Position Primer: Relief Pitcher

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More SP analysis: Yahoo! RP ranks | Spin Doctors: Broxton vs. Axford

This year, like every other year, a significant percentage of major league closers will lose their ninth inning responsibilities at some point during the season. For some, an injury will lead to ineffectiveness, which will lead to job loss. For others, a cluster of blown saves will lead to a managerial vote-of-confidence, which will of course be followed by reassignment to the middle-innings. Because a vote-of-confidence is basically always a harbinger of demotion … unless Charlie Manuel is voting.

The point is, several MLB closers — even a few of the elite options — will lose their jobs this season. Happens every year. In 2010, all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman(notes) and top-tier reliever Jonathan Broxton(notes) were both removed from end-game duties. All relievers are vulnerable. Saves, therefore, are a statistic that typically you’ll be able to acquire from the free agent pool, mid-season. Not every save will be drafted.

For this reason, fantasy gurus routinely caution against overrating closers on draft day. It’s basically an ageless, inviolable law: Don’t pay for saves. It’s a category where you can improve during the year, and you’ll do it easily if you’re involved in a standard-size mixed league. In fact, in public leagues you’ll often find that a handful of closers go undrafted. In that format, there’s no obvious reason to select brand-name relievers in Rounds 5-8, when the closer runs generally begin. So: Don’t pay for saves.

We should note, however, that not everyone plays in a simple 12-team mixer, in which only four or five owners are truly competitive. Many of you are competing in deeper leagues — shark-infested, loaded with active managers — and in such formats, it’s often wise to zig when others zag. If the entire league adheres to fantasy dogma, refusing to pay for saves, then you’ll have a few buying opportunities at the draft table. In experts mixed leagues, for example, you often find that everyone in the room intends to add their closers mid-season; no one wants to be the guy who bids $18 on Brian Wilson(notes). If they can’t get J.J. Putz(notes) for, say, $7, then they’ll just play the waiver wire. But if 12 of your league’s 16 owners are planning to chase “cheap” saves during the regular season, then the effort (and/or FAAB resources) required to land Juan Gutierrez(notes) in June will be ridiculous.

Before we descend into the tiers and High Fives, let’s briefly discuss the fantasy utility of elite middle relievers. These pitchers aren’t first in line for either wins or saves, but they’re nonetheless useful in the fake game — particularly if you’re playing in a format with a reachable innings cap, like a public rotisserie league. There, you should care primarily about a pitcher’s strikeout rate, not his total Ks. And the game’s best middle relievers tend to offer impressive K-rates.

Last season, if you would have rostered Matt Thornton(notes), Luke Gregerson(notes) and Daniel Bard(notes) over the full year, their combined stats would have looked like this:

213.2 IP, 10 W, 13 SV, 246 K, 2.61 ERA, 0.94 WHIP

Those are Cy Young-worthy numbers in most seasons, plus 13 rogue saves. It’s not as if those pitchers were total unknowns heading into 2010, either. So while you’re busy not paying for saves on draft day, don’t disrespect the middle men. They’ll help save your ratios while piling up Ks.

Position averages, top 36 Relief Pitchers in year-end Yahoo! rank
2010, RP1 – 3.9 W, 36.0 SV, 77.8 K, 1.97 ERA, 1.03 WHIP
2010, RP2 – 4.6 W, 13.4 SV, 69.3 K, 2.56 ERA, 1.03 WHIP
2010, RP3 – 5.3 W, 11.4 SV, 67.5 K, 2.69 ERA, 1.14 WHIP

2009, RP1 – 4.2 W, 35.3 SV, 79.0 K, 2.30 ERA, 1.02 WHIP
2009, RP2 – 5.8 W, 18.6 SV, 74.7 K, 2.68 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
2009, RP3 – 4.2 W, 13.2 SV, 60.3 K, 3.04 ERA, 1.16 WHIP

(Note: Tiers and auction values are from the Yahoo!/PFW Draft Guide, albeit with some updates/changes)

Relief Pitcher – Tiers
   Carlos Marmol(notes), $18 Mariano Rivera(notes), $18 Brian Wilson, $16 Joakim Soria(notes), $15 Neftali Feliz(notes), $15

