Position Primer: Relief Pitcher

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The save was adopted as an official MLB statistic in 1969, invented a decade earlier by legendary baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, and it's been causing headaches for fantasy owners since 1980, when the first roto league was formed.

In fairness to Holtzman, it seems unlikely that he knew his stat would be so problematic for so many of us, and he certainly couldn't have imagined that major league teams would actually manage their bullpens to maximize the save totals of individual pitchers. Logically, it seems ridiculous to ever waste an elite reliever's innings in situations where his team holds a three-run lead and no one's on base, but of course this happens all the time. The founding fathers of rotisserie baseball elected to use saves as one of the eight original categories, so we're all stuck tracking this miserable stat. The saves chase tends to dominate our fantasy content, and, if you're not careful, it might rule your life from March through September. You've been warned. There may come a day when you decide to forego sleep because you feel the need to watch Brian Fuentes' next appearance. Many of us have been there, and it's not a proud moment.

But as a purely tactical fantasy consideration — without respect to your personal happiness or your sleep cycle — if you're a mixed league manager, you should really consider de-emphasizing saves at the draft table. The fact is, saves are a category that can be addressed via the free agent pool during the season, because new sources always emerge. In a typical season, a dozen closing jobs are likely to flip — some because of an injury, some due to performance issues. And sometimes Ryan Franklin just turns back into Ryan Franklin, so it's time for a change. Last year, if you were an active mixed league manager who ignored saves on draft day, you could have still addressed the category in the first month of the season, adding Jordan Walden, Sergio Santos and/or Ryan Madson. Those guys began saving games in April and never stopped.

In the 2012 Baseball Forecaster (recommended reading), the authors take a year-by-year look at ninth inning volatility, tallying the number of failed and new closers each season. Over the past decade, according to their data, an average of 12.4 new sources for saves have emerged each season. (The writers offer a very specific definition of a "new source," for the record, based on draft data from experts leagues and requiring a pitcher to reach double-digit saves). With so much of the ownable talent going undrafted at this roster spot, it just seems wasteful to pay a significant price for any closer at your draft or auction. Thus, we get one of the guiding principles of fantasy ownership: Don't pay for saves.

But obviously there are exceptions to all rules, and the unique circumstances of your league might require a different approach to building a relief corps. Lots of you are involved in deep, hardcore formats where every owner is a saves hawk, so finding new closers becomes a nightmarish exercise — incredibly costly, ludicrously competitive. You'll burn through your FAAB dollars, with only modest results. In many AL- and NL-only leagues, not only will all the closers all get drafted, but so will all the setup guys … and perhaps the guys who setup the setup guys. If you're managing a team in such a league, then you'll almost certainly need to exit the draft with a closer or two on your roster, even if you're disgusted by the price tags. If, however, you're like a majority of fantasy players, participating in casual 10 or 12-person mixers, then you won't be burned if you adhere to fantasy dogma. Don't chase saves in March; pick 'em up from the wire early in the season.

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

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

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

Five relief pitchers under the microscope...

OK, if Brett Myers had RP eligibility already, where would we find him in the tiers below? Yeah, Houston made the somewhat curious decision to toss Myers into the 'pen, assigning him to ninth inning duties. We're talking about a bad team choosing to get perhaps 70 innings from one of its better (and most expensive) pitchers, instead of his usual 210-plus. It's just a bit weird, but the fantasy community can't complain. This move keeps Brandon Lyon off our cheat sheets, and for that we should be grateful. I'd slot Myers as a third-tier reliever below, if he were eligible. He's an unchallenged NL closer with a history of success, and the fact that he qualifies as a starting pitcher is a huge deal for fantasy purposes. You can slot this guy at SP, which allows you to start one more reliever than most other managers.

And let's just avoid the whole bad-teams-don't-create-saves discussion, because that's just … well, it's silly. Terrible teams still create save opportunities, because even a terrible major league team is still going to win 55-65 games. Just last season, Heath Bell earned 43 saves for a squad that finished 20 games below .500. The year before, Joakim Soria saved 43 for the 67-win Royals, and David Aardsma saved 31 for the 61-win Mariners. Lousy teams still yield save opportunities.

Who gets the ninth inning for the Dodgers? Last week, LA manager Don Mattingly made it perfectly clear (for now):

"It's defined. Javy [Guerra]'s the guy. We know who the guy is right now. I'm not only going to say [it's] a problem, we just know if it doesn't work out, we've got a different guy there."

The "different guy" he referred to is, of course, flame-throwing right-hander Kenley Jansen. Neither reliever has allowed a run yet this spring; Javy Guerra is the incumbent closer, so the job is his to lose. The nice thing with Jansen is that his ratios are so crazy-good — his K/9 was 16.1(!) last season and his WHIP was 1.04 — that he's plenty useful even when not closing. In fact, he's exactly the sort of late-round pitcher you should target in leagues where you have to deal with an innings cap.

So is Jansen the best of the non-closing, non-starting RPs? Well, he's the highest ranked non-closing reliever in the current Yahoo! composite, based in part on his terrific per-inning production and the likelihood that he could eventually claim the ninth. But it's easy to make a case for Atlanta left-hander Jonny Venters, too. In 2011, Venters actually finished at No. 102 in the overall year-end Yahoo! ranks, despite saving only five games. His ratios were simply that good: 1.84 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.82 K/9.

Every year, we encourage public league roto managers to deploy as many elite middle relievers as they can. Remember, the innings limit in public formats is just 1,400, an easily reached total. If you're an active manager, you'll have no trouble reaching that total, even if you lean heavily on relievers. If you would have owned Jansen, Venters and Mike Adams last season, for example, these are the stats you would have received from that trio:

215.1 IP, 13 W, 12 SV, 266 Ks, 1.96 ERA, 0.98 WHIP

If those numbers were delivered by a single player, he'd be an easy first-rounder, a $40-plus player in any auction.

What's up with the Chris Perez injury situation? Perez is dealing with oblique issues, but he's long-tossing and expected to throw a bullpen session on Friday. We once suspected that he wouldn't be ready for opening day, but now there's clearly hope.

The lingering concerns regarding Perez are these: He was arguably only the fourth or fifth best bullpen arm for the Tribe last season — check the team stats before you pick a fight, please — and his strikeout rate dropped significantly. He's definitely on the watch list, and setup man Vinnie Pestano needs to be drafted in most fantasy leagues. Pestano is coming off an outstanding season (1.05 WHIP, 84 Ks in 62.0 innings), and he figures to get the first shot at the ninth, should Perez falter.

While we're talking injuries, what's the current status of Brian Wilson's elbow? It was effective enough in his spring debut over the weekend. He's now pitched two Cactus League innings, allowing one hit and no walks while striking out two. So far, so good. You'll recall that Wilson was sidelined by elbow inflammation for much of August and September last season, and the issue began to sound like a ticking ulnar collateral ligament bomb. (He had TJ surgery back in '03, as a collegiate player). But Wilson avoided any sort of offseason surgery and he's throwing at the moment, so he thus retains his upper-tier RP status. Draft the Beard and enjoy responsibly.

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