“65Mustangs” Build a Better Bullpen: 2017 Relief Pitcher Rankings 1-15. This is Not Your Father’s RP Ranking.
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I could stop right there and this would be one of the best baseball articles I’ve ever written. Right?
This is Fantasy Baseball though, and with drafts around the corner, we have serious work to do. This is my 4th straight season ranking relievers for Major League Fantasy Sports, and a challenge I take seriously. If you’ve been reading my articles all that time you know I’m way beyond the traditional 5 X 5 mantra that counts saves alone as 20% of the pitching scoring. Closers are important but I won’t be a SLave Of The Save (SLOTS) anymore. I won’t spend all my waking hours watching for injuries and demotions so I can be the first to the wire to grab the next closer. I won’t subject myself to spend 75% of my FAAB budget to try and keep up with the Closer ROller Coaster (CROC) anymore. I’ve ranked the closers of course, but I don’t automatically give them more value than non-closers solely based on their title. If you are already in lockstep with me jump right to my rankings below.
No matter what walk of life you are from, you would not spend 60-70% of your time or resources on 10% of your reward, or in our case, score. We can’t stop the volatility in the way bullpens are managed now, so instead of finding better ways to keep up, I joined with people who found better ways to measure relievers. Simply, we count saves, but also count holds and inherited runners stranded as once cat (H + IRS) in a progressive 8 X 8 scoring format that gives relievers a good chance to score positively regardless of role. That brings into play and gives value to set-up men and specialists, also adding more help for K’s and ratios than closers alone. We are not devaluing closers but instead adding value to every role in a bullpen. And it takes less time to manage than the constant trolling for saves.
That strategy also allows an owner to draft relievers who have a solid chance to rise to the closer spot while adding to Holds, IRS and all the other cats while they are waiting. If a closer loses his job, instead of casting him off like Luke Gregerson or Steve Cishek, he stays and gives the value that setup men can bring. I call it “Building a Better Bullpen” because it is ok, even preferable that it remains fluid as to roles, like an MLB bullpen. We all talk about CLosers En Waiting (CLEWS) but I will rank them on skill set and not just role or chances of overtaking the closer. Delin Betances has never been the closer going into a season, but I’ve consistently ranked him in my top 5, and he’s consistently scored in the top 5 in leagues that measure more than the save for relievers. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see writers from ESPN, Sporting News, Fangraphs and other major fantasy prognosticators doing the same thing more and more. This season I’ve seen Betances, Miller and some other non-closers in many top 10’s. I’m not taking credit for that, believe me, but it makes it so much easier to write what I write knowing I have company now.
So, if you want to jump off the CROC, stop being a SLOTS, and get a CLEW or two, read on. Corny? Maybe. Profitable? I know damn well it is by now.
- Kenley Jansen, CL LAD: The difference between Jansen & Chapman may be moot. They are clearly the two best relievers in baseball, and not just because they are dominant closers. I chose Jansen as #1 because there is a glaring difference in walk rates over the past five seasons and saves over the past three seasons, while most other cats are a wash. Chapman has an edge in K/9: 13.97 to 13.63 in 2016 and 15.2 to 13.9 over the past five. However, Jansen’s walk rates have been far better than Aroldis. BB/9: 1.44 to 2.79 in 2016 and 2.6 to 4.1 in the past five. So, for those who like K/BB as a stat, Jansen’s 9.5 in 2016 is almost twice the 5.0 of Chapman, and over five seasons it is 5.36 to 3.68. When it comes to the 9th, I think the walks will kill you before the K’s will save you most times out. But, again, these two guys are elite hurlers. I’ll talk about the saves with Chapman below. Not only did Jansen’s son have a jersey waiting for him but he already had a nasty cutter when he was born as well.
