pitching one or two innings. Additionally, the pitcher will not be eligible for a win but could be charged with a loss if he gets knocked around in his short outing.
How MLB Teams Approach Saves
In addition to changing how they approach the start of games, MLB teams have also made adjustments to their late-inning strategy. While the opener being deployed is seldom the top arm out of the bullpen, closers are not always asked to pitch the ninth either. Instead, big league managers are now asking their best relievers to enter the game in critical spots in the game.
This change in strategy for MLB teams is best illustrated by looking at how the save statistic has evolved over the last decade.
|Year||RPs with 40+ saves||RPs with 50+ saves|
More and more pitchers are collecting saves for their respective clubs. This has resulted in the dominant closers achieving smaller save numbers individually. Of course, MLB teams will have plenty of save chances over the course of a season. It has just become more difficult for fantasy owners to predict who will get those opportunities.
Know Your League
Perhaps more than any other position, how you approach relief pitchers will greatly depend on the settings of your league. In a rotisserie or categories league, you’ll need to decide if you want to prioritize the saves or holds statistics. Generally, I would advise against this. If your league combines holds and saves into one category, then that one category is not worth investing a lot of draft capital.
While relievers will contribute to a variety of statistical categories, they will primarily contribute to saves, holds, wins, and losses. Like other pitchers, they will have a WHIP, ERA, and can rack up strikeouts, but since they have shorter outings, these categories will be less critical when compared to those of starting pitchers.
In a head to head league, relief pitchers can earn points through strikeouts and entering the game in opportunities to pick up a win, hold, or save. However, it’s important to remember that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine which players will be getting the save opportunities. Sometimes, closers will enter the game in high-leverage situations which makes them susceptible to a loss, rather than the reliever having a good chance of picking up a save.
Similar to the shift to Superflex or 2QB leagues in fantasy football, I believe we are reaching the point that fantasy baseball leagues should be save + hold scoring. In roto leagues, this means a separate category for saves and holds. In points leagues, both saves and holds should have value. If your league does not recognize holds, then you can wait even longer for relief pitchers.
The Waiver Wire is Your Friend
With it more difficult than ever to predict who will receive save opportunities out of the bullpen, it serves to reason that we as fantasy owners should not invest a large number of high draft picks on relief pitchers. MLB Managers have shown to be more willing to remove a player from the closer role or to use a committee. Therefore, players will emerge off the waiver wire who are being used in save situations or are getting more opportunities in high-leverage situations in later innings.
Last year, players like Taylor Rogers and Emilio Pagan emerged to be valuable closers for the Twins and Rays, respectively. Similarly, veteran players drafted to be closers like Blake Treinen of the Athletics and Cody Allen of the Angels were quickly displaced from their roles and hurt fantasy owners. The bottom line is that saves are becoming increasingly difficult to predict. As fantasy owners, we can take advantage of this by waiting on relievers in the draft, paying close to attention to changing bullpens around the league, and being active on the waiver wire midseason.
Spring Training, Stay Tuned
Obviously, players have been sent home and spring training has been put on hold. In addition, the start of the MLB season will be delayed. Once the teams return, it will be important to pay attention to depth charts and find out who the closers are entering the season. Perhaps more importantly, it will be a good idea to target bullpens that have uncertainty in the later innings and find some possible closers at a discount.