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Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Relief Pitchers (2024)

Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Relief Pitchers (2024)

In theory, there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all relief pitcher strategy in fantasy baseball because some leagues treat saves and holds equally, some leagues give holds a fraction of a save’s value, and some leagues don’t reward holds at all.

To hell with theory. I have a one-size-fits-all relief pitcher strategy:

Spend down.

Top closers are valuable, no question. But there’s a lot of volatility at the closer position, and even elite closers can lose their effectiveness — and perhaps their ninth-inning jobs – in a hurry.

It’s possible fantasy managers will be lulled into a false sense of security this year after a 2023 season in which few of the top closers lost their jobs. Just realize that high closer turnover is the norm, and that a substantial investment in a closer is risky.

In most years, about half of the pitchers who begin the season as closers will finish the season in that role. You can do irreparable damage to your fantasy team if you make a significant investment in a closer, only for him to go belly-up and not only fail to get saves, but also damage your team ERA and WHIP in the process.

The other reason not to make a big investment in closers is that they don’t pitch enough innings to really move the needle for you in the ERA, WHIP and strikeout categories. Oh, sure, 60-70 high-quality innings from a top closer will certainly help you in those categories. But that’s only about one-third the number of innings that high-quality starting pitchers deliver.

This isn’t to say that punting saves is the way to go. It’s difficult to win a championship when you completely punt a category. But sometimes it’s best to attack the category in sneaky fashion. Among the ways to do that:

  • Target newer but highly skilled closers whose price is still affordable because they have yet to become trusted brand names.
  • Target setup men whose numbers say they’re better pitchers than the closers they’re setting up.
  • Be willing to roster shaky closers who figure to at least start the season with a ninth-inning role — but only if they’re cheap. This isn’t my favorite approach, but in leagues with formats that encourage save-chasing, I’m willing to hold my nose and draft a potential gas-can reliever if he’s cheap and has an unfettered path to an Opening Day closer role.

If your league blends saves and holds into one category, or awards a point for a save and a half-point for a hold, you should be focusing more on skills than on roles. Target relievers with high strikeout rates and consistently good WHIPs. (WHIP is generally a better telltale for relievers than ERA because the smaller innings totals for relievers make ERA a less reliable indicator.) High groundball rates and low flyball rates are good, too.

Let’s dig into the relief pitcher tiers. In addition to the rankings and tiers themselves, I’ll offer a few words about some of the players from each tier.

Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Relief Pitchers

Tier 1

Devin Williams had 36 saves and a microscopic 1.53 ERA in his first full season as the Brewers’ closer. Over the last three years, Williams has a 1.97 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP, with an average of 14.0 Ks per nine innings. Williams’ “airbender” changeup is on the shortlist of the most unhittable pitches in baseball. He has a strong case to be the first reliever off the board in fantasy drafts.

Emmanuel Clase has firmly established himself as one of the best closers as he enters his age-26 season. Clase has led the majors in saves in each of the last two years, with 42 in 2022 and 44 last year. After posting outrageous sub-1.40 ERAs in 2021 and 2022, Clase had some blowups last season and finished with a 3.22 ERA, as his strikeout rate fell to 21% and his BABIP climbed to .296. But Clase has allowed only 11 home runs in 238.1 career innings, courtesy of a 61.3% career groundball rate.

A victory celebration gone awry in the World Baseball Classic resulted in a torn patellar tendon for Mets closer Edwin Diaz and a lost 2023 season. Expect Diaz to be back in fine form this year. In 2022, he saved 32 games for the Mets, posted a 1.31 ERA and 0.84 WHIP, and racked up 118 strikeouts in 62.0 innings.

Young flamethrower Jhoan Duran took his rightful place as the Minnesota close last season and quickly established himself as one of the best ninth-inning men in the game. With the help of a triple-digit fastball, Duran struck out 84 batters in 62.1 innings while producing a 2.45 ERA and 1.14 WHIP — and that was with a somewhat unlucky .301 BABIP. The cherry on top was Duran’s 64.1% groundball rate. He’s a gem.

