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Saves and Steals

A Golden Era of Relief

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

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.


Tier 4: Question Marks (5)

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets

LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies

Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs


Janssen chipped in 1.1 clean innings over the last week. He still has a 0.00 ERA with worrisome peripherals (decreased strikeout rate and velocity). Frieri turned in a couple damage-free outings.


Hawkins had one interesting game against the Phillies. He came on to close but allowed a couple baserunners. With two outs, Walt Weiss went to his lefty specialist Boone Logan for Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Utley singled and Howard hit a game winning home run, so Hawkins might be allowed to sink or swim on his own next time around.


The Phillies also turned one over on Mejia. On May 29, Mejia struck out the side for a perfect save. The next day, he faced four batters and failed to record an out. We have to remember Mejia has spent very little time in the pen. Perhaps he is not adjusted to pitching on back-to-back days.


Last week, some commenters wondered why I wanted to stay away from Rondon. In short, I think he'll regress to about a 3.00-3.50 ERA over the rest of the season. He also has in-house competition in the form of Neil Ramirez. The latter has certified closer quality numbers whereas Rondon looks better suited to setup work. If you're bullish about Rondon, you're expecting his strikeout and walk rates to hold steady. Bullish or bearish, we have to expect him to allow some home runs in the next four months.


Tier 5: Roller Coaster Rides (5)

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

Chad Qualls, Houston Astros

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers

Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays

Ronald Belisario, Chicago White Sox


Britton remains the primary closer in Baltimore. The Orioles are second in the AL East and it's widely assumed a closer is on their shopping list. While Britton has been up to the task, he profiles a multi-inning middle reliever. His current 0.91 ERA is fluky - he doesn't strikeout even half as many batters as most closers.


Mr. Nathan takes a big drop this week. I've lost patience with his 6.86 ERA and lousy peripherals. He allowed eight runs - all earned - within the last week. Amazingly, Joba Chamberlain is pitching like a third tier closer, so he could be stepping in the closer's role soon. The Tigers don't have the deepest pen, so a promotion to Chamberlain leaves them weaker in the mid-innings.


Balfour pitched one clean outing since I demoted him to this tier last week. Belisario picked up a save and a vulture win. It looks like he has the job for now. Perhaps Qualls deserves a bump to tier four. Perhaps not. He's annoyingly inconsistent year-to-year, so it's hard to get a read on him statistically. Like with the Cardinals, it just so happens that I haven't seen the conclusion of many Astros games.


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Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles

Matt Lindstrom (ankle), Chicago White Sox

Sergio Santos (forearm), Toronto Blue Jays

Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets


Hunter is throwing bullpen sessions now, so things will get confusing in Baltimore again. Santos had a setback in his recovery and will remain out for a while. Crain is still eyeing late June for his return. It's unclear where he'll slot into the Astros' bullpen.


The Deposed

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers

Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs

Josh Fields, Houston Astros

John Axford, Cleveland Indians


Nothing new here. These guys are still very much on the outside looking in.


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The Steals Department

Good news, there's a new steals target in town. The issue is just how long he'll stick around. Brock Holt is batting leadoff for the Boston Red Sox, and he's the rare corner infielder who can swipe some bases. Mike Napoli is expected to return next Sunday, which will put Holt out of his regular job. Perhaps he'll slide into the outfield - the Sox could sure use ANY outfielders - but I can't find any mention of him training there. Let's be clear, Holt is no master thief on the bases, but he does have 10 total steals this season between the majors and Triple-A.


Eric Young and his 17 stolen bases are expected to return to the major league diamond next Tuesday. Now might be a good time to stash him on your disabled list or make a buy-low offer for him. His only other saving virtue is runs scored, I think he's best used as a backup.


If you're looking for a trade target, the Brewers' Jean Segura seems to be consistently batting atop the lineup. The extra plate appearances ahead of Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy can only be a good thing for his value. He's been pretty mediocre this season, so your rival should have a reasonable asking price. "Should" and "will" are different.

Brad Johnson

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