It’s Week 1 of the MLB season, so it’s time to obsess over velocity. It’s a topic that several other FanGraphs writers have touched on, including Jeff Sullivan in his article about Felix Hernandez yesterday. As a fantasy player, I try not to overact to early-season velocity changes for established starters, but I do like to peruse the early velocity leaderboard for relief pitchers. Since there is so much bullpen turnover from year to year and since I frankly don’t know many of the young relievers who earn jobs and, in spite of whatever limitations that prevented them from sticking as starters, have a chance to become late-inning relievers in the future, I like to use velocity to identify possible relief sleepers.
Here are the relievers with the highest average fastball velocities so far this season.
|Pitcher||Team||Avg FB Velo||Current Role|
|Kelvin Herrera||Royals||97.3||8th Inning|
|Jake Diekman||Rangers||96.9||Middle Relief/LOOGY|
|Nate Jones||White Sox||96.9||8th Inning|
|Cam Bedrosian||Angels||96.4||Middle Relief|
|Enny Romero||Rays||96.3||Middle Relief|
|Danny Duffy||Royals||96.2||Middle Relief|
|Craig Kimbrel||Red Sox||95.9||Closer|
|Roberto Osuna||Blue Jays||95.8||Closer|
|Felipe Rivero||Nationals||95.7||Middle Relief|
|Jim Henderson||Mets||95.5||Middle Relief|
|Miguel Castro||Rockies||95.4||Middle Relief|
|Ken Giles||Astros||95.3||8th Inning|
|Hunter Strickland||Giants||95.3||7th Inning|
|Jake Barrett||Diamondbacks||95.0||Middle Relief|
|Dellin Betances||Yankees||94.9||7th/8th Inning|
|John Axford||Athletics||94.8||7th Inning|
|Tony Zych||Mariners||94.8||Middle Relief|
|Neftali Feliz||Pirates||94.7||Middle Relief|
|Josh Osich||Giants||94.4||Middle Relief|
|Trevor Bauer||Indians||94.3||Middle Relief/Starter|
|Tyler Thornburg||Brewers||94.1||7th Inning|
|Johnny Barbato||Yankees||94.1||Middle Relief|
|Matt Albers||White Sox||94.1||7th Inning|
There are six closers on that list, as well as several other relievers who are well-known and interesting—Kelvin Herrera, Ken Giles, Hunter Strickland, Dellin Betances. For the rest, I’m writing about them in order of my interest in deep and keeper formats.
After consecutive seasons with more than eight strikeouts per nine, Bauer remains an interesting fantasy stash as a potential starter. His first relief appearance didn’t go great—he allowed two hits, a walk, and a home run in an inning of work—but his velocity did play up 1.5 mph compared to last season as a starter. Control remains Bauer’s major concern, but Aroldis Chapman walked 4.5 batters per nine in relief in 2015 and still had a sub-2.00 ERA and FIP. Bauer seems more likely to get away with the poor control as a reliever, and I think that gives him elite closer potential. I still don’t think it’s likely because I expect Bauer to return to Cleveland’s rotation by midseason.
In 18.1 innings in 2015, Tony Zych struck out 11.8 batters and walked just 1.5 batters per nine. Despite his rookie status, Zych might already be on the cusp of a late-inning role. On Tuesday, he threw the last two innings of the game with a big lead, which likely made him unavailable on Wednesday, when Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek threw the last two innings of a four-run victory. I expect Benoit and Cishek to man the eighth and ninth innings early this season, but that’s as shaky as bullpens can get. I think this situation is pretty similar to Hunter Strickland in San Francisco, and I would definitely own Zych in standard leagues if I wanted a reliever to help my ratios and even speculate for second-half saves.
As I’m writing this, Oakland hasn’t led in a late-inning situation, but in their one-run loss to the White Sox on Monday, Axford pitched in the seventh inning with Ryan Madson following in the eighth. I interpret that to mean that Axford probably isn’t first in line to close if Sean Doolittle is hurt, but Axford does have a lot of closing experience, if that means anything to the Athletics. More likely, the Athletics could unload a few relievers at the trade deadline, which could remove some obstacles or land Axford in a better role on a team with less reliever depth. Axford has a chance to provide strikeouts and saves at some point this season, but his WHIP will be terrible.
Nate Jones got pretty close to saves before injuries derailed his 2014 and 2015 seasons, but he struck out more than 10 batters per nine in 2013 and has found himself back in the eighth inning role for the White Sox this season. David Robertson is pretty safe in the closer role, but Jones appears to be the handcuff.