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Tier 2

Josh Hader bounced back from a nightmarish 2022 season to save 33 games for the Padres last year with a 1.28 ERA. I suppose we can’t completely forget that Hader put up a 5.22 ERA two seasons ago, including a 7.31 ERA after the trade that sent him from the Brewers and the Padres. Hader’s control isn’t always pinpoint, but he’s averaged 15.0 Ks per nine innings over his career and is nearly unhittable when he’s on. Hader will now close out games for the Astros, who win more than their share.

Raisel Iglesias missed the first month of the 2023 season with a shoulder issue but still saved 33 games for the Braves. He was fantastic over the second half of the season, with a 1.84 ERA and 1.13 WHIP after the All-Star break.

Toronto’s Jordan Romano has saved 36 games in each of the last two seasons. Romano’s ERA since the start of the COVID-shortened 2020 season is 2.29. He dealt with midseason back issues last year that may have contributed to a 1.41 WHIP and an elevated walk rate over the second half of the season. But as long as Romano’s health checks out in spring training, it’s full speed ahead.

Camilo Doval, the Giants’ 26-year-old closer, does pretty much everything a good closer should do — rack up Ks aplenty, keep walks to a manageable level, limit home runs and induce plenty of groundballs. A slight second-half downturn (3.38 ERA, 1.28 WHIP) is the only reason he doesn’t rank higher.

Tier 3

Alexis Diaz has produced superb overall numbers in his first two MLB seasons, including 37 saves for the Reds last year. But 26 of those saves came before the All-Star break. The second half of the season was rockier, with Diaz posting a 4.61 ERA and 1.43 WHIP after the break, issuing 17 walks in 27.1 innings. If Diaz can keep the walks to a reasonable level, he should be fine.

Tanner Scott probably won’t be one of the first 15 relievers off the board in your fantasy draft, according to FantasyPros consensus ADP data, but he probably should be. Scott collected nine saves from September on and was terrific over the second half of the season, with a 1.56 ERA and 0.87 WHIP. He’s a very worthy draft target.

The only major blemish in Paul Sewald‘s closer profile is a lofty flyball rate. It proved costly in the World Series, with Sewald giving up home runs in each of his two appearances, including a blown save in Game 1. But Sewald has been very effective over the past three years and just needs to limit gopher balls.

Tier 4

Clay Holmes seems to have conquered the control demons that plagued him early in his career. Those demons briefly reared their head at the beginning of the 2023 season, prompting the Yankees to pull him from the closer role. But Holmes worked his way back into the ninth-inning gig and wound up with 24 saves, a 2.86 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.

Kenley Jansen posted a 1.28 WHIP last year, the worst of his career, but an unlucky .313 BABIP had something to do with that. The 36-year-old Jansen saw his strikeout rate decline and his walk rate increase last year, but he still collected 29 saves for the Red Sox and was still more of an asset than a liability. Just insist on a senior discount if you’re going to roster the 14-year veteran.

Craig Kimbrel has long been walking a fine line with his control. His 10.3% walk rate last season was tolerable. If he can stay at or below that level, he’ll probably save a lot of games for the young, uber-talented Orioles. But if walks become a major problem for the 35-year-old Kimbrel, he could lose the closer role entirely.

Jose Leclerc has had a topsy-turvy career, but he’s stabilized over the last two years, and he was especially good over the second half of 2023, with a 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 11.4 Ks per nine innings after the All-Star break. A lot of fantasy managers have trust issues with Leclerc, so you might be able to get him on the cheap.

MLB Closer Depth Chart

Tier 5

The 6-6, 277-pound Carlos Estevez cuts an imposing figure on the mound, but can he hold the Angels’ closer job? He issued 31 walks in 62.1 innings last year and posted a 1.49 WHIP. Estevez has a career ERA of 4.47. You might want to place your closer bets elsewhere, and speculating on Angels setup men might not be a bad idea.

Hunter Harvey has battled health issues throughout his career. He finally managed to stay reasonably healthy last season and was fantastic for the Nationals, putting up a 2.82 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. If Harvey can stay healthy, he could find himself in the mix for saves.

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Tier 6

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