- Aroldis Chapman, CL NYY: I’m Home! Chapman missed the first month of the season due to a domestic violence suspension, and that was a double edged sword. He was likely more refreshed as the postseason approached, but it also cost him in the saves department. Jansen has saved over 40 in two of the past 3 seasons, including 47 in 2016. Chapman has never saved 40 in his career for a combination of reasons. Over the past three seasons Jansen has 127 saves to Chapman’s 105, and since they are both closers, saves matter as a measure regardless of what I said in my intro. Chapman does have an edge in strikeouts, 334-285 over the same three seasons and hit 100 on the JUGS gun 600 times or 2/3 of his pitches in 2016, while Jansen tops out around 94 mph. Both will be 29 at the start of 2017, and both will play for teams that may play a lot of close games. Close games = Save opps more than W-L record does. Pick one if you like drafting closers in the 5th or 6th round and start the closer run. I learned my lesson. I’ll pass on that, as well as the first run unless it falls to the 7th.
- Zack Britton, CL BAL: If you told me I’d rank Britton as the #3 reliever in baseball for 2017 a couple of years ago, I’d have turned in my keyboard. He is not dominant, he does not overpower with 100 mph fastballs nor strikeout the side every time out. But, when it comes to saving games in an era of revolving bullpen doors, Britton is money. He matched Jansen leading the AL with 47 saves in 2016 and 120 over the past three seasons. He is one of Baltimore’s signature starters turned relievers, so while his lifetime K/9 is only 7.4, he has averaged 10.3 K/9 as a closer the past two seasons. What makes him so special then? Over the past three seasons or 200 games, he has given up just 4 home runs. That is not a misprint, a .4 HR percentage versus a league average 2.6% in 2016 was incredible. That is 1 home run in 254 plate appearances. His Ground Ball/Fly Ball rate over that time is an unheard of 4.0 with a Ground Out /Air out ratio of 7.0. Find someone even close to that. The league average GB/FB rate is .83 over the same period. If you don’t walk anyone (2.4 BB/9 in 2016) and don’t let anyone hit the ball in the air, let alone over the wall, how can you fail?
- Andrew Miller, CL/RP CLE: Whatever role Andrew Miller fills he is just plain filthy. An argument could be made that he is the best reliever in baseball over the past four seasons. In a progressive scoring model, there is nothing better than a pitcher who nails 15-20 saves, 15-20 holds, 100 plus K’s with an immeasurable ERA and WHIP. The consummate team player, he says give me the ball whenever you need to and I’ll get out as many as you need. In 2016 he put up 10 Wins, 12 Saves, & 26 Holds, the triple-double of relief pitching.
- Delin Betances, RP NYY: This is the 2nd season in a row I’ve listed Chapman, Miller, and Betances in the top 5, and to think all three were Yankees this time last season. I’m optimistic that once the games start any animosity from his arbitration hearing will be gone. I mean, he should be able to live on $3 million even in NY, no? Betances has led baseball in strikeouts for relievers three years running. It is like having an extra starting pitcher. His 2016 line of 3 W, 12 S, 28 H & 15 IRS is amazing for someone who closed for at least one-third of the season. In fact, of all the RP’s with more than his IRS + H of 43, none had more saves and only three had more holds. Most of those pitchers were specialists who nearly always come in with runners on base. His ERA took a hit in 2016, partly because of his already somewhat high walk rate but he also was hit more than the past two seasons. Some think he wore down, some think it was the pressure of his changing roles, but he also had a Babip against of .355 after averaging .250 his first two full seasons. His games played have remained the same and his innings have actually decreased. He also improved his GB/FB rate in 2016 from .95 to 1.20, and his batting average against was .201, plus he seldom gives up HR’s. His walk
rate of 9.9% is a bit high compared to a league average 7.9% but he more than makes up for it with a K rate of 40%, twice the league average 20%. He’ll turn 29 soon, and with a lifetime 2.16 ERA and 1.001 WHIP there is nothing to worry about here unless you think he is badly hurt by his Randy Levine spanking in the press. What the heck was Levine thinking? I’m all in but I hope he drops to the 9th or 10th. I’d draft him over nearly all the closers. No, his wife is not a dwarf, Dellin is 6’8″ 265, and the hair adds another five inches or so. She does not look too upset that he lost his hearing, does she?