The 21-year-old Miguel Castro is most intriguing because of his youth. In his rookie season in Toronto in 2015, Castro started the season as the closer before control problems cost him the job to another rookie, Roberto Osuna. Still, even if he didn’t achieve much actual success last season, Castro did strikeout more than a batter per inning, throws hard, and has a three-pitch repertoire. It’s often hard to know what the Rockies are doing—case in point the Jake McGee trade—but there is not a ton behind McGee in the bullpen to prevent Castro from advancing to a late-inning role if he can throw strikes. He seems unlikely to earn saves this season, but in deep dynasty formats, he is worth keeping an eye on.
Benjamin Pasinkoff was quick to identify Johnny Barbato in his Wednesday Bullpen Report, and I am also intrigued. The Yankees picked up Barbato in the Shawn Kelley deal with the Padres. Barbato struck out more than a batter per inning with decent control throughout the minors, and he could temporarily have a high-leverage role with Aroldis Chapman suspended. Of course, a healthy and active trio of Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances is pretty tough to work around, but Barbato remains a name to watch over the next few seasons.
Enny Romero struck out 9.3 batters and walked 3.9 batters per nine in his 30-inning rookie season in 2015. He is a lefty, but I’m more confident the Rays would be willing to let him close without prior experience than most teams. That may even be closer to reality than his current role would suggest. Jake McGee is in Colorado, Brad Boxberger is on the disabled list, Alex Colome is unproven, and Danny Farquhar has already failed once. There are a lot of long-shots on this list, and beyond the obvious ones, I would be least surprised if Romero was earning saves by August.
Cam Bedrosian provides high strikeout rates and poor control, a common feature of many of the middle relievers on this list. One reason to be optimistic is that Bedrosian walked just three batters this spring in 11 innings, reportedly thanks to a few mechanical adjustments. The back of the Angels bullpen is established with Huston Street and Joe Smith, but Bedrosian’s upside is compelling enough to earn him another look in deeper formats.
Felipe Rivero had an excellent rookie season in the Nationals’ bullpen, striking out 8.0 batters and walking just 2.1 per nine. Rivero remains an early-inning reliever in 2016, and as a lefty, he likely has a tougher path ahead of him to land saves. The good news is that he had fairly neutral splits in 2015, so he seems like he could get the job done if given the opportunity.
Danny Duffy was never more than an average starter, striking out fewer than seven batters per nine in each of the last two seasons for the Royals. Now in the bullpen, it remains to be seen whether his strikeout rate will jump. His velocity certainly has, up 2.4 mph from 93.8 mph a year ago. Duffy is stuck behind Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Joakim Soria at least in the Royals’ bullpen, but Davis shows that sometimes average starters become the best closers.
Neftali Feliz is another reliever with closing experience, as recently as last season for the Tigers. But in Pittsburgh, the cupboard is much fuller. Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Arquimedes Caminero—who would likely have been No. 1 on the average fastball list had he thrown to another batter or two—is as about as solid as it gets, and potential midseason call-ups of prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon could force another great arm into the bullpen. As long as he’s a Pirate, I think Feliz’s closing days are behind him. Meanwhile, his strikeout-to-walk rate was never exceptional, so there is little reason to own him in fantasy.
The depleted Brewers used Tyler Thornburg in the seventh inning with a lead on Wednesday, and he was followed by Michael Blazek in the eighth and Jeremy Jeffress in the ninth for the save. That may be the team’s temporary pecking order, but with both potential closer Will Smith and closing sleeper Corey Knebel on the disabled list, Thornburg does not seem likely to earn saves even if the team falls out of contention and trades a few relievers.
Jim Henderson has had an unusual career. He has just 103 major league innings at age 33 despite 12.2 strikeouts and 3.6 walks per nine in his career. It seems like he deserves more love, but he’s buried in a solid Mets bullpen and has too many health and control issues to rely on for ratio help.
Josh Osich’s left-handedness will probably take him out of future consideration for the Giants’ closer job, but Hunter Strickland may have eliminated those chances in any case. Osich still has a few things going for him, most notably his 8.5 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine in his brief major league career, but he isn’t young at 27 years old despite his inexperience. He could maybe help your ratios in deeper formats, but there is little upside.
It’s a bit unfair to call Jake Diekman a LOOGY, but he’s still clearly a specialized reliever who will never become a closer and whose walk rate is too high to help your ratios.
Jake Barrett’s two innings this season are his first two in the majors, so it’s a little early to draw conclusions. Still, Barrett did strike out more than eight batters per nine in most of his stops in the minors. He also walked a lot of batters. I would want to see him sustain improved control numbers for several months before I’d invest.
The 33-year-old Matt Albers is behind only Robertson and Jones in the White Sox’s bullpen, but his strikeout rates have never lived up to his fastball velocity. He’s just another middle-inning reliever.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt