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Saves and Steals

Unlikely Relief Studs

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

Before diving into the closers, let's take some time to review a few surprising relief studs. The guys I've picked out are non-closers who weren't on anybody's target list entering the season. They've pitched well thus far, and we'll discuss how likely they are to continue dominating.


Andrew Miller, Boston Red Sox – Once a key component in the trade that sent Miguel Cabrera to Detroit, Miller struggled as a starter through parts of five major league seasons. The Sox finally gave up and converted him to the bullpen. His strikeout rate quietly spiked as a reliever, although a high walk rate made him a dangerous play. This season, a healthier walk rate has led to a setup role. The strikeouts are real; it's unclear if the same can be said about the walks. He did hit a couple batters the other day, so keep an eye on his control.


Zach Duke, Milwaukee Brewers – The 31-year-old Dukes was a good find by the Brewers' staff. Most fantasy owners will remember him as a mediocre Pirates starter. He's been bouncing around the league for three seasons, but he appears to be back for good as a reliever. He's still a soft-tossing lefty, but now he's punching out one-third of batters faced and walking just four percent. The strikeout rate smells high, but the walk rate seems reasonable. Even with regression, he should be a useful reliever for improving your ratios.


Pat Neshek, St. Louis Cardinals – Neshek was a fan favorite with Twins fans. Who doesn't like a pitcher with a low ERA and a high quantity of funk. The now 33-year-old is in the midst of his finest season. If Rosenthal went down today, Neshek may be the man to earn saves. There are couple warning signs to watch. His BABIP is very low at .178. Despite a tendency to fly balls, he's allowed very few home runs. Those two areas of probable regression will probably push his ERA over the rest of the season above 3.00. If his walk and strikeout rates also decline – and they could – he'll be nothing more than a generic middle reliever. There's very little margin of error with Neshek.


Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians – I love relievers with starting pitcher eligibility. I try to cram as many bullpen studs onto my rosters as possible for the excellent rates they provide. Carrasco's time as a starter has masked his strong performance in the 'pen, which includes about a strikeout per inning and a low walk rate. We don't have enough data on Carrasco the reliever to do any real analysis. He does have better velocity since making the switch. He's working his way up the Indians depth chart and could be a closer sometime down the line.


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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


All five of our top tier closers blew a save this week, proving their mortality in the process. However, there's no reason to shake up the rankings. These are the go to guys.


It's a little surprising to see Kimbrel with four blown saves halfway through the season. He's had a few extra walks this year, which is hurting his overall performance. Holland also blew a save and allowed a run in a separate outing. There's nothing wrong with him, these things happen.


Chapman had three appearances over the last week. If you only look at two of them, he faced seven batters and struck out seven. Those two outings were sandwiched around a four run clunker in which he took the loss. It was only the third time this season he's allowed runs.


Uehara had the roughest week among the Tier 1 quintet. Last Wednesday, he allowed a solo home run in a game he later won. He appeared for one batter three days later – a hit. Then he allowed two solo home runs the next day. It was his first blown save of the year, but he ended up with the win in that one too. Three home runs in three innings is a little concerning. If you want to speculate, Edward Mujica might be next in line. Miller and Junichi Tazawa are better fantasy plays if they get a share of the role.


Jansen had an eventful week with four save opportunities. He blew the first one and took the loss. He bounced back with three damage-free outings. His ERA and WHIP have been a huge disappointment, but all the signs point to dominant performance going forward.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (9)


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

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals


Perkins joined the reliever mayhem with a blown save vulture win. His 3.34 ERA has hurt his value, but a 1.95 FIP hints at better days to come. We care about future here.


The Doolittle watch continues. We're now at 50 strikeouts against one walk. Mike Petriello of FanGraphs looked at the very unique way Doolittle racks up outs. 


Robertson is making a case to leapfrog Perkins and Doolittle. He may even be deserving of a spot in the top tier. His 44 percent strikeout rate compares favorably to anybody not named Chapman. His walk rate is tolerable, if non-elite. The only thing holding him back this season is his home run rate. It's never been a problem in the past, so we should expect regression to the mean.


After a 10 day layoff, Soria came out of the 'pen yesterday for a two batter appearance. There's nothing wrong with Soria, the Rangers just haven't had any save opportunities.


With another two uneventful outings in the rear view, Street is now sitting pretty with a 0.96 ERA. The Padres are expected to sell hard on veterans this trade season, Street being one of them. Joaquin Benoit's ERA is above 1.00 – it's 1.42 actually. He'll make a perfectly adequate closer for the Pads. Benoit is also rumored to be on the trade block.


Allen took the loss last Saturday when he entered to protect a tied game. Otherwise, he made two appearances in non-save situations. He's “the guy.”


Soriano is one of the least interesting closers of the season, but uninteresting can be a good trait. He appeared five times in the last week, picked up four saves, and allowed just one base runner. Last week, we discussed a possible decline for setup man Tyler Clippard. Well, Clippard also made five appearances, allowed just two base runners, and recorded his first save of the season. It seems like he's still second in line despite Drew Storen's excellent season.