- Wade Davis, CL CHC: I ranked Davis here because of the skill set he’s displayed since switching from SP to RP. If this were merely a closer ranking I’d likely draft Melancon, Familia, Oh, maybe even Osuna ahead of him if it were only about Saves. Davis has been filthy since moving to the pen and filthy since becoming KC’s closer midway through 2015, but in all that time he’s saved only 44 games. So, while he’s dominant, he has not had a full season as a closer yet. He’ll get that chance with the Cubs. Good news: in his last 185 games he has given up just three (3) HR, all in 2015, and his ERA over that time is about 1.25 with a WHIP under 1.00. The bad news: his strikeout rate has gone from 39.1% to 31.1 % to 26.7% over the past three seasons as well as a walk rate of 8.2%, 8.0% and 9.1%. All those things are trending the wrong way and the wall is closer in Wrigley than in Kaufman. He is only 31, with few miles on his arm, so a healthy season in Chicago could have him piling up the numbers.
- Mark Melancon, CL SFG: One of the most consistent, stable and efficient closers out there. He is one of my favorites as well, saving 51 in 2015 followed by another 47 in 2016 with only four blown saves. Those 98 saves lead the majors over the past two years. Since he became Pittsburgh’s closer in 2013, he has given up ten HR and never had a walks/nine of more than 1.6. His ERA has been under 2.00 and his WHIP has been under 1.00 the whole four seasons with a K rate of nearly one per inning. He signed with the Giants this offseason which should keep him in close games once again. He is 32, but that is not too old for a closer that does not rely on the strikeout. He keeps it on the ground (1.33 GB/FB rate), doesn’t give up walks, and does not give up the long ball. He doesn’t need an overpowering K rate to be effective but it does limit his value some.
- Jeurys Familia, CL NYM: He can be dramatic at times and you may need Rolaids if you own him, but he is 2nd in the MLB in saves (94) over the past two seasons. With a high 90’s fastball and a 1.50 GB/FB (1 HR last season), he is nearly impossible to take deep. He can be prone to control issues with a barely league average walk rate, but that HR rate and almost 10.0 K/9 keeps him out of trouble. In fact he saved 52 games in a row between 2015 & 2016. He is 27 this season and that means I’m buying. One caveat is that he may have to serve a Chapman like suspension after a domestic incident, which might push him down a couple spots but not much
- Roberto Osuna, CL TOR: Osuna took the closer role from an ineffective Drew Storen in 2015 when he was merely 20 years old and has not let go. Still only 22, Bobby has now saved 56 games over his first two seasons. Over the two seasons, his K/BB is a sparkling 5.23 so he keeps guys off the bases. That is a good thing as he is prone to gopher balls compared to the pitchers above him here and plays in Toronto. Originally slated to be a starter, he has 5 or 6 pitches he throws effectively with a nasty slider as his out pitch which batters miss 25% of the time and account for half his K’s. Control is not an issue as he has above average K/BB but his command is still developing as evidenced by a .53 GB/FB rate and the high HR rates. Osuna has time as he is only 22 years old.
- Seung Hwan Oh, CL STL: I hesitate to place a first-time closer, let alone first time US pro pitcher in my top 10, but Oh has changed my mind this season. He is 34, so far from a rookie, but he kept MLB hitters off balance all season with pinpoint command, a K/9 near 12.0 and only 18 walks in 79.2 innings pitched. He had a sub 2.0 ERA and sub 1.0 WHIP, and kept the ball in the park (.60 HR/9) despite an average GB/FB rate of .65. This is on the heels of an 11 season career in Japan where he saved 338 games with a similar 1.81 ERA, .854 WHIP, .6 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 11.2 K/9. So he is the real deal, the only drawbacks being his age and only one full season in the MLB. In a re-draft, I’m not worried at all.
