Brad Johnson

Saves and Steals

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Leveraging Non-Closers

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I'm a big believer in self-help. I've played fantasy baseball with a lot of readers and commenters over the years. It's always rewarding to watch them steadily improve using techniques I taught them. It also forces me to innovate and grow or else I'll be surpassed by my students.


One area that is just beginning to catch on is the use of middle relievers in non-holds leagues. I've been touting the value of elite, non-closing relievers for years as a way to turn your Drew Hutchison into a Yu Darvish. Consider the following stat lines.


Darvish – 90.1 innings, seven wins, 109 strikeouts, 2.39 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

Hutchison – 82 innings, five wins, 70 strikeouts, 3.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

Dellin Betances – 40.2 innings, four wins, 68 strikeouts, 1.55 ERA, 0.71 WHIP


We know Darvish is worlds better than Hutchison. Of course, Hutchison was practically free during draft season while Darvish was one of the top pitchers off the board. Betances has been the best reliever in baseball this season, but he was available in almost every league up until a few weeks ago. Everybody had an opportunity to acquire him for free. Let's see what happens when we combine Hutchison and Betances.


Hutchison plus Betances (aka Betanchison) – 122.2 innings, nine wins, 138 strikeouts, 2.95 ERA, 1.07 WHIP


Our combined “free” pitcher has similar numbers to Darvish. Betanchison is remarkably better in WHIP. On a rate basis, the pair is nearly as good in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. The most difficult constraint is the roster. An additional reliever means one fewer starter or position player.


You also have to find high quality, undervalued talent on the wire. If you settle for Roenis Elias and Casey Fien as your free pickups, you'll be disappointed. It's easiest to enter the season with this strategy in mind, but it's not too late to cobble together a FrankenPitcher. Andrew Miller is freely available in most leagues and nobody has jumped on Matt Shoemaker yet (you can probably do better than Shoemaker too).


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.


Tier 1: Elite (5)


Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers


Braves setup man David Carpenter is on the 15 day disabled list with a strained biceps. The door is open for Shae Simmons to lock down eighth inning work. His big strikeout numbers have yet to translate to the majors despite a 95 mph fastball. Of course, Kimbrel remains in at the top spot. He allowed a run a couple days back.


Chapman climbs one spot on the leaderboard due to his historic pace. When swinging, hitters have whiffed 22.5 percent of the time. He's struck out 54 percent of hitters – just under two per inning. If he maintains anything like these rates, he may finish with the best reliever season ever.


Edward Mujica closed out yesterday's contest because Uehara had already worked three days in a row. Junichi Tazawa and Miller are also candidates to step in for a save if Uehara hits the skids. Mujica is the least interesting due to a low strikeout rate. He had some control problems in April, but he appears to be back on track.


Holland had a couple clean outings since last Wednesday. Jansen was less fortunate. He allowed two runs across three appearances.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (10)


Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics

David Robertson, New York Yankees

Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

Huston Street, San Diego Padres

Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals


Doolittle now has 46 strikeouts and one walk this season. His performance to date is Tier 1 quality. Someday, he'll start walking a batter every now and then, which is why he's still in Tier 2.


Perkins, Robertson, and Soria each had a couple clean appearances. There's no reason to shake up the top of Tier 2.


Cishek allowed a run while closing the door yesterday. It's not cause for panic. Of greater concern is Rodriguez's week, which included a loss and another clunky outing yesterday. Like with Cishek, a couple runs isn't even a red flag. Consider this a pre-red flag.


With a 1.04 ERA on the season, Street appears to be in vintage form. Last year, he worried fantasy owners with a mediocre strikeout rate. This time around, he's topping his career numbers – he's sent 30 percent of hitters directly back to the bench. His success depends heavily on a slider and changeup. High slider usage is an indicator for injury, and we all know his history with the disabled list. Joaquin Benoit has matched him pitch-for-pitch, so we know who to target if something happens.


With four appearances in the last week, Grilli has muddied the waters. Two saves, a loss, and an ugly hold is not the best week for a closer. Last Friday's outing (the hold) was a walkathon that included three free passes, a hit, and two runs in one-third of an inning. He hasn't struck out a batter in his last five outings. Mark Melancon has pitched well this year. If you're a Grilli owner and Melancon is on the wire, I recommend picking him up as a handcuff.


Allen allowed a home run on June 13, came back for the save on the 14th, and pitched a two inning win on the 15th. Carlos Carrasco saved the day on June 16. Bryan Shaw and John Axford are probably ahead of Carrasco on the depth chart. The interesting thing about Carrasco is his starter eligibility. Squeezing reliever innings out of a starter spot can be valuable in certain leagues.


I said Tyler Clippard would eventually break from overuse. While yesterday's shelling is a far cry from “breaking,” it probably settles the battle for eighth inning setup man. Drew Storen has pitched like a closer. If Soriano falters, Storen is the man to own. By the way, Soriano was just fine last week, with two clean innings.


Tier 3: The Mid-Tier (6)


Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants

Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies


Rodney took the loss last Saturday, but I see no reason for uproar. There's a reason he's in the third tier – he's not as filthy as the guys ranked ahead of him. The good news – he hasn't walked a batter in his last six outings. Looks like he's on top of his control issues for now.


Janssen had one lonely save opportunity last week, which he converted. Sergio Santos is back in action, but Janssen has pitched well enough that Santos is just a guy to file away for later.


Last week, I wrote the following: “If I had to pick one guy who might fall off this tier (Tier 2), it's Romo." Well, two terrible blown saves will do it. He allowed seven runs in two outings last week, which saw his ERA balloon to 5.08. His strikeout, walk, and swinging strike rates remain acceptable for a closer. I guess Jeremy Affeldt and Jean Machi are the in house alternatives, but neither option is exciting. Affeldt is used as a LOOGY, although he's fine against righties. Machi has a microscopic 0.29 ERA. He's basically an Edward Mujica clone – good control, few strikeouts, and lots of splitters.


Reed allowed another run in his lone outing since we last convened. It wasn't on a home run this time, but we might be getting close to a closer controversy in Arizona. The club's lousy record makes it easier for to ride out what appears to be statistical noise. Brad Ziegler is the current setup man, but I suspect J.J. Putz might leapfrog him in the case of a change.


Walks hurt, something Rosenthal has learned this season. He's still picking up plenty of saves and strikeouts, but he's allowing too many base runners to provide reliable help in ERA and WHIP. Carlos Martinez recently made a spot start, which might mean Jason Motte is next in line. Remember him?


Papelbon had a busy week, with four appearances including a win, two saves, and a blown save. Us naysayers crowed and chirped when Papelbon blew the save two days ago, but he came back last night to shut the door with a three batter ninth. He's yet to allow a home run this season, which is the only reason he's been a viable closer. Such stinginess rarely lasts an entire season.


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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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