Fantasy Baseball 2021 Reliever Preview: How to chase saves in drafts

·5 min read

As the number of saves being recorded are declining — there were saves in fewer than half the wins in baseball last year (48.6%) — the number of pitchers recording them is simultaneously increasing (thanks to more committees). From 1995-2016, there were more than six relievers per season on average who recorded 40+ saves.

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Over the last four seasons (last year being prorated), two relievers recorded 40+ saves on average. In 2014, 10 relievers recorded at least 39 saves; just one reached that mark in 2019, so strategy has shifted relatively fast. The vast majority of teams are closing games by committee, making the diminishing few who still have the full-time role more valuable than ever in fantasy leagues.

Draft strategy

One could easily argue saves are the most frustrating (and silliest) stat among all in fantasy sports, and strategy will depend on your format quite a bit. Punting saves altogether seemingly makes as much sense as ever in head-to-head leagues, while pushing up tier one seems shrewd (and necessary) in overall contests. I’d also imagine the ADPs of closers vary greatly between “home leagues” and far more than any other position. In general, I’d recommend going after the top tiers and/or adding a few setup guys to stash at the end, avoiding the big middle tier that’s littered with question marks and highly fluctuating roles.

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Relievers you’d reach for

James Karinchak hasn’t been officially named Cleveland’s closer, but this is the next star at the position, and it should come as no surprise when he’s the consensus No. 1 reliever off the board in 2022 fantasy drafts. THE BAT projects him to record MLB’s best K rate (14.27) by a significant margin this season, and he owns a nice 1.40 FIP over the first 32.1 innings of his MLB career. Armed with an “80” fastball, Karinchak struck out a comical 186 batters over 102.1 innings in the minors, and his control is improving. With no slam dunk No. 1 closer out there right now (Liam Hendriks has a limited track record of being elite, is 32 years old and just signed a big contract, while Josh Hader is a trade candidate whose current role isn’t entirely certain either — and both go much higher), Karinchak is my favorite RP target this year.

Trevor Rosenthal looks locked in Oakland’s closer’s role after signing a one-year deal with the team, and it’s a franchise that’s produced a ton of save opportunities over the last few seasons. He was terrific and finally looked back fully healthy last season, including pitching 10.0 scoreless innings with a 0.40 WHIP and a 17:1 K:BB ratio after getting traded to the Padres to finish out the year (before struggling in the postseason, admittedly). With a career 31.2 K% and a role locked in the ninth inning, I have Rosenthal as a borderline top-five fantasy closer.

Craig Kimbrel continues our theme of hard throwing righties with huge K upside and shaky control, and the former elite reliever is as cheap as ever coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons. Kimbrel’s FIP (3.97) wasn’t nearly as bad as his ERA (5.28) last season, when he also finished strong, going scoreless over his final seven appearances (7.1 innings) with a 0.41 WHIP and a 13:0 K:BB ratio (the key being the zero walks). He’s already been named Chicago’s official closer by manager David Ross, while top setup man Rowan Wick remains sidelined with an injury. Kimbrel’s career ERA is 2.17 and his WHIP is 0.96.

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While Gabe Kapler is known for using many different options in the ninth, after the Giants signed Jake McGee during the offseason, most who cover the team expect the lefty to act as the closer this season (with Kapler confirming as much). McGee stuck almost exclusively to his fastball (throwing it 97% of the time) after finally getting away from Coors Field last year, and the result was a 0.84 WHIP and a 33:3 K:BB ratio over 20.1 dominant innings (holding righties to a .135/.167/.269 line). McGee owns a career 10 K/9 rate and a 3.39 FIP despite pitching his entire career in the AL East and Coors Field before last year’s short season. He should find a lot of success now closing in the NL West, and his ADP (245) still treats him like he’s slated to be in a committee.

DEEPER SLEEPERS: Hunter Harvey, Blake Treinen, Adam Ottavino, Garrett Crochet, Alex Reyes, Chris Stratton, A.J. Minter, Josh Staumont, Gregory Soto, Tejay Antone, Mychal Givens, Scott Barlow, Kendall Graveman, Trevor May, Reyes Moronta

Reliever you’re fading

Kenley Jansen will “start out” as the Dodgers' closer again, but manager Dave Roberts also said “at the end of the day I want the guys that are pitching best to finish the game, and Kenley understands that.” Jansen could end up racking up saves on a loaded team, but the 33-year-old showed serious signs of decline last season, which ended with the Dodgers’ all-time saves leader watching Blake Treinen and Julio Urias close out LA’s final two World Series wins. If Jansen doesn’t bounce back, Treinen (who’s just two years removed from recording 38 saves while posting a 0.78 ERA) would have a ton of fantasy value closing for a Dodgers team projected to win the most games in baseball. Corey Knebel needs to be watched as well.

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