If you're relatively new to fantasy baseball, you're kind of lucky. We're definitely witnessing a golden age of relief. As recently as 10 years ago, only 17 qualified relievers struck out a quarter of batters faced. This season, 59 relievers have sat down at least 25 percent of batters.
It's good news for fantasy owners because it's easier to manage low strikeout starters. When you have a guy like Mike Leake contributing a lot of innings to your team, pairing him with a freely available reliever like Andrew Miller can help make up for Leake's low strikeout rate. These high strikeout relievers can also post unreal ERA's. Even when they allow baserunners, they can escape jams with the automatic out.
Doing reliever tiers used to be easy. There were a couple guys who could really stick it to the hitters. The rest were pitchers who accrued unremarkable saves. It was simple to pick out the setup man who was really a closer - just find a high strikeout rate. Now, there are so many pitchers league wide who could serve as a viable or even elite closer. Several teams try to keep their best reliever in a setup role. Then they can use them more flexibly AND keep their cost down through arbitration.
So here's my homework for you. Go into your league's raw statistics and find where you rank in strikeouts per inning, ERA, and WHIP. If you're trailing, identify some top relievers on the waiver wire who can help you play catch up. We have close to four months left, there's plenty of time for small incremental gains to add up.
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 Wednesday. Here's the FanDuel link.
There were a few requests for holds candidates. This is already a lengthy column, so I'm hesitant to add a section. Let's try mixing in a few closer handcuffs in the text.
Tier 1: Elite (5)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
What is there to say about these guys? They're all so ridiculously good at pitching. It's only Kimbrel's fourth season as the Braves' closer, but he's already tied John Smoltz for the franchise lead in saves. One more to go.
Holland locked down his 16th save last night. If you're a Holland owner and you have the option to pick up his handcuff (Wade Davis), I recommend you do so. If Holland were to get injured, Davis might step directly into this tier. He's struck out 42 percent of batters faced, keeps the ball on the ground, and has yet to allow a home run. That's a trifecta of excellence.
Last week, we discussed Chapman's position as the top option in Tier 2. I left him there just so he could show us one more week of health and effectiveness. Well, how does three innings, nine batters faced, and six strikeouts look to you? He's averaging 100 mph on the gun. Even he hasn't averaged 100 mph in the past. I've bumped him to third, but they're all virtually tied after Kimbrel.
Jansen only appeared once since we last convened. He faced four batters and struck out the side. Not too shabby. Now if only he were to pitch a little more often.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (11)
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
One of the challenges with this column is discriminating between the second and third tiers. In my mind, a tier two guy isn't elite, but he's also very reliable. Maybe it's silly to have 11 pitchers in a single tier, but they all fit my description of non-elite reliability. This tier features four pitchers trending in the right direction.
Robertson's week included a true disaster outing, yet I'm not inclined to move him anywhere. The Twins lit him up on Sunday - two hits, three walks, five runs, and a home run - but he bounced back with a clean inning last night. Bad outings happen, they don't always change our future expectations. Keep an eye out for an injury all the same. It might be a good time to keep Dellin Betances handy. He's the other setup man who might fit in the first tier. He's currently sitting on a 46 percent strikeout rate with an eight percent walk rate.
With three saves since last week - two of them perfect - Soria gets a mini bump in the standings. It's his microscopic walk rate I like best. Or is it his 35 percent strikeout rate? I understand Eno Sarris discussed the virtues of K%-BB%. It's a more statistically meaningful version of a K/BB ratio. Soria ranks eighth among qualified relievers, behind Robertson and directly ahead of Holland and Jansen. Excluding Chapman (not qualified), all of our top eight closers are within the top 12 of the K%-BB% list.
Doolittle also features prominently on that K%-BB% leaderboard - he's ranked second. He pitched in three games over the last calendar week, struck out six batters, and faced just one hitter more than the minimum. He's looking pretty secure in his job. He might legitimately qualify as an elite reliever, but let's take our time assessing where he belongs.
Grilli also jumps to the second tier, although his performance wasn't the driving factor in the decision. He's the elder statesman on this list at 37-years-old. Injuries are a risk, yet he seems to be healthy now and Mark Melancon has taken a backseat. Grilli owners obviously ought to keep a handle on Melancon. Another injury would hardly be surprising.
The final reliever promoted to the second tier comes all the way from our Roller Coaster group. Last week, it looked like Bryan Shaw might have a share of the Indians' closer job. Now we know Allen is all but officially anointed. He recorded four saves over a five day period and faced the minimum number of hitters in 4.1 innings. Shaw should remain a good source of holds, but he's definitely less talented than Allen.
Sometimes a pitcher's status doesn't change, but he needs to be adjusted due to a past oversight. There's nothing new with Soriano, he gets downgraded simply because he shouldn't have been ahead of Sergio Romo last week. It's nitpicking, I know.
Tier 3: The Mid-Tier (4)
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Last week, I described the mid-tier as a collection of good but flawed pitchers. Rodney wants out of this tier with his 15 saves and 2.49 ERA, but he's too prone to bouts of wildness. For now, he'll have to settle for leading this tier. He's very close to being a mid-tier pitcher thanks to his strong strikeout rate.
Reed's flaw is the big donk. He's allowed seven home runs this season, which is already a career high for him. His other numbers have been a refreshing change - his strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down. He may be a good buy low candidate.
I, um, well...I forgot Papelbon last week. My mistake. I know how I forgot him, I hit ctrl-x to move him and then got distracted by some bit of news on MLBTradeRumors. His 1.61 ERA is enticing, but his peripherals are kind of scary. His strikeout rate is at a career low while his walk rate is nearly a career high. He hasn't allowed a home run this season, yet we should expect some big flies in his future. In his final season with the Red Sox, he averaged 95 mph on the gun. His velocity has declined every season since then and now sits at 91.4 mph. I'm worried.
Rosenthal keeps losing games and blowing saves. I want to talk about his nasty stuff, but the story is clearly his latest blown save. It seems like the decent command and control he featured last season is completely lost right now. I don't make it to the end of many Cardinals games, so I haven't seen much of Rosenthal this year. He's still piling up strikeouts, he's just allowing too many walks and hits.