Fantasy baseball is the intelligent person’s fantasy sport. The plodding, everyday march through the six month marathon that we call a season favors players with the discipline and analytic acumen to play the part of the tortoise rather than the hare. Yet, despite this perspicacious inclination, traditional fantasy baseball circles still subscribe to some very strange and outdated things. Consider that wins, a statistic so laughably random and out of pitcher control that even the baseball press is beginning to abandon its reliance on it, is still a common statistical category in most fantasy leagues. Or how about that saves, a decidedly odd stat when you really think about it, is also standard fare for many leagues.
The save is to relief pitchers what wins are to starting pitchers. A rudimentary but ultimately time-saving way to keep track of player performance. After all, there are over 200 relief pitchers that get regular time in MLB bullpens each season. Relying on the save leaderboard to analyze relievers cuts the player pool down to 30, maybe 35 depending on if some teams employ closer time-shares, a much more manageable sample for analysis.
But we’re fantasy baseball players. We don’t like shortcuts and half truths. Which is why, in my view, any league worth its salt utilizes the ‘saves + holds’ category, rather than just saves. What’s a hold? Well, a hold is kind of like a save, except it can occur in any inning and is thus achievable by the full roster of relief pitchers. The dynamics of roster construction in leagues that utilize the SV+HD category change considerably since a lot of players who contributed 0 in the saves column contribute meaningful totals in the SV+HD column.
The beauty of SV+HD is that, despite making potentially hundreds of new players fantasy relevant, it also still favors the traditional closer that notches 40+ saves per season. This is because the most prolific closers will always earn more saves than the best holdmen. Consider that last year Taylor Rogers led the MLB in holds with 30 while Wade Davis had the 10th most saves with 32. So for those that like the mystique and tradition rooted in the concept of the stopper or fireman, SV+HD still offers something for you.
With my editorial on the coolness of the SV+HD stat category complete, let’s move on to the fun stuff: how to take advantage of this stat category in leagues. The first thing to point out is that managers in SV+HD leagues need to do more due diligence in draft preparation. Why? Because, at least for ESPN leagues, the standard draft table doesn’t adjust for the stat categories your league chooses. As a result, the default player order still lists relief pitchers assuming the league is of the saves-only variety. For instance, Chad Green, who was the ninth most valuable reliever in one of my fantasy leagues last year, is the 40th ranked reliever on ESPN’s draft board. Chris Devenski, the eighth ranked reliever in the same league in 2017, is ranked 37th on ESPN’s draft board. Anthony Swarzak finished 16th but is ranked past 50th.
While, theoretically, every league manager is diligent enough to stick to their own personal rankings and remain unswayed by ESPN’s pre-draft rankings, this is seldom the case in practice. As the draft moves along, it’s difficult to pull the trigger on a player ranked in the 400s when the league is still picking within the first 15 rounds. As a result, stud relievers who are top values in SV+HD leagues end up sliding to the end of the draft or going undrafted completely.
This of course presents opportunity for the enterprising manager. My typical draft strategy is to snag one stud closer, of the Jansen-Chapman-Kimbrel-Osuna variety, and then to completely punt the relief pitcher position until later rounds, where only a few, if any, true closers remain. From there, I fill out reliever slots based on my short list of candidates. Who makes that shortlist?
Remember that since closers earn more saves than other relievers earn holds, middle relievers and set-up men must generate next-level rate stats (ERA, WHIP, BAA, K/9) to overcome that inherent bias in value. The good thing is that there are plenty of relievers who do just that. Last year Chad Green put up a sparkling 0.72 WHIP, edging out Ryan Madson who had a terrific 0.80 showing of his own. Andrew Miller threw the third best reliever ERA at 1.44, while Felipe Rivero came in at 1.67 and Archie Bradley at 1.73.
The trouble is that each 1.50 ERA and 0.75 WHIP isn’t created equally. While a pitcher certainly needs to have a certain level of skill to produce that result, the nature of the small sample of innings that relievers pitch each season usually allows an assortment of players to produce run prevention estimators above their true talent level. For instance, despite his 1.62 ERA in 2017, Matt Albers should not be on your draft board in a SV+HD league.