   Heath Bell(notes), $13 Jonathan Papelbon(notes), $13 Francisco Rodriguez, $11

   Andrew Bailey(notes), $9 Jonathan Broxton, $8 John Axford(notes), $8 Jose Valverde(notes), $8 J.J. Putz, $8 Chris Perez(notes), $8 Huston Street(notes), $8 Drew Storen(notes), $8 Matt Thornton, $7 Francisco Cordero(notes), $7 Ryan Franklin(notes), $7 Brad Lidge(notes), $7

   Craig Kimbrel(notes), $4 Brandon Lyon(notes), $4 Joe Nathan(notes), $4 Fernando Rodney(notes), $4 Joel Hanrahan(notes), $4 Jeremy Hellickson(notes), $3 David Aardsma(notes), $3 Kevin Gregg(notes), $3 Leo Nunez(notes), $3 Frank Francisco(notes), $3 Aroldis Chapman(notes), $2 Daniel Bard, $2 Hong-Chih Kuo(notes), $2 Luke Gregerson, $2 Chris Sale(notes), $2 Jonny Venters(notes), $2 Brandon League(notes), $2 Jhoulys Chacin(notes), $2

   Matt Capps(notes), $1 Jake McGee(notes), $1 Evan Meek(notes), $1 Jason Motte(notes), $1 Kenley Jansen(notes), $1 Kyle McClellan(notes), $1 Koji Uehara(notes), $1 Sean Marshall(notes), $1 Clay Hensley(notes), $1 Ryan Madson(notes), $1 Tyler Clippard(notes), $1 Mike Adams(notes), $1 Tim Stauffer(notes), $1 Carlos Zambrano(notes), $1 Javier Vazquez(notes), $1 Kyle Farnsworth(notes), $1 Jordan Walden(notes), $1 Rafael Soriano(notes), $1

   Kerry Wood(notes), $0 Sergio Santos(notes), $0 Hisanori Takahashi(notes), $0 Octavio Dotel(notes), $0 Brian Fuentes(notes), $0 Jason Frasor(notes), $0 Peter Moylan(notes), $0 Matt Lindstrom(notes), $0 Juan Gutierrez, $0 Bobby Jenks(notes), $0 Michael Gonzalez(notes), $0 Michael Wuertz(notes), $0 Matt Belisle(notes), $0 Sergio Romo(notes), $0 Kevin Jepsen(notes), $0 Rafael Betancourt(notes), $0 Sean Burnett(notes), $0 David Hernandez(notes), $0 Matt Guerrier(notes), $0 Joba Chamberlain(notes), $0 Jose Contreras(notes), $0 Mitchell Boggs(notes), $0 Bobby Parnell(notes), $0 J.P. Howell(notes), $0 Jon Rauch(notes), $0 Jesse Crain(notes), $0 Nick Masset(notes), $0 Santiago Casilla(notes), $0 Joel Zumaya(notes), $0 Brad Ziegler(notes), $0 Pedro Feliciano(notes), $0 Ryan Webb(notes), $0 Ryan Perry(notes), $0 Arthur Rhodes(notes), $0 Dan Wheeler(notes), $0 Manny Parra(notes), $0 Jenrry Mejia(notes), $0 Andrew Cashner(notes), $0 Mark Lowe(notes), $0 Jacob Turner(notes), $0 Jarrod Parker, $0 Shelby Miller(notes), $0 Takashi Saito(notes), $0 Scott Downs(notes), $0 Brian Duensing(notes), $0 Justin Masterson(notes), $0 Joaquin Benoit(notes), $0 Alexi Ogando(notes), $0

Top 5 relievers

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski
  1. Brian Wilson – Edges Marmol, due to #tigerblood   1. Neftali Feliz – Says more comfortable in ‘pen   1. Carlos Marmol – Wild, but that K-rate sings
  2. Carlos Marmol – Have to respect 15.99 K/9   2. Brian Wilson – Great to draft, party with   2. Mariano Rivera – Cutter, cutter, cutter, handshake
  3. Mariano Rivera – Likely sub-2.00 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP   3. Carlos Marmol – Bright spot on bad Cubs team   3. Brian Wilson – Ideal closer stuff, makeup, look
  4. Neftali Feliz – Let’s hope he’s not starting   4. Joakim Soria – Needs to embrace Mexecutioner   4. Jonathan Papelbon – 2010 line is grossly misunderstood
  5. Joakim Soria – Only worry is a trade   5. Mariano Rivera – Father time bound to catch up   5. Joakim Soria – Midseason trade is a concern

