Leveraging Non-Closers

Brad Johnson

I'm a big believer in self-help. I've played fantasy baseball with a lot of readers and commenters over the years. It's always rewarding to watch them steadily improve using techniques I taught them. It also forces me to innovate and grow or else I'll be surpassed by my students.

One area that is just beginning to catch on is the use of middle relievers in non-holds leagues. I've been touting the value of elite, non-closing relievers for years as a way to turn your Drew Hutchison into a Yu Darvish. Consider the following stat lines.

Darvish – 90.1 innings, seven wins, 109 strikeouts, 2.39 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

Hutchison – 82 innings, five wins, 70 strikeouts, 3.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

Dellin Betances – 40.2 innings, four wins, 68 strikeouts, 1.55 ERA, 0.71 WHIP

We know Darvish is worlds better than Hutchison. Of course, Hutchison was practically free during draft season while Darvish was one of the top pitchers off the board. Betances has been the best reliever in baseball this season, but he was available in almost every league up until a few weeks ago. Everybody had an opportunity to acquire him for free. Let's see what happens when we combine Hutchison and Betances.

Hutchison plus Betances (aka Betanchison) – 122.2 innings, nine wins, 138 strikeouts, 2.95 ERA, 1.07 WHIP

Our combined “free” pitcher has similar numbers to Darvish. Betanchison is remarkably better in WHIP. On a rate basis, the pair is nearly as good in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. The most difficult constraint is the roster. An additional reliever means one fewer starter or position player.

You also have to find high quality, undervalued talent on the wire. If you settle for Roenis Elias and Casey Fien as your free pickups, you'll be disappointed. It's easiest to enter the season with this strategy in mind, but it's not too late to cobble together a FrankenPitcher. Andrew Miller is freely available in most leagues and nobody has jumped on Matt Shoemaker yet (you can probably do better than Shoemaker too).

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

Braves setup man David Carpenter is on the 15 day disabled list with a strained biceps. The door is open for Shae Simmons to lock down eighth inning work. His big strikeout numbers have yet to translate to the majors despite a 95 mph fastball. Of course, Kimbrel remains in at the top spot. He allowed a run a couple days back.

Chapman climbs one spot on the leaderboard due to his historic pace. When swinging, hitters have whiffed 22.5 percent of the time. He's struck out 54 percent of hitters – just under two per inning. If he maintains anything like these rates, he may finish with the best reliever season ever.

Edward Mujica closed out yesterday's contest because Uehara had already worked three days in a row. Junichi Tazawa and Miller are also candidates to step in for a save if Uehara hits the skids. Mujica is the least interesting due to a low strikeout rate. He had some control problems in April, but he appears to be back on track.

Holland had a couple clean outings since last Wednesday. Jansen was less fortunate. He allowed two runs across three appearances.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (10)

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

Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

Doolittle now has 46 strikeouts and one walk this season. His performance to date is Tier 1 quality. Someday, he'll start walking a batter every now and then, which is why he's still in Tier 2.

Perkins, Robertson, and Soria each had a couple clean appearances. There's no reason to shake up the top of Tier 2.

Cishek allowed a run while closing the door yesterday. It's not cause for panic. Of greater concern is Rodriguez's week, which included a loss and another clunky outing yesterday. Like with Cishek, a couple runs isn't even a red flag. Consider this a pre-red flag.

With a 1.04 ERA on the season, Street appears to be in vintage form. Last year, he worried fantasy owners with a mediocre strikeout rate. This time around, he's topping his career numbers – he's sent 30 percent of hitters directly back to the bench. His success depends heavily on a slider and changeup. High slider usage is an indicator for injury, and we all know his history with the disabled list. Joaquin Benoit has matched him pitch-for-pitch, so we know who to target if something happens.

With four appearances in the last week, Grilli has muddied the waters. Two saves, a loss, and an ugly hold is not the best week for a closer. Last Friday's outing (the hold) was a walkathon that included three free passes, a hit, and two runs in one-third of an inning. He hasn't struck out a batter in his last five outings. Mark Melancon has pitched well this year. If you're a Grilli owner and Melancon is on the wire, I recommend picking him up as a handcuff.

Allen allowed a home run on June 13, came back for the save on the 14th, and pitched a two inning win on the 15th. Carlos Carrasco saved the day on June 16. Bryan Shaw and John Axford are probably ahead of Carrasco on the depth chart. The interesting thing about Carrasco is his starter eligibility. Squeezing reliever innings out of a starter spot can be valuable in certain leagues.

I said Tyler Clippard would eventually break from overuse. While yesterday's shelling is a far cry from “breaking,” it probably settles the battle for eighth inning setup man. Drew Storen has pitched like a closer. If Soriano falters, Storen is the man to own. By the way, Soriano was just fine last week, with two clean innings.

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 took the loss last Saturday, but I see no reason for uproar. There's a reason he's in the third tier – he's not as filthy as the guys ranked ahead of him. The good news – he hasn't walked a batter in his last six outings. Looks like he's on top of his control issues for now.

Janssen had one lonely save opportunity last week, which he converted. Sergio Santos is back in action, but Janssen has pitched well enough that Santos is just a guy to file away for later.

Last week, I wrote the following: “If I had to pick one guy who might fall off this tier (Tier 2), it's Romo." Well, two terrible blown saves will do it. He allowed seven runs in two outings last week, which saw his ERA balloon to 5.08. His strikeout, walk, and swinging strike rates remain acceptable for a closer. I guess Jeremy Affeldt and Jean Machi are the in house alternatives, but neither option is exciting. Affeldt is used as a LOOGY, although he's fine against righties. Machi has a microscopic 0.29 ERA. He's basically an Edward Mujica clone – good control, few strikeouts, and lots of splitters.

Reed allowed another run in his lone outing since we last convened. It wasn't on a home run this time, but we might be getting close to a closer controversy in Arizona. The club's lousy record makes it easier for to ride out what appears to be statistical noise. Brad Ziegler is the current setup man, but I suspect J.J. Putz might leapfrog him in the case of a change.

Walks hurt, something Rosenthal has learned this season. He's still picking up plenty of saves and strikeouts, but he's allowing too many base runners to provide reliable help in ERA and WHIP. Carlos Martinez recently made a spot start, which might mean Jason Motte is next in line. Remember him?

Papelbon had a busy week, with four appearances including a win, two saves, and a blown save. Us naysayers crowed and chirped when Papelbon blew the save two days ago, but he came back last night to shut the door with a three batter ninth. He's yet to allow a home run this season, which is the only reason he's been a viable closer. Such stinginess rarely lasts an entire season.

Tier 4: Questions (5)

Chad Qualls, Houston Astros

Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets

LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies

Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels

Qualls has received limited work in the last week. He hasn't pitched since Thursday, when he blew a save on a home run. He's had home run problems in the past, so it's something to watch.

Rondon spent a couple days on the paternity list, which opened the door for Neil Ramirez to pick up two saves. Ramirez seems like the closer of the future for the Cubs, especially if he maintains his tame walk rate. For now, Rondon's a perfectly acceptable choice to close games with his 95 mph fastball and strong whiff rate.

Smoke and mirrors. It's all Hawkins has left to him, but it's been enough so far. Adam Ottovino is falling down the depth chart after a strong April. Rex Brothers is on the rebound. His week included an immaculate inning – three strikeouts on nine pitches. I did that once when I was 10.

I bumped Frieri to Tier 3 last week. Whoops. He blew up in Atlanta and also struggled through a game in Cleveland. Joe Smith is supposed to split time with him again, yet I'll believe it when I see it. If they do enter a time share, they'll be down another tier.

Tier 5: Roller Coasters (4)

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

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

Ronald Belisario, Chicago White Sox

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers

Britton and his 0.74 ERA have the closer job on lock down – for now. His numbers are weird and scream regression. A 79 percent ground ball rate can't possibly be sustainable. It's the highest such rate ever recorded. If a few of those grounders turn into line drives his .216 BABIP will increase, he'll strand fewer than 89 percent of base runners, and his ERA will be closer to his 3.01 FIP. Maybe he's shown enough to join Tier 4, but I'll play it safe another week. Tommy Hunter isn't making it a competition; he allowed four runs in his last two appearances.

I guess we have to welcome back Balfour. It appears the club's preference is to use Balfour as the closer. His biggest problem has been command and control, yet he's only walked two batters in his last nine outings. It's a positive sign for Balfour owners who have suffered through a terrible stretch. Now may be a good time to toss a tidbit in front of a Balfour owner to see if he'll bite. It's a high risk, high reward situation. Before the Rays even signed Balfour, I would have told you McGee is a much better pitcher. That's still true.

Nathan pitched twice in the last week. He didn't implode, nor did he elicit confidence. Joba Chamberlain has to be drifting closer and closer to save opportunities.



Matt Lindstrom (ankle), Chicago White Sox

Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets

It's looking like Crain won't be back until July, assuming there are no setbacks. He'll probably slot in as a setup reliever. Sergio Santos is back in the majors. Janssen has pitched well enough that Santos will have to wait for another injury.

The Deposed

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers

Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs

Josh Fields, Houston Astros

John Axford, Cleveland Indians

Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics

Last week we said hello to Mr. Balfour. Today we say goodbye. We'll see how long he holds the job.


The Steals Department

Scooter Gennett appears to be the Brewers leadoff man against right-handed pitchers. Gennett is not a master thief, in fact he's seems rather reluctant to attempt steals. In a way, he reminds me of Andrelton Simmons. The raw skills for base thievery are present, but they aren't being put to use. Some analysts have speculated he'll attempt more swipes as the leadoff man. Personally, I would give the red light to anybody on base ahead of Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Aramis Ramirez.

With Michael Saunders on the disabled list, Endy Chavez is drawing starts in Seattle. He's even batting near the top of the lineup. He hasn't swiped a base yet, but it's only a matter of time. Don't forget his teammate James Jones. He's taken four bases in the last week.

Aside from one big game, Dee Gordon has been slumpy of late. His owner might be itching to press eject, in which case you can pick up a lot of stolen bases at a reasonable price. Of course, the slump could signal things to come, and the Dodgers have other options. They're flawed options, but Gordon could still play his way into a bench role.