Elite Middle Relievers

I’m nearly done with a 15-team, 50-player draft-and-hold league. To say the least, the pickings are slim at this point in the draft. Players I like to concentrate at this point are high talent middle relievers who could close. I can either use them for their rate stats or hope one eventually gets some Saves. Here are pitchers whose projections, especially the strikeouts, I find intriguing.

Josh Hader
11.6 K/9
4.2 BB/9
3.74 ERA

Hader had always been a starter until he got called up last season. The 23-year-old lefty did great out of the bullpen with a 12.8 K/9 and a 2.08 ERA. He comes at hitters with two elite pitchers, a four-seamer and a slider. Additionally, he mixed in a show me change. Here are his 2017 results on the three pitches.

Hader’s Pitch Results
Pitch GB% SwStr%
4-seam 34% 17%
Slider 23% 24%
Change 70% 8%

Along with the high number of swings-and-misses, he has elite popup skills which will help him maintain a low BABIP (.233). The biggest knock against him is his control. He walked over four batters per nine innings and needs to lower it to at least the mid-3’s.

Even with the great bullpen results, I don’t see Hader getting close to the closer’s role in 2018. The Brewers believe he can still be a starter and they may use him in a multi-inning swing role. Or they may not. I see it being a transition season.

As for when to acquire him, I think he is someone to take a chance on but not someone to rely on. I’d be hesitant to buy in if he starts in the bullpen because the Brewers think he’s not capable of starting. He’s a pitcher to monitor, especially if he can develop his changeup.

Kirby Yates
11.4 K/9
3.5 BB/9
3.60 ERA

I’m not sure what the Angels were thinking releasing Yates after one major league game last season but the Padres gladly signed him. The 30-year-old righty was a strikeout machine (14.1 K/9) with the Padres. While striking out every third batter he faced, he also got his walks under control (3.1 BB/9) after struggling with them over his career.

The major knock on his performance is his home run rate (1.9 HR/9). He’s going to give up his fair share of home runs with his fastball (32% GB%) and slider (33%) being extreme flyball pitches. I have a feeling I’m going to own Yates in several leagues while hunting for Saves. Using my study from last seasonBrad Hand’s (3.35 ERA) chances to make it the full season as the closer is at ~40%. The chances may even be lower if the Padres attempt to flip Hand at the trade deadline.

Also, there is a chance Phil Maton (9.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 3.84 ERA) could close, but he has his own issues. Even with Maton in the picture, I like Yates’s chances of getting Saves at some point next season.

Keone Kela
11.2 K/9
3.8 BB/9
3.68 ERA

Kela is the one strikeout pitcher in a Rangers bullpen who can’t seem to find a reliable closer. Lefty Alex Claudio and his 6.6 K/9 ended up with the role at season’s end last year.

The problem with Kela is that all his strikeouts came from his curveball (18% SwStr%). While his fastball was at 97 mph, it’s only generated just 6% swings-and-misses.

Additionally, he walks way too many batters for a manager to feel comfortable with him closing. Depending on how the Rangers bullpen shakes out, I’ll monitor the situation and possibly buy Kela if he gets the walks under control.

Rex Brothers
11.4 K/9
5.2 BB/9
3.59 ERA

Brothers fall into the same camp as Kela with an elite breaking pitch, a slider with 30% SwStr%, and a fast (95 mph) but subpar fastball (6% SwStr%). Also, Brothers can’t throw his slider for strikes. If behind in the count, he must come back with his fastball and it gets hit around (.350 wOBA). With the high walk total, I can’t see myself targeting him.

James Hoyt
10.8 K/9
3.3 BB/9
3.58 ERA

Michael Feliz
10.9 K/9
3.6 BB/9
3.75 ERA

These two look to be steady bullpen options with the ability to close. The problem is they are stuck in a loaded Astros bullpen and may not even make the major league opening day roster. Ken Giles has been shaky in the past, so his job isn’t secure but determining his replace is about impossible to determine. Gamble with a more set situation.

A.J. Minter
11.9 K/9
3.9 BB/9
3.16 ERA

Minter can be elite when he throws. Here is Eric Longenhagen’s take on Minter’s long injury history:

He dealt with thoracic outlet syndrome as a freshman at Texas A&M, and then needed Tommy John as a junior. He threw more innings in the Braves org last year than he did in any season during his three-year career with the Aggies, even with the Braves often spacing out his single-inning relief appearances by four to six days. He carries extreme risk, which is the only reason he’s not higher on this list.

His talent points to a nice future closer except for the injury history. He’ll need to throw more than every four days to close. I’m out to start the 2017 season but will see if he can handle a normal workload.

Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won four FSWA Awards including on for his Mining the News series. He's won Tout Wars three times, LABR twice, and got his first NFBC Main Event win in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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Jim Melichar
6 years ago

Jeff, love a good reliever column. Ever since implementing a focus on categories that value relievers skills rather than saves I’ve had a lot more fun. Owning these elite middle relievers and seeing the zeros and Ks pile up is as fun as a great start by an SP.