The best way to start developing your reliever shortlist is to filter by xFIP, a run prevention estimator on an ERA-scale that is based on strikeouts, walks and groundballs. I won’t really consider any middle reliever or set-up man with an xFIP above 3.50 the previous season. There were 55 such relievers last year who pitched a minimum of 15 innings that met that criteria from 2017. From there I look at strikeouts. Both of my fantasy leagues have categories for raw strikeout figures, so I want relievers who a) strikeout a lot of batters on a per inning basis and b) who pitch a lot of innings. The second part is hard to grasp from simply looking at a previous season’s metrics, because injuries, time in the minors and changes in role could make a pitcher’s inning count from one season to the next very unrelated. So let’s focus more on the first part, a pitcher’s ability to strikeout batters on a per inning basis, by cutting out any pitchers with a K/9 below 11.0 (this leaves out a couple interesting names – Ryan Madson, Anthony Swarzak, etc. Feel free to make one-off exceptions).
Now we’re left with 25 arms. You’ll recognize a lot of names on the list as elite closers, like Jansen, Kimbrel, Osuna, Giles, Chapman, Knebel, Hand and Allen. We’re not really interested in these players because they’ll be long gone in the draft by the time we’re looking to round out our fantasy bullpen, so let’s cut out any player that’s not tabbed as their team’s closer to open the 2018 season. That leaves the following 14 names:
Chris Devenski (actually missed the xFIP cut off at 3.51, but had to include him), Chad Green, Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Carl Edwards Jr, AJ Minter, Joe Smith, Tommy Kahnle, Darren O’Day, Brad Boxberger, Kirby Yates, James Hoyt, Drew Steckenrider, Boone Logan, Jesse Chavez and Tim Mayza.
Andrew Miller and David Robertson are the cream of the crop of this group. They are consistent veterans who have put up low ERAs and xFIPs and high K/9 stats for multiple seasons. Both are their team’s primary set-up men, which indicates lots of holds and first dibs at saves in the event of injuries or ineffectiveness to the incumbents. Despite this, ESPN ranks Miller as the 23rd reliever off the board and Robertson the 33rd, yet they were both top 10 relievers in my SV+HD leagues last year. Combining Miller or Robertson with the stud closer you picked earlier in the draft is the start of a great bullpen.
From there Chris Devenski, Chad Green, Carl Edwards Jr, Tommy Kahnle, Darren O’Day and Brad Boxberger represent the next wrung of talent. Virtually all of these players are ranked by ESPN to go undrafted, with raw rankings higher than 300. These players should be good for ~20 holds, plus or minus, along with tremendous strikeout figures and magnifying-glass worthy ERA and WHIP stats. Grab two of them. Note that in leagues that count raw strikeouts rather than K/9, multiple inning relievers like Devenski and Green have higher value since their innings count enables them to put up truly gaudy strikeout figures. One thing to understand is that when we get to this tier of reliever, who is very good but might not have the long track record of success, or issues with injuries and inconsistency, performances may vary. Prepare for one of the two guys to have issues as some point this year. Don’t worry about it, you likely spent a 24th round pick on them, so you can drop them if need be.
After that are relievers like Kirby Yates, AJ Minter, Tommy Kahnle, James Hoyt and Drew Steckenrider. These guys are ranked a tier lower because they became good out of nowhere (Yates), are young and unproven (Minter and Steckenrider) or could struggle to get holds in a crowded bullpen (Kahnle and Hoyt). These players are dart throw-y, but you don’t need them to light the world on fire, just to come in and get a sub-3.00 ERA with an 11 K/9 and 15-20 holds. Pay special attention to young guys like Minter who could eventually wind up as their team’s closer at some point in the season, as they’ll likely need to be picked earlier in the draft.
All told, if my hypothetical fantasy bullpen heading into 2018 is an assemblage looking like Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller, Chad Green, Darren O’Day, Kirby Yates and Drew Steckenrider, I am very pleased. I don’t think another bullpen in my league will boast better ERA, WHIP and K/9 figures, and I’ll probably be middle of the pack on the SV+HD front. That’s a top tier bullpen assembled at a fraction of the price. And if the bottom two or three of that bullpen flame out, fear not, there will be another 2017 Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle sitting on waivers to pick up one month into the season.