- Nate Jones, RP CHW: Jones is the best reliever in the Sox pen and is a trade (his or David Robertson’s) from being a closer, making him a consummate CLEW. He is 31 now but that is not old to assume the role. He has a nasty sinker-slider combo that produced a .190 batting Avg against (BAA), .89 HR/9 and a nice 1.62 GB/FB ratio. He was 9th in MLB in IRS + H at 58 (83% strand rate) and turned in a sterling 5.33 K/BB ratio. With a 2.29 ERA and .89 WHIP there are no blemishes, and he had the 12th highest score in my league player rater in 2016 for all relievers.
- Brad Brach, RP BAL: Brach is one of the best relievers in MLB but possibly the 3rd best in the O’s pen. In 2016 he put it all together at the age of 30 and was a counting stat machine with 10 W, 24 H, 24 IRS and 2 Saves along with 92 K’s. He was the 8th leading scorer in our format for relievers, and that after accumulating only 2 saves. His ERA, WHIP, and K/BB ratios nearly mirrored those of Nate Jones above. If Britton fell to injury, Brach would likely be the CLEW & take over at closer as Darren O’Day is more of a specialist averaging less than an inning per appearance for his career. Brad’s wife is country singer Janae Cherry.
- Addison Reed, RP NYM: Reed is another CLEW but has closed for Chicago & Arizona from 2012-2014 (100+saves) so he has the experience if something happens to Familia, or if Familia starts the season with a suspension. He was both 5th in the MLB for H+IRS with 61 and 5th in our scoring model for total points as well, in fact, he lead the MLB with 40 holds in 2016, topping the 2nd place pitcher by 10 holds. Who’d have thought that was possible two years ago? He had a sterling ERA/WHIP of 1.97/.940 and is another reliever with a 5.0 K/BB ratio.
- Ryan Dull, RP OAK: Dull has risen to the top of the A’s bullpen as far as skills are concerned but still has the oft-injured Sean Doolittle, the light throwing Ryan Madson and the not so dominant, recently signed Santiago Casilla head of him. I like him as a CLEW too, especially with the numbers he can contribute behind that mess ahead of him. He is right behind Reed with 60 IRS+Holds, as well as an ERA/WHIP of 2.42/.874. His command still needs some work as is K/BB was 8.84/ 1.82 & he had a 1.2 HR/9 on top of a horrendous .50 GB/FB rate. He’ll be 27 in 2017 so I look for those numbers to improve. I realize this is a high ranking for Dull, but I’m measuring skills over role and counting stats. Depending on how my team is shaping up in the draft, I may not draft him this high, and go for a different reliever if team balance warrants it.
- Craig Kimbrel, RP BOS: A case could be made that there are several other relievers with a superior skill set to Kimbrel at this stage of his career, and perhaps should be ranked higher. Partly out of respect, and partly due to his track record, I feel a need to place him at #15. When it comes to closers there is something to be said for stability, and there are few closers out there with more than Kimbrel. In his defense, he was in the AL for the first time and pitching in Boston, far and away the worst park for pitchers he’s ever called home, plus he dealt with various injuries during the season. It is common for relievers to alternate good and poor seasons depending on usage, workload, etc. but Kimbrel had five consecutive sterling seasons in a row before his 2016 off year. He is only 29, and with a healthy year and a few adjustments he could be right back in the saddle. To put this in perspective, even though 2016 may have been his worst season, on paper it was still pretty good. 31 Saves, 2.92 ERA, 1.094 WHIP & his best K/9 in four years at 14.1. His command and control were both off last season which caused the concern. His 5.1 BB/9 was easily the worst of his career and his GB/FB rate was also his worst at .44, about half his career average, leading to the worst XBH % of his career as well. If you want a guaranteed 30 saves and ratios that will not hurt you, draft Kimbrel with confidence. He should go a few rounds after Jansen & Chapman giving good value.
Thanks for reading. Next week we will dig deeper into the MLB bullpens and you’ll start to see those closers you are used to seeing ranked in the top 15 instead of all these CLEWS. Even if you are in a ROTO league, wouldn’t you rather draft the skills guy who is likely to take the role during the season instead of the potential lame duck you’ll have to worry about all Spring? The perfect scenario is if you can grab them both. See you then.
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