Fantasy Baseball Draft Advice: Target Middle Relievers in Deep Leagues

Rex Brothers
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Last week in this column, I looked at two aspects of drafting in deep leagues that are an absolute must to be successful in such competitions: Knowing the splits of hitters and coveting depth. This week will continue the theme of deep-league (or league-specific) drafting but has applications in smaller leagues as well and we’re talking the value of middle relievers.

Why do middle relievers have value?

A fair question to ask is why these guys should even be considered. In typical 5×5 leagues, they don’t get (m)any saves they don’t rack eye-popping strikeout totals, and they are unreliable as to when they’ll pitch.

The value of middle relievers is a math question, as most things in fantasy are. Let’s set-up a real-world hypothetical:

A 16-team draft is completed and Player A has seven starting pitchers and two closers. The seventh starting pitcher isn’t very strong so that space can be used for spot-starting pitchers. Assuming every team has one “free” pitching spot, there are 96 starting pitchers in total (16×6) that will be relied upon for innings in a season. In a league with 1400 innings, the absolute best-case scenario would be an average of 200 innings per starter to give each owner 1200 innings (in all likelihood, it’s at least 10-percent lower than that). The rest would be made up by closers and spot-starters.

This type of situation is common but the question has to be asked: What are owners getting from the bottom of their rotations?

From Yahoo! Sports, these were the final resting spots for certain milestone players in 16-team leagues last year in a standard 5×5 format:

SP64: Wade Miley (202.2 IP) – 10 W, 147 K, 3.55 ERA, 1.32 WHIP

SP80: Yusmeiro Petit (48 IP) – 4 W, 47 K, 3.56 ERA, 1.19 WHIP

SP96: Mark Buehrle (203.2 IP) – 12 W, 139 K, 4.15 ERA, 1.35 WHIP

In a 16-team league, the bottom of the SP5 rankings was Petit and he had seven starts last year. Seven. So when constructing deep league rosters, there are only so many pitchers that can be taken that can provide value to a team. Basically, outside of the top 75 starters, it should be the Wild West in terms of spot starts and waiver wire work.

This brings the value of middle reliever to the forefront. From the same Yahoo! rankings last year, all these middle relievers finished with a higher overall value than Wade Miley, the starter at the bottom of the SP4 list:

Joaquin Benoit Luke Hochevar
Neal Cotts Tyler Clippard
Brad Ziegler Mark Melancon
Drew Smyly Tommy Hunter
Tanner Roark David Robertson
Tanner Scheppers David Carpenter
Alex Torres Luis Avilan
Rex Brothers Justin Wilson

And I stopped the list about half-way through because it gets redundant. The same thing happens when looking at previous seasons. Now, Yahoo! rankings aren’t the gospel, but it’s a pretty good indication of how players’ value really pans out. The rankings on ESPN’s Player Rater are fairly similar, plus or minus a half dozen spots.

It’s a misconception that can be pervasive and ultimately detrimental to fantasy baseball players. Sure, middle relievers won’t get 170 strikeouts in a season like some starters. But it’s a failure to recognize what they do well and that is produce elite ratios. There are only four categories that most pitchers can contribute towards, depending on whether they are a starter or a closer. The middle relievers excel at giving good ERA and WHIP ratios, or in other words, half the categories that a starter contributes towards. The 70 innings owners get from Tyler Clippard will almost always be more valuable than the 200 innings from Mark Buehrle, even if he gets half the strikeouts and wins:

If an owner’s target for a season is a team ERA of 3.30 and Buehrle posts a 4.10 ERA in 200 innings, it means 14.3-percent of the 1400 innings limit is 19.5-percent worse than your target (that number gets worse when including a reasonable range of outcomes; there will be about twice as many regular starters with an ERA of 5.00 or more than of 2.50 or less). The same can be said for WHIP (roughly). The gains in Wins (13 wins of an 85 Win target would be 15.3-percent) and Strikeouts (140 strikeouts of a 1250 target is 11.2-percent) are negated by the losses in ratios. Rolling out subpar starters is breaking even most of the time.

There’s also the saves aspect of middle relievers. There were 11 players in 2013 with at least four wins and ten saves. Among those names are Brad Ziegler, Koji Uehara and Joaquin Benoit. None were slated to close to start the year and ended up contributing in both categories.

To summarize, unless a deep league allows unlimited moves and an owner feels they can be the first to get to the streaming options, it’s a case of diminishing returns after the first five starters. Owners would be better off drafting five starters and four middle relievers than trying to hope for the best with seven starters (of course, depending when they’re drafted. Seven top-60 pitchers are not equal to seven top-100 pitchers; that is a topic for another day).

Punting Saves

The idea of drafting middle relievers becomes especially important if an owner intends to punt saves (in any format).

I’m not one that advocates punting any category, but if an owner were punt saves then targeting middle relievers is the way to go. Extra money (or draft positions) spent at the table should be used to upgrade hitting, not pitching and set-up guys who might take over the closing role should be the focus. Think of it this way:

  • In 2013, Edward Mujica, Joaquin Benoit, and Koji Uehara all claimed 20-plus saves and were not the closer to start to the year.
  • There were others to hit double-digits last year like Rex Brothers, Danny Farquhar, and Mark Melancon.

Hitting on two or three guys that claim the job after the first month is one way to get 60-70 saves in a season. Without paying a single dollar for a tried-and-true closer at the draft table, owners can finish in the middle of the pack for saves in their league. That’s how owners should “punt” saves.

Middle relievers can be incredibly valuable to deep-league owners for efficiency in their innings (namely, strikeouts) and the ratios provided. Those punting saves can still rack up roto points in smaller leagues by targeting these guys. Coveting elite middle relievers is optimal in both these scenarios.

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