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 has the numbers of a Tier 2 pitcher. He's here for a simple reason – I don't trust him. That mistrust has been earned over a career of inconsistency. I own several shares of Rodney, so there's nothing wrong with using him. I keep an eye on his walk rate. Hopefully, I can pick up if and when his command starts to falter.


After his meltdowns against Colorado, Romo tossed two no-run outings against the Diamondbacks. He allowed three base runners across the pair of innings, so they were far from stress free. If he struggles again, it's probably either Santiago Casilla or Jean Machi who move into the role. I think Machi would be better, but Casilla has the “experience.”


Reed blew another save – his third of the season. He didn't allow a home run, which is good news. He did allow his first walk since May 5th. Then he walked another batter. Brad Ziegler is the guy in the wings. J.J. Putz was designated for assignment.


Papelbon and Rosenthal had uneventful weeks. They combined for a total of five clean appearances. Walks are the thing to watch for with Rosenthal, while Papelbon's wart is declining stuff.


Tier 4: Questions (5)


Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates

Chad Qualls, Houston Astros

Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets

LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies


Last week, I told owners of Jason Grilli to grab a share of Melancon. Grilli promptly blew another save on Thursday, and the Pirates responded by installing Melancon as the closer. So as not to make anything easy, Melancon has allowed three runs over three innings since earning the promotion. He's a better pitcher than Tier 4, my concern is Grilli sitting on his shoulder.


Rondon had a truly hideous outing two days ago against Cincinnati. He allowed five runs on four hits, a walk, and a home run. Now is probably a good time to remind you about Neil Ramirez. He allowed a solo home run yesterday, but he's pitched well overall. Keep an eye on his walk rate. That was where he struggled in the minors, and it's starting to creep north in the majors too. Pedro Strop is another alternative for save opportunities, although I consider Rondon and Ramirez to be superior pitchers.


Britton was probably overdue for a bump from Tier 5. Incidentally, he earns the promotion here after a week where he allowed four runs and a home run in one epically blown save. Unlike almost every other closer, Britton does not dominate with overwhelming stuff. What he can do is prevent any hitter from lifting the ball. His ground ball rate currently sits at 77.5 percent. Even with regression, those bowling balls he throws should continue to limit the damage.


Mejia is not doing anything to hold down the Mets' closer job long term. He got a couple innings this week, but New York didn't have a save situation to offer up. Jeurys Familia and Vic Black aren't pushing for a higher profile role, so Mejia is secure. If you're trying to improve your fantasy ratios then Mejia is far from safe.


Tier 5: Roller Coasters (4)


Ernesto Frieri, Joe Smith, Los Angeles Angels

Grant Balfour, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays

Ronald Belisario, Chicago White Sox

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers


Frieri blew a save on the 19th and Smith earned a save on the 24th. I sense Frieri will still get the bulk of save opportunities, but his tendency to meltdown and allow home runs is not welcome in Mike Scoscia's bullpen. Both Frieri and Smith are good pitchers – neither of them belongs in Tier 5. Sharing the role has led to this demotion in the rankings.


The Rays only save of the last week came on a day when all three of Balfour, McGee, and Peralta pitched. Surprisingly, Peralta was the one who earned the save. I could try to attach a narrative, but it would only be a guess. Speaking of guessing, I think the pecking order is still Balfour – McGee – Peralta.


Belisario isn't as bad as his 5.35 ERA. In fact, he's a perfectly adequate closer for an uncompetitive team. His combination of a high rate of balls in play and ground balls means he'll cough up the occasional stinker. I guess Zach Putnam is next in line, but he has the same skill set with more walks and less velocity.


Nathan is still clinging to his job. He picked up a vulture win on Saturday after blowing the save. Joba Chamberlain is a better pitcher right now, but it looks like the Tigers will hold out until they can make a trade.






Matt Lindstrom (ankle), Chicago White Sox

Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets


Crain is still working on strengthening his scapula. There is no firm time table on his return.


The Deposed


Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers

Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs

Josh Fields, Houston Astros

John Axford, Cleveland Indians

Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics

Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates


Welcome Mr. Grilli. Please enjoy your stay. In case you were wondering, there are four more closers with a first name starting with 'J' who have yet to be deposed. An additional three J-named relievers are a part of a committee.




The Steals Department


The Mets feature one of the top base stealing threats in baseball. A crowded outfield and injuries have conspired to make him widely available to fantasy owners. Of course, I'm talking about leadoff man Eric Young Jr. He's swiped a little over one base per every 10 plate appearances. That puts him behind only Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton on a rate basis. Grab the game changing speed and runs while you can, especially if you can stomach a low home run and RBI total.


If you'd prefer a trade target, Starling Marte is starting to trend in the right direction. It's certainly nice to see him hitting between Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen. He's swiped the same number of bases as Young in 100 more plate appearances. He can help your team, but he won't lift you out of the gutter single-handedly. He had a concussion scare recently, but he's been cleared.


Craig Gentry, James Jones, and Drew Stubbs remain the best of the bargain bin. Just beware of platoons. Chris Young is another interesting choice who is all but unowned.

Brad Johnson

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