Fantasy Baseball Position Primer: Relief Pitcher

Fantasy experts are forever telling you not to pay for saves, as if saves were optional insurance on a rental car.

It's a concept that makes sense at some level, because new sources for saves always emerge in-season. Always. In a typical year, a dozen closing jobs will flip — some due to injury, others due to performance. Even in the deepest and most competitive leagues, there's little chance that all future saves will be owned on draft day.

But here's the thing: When we caution you against paying a steep price for saves, we're not necessarily telling you to avoid all elite closers. Upper-tier relief pitchers aren't merely single-category fantasy assets; treating them as such is a mistake.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

Aroldis Chapman, for example, struck out 112 batters in just 63.2 innings last year. That's insane. He finished with only 16 fewer strikeouts than starter Andrew Cashner (175.0 IP), and five less than Jered Weaver (154.1). Chapman was one of seven full-time relievers who delivered at least 90 Ks in 2013 — Kenley Jansen was right behind him at 111. These guys destroyed the averages at their position.

Still, many of you refuse to pay any sort of premium to get an additional 30-40 strikeouts from a relief pitcher. You'll happily accept the price difference between Gio Gonzalez and Hiroki Kuroda, or between Doug Fister and Kyle Lohse, but you're appalled by the ADP gap between Greg Holland and Steve Cishek. Fine. Just know that if you focus exclusively on the saves column when evaluating relievers, you're oversimplifying to a dangerous extent.

And please don't think 65-70 innings of stellar fantasy ratios from an upper-tier RP won't make an impact on your end-of-season pitching stats — especially in Yahoo public roto leagues, where we use an easy-to-reach innings cap (1400). If you take the stats of any of last year's pitching bums (Lincecum, Gallardo, Sabathia, whoever) and blend in Kimbrel's innings (or Holland's, or Jansen's), you'll find the combined ratios are tolerable.

So while it's true that you'll be able to find saves on the wire throughout the season, it's also true that the best relievers in our game contribute across multiple categories. Kimbrel and Jansen are coming off back-to-back seasons with WHIPs below 0.90 and K/9s above 13.0. That's a rare skill-set, certainly worth paying for. There's no need to acquire all your saves in March, but it's not such a terrible idea to pay retail for 40-or-so of the highest quality.

We should also mention the benefits of deploying elite middle relievers in traditional 5x5 leagues, as an alternative to buying an upper-tier starter. Last season, if you would have rostered Joel Peralta, David Robertson and Tyler Clippard for the full year, these are the stats you would have collected: 208.2 IP, 14 W, 224 Ks, 2.63 ERA ,1.01 WHIP, 4 SV.

That's basically Cliff Lee, plus four saves. And it's not as if we didn't all know those three relievers were going to be productive. Peralta, Robertson and Clippard were all established commodities, available at little cost.

Before you tell me that it's silly to burn three roster spots in that way, I'll just remind you, again, that the innings limit in Yahoo rotisserie leagues is only 1400. You'll hit that number in the course of normal fantasy business, even with two or three set-up men in your lineup. In our game, you simply can't waste many innings on sketchy pitchers with low K-rates, regardless of their roles.

Position averages, top-36 relief pitchers in year-end Yahoo rank

2013, RP1 – 4.0 W, 34.9 SV, 83.6 K, 1.79 ERA, 0.92 WHIP
2013, RP2 – 4.3 W, 29.7 SV, 61.8 K, 2.72 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
2013, RP3 – 4.6 W, 10.5 SV, 63.3 K, 2.29 ERA, 1.03 WHIP

2012, RP1 – 3.8 W, 34.7 SV, 86.5 K, 2.10 ERA, 0.94 WHIP
2012, RP2 – 4.3 W, 17.9 SV, 65.4 K, 2.44 ERA, 1.00 WHIP
2012, RP3 – 3.3 W, 14.7 SV, 71.4 K, 2.65 ERA, 1.14 WHIP

2011, RP1 – 3.3 W, 33.9 SV, 76.7 K, 2.16 ERA, 0.98 WHIP
2011, RP2 – 5.0 W, 20.0 SV, 70.6 K, 2.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
2011, RP3 – 4.5 W, 13.2 SV, 65.9 K, 2.51 ERA, 1.06 WHIP

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