Brad Johnson

Saves and Steals

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Welcome to a New Era

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Stability is a great thing. Nothing is easier for fantasy owners than when a bullpen is predictable. The same goes for a fantasy column. In an industry where turnover is common, Eno Sarris provided great advice in this Saves and Steals column for many years. Now it's my turn to fill his shoes; let's hope I'm up to the task!


Let's talk credentials. Too many fantasy "experts" are really just people who have time to write about fantasy but no unique expertise. This is not to disparage their work - the best teachers often aren't the best doers. However, I believe the top advice comes from those who are continuously pioneering and testing new strategies. In the era of "don't pay for closers" advice, I've been the doing the exact opposite. I also routinely use a streaming strategy that relies upon middle relievers. The upshot for you is I know the best non-closing relievers in baseball. From experience alone, those are the guys who eventually get ninth inning duties. 


If talk doesn't capture your trust - and why should it, talk is talk - I was Eno's handpicked successor. So if you trusted in Eno's picks week after week, know that I'm one of them. 


Now, shall we get down to business? Eno liked to add a wrinkle to each week, a practice I intend to continue in my own way. For this first week, I plan to take a straightforward approach and set new baselines. My opinions do differ slightly from Mr. Sarris.  


Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $40,000 Fantasy Baseball league for Wednesday night's MLB games. It's $25 to join and first prize is $6,000. Starts at 7:10pm ET on WednesdayHere's the FanDuel link.


Last week, Eno set tiers between Kenley Jansen - Aroldis Chapman and Sergio Romo - Trevor Rosenthal. He wrote about how he struggled with those decisions, and it's with good reason - very little separates those two pairs of players. Tiers can be misleading and distracting so maybe there is a better way to present this same information. If you have new ideas for the column or want defend the status quo, let's talk about it on Twitter. I'm @BaseballATeam.


Tier 1: Elite (4)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers


What is a top tier? It's the place where you put all of the players who are ridiculously good and ridiculously safe. Only an injury can bump any of these four from their ninth inning nests. 


Kimbrel probably deserves his own tier. He's struck out just under half of all batters faced. By comparison Holland, Uehara, and Jansen look soft with their strikeout rates between 36 and 40 percent. Excluding this season, there have been just 32 reliever seasons since 1990 with a strikeout rate over 36 percent. Seven pitchers are currently on pace to do it this season including these four.


Some may have concerns about Jansen. On a stuff level, his cutter is nastier than Mariano Rivera's ever was, and I'll happily stand by that assertion. I'm not sure he's truly mastered the use of it yet, as witnessed by his 9.5 percent walk rate this season. After last season's stingy 6.2 percent rate, I thought he would continue to improve. After all, this is a pitcher who is using just one pitch. It stands to reason he should master the ability to locate it relatively easily. 


Tier 2: Rock Steady (9) 


Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

David Robertson, New York Yankees

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers

Huston Street, San Diego Padres

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants


What is a second tier? It's the place where pitchers with stable jobs and four category value belong. As such, I've expanded the section quite liberally.


Chapman is maybe a couple appearances from moving to the top tier. I really have no reason to keep him down here besides caution. Perkins is also a borderline top tier closer. His 3.09 ERA isn't terribly impressive, but a 10.33 K/BB ratio is a perfect match for Uehara. That leaves Robertson as the first pitcher who definitely belongs in this tier. He'll help you in four categories without quite the superfluous value of the pitchers ahead of him.


Last week, Cishek was heading the third tier of pitchers. There is some funk in his peripherals, which is probably why Eno was handling him with care. He's allowed no home runs this season and his strikeout rate has increased despite no change in his swinging strike rate. As such, we should expect slightly lesser performance going forward. His only competition is the trade deadline and he helps in four categories, so he's here.


Joakim blew his first save of the season recently, thanks in part to his own throwing error, but boy has he looked good this season. Most closers these days are fireballers, but Soria is a pure pitcher. 


Like Cishek, Street earns the promotion to tier two based on his locked down job and four category production. He's always an injury risk (all closers are), and I suspect it was his injury history holding him in the third tier. At a position where injuries are a fact of life, I'd like to avoid getting into the shaky business of prognosticating who is more likely than others to miss time.


Tier 3: Okay Options (6) 


Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers


Keeping with our theme, what is a third tier? It's the place where good but slightly flawed pitchers are bucketed. Grilli's flaw is competition in the form of Mark Melancon. Grilli returned from the disabled list and quickly recorded a save only to find himself back in the eighth soon thereafter. The eighth inning appearance was in a game where the Pirates trailed. Supposedly it was a final test to see if Grilli was ready to resume regular work. Melancon got the save that day, but it may be his last for a while. We'll probably find Grilli near the top of tier two next week.


I grew up playing against Sean Doolittle (and more frequently, his brother Ryan Doolittle) in South Jersey, so I've always rooted for him. Back in the day, he was always one of the most approachable "studs" among the local talent. The problem with Doolittle the closer is not an actual problem - teams just don't like left-handed closers. The Athletics being who they are, I think they'll adjust. He's struck out 33 batters against just one walk. Sure, he has competition, but he's clearly the best pitcher in the 'pen. 


Walks. Walks are a pitcher's worst enemy (actually, it's home runs) and Rosenthal is allowing way too many free passes. It's a shame, he has the stuff to be one of the top relievers in baseball. He's lost his feel for the strike zone and it's only his stuff that's kept him relevant. He's a tier one pitcher if his command and control from last season return.


Reed's particular flaw is home runs, the actual worst enemy of pitchers. With just 23.2 innings under his belt, there's no reason for us to overreact to an elevated home run rate. He's striking out more batters while walking fewer batters than ever before, so he may actually be entering a new phase of his career. Still, caution is advised.


Rodney has the same flaw as Rosenthal, except there's little reason to expect the light bulb to click. Nathan gets a modest downgrade, but I very nearly banished him to the lower end of tier four. I'll be patient with his declining stuff.


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You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoBaller. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.
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