Top 5 relievers you’ll reach for

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski
  1. John Axford – Excellent K-rate, better ‘stache   1. J.J. Putz – Most undervalued closer in drafts   1. Jonathan Papelbon – Fluky 2010 presents buying opportunity
  2. Drew Storen – Friendly ADP, serious talent   2. Chris Perez – Bad team, zero competition   2. John Axford – Facial hair, strikeout rate
  3. Joel Hanrahan – Don’t fear the bad-team closer   3. Drew Storen – Could flirt with RP top 10   3. Jose Valverde – Leyland is good to his closers
  4. Matt Thornton – Fantastic ratios three straight years   4. Jake McGee – 10.86 K/9 in ’10 – delicious!   4. Francisco Cordero – Dusty starts with long leash
  5. Luke Gregerson – Next in line in SD   5. Aroldis Chapman – Prediction: Will close come July   5. Ryan Franklin – Strike-throwing vet boring but capable

Top 5 relievers you’ll shy away from

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski
  1. David Aardsma – Hip injury, unlikely for opener   1. Mariano Rivera – Age more than a number   1. Jonathan Broxton – Options abound if he struggles
  2. Fernando Rodney – Among the scariest of closers   2. Jonathan Broxton – Velocity dip a concern   2. Heath Bell – Walk year, trade risk
  3. Francisco Cordero – Frightening WHIP, brutal September   3. Francisco Cordero – Chapman era about to begin   3. Andrew Bailey – Injury history, talented teammates
  4. Matt Capps – Joe Nathan coming back strong   4. Ryan Franklin – Nothing but smoke and mirrors   4. Aroldis Chapman – Buzzy markup dulls my interest
  5. Brad Lidge – Nice second-half. Still, I’m out   5. Kevin Gregg – Tough to stomach misadventures   5. Fernando Rodney – Steer away from carnival ride

Top 5 last-round relief lottery tickets

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski
  1. Hong-Chih Kuo – Dodgers turned to Kuo before   1. Jake McGee – 30 saves very possible   1. Brandon Lyon – No obvious threat to job
  2. Jason Motte – Terrific fastball, developing secondary pitch   2. Chris Sale&ndash Absolutely sick 90-100 K source   2. Joel Hanrahan – Strikeout ace, expect 25 saves
  3. Daniel Bard – Closing quality stuff, nice K-rate   3. Jordan Walden – Best stuff in Angels ‘pen   3. Brandon League – Gets chance while Aardsma rehabs
  4. Brandon League – Should open in closer’s role   4. Luke Gregerson – Heir apparent to Bell   4. Frank Francisco – Best skills in crowded pen
  5. Kyle Farnsworth – Might head the Rays’ committee   5. Daniel Bard – Beast if Papelbon bombs   5. Clay Hensley – Proven capable if Nunez falters

Top 5 rookie relievers for ’11

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski
  1. Jeremy Hellickson – Hey, he qualifies at RP   1. Aroldis Chapman – Catchers must fear him   1. Craig Kimbrel – Nasty stuff, spotty control
  2. Craig Kimbrel – Great K-potential, Venters a problem   2. Jake McGee – This year’s Axford – great value   2. Aroldis Chapman – More fun to watch than own
  3. Chris Sale – Dominant lefty; Mauer is impressed   3. Craig Kimbrel – 20+ saves even if co-closer   3. Chris Sale – Lofty ceiling, Thornton blocks ninth
  4. Jake McGee – No one really wants Farnsworth   4. Chris Sale – Did I mention he’s dreamy?   4. Kenley Jansen – Watch out if he masters cutter
  5. Jordan Walden – Last year’s average fastball: 98.8   5. Jordan Walden – Throws gas – 98 mph FB   5. Jordan Walden – One of many pushing Rodney